F-22A Raptor, FB-22, F-22E, F-22N and Variants Index Page [Click for more ...] People's Liberation Army Air Power Index Page  [Click for more ...]
Military Ethics, Culture, Education and Training Index Page [Click for more ...]
Russian / Soviet Weapon Systems Index Page [Click for more ...]

Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014


Originally published  Australian Aviation
August/September, 1992
by Carlo Kopp
© 1992,  2005 Carlo Kopp

The air war in the Gulf has yielded interesting to say the least results and is therefore deserving of some careful examination to identify which trends are relevant and which are not. Much debate has followed the campaign and sadly, from the nature of the debate, it is clear that many observers have failed to separate those factors which were unique to the campaign from those which are generally true. As a result many spurious arguments have been injected into the discussion and this may have unfortunate consequences for Western force structures in years to come.

PGMs vs Dumb Bombs

Much debate has centred on the role of precision guided munitions (PGM) vs dumb bombs. A total of 88,500 tons were delivered, of which 7,400 tons were PGMs, or a fraction of 8.4%. Allied capacity to deliver PGMs was severely limited by the unavailability of Lantirn targeting pods to the USAF and Tiald pods to the RAF. Lantirns were carried only by the F-15E, largely committed to Scud hunting, while only a pair of development Tialds were carried by the Tornado force, which largely relied upon the geriatric Buccaneers for daylight designation with equally geriatric Pave Spike pods. The only aircraft fully equipped with suitable equipment were the Pave Tack fitted F-111Fs of the 48th TFW, deployed from the UK.

The LGB proved its worth without dispute, and the campaign saw the debut of the TI GBU-24 bomb and its stealthy derivative, the GBU-27. These weapons employ a sophisticated proportional nav seeker with an intelligent autopilot, and demonstrated repeated CEPs of several feet. However, most of the weapons used were older stock of the seventies designed Paveway II GBU-10, 12 and 14, which have a CEP of about 20 ft.

In terms of tonnage dropped, however, the LGBs accounted for a small fraction of the total. Certainly the bulk of the battlefield missions were flown with conventional demolition bombs, which are regardless still most useful for hitting area targets and dispersed targets, albeit with much lower P[k] (kill probability) per weapon in comparison with guided bombs.

Certain missions demand the use of dumb bombs, such as the saturation B-52G raids on the Republican Guard positions. Dispersed in dugouts and makeshift bunkers, such targets cannot be usefully attacked with guided weapons as individual positions are hard to identify and often are in terms of unit value, not worth the weapon to be used. Carpeting the area with sufficient density of 750 lb and 500 lb dumb bombs is a much more sensible approach, particularly when an efficient delivery vehicle such as the B-52 is available. A point to ponder here is that the B-52 force is becoming very old and its replacements, the B-1B and B-2 are committed to the nuclear role by virtue of small numbers built. If this kind of need arises in 10-20 years time there will be no platform available for this role.

A most interesting aspect of the use of LGBs was the application of the F-111F/Pave Tack to tank busting. Where larger tank formations were located in their buried positions, F-111Fs were positioned in racetrack orbits above these formations, at night, and picked off individual tanks with 500 lb LGBs. In this fashion a deep strike asset proved invaluable in what is essentially battlefield air interdiction.

Theatre strikes saw the F-16s and F/A-18s work long hours, initially using dumb bombs due the seemingly endless availability of suitable targets. As these were depleted, the more precise AGM-65 Maverick missile was used and the US did its best to use up aging stock of this TV guided weapon, firing in excess of 5,000 rounds. The failure of the Iraqis to disperse munition dumps and fuel dumps yielded some spectacular secondary explosions, all the more so since the pilots often had no idea of what was hidden within the bowels of the target.

The almost total destruction of air defence assets meant that the Iraqis relied almost totally on low calibre gunfire, firing barrages above the targets under attack. This is largely the reason for the disproportionate, in terms of the conflict, losses of the Tornado IDS, in the initial days of the campaign. Attacking airfields at low level, they were directly exposed to AAA and point defence SAMs. Once however air supremacy was achieved, the Allies owned all airspace above the AAA. The effect of this however was to substantially decrease the accuracy of the dumb bomb, as systematic errors will increase the CEP with increasing release altitude. In this respect, the idiosyncrasies of the environment had a major impact upon the average accuracy of dumb bomb delivery. In assessing the usefulness of dumb bombs, this must not be ignored as the superficial examination of dumb bomb results suggests much lower effectiveness than would be achieved in a more conventional situation, with more accurate low level deliveries being numerically prevalent.

