Cruz's Crass Carpet Bombing Promise

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks at a campaign event at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas March 2. The author writes that Cruz’s promise to authorize the commitment of war crimes, presumably in an effort to sound “tough,” was met with derision by most other Republican presidential candidates, politicians of both parties and senior military officials. Dave Kaup/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site .

On December 5, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), while speaking at the FreedomWorks "Rising Tide" Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, made the alarming pledge, "If I am elected president, we will utterly destroy ISIS.… We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out!"

Cruz's promise to authorize the commitment of war crimes, presumably in an effort to sound "tough," was met with derision by most other Republican presidential candidates, politicians of both parties and senior military officials.

Cruz subsequently amended his initial promise to say, "You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops…you have embedded special forces to direction [sic] the air power. But the object isn't to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists."

Thus, after Cruz first promised to carpet bomb a dispersed militant army of some 30,000 members, he then watered this down to essentially continuing the current U.S.-led coalition air campaign.

To be clear, carpet bombing consists of dropping unguided bombs on a selected geographic grid to destroy or damage as much as possible that is contained therein. One prominent example was the U.S. B-52 attack in June 1965 against buildings 40 miles north of Saigon in southern Vietnam that were believed to be used by the Viet Cong.

Here is how the attack—the opening phase of Operation Arc Light—was described in the U.S. Air Force's official history:

The planes crossed the Vietnamese coast at half past six; 15 minutes later, from altitudes ranging from 19,000 to 22,000 feet, began dropping their bombs on the 1-mile by 2-mile target box. The drops were controlled by the portable beacon that had been flown by helicopter the evening before to its location 11 miles from the target.

Within 30 minutes, 1,300 bombs fell, slightly more than half of them in the target area.… The immediately observable results of the bombing were less than spectacular.

This final point why carpet bombing has not been featured by the U.S. military since the massive bombings of Vietnam and Cambodia: It does not provide a military advantage, nor harm an adversary's will to fight. Or, as one senior air force official recently put it to me, "It's just a tremendous waste of weapons, and not how we do things anymore."

As Lieutenant General Charles Q. Brown, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, told the Air Warfare Symposium last week, 99 percent of all the weapons in his area of operations are precision-guided. It would take a tremendous amount of "dumbing down" both the target development process and the weapons used to become a carpet-bombing air force again.

Moreover, this tactic is unnecessarily disproportional and indiscriminate, and therefore a potential war crime, which no military commander should ever authorize, nor pilot should conduct.

This does not mean that, as I have written often, U.S. air power does not cause collateral damage and civilian casualties—including catastrophically like the February 13, 1991 F-117 bombing of the Amiriyah air shelter in Baghdad that killed over 400 civilians—or that civilian and military officials are not misleading about the alleged "surgical" precision and effectiveness of airstrikes. Rather, it is a fact that the saturation bombing of geographic grids simply is not part of U.S. military air campaigns today.

This gets to another misstatement that Senator Cruz has repeated, even while he weakened his initial carpet-bombing pledge. In December 2015, he stated, "We carpet bombed them for 36 days, suturing bombing," and in January, "You want to know what carpet bombing is. It's what we did in the first Persian Gulf War."

Actually, the United States did not carpet bomb during the first Gulf War. To understand why and how Cruz is wrong, I recommend a new article by Rebecca Grant in Air Force Magazine that coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Gulf War. To quote from Grant's analysis:

Glosson's staff first laid a grid over the battlefield dividing it into 30-mile blocks, then subdividing each into kill boxes measuring 15 miles by 15 miles. The bulk of Iraq's army clustered in nine of the 30-mile boxes spanning Kuwait and the northwestern borders with Iraq.… The Republican Guard divisions ringed the northern kill boxes.

Most held elements of multiple divisions. Kill Box AE6 held the Tawakalna Republican Guard Division, 52nd Armored, and 12th Armored. Kill Box AF7 perched on Iraq's border with Kuwait contained parts of four different Republican Guard divisions.

At dawn on Feb. 4 the first of eight new Killer Scouts—call sign Pointer—began one-hour orbits over the Republican Guard. The forward air controllers would fly over their assigned box or boxes, spot Iraqi equipment, drop a marker bomb, then call in fresh fighters to follow up with more bombs.

F-16s with new Global Positioning System units could pinpoint coordinates. In this concept, the same pilots would fly over familiar kill boxes each day. They'd learn the status and terrain and report back with accurate bomb damage.

Grant then details the "tank plinking" process:

Try 500-pound laser guided bombs against Iraqi tanks, Phillips recommended. This tactic had also been successfully tried out late in the Vietnam War. By placing a laser spot on an enemy tank, a bomb equipped with a laser-homing guidance system could drill in on the laser dot and hit with great precision.

The F-111F swing-wing fighter-bomber had just such a system called Pave Tack. A pod projected a laser beam. A guidance kit on the Mk 82 500-pound bomb followed the laser-designated spot on the target.…

The F-111Fs tried the first laser tank plinking mission on Feb. 5. Their targets were in the Medina Division of the Republican Guard. Col. Tom Lennon, the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing commander, flew the mission himself on Glosson's orders. "Unbelievable," Lennon reported back. "I got seven out of eight hits."

By late February, the F-111Fs were achieving up to 150 armor kills per night.

This is not "carpet bombing" by any stretch, but rather the division of battlefield positions into geographic grids in order to more effectively call-in precision strikes upon military targets within those grids.

As I noted five years ago in a piece titled "The Mythology of Intervention," both opponents and proponents of using military force draw upon historical examples in order to bolster their arguments. They often do so in a way that is highly selective and deeply misleading.

Senator Cruz is merely part of a long and ignoble tradition of political leaders misusing American military history to mislead American citizens.

Micah Zenko is Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.