Taking Out Saddam's Floating Pleasure Palace

By Commander John Patch, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The logic behind al Mansur 's destruction and the method of force application present an interesting case study in joint fires and effects. Perhaps this article will generate interest and dialogue within the operation's military leadership, especially the Coalition Forces Maritime and Air Component Commander cadre that presumably directed the targeting of Saddam's opulent yacht. Maybe an authoritative answer to the question "why?" might emerge.

The huge vessel was a resplendent symbol of Saddam's wealth and power—a virtual floating palace, personally designed by the ruler. 4 At 360 feet and 7,359 tons, outfitted with innumerable antiques and fineries, the vessel's exact dollar value remains unknown, but her smaller sister ship, the Ocean Breeze (formerly Qadisiyah Saddam , the ownership of which is currently contested) is worth roughly $35 million. 5 BBC journalists braved a trip on board al Mansur after the initial strike, confirming reports of her more extravagant features: an elegant 200-seat dining room under a glass atrium, bulletproof windows, a secret escape access to a submersible pod, private theater, helicopter pad, and a medical suite complete with operating room. Saddam's plush personal cabin was also reported gaudy in the extreme, complete with gold bathroom fixtures similar to other palace residences around Iraq. He made specific efforts to safeguard the yacht, a Saudi gift thanking him for fighting Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam had her sailed up the Shatt al Arab from the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr in the south just before Operation Iraqi Freedom's commencement.

Significant Objective or Opportunistic Target?

The specific military utility in striking al Mansur remains somewhat of an enigma, at least in unclassified circles. One account of F/A-18 operations during the opening phase claims unspecified leaders directed the 25 March 2003 Carrier Air Wing (CVW) -2 strike from the USS Constellation (CV-64) after information revealed al Mansur was being used for "battlefield communications." 6 Additionally, U.S. Central Command Headquarters news releases around the time of the later CVW-5 strikes from the Kitty Hawk (CV-63) indicated a clear intent to target Basra Baathist command and control facilities and to support a reported local Shia uprising. 7 It seems a safe conclusion, albeit with incomplete information, that targeting the yacht intended either (or perhaps both) to create a powerful symbol of the regime's demise in the Shia south or to prevent her use as a regime sanctuary or headquarters.

On the other hand, three factors suggest al Mansur was simply a maritime target of opportunity. First, the yacht was very unlikely to have been a priority target for any component commander. Indeed, if it had been, Coalition air power would have struck it earlier in the campaign and to greater effect. Further, the fact that authoritative historical U.S. and British accounts of Operation Iraqi Freedom do not mention the al Mansur strikes is telling. As such, the yacht may have fit neatly into the rather vague category of targets that no component commander objects to strikes on.

Second, the novel nature of the 25 March attack, as the first and only over-land strike and AGM-65E combat launch by an S-3, smacks of an experimental side mission to the main F/A-18 strikes, reportedly against an Osa -class patrol boat and a training vessel. 8

Finally, carrier strike aircraft occasionally do not release weapons during combat missions inland or cannot return to the carrier with full weapons loads; they are sometimes routed to lower priority targets on their return flight. 9 One account of a 27 March re-strike described two F-14s returning from a reconnaissance mission, each with two unexpended MK-82 500-pound unguided dumb bombs, offering up their ordnance to any taker and being directed onto the yacht by a British forward air controller to "finish her off." 10 The disparate, seemingly unrelated, and ineffective attacks—all apparently from carrier aircraft—point to a maritime target of opportunity, or at least a low priority mission. While targets of opportunity are still typically valid ones within joint operations, they may not necessarily be examples of efficient or effective force application.

In fairness, all evidence suggests al Mansur was a valid target. While not technically a combatant vessel—this clear distinction must be made before it can be considered a legitimate target—the clear link to Saddam, his potential presence onboard (while highly unlikely in the Basra Shia stronghold), and the reported Republican Guard crew also strongly support the argument that it was a valid regime and military command and control target. This logic meets Law of Armed Conflict and rules of engagement criteria. Finally, at least two accounts indicate the 25 March strike was coordinated as a time-sensitive target, suggesting a fleeting opportunity to achieve a mission objective. 11

To What Effect?

Still, beyond target validity, questions on military efficiency and the desired effect remain. For instance, joint targeting doctrine asserts that when linking a target to commander's intent and national principles, a key question is: "What would be the impact of not conducting operations against the target?" Additionally, because doctrine and effects-based operations tenets advocate the most efficient and effective means to achieving desired effects, one cannot but wonder if a non-kinetic solution would have been more appropriate.