While it is clear that PGMs are the weapon of choice for many targets, there is still a need for unguided weapons and this is unlikely to diminish due to the nature of the problem.

Cruise Missiles - a Substitute for Bombing?

The Gulf campaign saw the firing of several hundred cruise missiles, and lesser quantities of the conceptually similar but smaller SLAM missiles. No less than 291 R/BGM-109 Tomahawk missiles were fired from ships and submarines and the USAF recently revealed that 35 conventional AGM-86C ALCMs were fired from B-52Gs of the 2nd BW flying directly from the continental US, in a 35 hr round trip mission originating from Barksdale AFB. SLAMs were fired from a variety of naval aircraft and were reported to have performed well, in spite of problems with immature software. Of the total, 12 SLCMs were fired from submerged subs, the remainder from cruisers and battlecruisers. The majority of the weapons were TLAM/C with HE warheads, only 27 rounds being TLAM/Ds with submunition dispenser payloads.

Most of the cruise missiles scored direct hits, navigating enroute with their tercom (TErrain COntour Matching) guidance, then transitioning to optical DSMAC (Digital Scene Matching Area Correlator) for highly accurate terminal positioning, and finally diving into their targets. The weapons were without doubt one of the success stories of the campaign, achieving numerically a P[k] approaching 90%.

An interesting fallout have been calls to replace manned bombers with cruise missiles, in fact a retired senior US Naval officer described the campaign as the 'last great air battle', alluding to the cruise missile being a replacement for the bomber. This comment does deserve some further discussion.

What a cruise missile allows is for a precision weapon to be delivered through air defences against a target without exposing personnel to enemy fire, as the launch platform is several hundred miles away. Because cruise missiles are hard to detect and engage, their chances of penetrating defences are very good and their precision guidance provides a high P[k].

Cruise missiles do have however some fundamental tactical weaknesses which cannot be easily resolved. One is killing power, as the warhead is inherently smaller than that of a precision guided bomb of similar weight, in the instance of the A/B/RGM-109 a mere 750 lb. Another is striking radius, limited to a few hundred miles, from which must be subtracted the distance of the launch platform from enemy controlled airspace. Yet another is cost, ie to deliver the equivalent of an F-111 payload of 8,000 lb one requires with current technology no less than eleven rounds each costing about US$1M apiece. Improved technology may halve this, but we are still comparing a few hundred thousand dollars worth of fractional aircraft attrition, bombs, fuel, operating time and tanker support time against cca US$10M for the cruise missiles. To this must be added some basic inflexibility in targeting, ie the cruise missile is only usable against fixed targets, and for some years to come the reprogramming of the missile's memory will still need to be done at a central site, with the data needing to be deployed to the field and uploaded into the missile before launch. Clearly targets of opportunity are out of the question and even on site targeting/reprogramming will involve hours of lag from target identification to weapon impact.

In terms of pure cost analysis against aircraft attrition, it takes about a page of trivial number crunching to show that for current aircraft and cruise missile costs the crossover point of equal costs is at aircraft attrition rates of about 2%, ie only for higher attrition can the use of the cruise missile be justified on a cost basis alone. This assumes an equal kill probability for an LGB or cruise missile, not accounting for the smaller warhead and lower accuracy of the cruise missile. Realistically this pushes the attrition rate even higher across a broader range of target types, as it can be easily shown that the ratio of cruise missiles expended vs LGBs expended per target is proportional to the inverse ratio of the logarithms of the kill probabilities of the weapons, respectively.

Another factor universally ignored by proponents of the cruise missile is that specialised delivery platforms are by their nature big, cumbersome and thus high value targets which are easy to kill. Were specialised cruise missile launching submarines (cf Soviet Oscar class), surface vessels and widebody aircraft (cf US proposals in late seventies) deployed, these would elicit an immediate response, the deployment of specialised (by design or tasking) assets to kill these platforms, in turn demanding the deployment of defensive escorts. In this fashion the party deploying the cruise missile shifts from the offensive to the defensive and thus must lose the initiative in the battle at hand.

