2002 November 10 Sunday
US May Lack Sufficient Number Of Air Bases Against Iraq

The Financial Times of London reports that the lack of access to Saudi air bases will pose a considerable problem for the full deployment of US air power:

However, the vast number of combat aircraft and support aircraft would require at least 15 airfields, and possibly as many as 20, according to estimates prepared for the House armed services committee by Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Without help from Saudi Arabia, which has 31 long paved runways, the US would be forced to cobble together help from other Gulf states, where airfields are less developed and poorly stocked. According to Mr O'Hanlon's estimates, even with four to six aircraft carriers and complete access to bases in Turkey and Kuwait, such a large force would need at least a dozen more fields, leading the US to rely on small emirates such as Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

Michael O'Hanlon's testimony to the US House Armed Services Committee on October 2, 2002, entitled "War Against Saddam's Regime: Winnable But No Cakewalk", appears to the source of the comments in the Financial Times article referenced above. You can read O'Hanlon's testimony on the US House Of Representatives site here or on the Brookings Institute site here.

O'Hanlon thinks the urban settings that will be the scene of some of the Iraqi fighting limit the extent to which air power can be used:

Trends in military technology development and recent American battlefield victories suggest to some that the United States' high-technology edge will make the deployment of a large invasion force unnecessary. Indeed, laser- and satellite-guided bombs, as well as new reconnaissance and communications systems like JSTARS aircraft and Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles demonstrated enormous potential in the Gulf War, Bosnia and Afghanistan. But two other conflicts from recent history also need to be kept in mind: the U.S. military campaign in Somalia in 1992-1993 and the war against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999. In both cases, difficult battlefield terrain and conditions—the urban setting of Mogadishu, the forested settings of Kosovo—limited enormously what high technology could do.

The Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) weapon that was so effective against the entrenched Taliban forces would be difficult to use against Iraqi armor deployed in urban settings, since it could cause so much collateral damage to civilians that its use might be severely limited. Laser-guided bombs could be more effective, at least in good weather, but they require forward target designators and even they could not be used against individual soldiers carrying small arms. If U.S. aircraft tried to spot targets on their own, they would have to fly low over Iraqi cities, risking losses from Iraq's anti-aircraft artillery and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. When coalition aircraft flew low in the first three days of Desert Storm, the result was 27 aircraft damaged or destroyed—one-third of their losses for the entire war.

I'm skeptical of the claim that there will not be enough air bases. The US has been building up airbases in the small Gulf states and even in the Caucasus region. The US will have as many or more aircraft carriers as it had for Desert Storm and some of the carrier-based aircraft will carry more bombs per mission (in particular the Super Hornet). The USAF will have forward positioned B1, B2, and B52 bombers at Diego Garcia (so much shorter round-trips per mission and hence many more missions per aircraft), and it will have much more accurate bombs. At the same time, it has had plenty of time to degrade Iraqi anti-aircraft defenses.

O'Hanlon argues that deterrence alone may not restrain Saddam:

Deterrence could fail in the future nonetheless, at least in a limited way. In particular, if Saddam had a nuclear weapon, he would still almost surely be deterred from directly attacking the United States or its NATO allies. But he might take greater risks in the Middle East and Persian Gulf in the belief that his new weapon effectively guaranteed his regime's survival, making U.S.-led intervention to thwart his regional ambitions less likely except in the most extreme of circumstances.

What might Saddam do under such circumstances? Perhaps he would seize the oil field on his border with Kuwait that was the purported original cause of the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait crisis. Or he might violate the safe haven in his country's Kurd region and seek to reestablish brutal Ba'ath party rule over that minority population. He might escalate his support for anti-Israeli terrorism, stoking radicals and suicide bombers and trying to provoke Israel into an overreaction. Given his propensity for miscalculation, he might think he could get away with actions that we would in fact find unacceptable, causing a failure of deterrence and a much greater risk of war. In a worst case, on his deathbed he might decide to attack Israel with nuclear weapons for purposes of simple vengeance, and to ensure his mark upon Arab history books.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 November 10 04:56 PM  Military War, Rumours Of War


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