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Ignorance is Risk - The big lession from Desert Storm - Air base attacks


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Christopher M. Centner


MANY observers have declared that the air campaign was the decisive component of Operation Desert Storm and that air base attacks were a critical component of the campaign. These attacks helped achieve air superiority, destroy many of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, and lessen the long-term threat that Iraq poses to its neighbors. The video images from the campaign tend to give spectators the impression that air base attacks were flawlessly planned and executed. In reality, the anti-air base component of the air campaign highlighted a major--and dangerous--omission in the US Air Force's strategic analysis. Specifically, we lack an organization that studies the design and operation of foreign air bases for the purpose of exploiting weaknesses. This article briefly describes how the coalition planned and executed air base attacks during Desert Storm and explains how some of the lessons learned are in reality only symptoms of this more significant omission.


Target: The Iraqi Airfield Network


Iraq's violent past had taught its air force that air base attacks were a grave menace. Iraqi airfields had undergone recurring onslaughts by Great Britain (in World War II), Israel, and Iran (during the Iran-Iraq war). In particular, the various Arab-Israeli conflicts demonstrated to Iraq that wars could be won or lost as a result of airfield attacks. This fact was most evident in 1967 when, on the dawn of the Six-Day War, a surprise Israeli attack destroyed the Arab air forces at their airfields. Arab aircraft were caught parked wingtip-to-wingtip at their main operating bases (MOB). They were not in shelters because the Arabs had planned to disperse them to other bases for wartime survival. Consequently, at a cost of only 19 aircraft, Israel destroyed 375 Arab aircraft on the first day of the war.1


This bitter lesson inspired a sudden surge in the construction of hardened aircraft bunkers (HAB) and personnel bunkers at Arab air bases. Other critical airfield components--such as petroleum, oil, and lubricant systems--were made more redundant and robust. By the time the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 broke out, Israel faced well-protected enemy air forces. Because their adversaries' aircraft were now protected by dispersed concrete HABs, Israeli pilots resorted to runway attacks (in conjunction with attacks against command and control [C2] facilities).2 These runway attacks were only temporarily effective, however, since Arab repair teams restored the runways in just nine to 12 hours.3


In Desert Storm, coalition air forces faced a formidable Iraqi air base network, the product of a massive hardening and survivability program that may be considered a model for air forces worldwide. For instance, the Iraqis had extended their air base network to include a ring of identical, hardened dispersal bases along their border. Each base in this network--known as Project 505 and begun during the Iran-Iraq war--contained 12 widely dispersed HABs with half-meter-thick concrete walls, eight fuel tanks, two power stations, and squadron operations facilities.4 Buried and hardened airfield support components were scattered throughout each air base, many of which covered 5,000 acres.5 Iraq also organized airfield-repair teams that were supplied with fast-setting concrete and other critical material.6 Almost 600 HABs built to NATO standards (or better) were constructed in Iraq by British, Belgian, French, and Yugoslavian contractors.7


At the heart of the Iraqi airfield network were three bases built for--and as--strategic assets. Planned as early as 1975 and code-named Project 202, these airfields were designed to function during chemical, biological, and even nuclear war and were dubbed "superbases" by the press. Construction of these bases for Iraq's strategic strike aircraft apparently began in the mid-1980s.8 Every airfield component was protected by layers of thick concrete. "I will admit that this air base literally overwhelmed me," declared Lt Col Sergey Bezlyudnyy, a former MiG-29 flight instructor stationed in Iraq. "I had never seen anything like it before, although while serving in the [soviet] Union I had been in scores of garrisons. The equipment, shelters, and blast walls--everything was the last word in equipment and of outstanding quality."9 The aerodynamic-looking HABs at the airfields were "superhardened," built to withstand all conceivable threats. "As far as I could see," said Colonel Bezlyudnyy, "it would have been virtually impossible to destroy this [HAB] with tactical weapons, even superaccurate ones, and probably only by using nuclear warheads."10


Desert Storm was to be the first war that matched the USAF against an adversary with first-rate, modern air bases. Indeed, Iraq hadn't built mere airfields; it had built fortifications. As described to the US Air Staff in December 1990 by an intelligence analyst, the air base hardening program had "made [iraq's] airfield network the strongest component of [its] air force."11