Therefore the argument that the cruise missile is a substitute for manned bombers is wishful thinking, and unlikely to change. The role of these weapons will remain specialised, ie hitting high value fixed targets in heavily defended areas, where the risk of attritting manned aircraft is high, with attrition into several percent. Until a war is found where the majority of targets are fixed and vulnerable to a 1,000 lb class warhead, and air defences are universally such that attrition is unacceptable, the manned bomber will be far more cost effective.

Scuds - Success or Failure?

The Scud has acquired a reputation far in excess of its tactical utility, this resulting from the lay media's fascination with this weapon. The accuracy of all ballistic missiles in the class of the Scud is abysmal, ie a CEP of about a mile, and such weapons are of questionable usefulness unless delivering a nuclear or appropriate chemical warhead. The total tonnage of Scud warheads delivered on Israel approximated a single well loaded tactical fighter.

The difficulty in stopping the Scud however created sufficient political pressure for the weapons to force the disproportionate committment of air assets to the Scud hunting role. In this respect the Scud was an absolute success, as the F-15Es which were patrolling for Scuds would have otherwise been hammering targets of true military value. In using the Scud from dispersed sites, continuously relocating to avoid air attack, the Iraqis demonstrated how effective a mobile weapon of theatre radius can be, and offered proof of how effective a precision ground launched cruise missile could be in a high intensity conflict.

Scud hunting tied down reconnaissance aircraft, JSTARs surveillance platforms, satellites, tactical jets and SAM batteries, and the need to fire multiple Patriot rounds worth millions apiece to kill a fifties technology ballistic rocket worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a round is truly a case of a defensive response worth orders of magnitude more than the initial offensive weapon.

In perspective the Scud was a failure in its intended role and a success indirectly, as a means of tying down enemy assets otherwise usable to attack Iraq. As a result, we will see increasing use of such systems in future conflicts - the indirect payoff is too great for it to be otherwise.

The Role of Electronic Warfare

Winning the electronic battle is the first and foremost phase in winning a modern war. The Israelis demonstrated this in the Bekaa Valley in 1982, but the message didn't quite sink in outside of NATO, where the Allies developed and deployed the modern HARM and Alarm ARMs (anti-radiation missiles) and a range of potent soft kill systems. Command of the electromagnetic spectrum can be achieved only by the balanced application of soft and hard kill assets, as many emitters are not worth the cost of an ARM but still require silencing, conversely the sole application of soft kill assets leaves the enemy to fight another day.

The Gulf conflict saw Iraqi electromagnetic emissions (communications and radar) increase by a factor of ten in the first day, and then drop by a factor of ten, as emitters were destroyed or jammed. The crippling of Iraq's C3 infrastructure and IADS was thus accomplished in hours, creating an environment where command of the air was easily attained and sustained.

The Iraqis demonstrated as in most areas, a total failure to understand the strategy and tactics of electronic combat and suffered accordingly.

The application of multirole assets to the electronic battle was of fundamental importance, the use of HARM firing F-16Cs and F/A-18Cs to supplement or support specialised EW aircraft such as the EA-6B and F-4G Wild Weasel, and the use of Alarm firing Tornados allowed the delivery of what was essentially a saturation attack with ARMs in the first few hours of the conflict. However, multirole aircraft are not and cannot be a substitute for specialised assets which are equipped with dedicated systems for the identification and tracking of emitters.

The increasing sophistication of modulation schemes used in radar and communications will be extremely difficult to match with radar warning systems across a whole fleet of multirole aircraft. The demonstrated susceptibility of conventional radar to ARM attack will see future players concentrate on LPI (low probability of intercept) techniques in radar, and this will require ever increasing sophistication in emitter locating systems. The argument for increasingly sophisticated ARMs fitted to multirole fighters is thus hard to sustain, as the cost will be astronomical. Even a small number of capable EW platforms with datalink support for 'killer' multirole aircraft will yield better results.

Stealth - a Silver Bullet or a Workhorse ?

The F-117A Stealth Fighter saw its first real combat in the Gulf and performed to expectations, penetrating the most heavily defended areas without being detected and suffering zero attrition. Surprisingly, most public discussion centred on the bombing accuracy of the aircraft, no different from the F-111F/Pave Tack, F-15E/Lantirn or Tornado/Tiald, rather than the defence penetration capability. The aircraft flew around 1600 sorties, or 1.5% of the total sortie count.