Perhaps simply securing the vessel without damaging her might have been an option after Basra was in Coalition control by 6 April 2003. If indeed Baathists were using the vessel as a headquarters, why not secure the moored vessel (it was not going anywhere) with a small detachment of Royal Marines Commando or Navy SEALs; while in high demand at the time, both train for vessel takedowns and were already operating in the vicinity. Imagine the possible value of an intact al Mansur within a larger strategic communication plan (at the time of the strikes, the author wondered half-seriously how much the trophy yacht would have netted on eBay). Indeed, considering the four-year effort by Iraqi authorities to regain possession of the Ocean Breeze (for sale to benefit the Iraqi people), it is perplexing why Coalition leaders did not choose a less pyrrhic option for al Mansur . 12

Whether or not a systems- or effects-based targeting strategy guided the al Mansur strikes, the efficacy of such methodologies remains unproven. Previous U.S. and Coalition air campaigns targeting regime and highly visible infrastructure sought to reduce popular support and/or coerce adversary leadership compliance, but these efforts did not necessarily achieve the desired effects. The 1999 escalation of NATO strikes in the heart of Belgrade, for instance, included Serbian President Milosevic's personal residence and political party headquarters. 13 The weeklong pillar of smoke from the high-rise party headquarters seemed to evoke the image of a crippled regime that might help shorten the war, yet the air campaign dragged on for months before Milosevic capitulated.

While Operation Allied Force was not the ideal example of an effects-based campaign, Air Force leaders supported use of the methodology, calling it as a key enabler that led to desired effects without the destruction of fielded forces. 14 As many theorists argue, however, predicting—and gauging the efficacy of—the strategic psychological impact of tactical actions on intended audiences is problematic at best—e.g., "sending a signal." Effects-based operations critics, such as the U.S. Naval War College's Professor Milan Vego, argue that decision-makers cannot precisely measure and instantaneously know the effect of an action. 15 Effects-based operations doctrine and its practitioners acknowledge this challenge, but assert it remains the most systematic effort to link specific military actions to desired end-state effects.

In the al Mansur case, if the target audience was Saddam, he likely would not even have known of his yacht's demise; if it were the Shia masses, they likely needed no additional prompting to cast off Saddam's yoke. The debate over air-to-ground precision firepower's efficacy in delivering decisive psychological effects is indeed far from over. 16 At a minimum, effects-based operations focus on the critical linkage of execution tasks (targets) to military (and ultimately political) objectives and eschews inefficient attrition strategies—i.e., purposeful, limited destruction, at less cost and risk.

Target Practice?

With regard to Navy strike tactics against a medium-sized ship, if the intent with al Mansur was a catastrophic kill or vessel sinking, different air-to-ground precision weapons might have proved more effective. F/A-18 crew statements detail the 25 March Maverick missile strike as a picture perfect hit on the yacht's bridge. Crew accounts, BBC reports, and Navy press releases describe what appear to be later strike tactics that included four MK 82s with instantaneous fuses aimed variously at the superstructure and waterline and a pair of GBU-12 laser-guided 500-pound bombs aimed directly through the decorative glass atrium in the yacht's top level.

Common maritime targeting and weaponeering thought, however, is to strike near the waterline aft at as near horizontal as possible with delayed fusing to disable and sink a typical vessel of this type and tonnage. An alternative is to target along the lines of the second al Mansur GBU-12 strike, but with delayed fusing for maximum penetration into the lower decks before high order detonation. Lower, amidships, and aft spaces will naturally contain fuels, oils, and hydraulic fluids that add significantly to incendiary effects and unchecked lower compartment fires burning upward will usually seal a vessel's fate. The limited information available on the al Mansur strikes points to no fuse delay on any weapons, since the damage remained largely blast, fragmentation, and fire to the superstructure and hull.

On the other hand, the chosen tactics resulted in a week-long, highly visible spectacle, which may have been the desired direct effect. Nevertheless, considering the costs of planning, ordnance, aircraft allocation, and personnel risk—not to mention higher priority target servicing—associated with re-attack options, one cannot but wonder why a more decisive single-mission solution against al Mansur was not pursued. Further, the craft's apparent resilience after repeated Coalition strikes began to raise questions in the press. 17 In fact, Coalition tactics and methods may have sent a different message than the one intended.