Air Base Attack



Planners shaping the coalition's air base attacks faced formidable obstacles, the biggest of which was the meager information initially available on Iraqi airfields. Although documents on adversary aircraft and tactics written by analysts at the Foreign Technology Division and Tactical Air Command were available to coalition pilots, similarly detailed documents on Iraq's air bases were nonexistent.12 No USAF organization was dedicated to analyzing air base performance and weaknesses, and the few experts on Iraqi air base operations were scattered throughout the globe.13 Fortunately, the coalition had over five months to consolidate information before Desert Storm began. Even so, critical air base information was still being fed into the theater long after the bombs began to drop.14


Priorities assigned to particular Iraqi air bases reflected the various priorities of the campaign as a whole. Desert Storm's primary goal was the liberation of Kuwait, a feat which required air superiority over Kuwait and southeastern Iraq. Additionally, the campaign sought to neutralize Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (chemical and biological weapons), which threatened the coalition, Israel, and the entire region. Finally, planners wished to break the long-term military threat that Iraq posed to its neighbors by significantly reducing its overwhelmingly large conventional military force.15 Each of these goals mandated that different, but overlapping, sets of air bases be attacked.


During the war's initial phase, planners estimated the damage required to render a particular air base inoperable and then created air tasking orders (ATO) that specified the size of strike packages against each air base. They also anticipated reattacks to maintain the required level of damage or to destroy particular target sets. Bomb damage assessment (BDA) was to be a crucial component in determining further attack requirements after the initial attacks.


Air Base Target Sets


The coalition targeted bases according to their importance to the Iraqi air base network, their location, the type of aircraft they housed, and the presence of weapons of mass destruction. Planners dropped many of Iraq's 66 air bases from ATOs because attacking them would not help accomplish the campaign's strategic goals.


During the process of determining the amount of effort to expend on a particular air base, planners paid strict attention to the base's geographic location. They targeted Tallil, Jalibah Southeast, and other air bases because they were only a short flight from the Kuwaiti theater of operations. Air bases used to defend Baghdad's air defense sector and avenues of approach, especially bases that housed advanced aircraft such as the MiG-29, were attacked early in the campaign. Bases north of Baghdad opposite Turkey or Iran were a lower priority.


Iraq's deployment bases situated along the Saudi border (e.g., As Salman North and Wadi Al Khirr New) were targeted because of their importance to Iraq's total air base network, as well as their geographic location.16 In peacetime these bases were used infrequently since most of Iraq's aircraft were stationed at interior airfields. However, Iraq's combat aircraft generally lacked sufficient range to attack Saudi targets from peacetime locations. Damaging these deployment bases would reduce Iraq's ability to mount counterstrikes and would force Iraqi aircraft to remain at their MOBs. In short, attacking the dispersal airfields would decrease the Iraqi air threat and increase the value of attacks on the MOBs.


Chemical and biological weapons were among the greatest threats facing coalition forces. The coalition intended to smash Saddam Hussein's chemical warfare (CW) capability with swift, massive attacks upon production centers (Samarra and other major sites), storage locations (munitions depots), delivery means (artillery, ballistic missiles, and strategic aircraft), and C2 nodes. These goals mandated that CW storage sites at or near airfields be attacked as part of the anti-air base campaign. Additionally, planners targeted air bases in western Iraq that housed air-delivered chemical weapons or Scud missiles aimed at Israel. Finally, air bases with long-range aircraft (the Mirage F-1 and Su-24 Fencer) capable of delivering these deadly weapons deep into coalition territory were high-priority targets.


Individual Target Sets


The first Desert Storm attacks were launched against Iraq's C2 facilities, which coordinated operations throughout the nation's air defense network. Coalition F-117s and other aircraft simultaneously attacked Iraq's air force headquarters, the air defense operations center, sector operations centers, intercept operating centers, and observation posts. These assaults immediately shattered the formidable Iraqi air base network into isolated air bases, thus eliminating the enemy's ability to coordinate operations.17 By continuing its attacks on air force-related C2 nodes throughout the campaign, the coalition prevented the Iraqis from reestablishing any semblance of a unified air defense system.18