The ability of stealthy aircraft to attack targets without any other support than tankers offers tremendous economies, while allowing the application of force before the electronic battle has been either won or pushed to a favourable position. To deliver two 2,000 lb bombs on a point target requires, in a well defended environment, a single stealthy strike aircraft and subject to radius possibly a tanker, or a single conventional strike aircraft supported by ARM firing defence suppression aircraft, standoff or escort jamming aircraft, fighter escort for the strike element, the defence suppression element and the jamming element, with multiple tankers for the whole strike package. In terms of expenditure, a single stealthy strike aircraft, even if two or three times the cost of a conventional equivalent, is the obvious choice.

A case study to this effect is the comparison of a pair of raids flown by the USAF against a nuclear reactor facility South of Baghdad. The first raid was flown by a classical strike package using 32 F-16s as bombers, supported by an F-15C CAP of 16 aircraft, four EF-111 jammers, eight F-4G SAM suppression aircraft and fifteen tankers. While damage was inflicted, the facility remained functional and the strike force was unable to loiter due intense defensive fire, requiring reattack at a later date. The subsequent raid, which destroyed three of four reactors, involved six F-117As supported by a pair of tankers. To reinforce the point, this raid could have also been flown by a pair of B-2s without tanker support.

The F-117A in the Gulf still very much performed the silver bullet role, but there is no technical reason why stealthy strike aircraft cannot assume the more general role of the tactical interdictor, such as the F-111 or the A-6. In a sustained war of attrition, where the weight of numbers is no longer available for a knockout blow (cf the respective night bombing offensives of the Luftwaffe and RAF in WW II) the use of strike packages can only play into the hands of the defending side, and the stealthy strike aircraft are the only way at this time of avoiding costly attrition. Technical readers are advised to have a play with the Lanchester equations, which yield some interesting results for these scenarios.

Obvious or not, the debate surrounding the B-2 program in the US demonstrates that reality cannot penetrate closed minds. The F-117A is a first generation stealth strike aircraft with unspectacular payload radius performance and a limited sensor suite, in comparison with the cancelled A-12 USN replacement for the A-6E. Legislators in the US demonstrated a total incapacity to comprehend the issues at hand, by voting for further F-117 aircraft, while furiously opposing both the B-2 and funding for the A-12 replacement, the A-X.

Sadly, it may take another war against a more sophisticated adversary to get the message to sink in.

Reconnaissance and Surveillance

For as much aerial firepower as the Allies had in the Gulf, its application was severely handicapped by a shortage of usable recce assets. Post strike damage assessment and pre strike recce are best accomplished by suitably equipped tactical aircraft, and the argument for the use of satellites or strategic recce aircraft is at best questionable, as cloud cover and the manoeuvring limitations of orbital platforms make timely coverage almost impossible to achieve, unless one has perfectly cloudless conditions all the time and satellites to spare.

Allied assets included geriatric RF-4C aircraft, F-14As carrying TARPS pods, Tornado GR.1As in small numbers and a handful of Mirage F.1CRs. Most of these systems did not employ electronic storage of pictures, and thus required time consuming film development on the ground, which added hours into the loop of target identification, strike and post strike assessment, thus providing the enemy with ample time to redeploy those assets which may have survived an initial attack.

The retirement of the capable SR-71A in the previous year raised much criticism, although these aircraft may not have been as effective over Kuwait, as over Iraq, due low cloud and oil fires.

What is most interesting is that the Australian government did not offer to deploy the RAAF's RF-111C aircraft, which would have made a big difference with their unrivalled radius performance and comprehensive sensor suite. In theatre support is not an argument here, as the aircraft could have shared support facilities with USAF EF-111A and F-111Es deployed in the theatre. In hindsight, the aircraft would have made a bigger contribution than the RAN element, in the latter phase of the conflict, at lesser cost, while providing the RAAF with some very useful first hand experience. Cynics may argue that denial of the latter may have played a role.