Hidden in the Fog

In the final analysis, details of the al Mansur sinking may either never come to light or simply were not recorded as the war effort moved on. While armchair warriors can easily criticize the al Mansur case, it is just as tempting simply to grant war fighters the benefit of the doubt. Still, considering the cost, labor, risk, the lost value of the ship to the Iraqi people, the effort to remove the large navigation hazard, and the arguably minimal effect achieved, perhaps it does serve as a case of how not to use naval air power. Regardless of one's advocacy of effects-based operations, the al Mansur sinking seems not to have considered its principles. In the worst possible case, it was a target of convenience. As a recent analysis of precision firepower warned, "war by precision firepower can all too easily become killing without purpose." 18 At the risk of armchair analysis, objective assessments of Operation Iraqi Freedom case studies in joint and Coalition targeting, weaponeering, and force application still seem warranted.

British commanders on Basra's outskirts likely shook their heads during the initial strike on Saddam's presidential yacht, wondering what the Yanks were up to. Perhaps they deemed al Mansur a tempting, but non-critical, quasi-military target destroyed without much sophistication or forethought. The actual targeting logic remains hidden within the fog of a fast-moving war. Al Mansur 's demise surely serves as an example of operational decisions made in the gray area between the opposing tensions of rapid, decisive war cessation and rational restraint on the blunt instrument of military power. In the end, Saddam's infamous gold-plated AK-47s on display in several Washington locations attest to the might and sophistication of America's professional military; the fate of al Mansur 's rumored golden toilet seat is likely more inglorious and arcane.


1. Tony Holmes, US Navy Hornet Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom: Pt.2 , Osprey Combat Aircraft No. 48 (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing Ltd, 2007), p. 57.

2. Tom Newton Dunn, "Twisted hulk is Saddam's testament," BBC News, 10 April 2003, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/2936603.stm . Local witnesses claimed as many as 16 missiles and bombs hit the yacht over a two-week period.

3. Keith Jacobs and Iain Ballantyne, "Update on Operation Iraqi Freedom—28th March 2003," Warships at http://www.warshipsifr.com/attack_on_iraq_special1.html .

4. Dunn.

5. John Lichfield, "The Iraqi super-yacht affair: The yacht that Saddam built," The Independent , 14 February 2008 at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-iraqi-superyacht... .

6. Holmes, p. 57.

7. Headquarters, United States Central Command, News Release Number 03-04-25, 2 April 2003 at www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/iraq/2003/iraq-030402-centcom10.htm .

8. Curtis A. Utz and Mark L. Evans, "The Year in Review 2003," Naval Aviation News (July-August 2004), p. 28. (At www.history.navy.mil/nan/backissues/2000s/2004/ja/ja04.htm .)

9. Possible reasons include weather (poor laser illumination), temporary weapon malfunctions, ordnance not being appropriate for emerging missions (e.g., weapon explosive weight being too large or small), etc.

10. Tony Holmes, US Navy Tomcat Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Osprey Combat Aircraft No. 52 (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing Ltd, 2006), p. 65. This account detailed that an F/A-18 with laser-guided bombs missed the target on a mission after the initial 25 March strike, its bombs striking a nearby warehouse.

11. Ibid. See also Global Security Organization, "Operation Iraqi Freedom—March 25, Day Six" at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/iraqi_freedom_d6.htm .

12. Lichfield.

13. Jim Garamone, U.S. Defense Department, "NATO Expands Target List, Reserve Call-up Near," American Forces Press Service, 23 April 1999, at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=41620 .

14. BG David Deptula, Aerospace Education Foundation, "Effects Based operations: Change in the Nature of Warfare," Defense and Airpower Series, Arlington, VA, 2001, p. 25.

15. Milan Vego, "Effects-Based Operations: A Critique," Joint Forces Quarterly (2nd Quarter, 2006): 56. See also Paul K. Davis, RAND Corporation, "Effects Based Operations: A Grand Challenge for the Analytical Community," 2001.

16. For an insightful discussion of this concept see LTC Timothy R. Reese, USA, "Precision Firepower: Smart Bombs, Dumb Strategy," Military Review (July-August 2003), pp. 46-53.

17. Dunn. The BBC article related ". . . no matter how hard the coalition tried, they still couldn't sink it."

18. LTC Timothy Reese, "Precision Firepower: Smart Bombs, Dumb Strategy," The U.S. Army Professional Writing Collection at http://www.army.mil/prof_writing/volumes/volume1/october_2003/10_03_2.html .


Commander Patch is a retired surface warfare officer and a career intelligence officer. He served as a senior maritime intelligence analyst at the USCENTCOM forward headquarters in Qatar during the combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and as the Chief of Targets in 2004/5. He is an associate professor of strategic intelligence at the U.S. Army War College.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2016-07-08

You are cordially invited to: Delivering on the Vision for the Future of Submarine Warfare A discussion with Rear Admiral Charles...

2016 Naval History Conference

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership