Warplanes: May 19, 2003


The air war against Iraq involved 1,801 coalition aircraft. The largest number (863) were from the United States Air Force. The U.S. Navy had 408, the Marine Corps 372, the U.S. Army 20 (not counting attack helicopters), the British 113, Australia 22 and Canada three. The 794 "shooters" comprised fighters and heavy bombers from the U.S. Air Force (344), the U.S. Navy (232), the Marines (130), Britain (66) and Australia (22). The 1991 Gulf War used 2,700 aircraft. 

These aircraft flew 20,753 combat sorties and used 18,467 smart bombs and missiles and 9,251 dumb bombs. Most of the smart bombs were JDAM (6,542) and laser guided (8,618). U.S. Navy ships also fired 802 cruise missiles. There were 153 air launched cruise missiles used, 98 EGBU-27 GPS/Laser Guided bombs and 408 anti-radar missiles. There were 908 guided cluster bombs dropped. Other missiles used include Hellfire (562), Maverick (918), AGM-130 (4), AGM-84 SLAM ER (3) and AGM-54 JSOW (253). 

The dumb bombs were mostly high explosive, but there were also 300 cluster bombs. Cannon were used a lot as well, with 311,597 30mm rounds and 16,901 20mm rounds fired. Thus 68 percent (18,467) of the aircraft weapons use were smart bombs and missiles, versus seven percent (17,000 smart bombs and missiles) during the 1991 Gulf War. But the total number of bombs dropped in 1991 was 227,000, versus only 28,000 in 2003. Total sorties flown (not counting attack helicopters) in 1991 was 108,000, versus 41,404 in 2003. In 1991, 70,000 of the sorties were for combat, versus 20,752 in 2003. 

Thus the roughly same number of smart bombs were dropped during the 1991 (17,000) and 2003 (18,467) wars. The big difference was the number of unguided ("dumb") bombs used. In 1991 210,000 dumb bombs were dropped versus only 9,251 in 2003. Fewer bombs were needed in 2003 because of  better sensors (UAVs and more JSTARS) and communications (faster and more people connected to the "battlefield Internet"). What didn't work in 1991 (lots of massive dumb bomb attacks) was not used in 2003. The Iraq campaign used a different approach to finding and destroying targets. Everything was done with more accuracy and speed. 

About half the combat sorties were used against the six Iraqi Republican Guard divisions, which was the only military force they had that showed any willingness to fight. The Iraqis made the mistake of trying to move these divisions, and discovered that U.S. UAVs and surveillance aircraft (mainly JSTARS) could track their movements 24/7, even during sandstorms. While those storms gave the Iraqis some protection from missiles and laser guided bombs, they were no help against GPS guided high explosive and cluster bombs. The Iraqis quickly realized what was going on, and all but a few dozen of the Republican Guards 3,000 armored vehicles were destroyed (mostly from the air) or abandoned. 

There were 15,592 sorties against Iraqi ground forces. In comparison, only 1,799 sorties were flown against command and control targets (headquarters and communications) and only 832 against missile and NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) targets. 

Ground and air commanders made 30,542 requests for targets to be hit, and 25, 240 of these requests were approved and 19,898 of the targets were actually hit. Many of the "target requests" were for bombers to patrol certain areas ("kill boxes") and hit any enemy forces found there. 

The ground survey of targets hit is not complete, or has not been released. It is known that the Iraqis did learn from the Serbian 1999 experience in Kosovo. Thus the Iraqis used quite a bit of deception (fake tanks and other targets) on the ground, and managed to keep a lot of choice targets (like their own warplanes, none of which took off) hidden from aerial view until ground troops found them. 

But overall, the air campaign had a devastating effect on Iraqi combat units. Combined with a psychological warfare campaign (over 50 million leaflets dropped and hundreds of hours of radio broadcasts), Iraqi troops were either bombed or scared into inactivity or desertion. The only effective ground troops they were able to muster were lightly armed irregulars and Republican Guard troops who were able to travel by car, truck and bus (and thus look like civilians from the air, and thus usually not bombed). These guys put up some stiff resistance, but U.S. Army troops and Marines just blasted their way right through them. This was often done with the assistance of smart bombs or A-10s getting in close. The Army and Marines have not yet released data on the activity of the 500+ helicopter gunships they used for most of their close support. These attack helicopters were critical not only for close up fire support, but also for the eye-in-the-sky they provided for the troops below. This combination of aerial firepower and eyeballs went a long way towards neutralizing the Iraqi tactic of using aggressive light infantry. Many of these guys called themselves "martyrs" and American troops saw to it that they were quickly martyred whenever encountered.

The tight integration of ground and air forces is something that has not been seen since World War II (when the air force was part of the U.S. Army) and it was much more effective in 2003. Generals in China, Russia and the rest of Europe now realize that their air forces are obsolete. They have seen the future, and they are going to be scrambling to catch up.


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