U.S. Air Attack to Be a Web of Missions

American military planners hope to leave Iraqi commanders in such "shock and awe" on "A-Day," when an American air attack begins, that resistance will be broken by the time troops sweep into the country in the ensuing days.

It may sound straightforward, but it's not.

Accomplishing almost instantly what took 38 days of air assaults to achieve before 1991's Operation Desert Storm will involve unprecedented amounts of coordination between air combat commanders, spy planes, satellites, bombers, attack craft, unmanned aerial vehicles, refueling planes and maybe even special forces on the ground, analysts say.

And after a full-fledged U.S. ground invasion, coordinating the effort may get even more complicated.

"The idea," said retired Air Force Gen. Richard Hawley, an ABCNEWS consultant, "is to incapacitate the Iraqi military, induce large parts of it to give up without a fight, severely degrade if not eliminate the ability of the Iraqi leadership to communicate with both their armed forces and their population, and render those parts of the Iraqi military that do choose to fight ineffective before they encounter coalition ground forces."

It may sound like a tall order, but say experts, U.S. air and space power are so dominant, it could happen.

‘Pity’ for the Enemy

Although for years the United States and its 1991 coalition allies have been bombing Iraq's northern and southern "no-fly zones," set up after the Gulf War, the air campaign in a full-fledged war should be much different.

"Keep in mind that what we have been doing for the past 10 years … is very small-scale air operations," said Hawley, the former commander of Air Combat Command, the Air Force's largest command, and of U.S. air forces in Europe. "These are operations that involve handfuls of airplanes at a time. Therefore, we have been able to be sure that those airplanes are very well protected when they are in Iraqi airspace.

"What we will want to establish [in an all-out war] is conditions where attack airplanes can function almost independently from that type of support," said Hawley, who does not have any advance knowledge of U.S. war plans.

To gain such air dominance, the A-Day assault is expected to unleash a barrage of thousands of precision missiles to stun Iraq's forces. It also will use far more planes than the no-fly-zone attacks, with massive support from air, ground, sea and space — "the ultimate high ground," according to Air Force Maj. Gen. Franklin J. Blaisdell.

"Whether it's Iraq or any enemy of the United States and its allies, I would tell you that we are so dominant in space that I pity a country that would come up against us," Blaisdell told reporters last week, referring to U.S.-controlled satellites used for space-based surveillance, navigation, communication and targeting.

"The synergy with air, land and sea forces, and our ability to control the battle space and seize the high ground is devastating," he added. "And so, many of [America's enemies], unfortunately, don't really understand how powerful we are."

Web of Missions

Supported by the space-based assets — and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance planes also feeding data to a command center — American attack planes will fly complicated, coordinated patterns over areas where Saddam Hussein has held firm control since the Gulf War, and is believed to have built "a very robust air defense system," Hawley said.

It's also possible there would be U.S. special forces on the ground to help attacking U.S. planes locate targets.

The attack planes will be defended by other planes, including models designed to detect enemy radar systems and disable or destroy them, and others targeting any enemy planes that manage to get airborne.

"F-15C is our air-to-air airplane," said Maj. Gen. Larry Twitchell, Ninth Air Force commander, provisional, stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. "He's looking for airborne assets that are bad guys."

U.S. planes are likely to be serviced in midair by special refueling craft to extend their flight times — which may become more necessary if Turkey, which borders Iraq, does not allow use of its airspace.

Precision Bombing

In contrast to the Gulf War, all American planes will be capable of firing precision-guided weapons, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officers told civilian military analysts at a briefing last week.

"In the Gulf War, the only airplane that could carry smart bombs, at that time, were the F-117s," Twitchell said. "As you got into it, the B-52s and F-16s went in and dropped [conventional] carpet bombs."

Now, according to the Rumsfeld briefing, roughly 90 percent of all air munitions used on the first day will be precision weapons. Overall, a 2003 war with Iraq is likely to use 70 percent precision weapons, as opposed to about 10 percent in the 1991 Gulf War.

The first mission of an air war is expected to be a furious attack to smash Saddam's air defense system, fortified areas, and other strategic targets U.S. commanders have prioritized in an "air tasking order."

At first, such an attack might involve cruise missiles that can be launched from ships, submarines or B-52 bombers, plus attacks from short-range F-117 airplanes, because those assets are, "the ones that can be capable within a successful air defense system," Hawley said.

Sources suggest as many as 3,000 precision air and cruise missile strikes may happen on the first day — a huge number by standards of past wars.

The air tasking order likely will have been vetted as high in the chain of command as Gen. Tommy Franks, Rumsfeld and President Bush, and an "air component planner" overseeing the battle assigns planes and other assets to the list's targets, Twitchell said.

Short-range fighters such as F-16s, F-15s and F-18s, a sea-based plane, "will be used to attack less-heavily defended targets," Hawley said. Long-range B-1 and B-2 bombers would also probably be used.

Supporting Ground Troops

Early air operations also likely will include transport planes shipping troops into Kurdish areas of northern Iraq for a subsequent sweep south, Hawley guessed. Such forces would be lightly armed, and would require heavy air support in the next phase of battle.

"After the two or three days of this [air-only assault], unlike the weeks involved in the [1991] effort, the ground forces will begin to move," Hawley theorized. "They'll use air power to support that rapid movement" of troops toward Baghdad, Saddam, and strategic targets such as oil fields.

Advancing ground troops will have their own attack helicopters providing additional air support, Twitchell said. And specialist ground soldiers will help direct air-based attacks by pinpointing enemy targets with radio, laser range finders and GPS coordinates.

U.S. forces hope the increased precision of their bombs, targeting systems and communications will allow for more focused attacks, less collateral damage and fewer friendly-fire injuries than occurred during the Gulf War.

"We're orchestrated as a U.S. military much more than we were then," Twitchell said.

The precision may allow the military to accomplish broader battle goals, as well.

"We would also like not to have to destroy the Iraqi army," Hawley said. "The regular army and maybe even some parts of the Republican Guard will be very useful in dealing with the post-conflict situation in Iraq."

But, he added, there are no sure things in any battle.

"In my experience in combat, you never achieve all your set out to; there are always mistakes," Hawley said. "They will throw some things at us that we did not anticipate."

ABCNEWS military consultant Anthony Cordesman contributed to this report.