According to CBS News, an attack on Iraq will begin with 300 cruise missiles aimed at Baghdad. According to Newsweek, an attack would begin with 3,000 bombs dropped across the country. According to the New York Times, the attack will commence on a moonless night. According to the Washington Post, air and ground offensives will begin simultaneously. According to USA Today, U.S. tanks could reach Baghdad in just 48 hours. According to Aviation Week & Space Technology, Iraq tactics will be influenced by a Pentagon study of how New York City reduced street crime. According to rumors I heard from people who sort of know this stuff, the initial air assault will focus on Tikrit as much as Baghdad.
With war against Iraq approaching, it is well to bear in mind that "rumors I heard from people who sort of know this stuff" is the sourcing for 95 percent of speculation about what is in store. Nevertheless it seems possible to make reasonable forecasts of how an assault on Iraq might go. The air campaign is likely to be dramatically different from the Gulf War, because air weapons and tactics have evolved significantly since 1991. A land campaign, by contrast, may not differ materially from 1991. Army and Marine weapons have not changed much, although advances have been made, including new technology for what the Pentagon internally calls "network-centric warfare," a catchphrase you may hear often this spring.
And while the very latest in warfare may be employed against Iraq, millennia-old military techniques might also be used. Coalition ground forces may surround Baghdad and then pitch camp to await Saddam's surrender: a high-tech update of the ancient tradition of Fertile Crescent war, in which one king positioned his infantry outside the gates of another king's city and simply waited.
In the Gulf War, American and British planes bombed Iraq for six weeks with only a middling result. Most armor, especially the elite Republic Guard units, survived the bombardment, while Saddam's weapons-production and atomic facilities were damaged but not destroyed.
The 1991 air campaign had a middling result because about 90 percent of the ordnance was unguided "dumb" munitions, which often miss. Those much-promoted videos of smart weapons striking exactly on target depicted the exception; fewer than half the munitions used during Desert Storm hit home. In 1991, heavy bombers at high altitude dropped dumb iron bombs only, while smart munitions were launched one at a time by fighter bombers such as F-15s and F-18s flying relatively close to their targets.
Subsequent American air campaigns have relied increasingly on smart weapons. In Kosovo, about half the ordnance dropped was precision-guided; by Afghanistan, about two-thirds was; if Iraq is attacked again, about 90 percent of bombs are expected to be smart. Use of precision munitions is increasing in part because the falling price of electronics has made this class of weapons one line-item in the Pentagon budget that's getting cheaper. As recently as the Gulf War, smart munitions cost $250,000 to $1 million apiece; the new smart bomb that debuted in Afghanistan, called JDAM, costs around $20,000. While getting cheaper, smart munitions have also gotten more effective. According to Pentagon analysis, about 80 percent of smart bombs struck within a few yards of their aim points during the Afghan conflict, dramatically better accuracy than in any prior air campaign.
Equally significant but less well understood is that new precision munitions are used in different tactical ways. The JDAM bomb is designed to fall from high altitude, above the range of anti-aircraft missiles and artillery, yet strike more precisely than previous smart munitions delivered by harrowing low-altitude runs. This and similar new weapons are self-guided by signals from the very accurate Global Positioning System. Self-guidance eliminates the need for the pilot of the plane launching the smart bomb to lay eyes on the target or "paint" the aim point with lasers. Using the new self-guided smart ordnance in Afghanistan, U.S. forces conducted the first high-altitude precision strikes in military history. They will do the same again if Iraq must be attacked again, raining down extremely precise bombs from planes that defenders may never even see.
The ability to strike accurately from high altitude appears finally to fulfill decades of overstated promises about precision bombing. This new ability further means a significant percentage of ordnance can be borne to targets via heavy bombers with entire racks of bombs, rather than aboard fighter-bombers that typically bear two air-to-ground munitions per flight. Lots of smart bombs aboard heavy bombers means the bombing punch can come fast and furious, rather than at the drip-drip-drip pace of the Gulf War.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers told reporters yesterday that the U.S. planned to "shock" Iraq into a quick surrender. Military planners speak of "shocking" an opponent in the early hours of an assault, as blitzkrieg tactics shocked the French army into collapse in 1940. Air warfare has imposed much sorrow and destruction but never itself stunned a nation into quick capitulation. In 1991, bombs came gradually to Iraq and often missed; Iraqi planners may be expecting a repeat performance. If instead large numbers of bombs fall very precisely during the first nights of an attack, the Iraqi professional military may be stunned into suing for peace.
Accuracy also allows new smart bombs to work with less blast. Many targets that in previous air campaigns would have been "assigned" several 2,000-pound warheads will now be struck by a single 1,000-pound or 500-pound bomb. (An unfinished smart-munition project is even called "small diameter bomb," heralding an era in which the Pentagon actually works to make weapons less destructive.) Smaller warheads mean less unintended damage and permit aircraft to carry more weapons per mission, increasing the shock-inducing sense that bombs are raining down everywhere.