The Pavement War


The first round of air base-specific attacks was directed primarily against runways and operating surfaces. Planners hoped that these attacks would prevent the Iraqi air force from contesting coalition air superiority. However, Iraq's airfields frequently had two or more widely separated and lengthy runways connected by redundant taxiways, at least one of which was long enough to use for emergency operations.19 Multiple-approach taxiways connected each aircraft bunker to the runway. The bunkers were clustered at the ends of the runway, and each bunker's approach taxiway was linked to its neighbor's, thereby providing redundant means to gain access to operating surfaces. Additional emergency operating surfaces were available along highway strips that were wide enough to accommodate Soviet-built Il-76 transports.20


Although trained runway-repair teams and repair equipment were present at Iraqi air bases, the coalition planned no concurrent attacks against these teams or their stockpiles.21 Thus, the pavement attacks addressed only half of the problem: the pavement would be damaged, but the capability to repair it remained viable.


In the early-morning calm of Desert Storm, packages of from four to eight Panavia-built Tornadoes sped over at least 10 Iraqi airfields. Flying at levels as low as 30 meters in pitch darkness, the aircraft sped along the enemy aerodromes, releasing submunitions and mines from JP233 runway-denial weapons.22 The taxiways between the HAB groups and the runway were the attackers' aiming points.


Determining what effect, if any, the runway attacks actually had on the Iraqi air force is difficult. It is true that Iraqi combat sorties declined after hostilities commenced. The Iraqis quickly found that challenging coalition pilots was tantamount to suicide and essentially remained inactive throughout the remainder of the war. The runway attacks apparently complicated Iraqi air base operations, but there is little evidence to indicate they severely hampered sortie rates.23 The JP233 submunitions were quite small, creating quickly repairable scabs,24 and the redundant taxiway system provided ample alternatives to reach the runway.


During the war's first week, Tornado aircraft attacked daily to hinder Iraqi airfield operations. But proper delivery of the JP233 required the aircraft to fly low across the Iraqi airfields, allowing antiaircraft artillery and short-range shoulder-fired missiles to take a disastrous toll. In the war's opening phase, at least four Tornadoes were lost during ineffectual airfield attacks, and about 100 JP233s were expended.25


Mines--the second component of the JP233--along with cluster-bomb submunitions may have had a more significant impact on air base operations. Indeed, the constant reseeding of airfields by aerially dispensed mines and cluster-bomb submunitions may have eventually overwhelmed the capability of any Iraqi explosive ordnance disposal unit. A Russian account of the campaign describes the coalition's use of cluster bombs to cover terrain with a dense, lethal blanket that "trapped" personnel and equipment.26 When US Marine Corps forces attempted a night assault against Iraqi-occupied Kuwait International Airport, they reportedly were held up, not by fierce resistance, but by unexploded coalition cluster-bomb submunitions and mines.27 Photographs taken of captured Iraqi air bases show areas so thick with unexploded submunitions that they were virtually impassable.


Busting Bunkers


As Iraq's pilots learned they were no match for coalition pilots in the air, they decided upon a strategy of remaining within their fortified HABs. Saddam probably assumed that the bunkers would protect enough of his air force for it to be decisive against the inevitable coalition ground offensive.28 US Air Forces, Central Command (CENTAF) eventually decided that since Iraq's air force would not exit the HABs to fight, the shelters would have to be destroyed, one by one.


Air Force planners originally formulated a quick, massive offensive to destroy the 594 Iraqi HABs in just a few days.29 The bunkers would be destroyed in groups, preventing the Iraqis from playing a shell game or dispersing their aircraft. The actual operation, however, did not go as quickly. The target set was too large for the limited number of aircraft capable of delivering precision guided munitions. Poststrike BDA was too slow for the rapid combat tempo, resulting in some restrikes against targets that were already destroyed.30 Inclement weather also forced some missions to abort.