Star performers, no pun intended, in the conflict were a pair of development Grumman E-8 JSTARS (Joint Standoff Target Acquisition Radar System) aircraft, B-707 airframes fitted with a sophisticated long range moving target indicator/synthetic aperture radar system in a canoe radome under the fuselage. These systems were in development when rushed to the Gulf, accompanied by civilian contract support personnel, and flew a total of 49 missions totalling 535 hours, probing deep inside Iraqi held territory with their radar, searching for vehicles, supply dumps, Scuds and AFVs. While a full account of their role has yet to be released, the 'ground AWACS' for all of their immaturity impressed all participants.

The ability to provide ground commanders with a comprehensive picture of enemy strength hundreds of miles beyond the battlefront, under all weather conditions, day or night, is a fundamental advantage particularly in a manoeuvre warfare scenario. What may be less appreciated is that platforms such as JSTARS require command of the air as a prerequisite for operations, unless considerable fighter assets are to be committed to their defence. Again the peculiar nature of the air war may have distorted perceptions of the overall effectiveness of the concept.

The role of the E-3 AWACS and smaller E-2C AEW aircraft was pivotal, to say the least. While the lacklustre performance of the Iraqi air force did little to exercise these systems in their primary early warning role, they proved invaluable for air traffic control in friendly and hostile airspace. A lesser capability in this area would have yielded some problems with airspace congestion and coordination of operations by diverse aircraft from the wide range of forces in the theatre. While the Air Tasking Order was well structured in this respect, variance in mission timing would inevitably create traffic hotspots, exacerbated by the rapid concentration of tactical assets against targets of opportunity.

Air Support of the Land Campaign

The Iraqi failure to comprehend the value of dispersal of assets, and obsession with positional warfare, created a situation where air support for the land force shifted toward battlefield air interdiction (BAI) rather than close air support (CAS/CAIRS). As a result, most of the support missions flown involved interdicting either fixed installations or vehicle convoys, rather than engaging forces in contact with friendly land forces.

Where CAS/CAIRS missions were flown, serious problems arose with the identification of friendly/hostile land assets, particularly at night. It is worth noting that the number of Allied personnel killed due attacks by Allied aircraft rivalled losses due Iraqi fire, ie no less than 16 Allied soldiers were killed by friendly aircraft (and 24 due friendly ground fire). The Iraqi assault on Khafji, and the Allied thrust into Iraq, saw Allied strike aircraft on several occasions engage friendly armour in the belief they were hostiles. In a major campaign where both sides employ manoeuvre warfare, it is likely that fratricide would have been far greater.

The Gulf saw the A-10 perform to its best and has again restarted the debate over specialised CAS/CAIRS aircraft versus mission equipped multirole fighters. In this context, the unique air environment created conditions where the A-10s fundamental weaknesses in manoeuvre performance against SAMs and fighters were not an issue, and thus a distorted perception has developed as to the viability of this class of aircraft. Similarly the utility of multirole aircraft in the air battle may not be apparent due the rapid collapse of the Iraqi air force.

A type which received almost no publicity, while working overtime, was the AC-130 Spectre fire support gunship. In missions reminiscent of the Ho-Chi-Minh trail interdiction campaign, the AC-130s penetrated, often in pairs, hundreds of miles deep into Iraqi held territory to interdict road traffic. Using specialised sensors capable of detecting automotive ignition systems, these aircraft severed the highways from Iraq to Jordan, destroying thousands of vehicles. One aircraft was lost to a SAM over the Kuwaiti coast, enroute to Khafji, with all eleven crew killed. Again the peculiar nature of the air war allowed this type to perform in a role quite impossible otherwise.

The role of the fast FAC (forward air controller) was soon rediscovered, and the USMC's Night Attack F/A-18Ds were soon key players in this role, loitering at night over target areas in Kuwait and Southern Iraq while directing strikes by Marine AV-8Bs, F/A-18Cs and USAF aircraft such as the F-16 and A-10.


The Gulf war has demonstrated conclusively much of what was known about the application of air power, but still doubted by many parties. Not surprisingly, little new was learned but much of what was forgotten has been rediscovered, and much of what was expected was proven.

The preeminent role of the electronic battle in the opening phases of an air war has been demonstrated yet again, in fact one may argue now that the electronic battle can be elevated to the status of a major phase of the air battle, separating it from the initial counter-air phase of the battle. In this fashion the established two phase model, ie counter-air campaign for command of the air, followed by the interdiction campaign to inflict maximum attrition, can be replaced by a three phase model comprising an electronic combat campaign to gain command of the electromagnetic spectrum, followed by the counter-air and interdiction campaigns.

