With no fanfare, the U.S. Air Force recently released the official statistics on what it did during Gulf War II—how many planes of what sort flew how many sorties and dropped how many bombs of which types on what kinds of targets. The numbers confirm much and dispel much else of what we've assumed or been told about this "high-tech war."
The unclassified report—titled Operation Iraqi Freedom by the Numbers, signed by Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, commander of CENTAF (Central Command Air Forces), and available on John Pike's wondrously useful Web site globalsecurity.org—confirms that the part of the war concerned with intelligence-gathering, target-acquisition, and real-time battlefield command-and-control was very high-tech indeed.
However, many of the weapons used were quite old—some of them nearly antique—and most of their missions were not in the least bit exotic.
These numbers have significance not just for war-wonks. Read closely, they contain lessons about the true nature of warfare and about what kinds of weapons we should—and should not—be buying.
The myth of shock and awe. The original Air Force war plan, at least as suggested by Air Force doctrine, called for massive airstrikes on key "nodes" of the Iraqi "leadership," which would disrupt Saddam Hussein's ability to command his military, thereby toppling his regime. Shortly before the war started, U.S. officials seemed to confirm this notion, saying 3,000 smart bombs and cruise missiles would fall on Baghdad the first night.
It turns out, however, that of the 18,898 targets hit from the air in this war, just 1,799—fewer than 10 percent—were related to the regime's leadership or the military's command structure.
War means killing the enemy's soldiers. The vast majority of targets struck—15,592 of them, or 82 percent of the total—were Iraqi troops, tanks, and other weapons concentrated on the battlefield. In other words, the U.S. Air Force spent most of its resources doing what its officers least like—not bombing "high-value assets" in the capital, or achieving "air supremacy" by shooting down enemy warplanes (there apparently were none, or at least none that took off), but rather supporting the U.S. Army troops and Marines as they slugged it out on the ground. This mission is called "close-air support," and the Air Force, which is run mainly by fighter pilots, has never been wild about it; it's an implicit acknowledgement that the real contest is going on way down there with the grunts, not above the clouds with the flyboys.
The Warthog rules. Just as close-air support dominated the Air Force task orders, so the A-10 Warthog—the only Air Force plane ever built for the dedicated mission of close-air support—dominated the skies. The A-10 is a relatively large, slow beast of an airplane, with a titanium-shielded cockpit, so it can fly in low and fire its armor-piercing 30mm shells from twin-barrel gun mounts. [Correction, May 28, 2003: The A-10 gun has seven barrels.]
Of the 1,801 airplanes sent to the region (not including helicopters), 60 were A-10s, more than any other single type of combat plane (except for the Navy's F/A-18). While the report does not say how many "tank kills" can be credited to those A-10s, it does say that they fired 311,597 rounds of 30mm ammunition.
Just as the Air Force brass has never liked close-air support, it has always loathed the A-10 and tried to kill it from the moment it was born. The last one was built in 1986. And although they performed superbly in both gulf wars, the brass is now trying to retire the Warthogs that remain.