World Naval Developments: Getting Ready to Strike Iraq

By Norman Friedman

Larger tonnages of bombs can handle dispersed targets, such as groups of buildings, and they can make up for uncertainties in target location. They are not merely a less precise way of handling targets which ought to be attacked by more sophisticated weapons. For example, dug-in troops are an inherently dispersed target; a few precision weapons cannot destroy them all. Perhaps most important, by concentrating on precision strike weapons we have made precision intelligence much more vital. Yet our own experience in the Gulf seven years ago should have convinced us that it would always be limited.

Also, Tomahawk is not designed to penetrate deep bunkers. The only U.S. deep penetrator is still the super-massive GBU-28, delivered by U.S. Air Force F-111s during the Gulf War. In the run-up to the since-defused crisis, the Air Force demonstrated a modified GBU-28 filled with jet fuel, which it claimed could penetrate a weapons bunker and destroy the contents, rather than spew them over the surrounding population. With the retirement of the F-111, the United States now depends on Air Force F-15Es, the only U.S. warplanes equipped with laser designators that can also carry the large GBU-28. Presumably, stealthy F-17s were deployed to the Gulf specifically to provide backup laser designation. In theory, they have a better chance of surviving in heavily defended target areas.

Air Force B-52s are likely to work, although in geopolitical terms they are quite unsatisfactory. With their very long range, B-52s can, in theory, hit almost anywhere on earth from U.S. controlled territory. Even then, they depend on tankers that need friendly bases. F-117s have much shorter legs. They need cooperation by governments quite close to the theater of war.

Carriers are valuable because they can operate without permission. To exploit that value, their aircraft need the range and carrying capacity to get well inland. Missiles like Tomahawk perform well, but they have limited carrying capacity and they are not nearly as flexible as a piloted airplane.

The other argument for long range in a carrier strike airplane is the carrier's own security. The longer the range, the bigger the box within which the carrier can operate—and the more difficult it is for an enemy submarine commander to estimate where the carrier must be. Carriers are unlikely to be sunk by diesel submarines in the open ocean mainly because the submarines are relatively slow and hence have difficulty positioning themselves for an attack. Littoral warfare is another story. During the Falklands Conflict, for example, an Argentine submarine commander deduced the location of the British carrier Hermes based on the relatively short range of her Harrier aircraft; he guessed that the ship had to be as close to the islands as possible on the eastern side to avoid air attack. He guessed right and almost sank the ship. Longer-legged aircraft would have made a considerable difference. All of this should make a long-legged Joint Strike Fighter extremely important. Should we perhaps have kept A-6s until it was ready?

Of course, sometimes it is easy to guess where a carrier must go. Strategic straits are a case in point, although carriers passing through the Strait of Hormuz are more likely to be confronted by mines than submarines. The crisis also revived the case for a deep penetrator, compatible with naval strike aircraft or Tomahawks. A powered weapon would be required to achieve sufficient kinetic energy—not a huge problem.

These are technical points. What does it really take to destroy a deeply buried bunker full of chemicals or disease germs? The key issues have to do with intelligence and policy.

For Saddam Hussein, chemical-biological weapons are the key to his dream of dominating the region. He has resisted U.N. inspectors for nearly seven years, delaying them while he moves material away, destroys records, hides equipment. It seems unlikely that we have been able to pinpoint all or even much of his arsenal. Moreover, it is unlikely that our surveillance of Iraq is so thorough that we can easily detect any attempt to move the material away from its present storage sites. Yet that has been his standard tactic in the past.

Again, unless there has been some dramatic breakthrough, it is unlikely that remote sensors will reveal either the present sites or any means of transport between them. Surveillance sensors on board an airplane or a satellite see each site only intermittently. We cannot expect, then, to catch material as it is being removed for transshipment. Agents on the ground might do better, but we would be foolish to count on them. Saddam may not be a brilliant military man, but that was never his forte. He has always concentrated on staying in power, which means maintaining a ferocious and efficient secret police. Many of the same intelligence considerations, incidentally, would apply to any attempt to keep track of Saddam Hussein himself.

That leads back to politics, which is always the central issue. The U.S. goal is to force Saddam to abandon his dream of regional power by giving up his extremely dangerous weapons of mass destruction. Can we threaten him with something so bad that he will give up? our tools are limited. Without Saudi help, we cannot mount a massive ground offensive, even if we are so inclined. We must rely on a variety of aerial weapons, all of which amount to bombs delivered in different ways.

Worst of all, we already know that Saddam is not terribly impressed by our sort of attacks. When the Coalition won in 1991, it seems to have been assumed that Saddam knew that he had lost. He would, then, have to accept whatever terms he was offered, for fear that if he did not, he would face a renewed attack. The theory was that he would accept that any renewed coalition attack would probably overthrow him.

