How Not to Bomb Iran

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An Iranian air force F-5E fighter plane. Fars News/Reuters

In an interview with the Family Research Council last week, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) described what U.S. military action against Iran's nuclear-related facilities would entail:

The president is trying to make you think it would be 150,000 heavy mechanized troops on the ground in the Middle East again as we saw in Iraq, and that's simply not the case. It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox: Several days [of] air and naval bombing against Iraq's weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior—for interfering with weapons inspectors and for disobeying Security Council resolutions. All we're asking is that the president simply be as tough in the protection of America's national security interest as Bill Clinton was.

Several policy-makers and analysts have correctly pointed out that Cotton vastly underestimates the costs and consequences involved with bombing Iran's nuclear program. Beyond underselling the difficulty of such an attack, Cotton either misrepresents or misunderstands what really happened during the four-day U.S. and U.K. bombing of Iraq in December 1998.

Though Operation Desert Fox is now routinely misremembered as such, in reality, it was not a bombing campaign intended to "take out" Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. Rather, it was designed and executed to punish the Saddam Hussein regime by degrading Iraq's air defenses, killing Hussein's security forces and damaging missile and aircraft delivery systems for potential WMDs.

It is essential to know that the Operation Desert Fox target list was not primarily WMD-related. In fact, when Secretary of Defense William Cohen briefed the press about the scope of targets, he did not mention WMD at all:

I want to stress that this military action is substantial. It is inflicting significant damage on the seven target categories that we have selected. These are as follows:

• Iraq's air defense system.

• The command and control system that Saddam Hussein uses to direct his military and to repress his people.

• The security forces and facilities to protect and hide his efforts to develop or maintain the deadly chemical and biological weapons. These are the forces that have worked to prevent the United Nations inspectors from doing their jobs.

• The industrial base that Saddam Hussein uses to sustain and deliver his deadly weapons.

• His military infrastructure, including the elite Republican Guard forces that pose the biggest threat to his neighbors and protect his weapons of mass destruction programs.

• The airfields and refinery that produces oil products that Iraq smuggles in violation of economic sanctions.

A conversation between President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that took place one day into the 1998 Iraq bombing was just released by the Clinton Presidential Library. During the phone call, Clinton stated, "The first thing we try to take out is their integrated communications and air defense systems."

Similarly, any bombing of Iran's known nuclear program would absolutely start with establishing air superiority with a broad-based series of cruise missile and airstrikes against Iran's integrated air defense system.

In reality, only 12 percent of Operation Desert Fox's intended targets were related to Iraq's possible WMD sites—several of which were under full-time United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) camera monitoring. The 100 planned targets included 12 WMD industry and production facilities and 18 WMD security sites (the barracks and headquarters for Hussein's most elite military units that primarily protected regime leadership).

The other non-WMD or missile targets included 34 air defense installations, 20 command and control sites, nine Republic Guard barracks, six airfields and one oil refinery.

Moreover, degrading Iraq's integrated air defense system and the regime's command and control capabilities was easy since American and British pilots had been patrolling the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq for six years. The intelligence staffs for Operation Northern Watch and Operation Southern Watch had carefully mapped and continuously tracked every threatening air defense radar, anti-aircraft gun, and towed or mobile surface-to-air missile systems that Iraq possessed.

In addition, the CIA had penetrated UNSCOM weapons inspection teams, including its communication relay towers, to collect information on Iraq's military communications. The U.S. military and Intelligence Community (IC) had unique insights into Iraq in 1998, which they would not enjoy in Iran today.

Though the target sets were well-known and threat environment minimal, Operation Desert Fox was not a resounding military success. This, despite President Clinton, without prompting, increasing the number of authorized cruise missiles and air sorties initially proposed to him from 300 and 700, to 400 and 800, respectively, according to then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton.

There were 275 aim-points (211 of which were partially or fully struck) amongst the 100 planned targets: 43 targets were severely damaged or destroyed,30 moderately damaged, 12 lightly and 13 untouched. Afterward, General Anthony Zinni, commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), characterized the bombing as "74 percent successful."

Pentagon and CENTCOM officials wanted to restrike several of these targets, but the White House insisted that the bombing be completed by the start of Ramadan. Senator Cotton would probably not tout Operation Desert Fox so glowingly if he knew it had lasted only four days out of concern for political sensitivities in the Muslim world.

In total, Iraq's ballistic missile production capabilities were set back about one to two years, and 1,400 of Hussein's military and security forces were killed and wounded. Within just 14 months, U.S. satellite imagery and intelligence reports revealed that Iraq had rebuilt several of the alleged WMD and missile facilities that were damaged.

Worse, the intelligence community (IC) lost what little direct access it had to these sites when UNSCOM inspectors were kicked out after the four-day bombing ceased.

As the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence noted in its 2004 report on pre-war intelligence of Iraq, "Most of the intelligence community's knowledge of Iraqi WMD programs was obtained from, in conjunction with, and in support of the UNSCOM inspections…. When U.N. inspectors left Iraq in December 1998, the [IC] was left with a limited unilateral collection capability against Iraq's WMD…. The CIA did not have any WMD sources in Iraq after 1998."

After several media outlets questioned Senator Cotton's assertion last week, his communications director clarified his thinking: "We think Desert Fox is a very close comparison. It serves as an analogy of the intent, execution and objective for that type of operation [long-range strike to target weapons facilities]."

Yet, Operation Desert Fox is a poor historical analogy for thinking about bombing Iran's nuclear program. This is because the 1998 military operation had little to do with Iraq's WMD program, and everything to do with punishing Saddam Hussein.

If Cotton truly desires to (temporarily) punish and coerce the leadership in Tehran and lose direct insights into Iran's nuclear sites, then Operation Desert Fox is indeed a useful comparison.

Micah Zenko is Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

How Not to Bomb Iran | Opinion