All phases of the air war yet again demonstrated the pivotal importance of combat radius to the conduct of an air war. The availability of substantial tanker resources has concealed this to the casual observer, but it is clear that without the humble tanker the weight of the offensive would have been far lesser.

The massed application of the PGM has provided the final technical means to fully implementing Douhet's strategic interdiction campaign model, and the destruction inflicted upon Iraq's infrastructure by a modest number of aircraft flying a modest number of raids has proven without doubt the foolishness of his critics.

The application of air power to the support of land forces has demonstrated that a modern mechanised land army can no longer function without command of the air. Where an opponent applies a mechanised manoeuvre force, he must concentrate assets to achieve a weight of numbers to be effective, and this concentration of assets renders him vulnerable to air attack. It may be argued, convincingly so, that in campaigns where the opposing land force is so concentrated ITALIC the role of the friendly land force is ancillary to that of air power END ITALIC, solely as a means of mopping up the remnants of the battlefield interdiction campaign and seizing terrain stripped of defending forces.

While this view may not be popular with the armies of this world, the reality is that this situation has existed for two decades but never been clearly demonstrated due the idiosyncrasies of past conflicts. Vietnam is much to blame here, as the skill of the Vietnamese communist forces in rapidly dispersing and concentrating assets substantially reduced their vulnerability as a force to air attack. Were they to have fought an open mechanised manoeuvre campaign, the results would have been demonstrably different. Where concentrations of communist forces were engaged directly by air power, the results speak for themselves.

A clear conclusion here is that armies should seriously contemplate their future role - the notion that air forces exist as ancillaries to armies is invalid, and representative of 1930s thinking. Armies should become more flexible in their outlook and accept that their role is only pre-eminent in those campaigns where the opposing force has no need to concentrate assets, and does not employ a mechanised manoeuvre force. Failure to do so will only produce worthless political disputes and muddy the real issues in the eyes of laymen not equipped to understand these matters.

In this context, armies should take a long hard look at their own structures and consider that the days of the tank armies of Guderian and Tukhachevskii are well and truly over. Pouring resources into such assets is demonstrably obsolete thinking, greater emphasis should be placed upon those assets which are more relevant to this environment, such as special forces and airmobile assets. The ability of an air force to shatter enemy assets such as heavy artillery and armour across a great depth of battlefield means that the modern manoeuvre force must be capable of penetrating far deeper much faster than is achievable with today's armour heavy forces. Certainly a need for such assets will always remain, but the emphasis in numbers must be shifted toward assets which can take advantage of the situation. Armies structured about armour cannot, and where command of the air is lost will be unable to avoid annihilation.

A force which can rapidly concentrate and disperse, and which is not tied to a slow moving logistical train, is more appropriate as it can more readily avoid air attack and also more readily exploit the deep attack potential of a modern air force.

The lessons for the ADF are just as clear. For the RAAF, more electronic combat potential, AEW, more emphasis on tankers, more PGMs and in the longer term, serious thought on how to replace the strike/recce wing with equal or better capability. For the Army, more emphasis on air mobility and communications/intelligence facilities to support targeting of hostile land forces by the RAAF, particularly across a deeper battlefield, and more effort into equipping helicopters for direct fire support.

Reality is simple enough to comprehend, but we must hope that those who are responsible for ADF force structure planning have sufficiently open minds to accept it rather than reject it. The longer term consequences of the latter will be fruitless political bickering which will only serve the politicians as a means of further depleting defence expenditure. That is something which this nation certainly cannot afford to do.

People's Liberation Army Air Power Index Page [Click for more ...]
Military Ethics, Culture, Education and Training Index Page [Click for more ...]
Russian / Soviet Weapon Systems Index Page [Click for more ...]

Artwork, graphic design, layout and text © 2004 - 2014 Carlo Kopp; Text © 2004 - 2014 Peter Goon; All rights reserved. Recommended browsers. Contact webmaster. Site navigation hints. Current hot topics.

Site Update Status: $Revision: 1.753 $ Site History: Notices and Updates / NLA Pandora Archive