That theory was fatally flawed. Saddam knew, first, that the Coalition had no stomach whatever for the occupation of Iraq. The Arab partners could not allow a Western-led army to oust an Arab government. During the Gulf War, Saddam had made a specialty of charging that Arab Coalition partners were traitors to Arab nationalism. We know, for example, that some in Saudi Arabia regarded our presence in that kingdom as a form of attack on Islam. The Saudi government kept order, but the Khobar Towers explosion showed that its power has its limits. Sadaam's theory explains why the Saudi government showed so little enthusiasm for the attacks we threatened in February.

Thus, as long as Sadaam remained alive and protected by his secret police, he could consider the outcome of the war satisfactory. We certainly damaged the Iraqi infrastructure, and the Iraqi air force and army, but we did not begin to damage Saddam' s power base. Most of the strategic attack on Iraq made life worse for the average Iraqi rather than for Saddam, although the average Iraqi was unlikely to blame Saddam for his misfortune. As in the past, strategic attack tended to cement support for the government under attack.

Saddam, then, is unlikely to fear strategic attack on a scale much smaller than that imposed during the Gulf War. The last time around he claimed victory, in effect, simply by surviving a massive attack by modern weapons. We also claimed victory: we successfully destroyed a great deal of the Iraqi arsenal. It seems not to have occurred to us that both sides could reasonably claim victory, in their own terms

Obviously there are some threats Saddam would have to take seriously. They would have to touch either his person or his continued rule. The first is illegal in peacetime, but during the Gulf War one can assume that planners would not have shed any tears had he been killed during an air strike. One also can assume that attempts were made—all of which failed because it was never possible to pinpoint his location. Even intelligence accurate at the moment of launch was too perishable.

On the other hand, he could never be sure that intelligence would fail. He built a series of deep hard bunkers, not too different from those that reportedly house his special weapons. Until the advent of the GBU-28 deep penetrator, the United States had nothing that could destroy such bunkers. It seems fair to imagine that Saddam gave up when he did because he had seen two of his deep bunkers destroyed. He probably lost interest in compliance with the surrender terms when he realized that the U.S. government lacked the stomach to follow through and try to kill him once the war was over.

Another sort of threat would have touched his ability to retain power. During the Gulf War the coalition inspired nationalist movements in northern and southern Iraq, among the Kurds and the Shiites. Had these movements succeeded, Saddam would have been left with only at most a rump state in central Iraq. Moreover, he would have lost his sources of income, since his oil fields were all in the two secessionist regions. Unfortunately the coalition partners never would have accepted this sort of outcome. The Syrians and the Turks would have felt threatened by a Kurdish state. The Saudis would have resented the destruction of a Sunni state, and the Iranians might well have gained control of an ex-Iraqi Shiite state. Our ineptitude in framing the truce conditions left Saddam with the helicopters he used to crush the two revolts. It seems unlikely that either group would want to bet that the present rather shrunken coalition can deliver where the enormous force used in 1991 could not. In any case, breaking up the Iraqi state surely would have required major ground operations.

Air power offers interesting possibilities. Saddam's power rests on his secret police and on the Republican Guards, whose job it is to shield him from any sort of disloyalty in his army. His government is largely staffed by people from his home village, Tikrit. Anything that destroyed his secret police stations with their personnel and their archives probably would loosen his grip on Iraq. Anything that destroyed the Republican Guard probably would set loose the Kurds and the Shiites. Anything that threatened to flatten Tikrit might make Saddam's associates question whether their loyalty was worth the cost.

He would have to take such threats seriously. Unfortunately, none of our allies in the region is really comfortable with an attempt to overthrow him. In mid-February we stated publicly that all we wanted was for Saddam to renounce his weapons; we quite specifically promised not to try to oust him. Yet for Saddam, the loss of the weapons is almost as bad as being ousted. Why should he agree?

Our problem is that Saddam is not unique. He is probably typical of what we will face in the 21 st century. If we deal effectively with him, potential Saddam’s may decide that other lines of work are more attractive. If we show that we are inept, that we do not understand what drives him, we are likely to suffer. Not only our weapons but also our understanding of how to use them seem misdirected. From Saddam's point of view, there is only one strategic target in Iraq worth threatening: himself. We seem not to have understood that.


Norman Friedman is a consultant on global naval strategy, naval trends, and naval warfare. An internationally known military technology analyst and naval historian, he worked for a decade as an advisor to Secretaries of the Navy, and for another 10 years with a leading U.S. think tank. Dr. Friedman travels the world speaking to military and defense industry leaders, and appears frequently appears on television as a guest commentator. He has authored more than 30 books, and has since the 1980s contributed regular columns analyzing world naval developments for Proceedings magazine. His PhD in Physics was earned at Columbia University.

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