Night after night, F-111Fs dropped laser guided bombs on the Iraqi bunkers.31 According to Col Tom Lennon, commander of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, initial strike packages consisted of six aircraft, while later ATOs "would put up 20 to 24 aircraft against one airfield at one time."32 On the average, USAF aircraft destroyed 10-20 HABs per night.33 By the end of the war, about 375 HABs sheltering an estimated 141 aircraft had been destroyed.34


Despite the bunker-busting program's initial success, many of Iraq's most advanced aircraft remained unscathed in the "superbunkers" of Project-202 air bases. The first attack against a superbunker, on day seven of Desert Storm, failed to penetrate the target. To Iraqis, this failed attack must have affirmed the HAB's invulnerability to conventional weapons. The second attack, on day nine, penetrated the superbunker and pulverized its contents. Now faced with certain destruction if they remained in the HABs, the cream of Iraq's air force--including Mirage F-1s, Su-22s, MiG-29s, and Su-24s--began their hasty escape to Iran the next morning.35 The total number of advanced aircraft flown to Iran by the end of the war was 137.36 According to news reports, on the same day the exodus began, Iraq's air and air defense force commanders were executed.37


Once its best bunkers were penetrated, Iraq dispersed its remaining aircraft in small groups, parking them near mosques, in villages, and close to priceless archeological treasures.38 Attacking these aircraft without killing innocent civilians would have been impossible. Other aircraft that were spread throughout the countryside could be repositioned faster than US Central Command could respond to information about their position.39 Nevertheless, this dispersal assured the Iraqi air force's defeat since it could not conduct combat operations from the dispersal sites. Dispersal did, however, allow the aircraft to survive the war.


Other Major Air Base Targets


The coalition also attacked other elements crucial to air base operations at the same time it attacked runways and bunkers. These strikes were not designed to kill aircraft maintenance workers, logisticians, civil engineers, and other air base support personnel. Instead, crucial air base support components--especially aircraft maintenance and logistics facilities--were attacked, severely degrading Iraq's long-term sortie sustainability. By the end of the war, at least 50 percent of Iraq's aircraft maintenance facilities were destroyed. Although coalition warplanes generally ignored airfield support vehicles, which are critical to nearly all aircraft maintenance and support functions, many of these vehicles that were parked in HABs were destroyed during the shelter attacks.

Postwar Assessments


Trying to second-guess Desert Storm planners has become a major US pastime. Certainly, air base attacks were the primary means by which the coalition defeated the enemy air force. Nevertheless, we should take note of the following miscalculations that occurred in planning and executing air base attacks:


* The initial runway attacks were ill considered because Iraqi airfields were specifically designed to withstand and operate under the type of attack mounted by the Tornadoes. As a result of the efficiency and responsiveness of Iraqi airfield-repair teams, damage caused by the JP233 submunition was inconsequential. Furthermore, the JP233 delivery profile forced Tornadoes to fly into the face of massive antiaircraft artillery. The fact that many of Iraq's frontline fighters were able to escape to Iran clearly indicates that many runways remained accessible and useable, despite the coalition's best efforts.

* The bunker-busting program effectively ended the threat from Iraq's aircraft by forcing them to flee and disperse. However, had the coalition used more resources to attack the right bunkers earlier, Iraq's best aircraft may not have escaped to become a formidable component of revolutionary Iran's air force.


These issues, however, are actually symptoms of a far larger and more troublesome problem: prior to the war, the USAF lacked--and still lacks--an organization responsible for the study of foreign air base operations and weaknesses. Although the USAF expends considerable effort to understand and counter enemy aerial tactics, it remains amazingly indifferent to studying a potential adversary's air bases, where enemy aircraft spend the majority of their time.40 Consequently, before 2 August 1990, CENTAF had little information on Iraqi air base design, support units, manning, runway-repair capabilities, and unique vulnerabilities. By Desert Storm's D day, the coalition had gathered sufficient information to formulate tactics customized to Iraq's air bases. Nevertheless, time constraints and uncertainty over the effect of various tactics may have pushed some coalition tacticians to resort to ill-suited and nearly stereotypical solutions, such as runway attacks. As a result, despite total air supremacy and over 3,000 dedicated air base attack sorties, coalition air forces defeated but did not eliminate their foe.41


Securing victory in future conflicts is likely to require a detailed understanding of the adversary's air base operations and weaknesses. Air bases around the world have undergone dramatic, even revolutionary, changes in the decades since the Six-Day War. Had Iraq's air force been more aggressive or its air defense system more effective, the coalition's air campaign may not have succeeded so overwhelmingly. And the more that air forces worldwide study Operation Desert Storm, the less likely it is that the kinds of mistakes made by Iraq will occur again.42


The coalition air force exercised initiative, used the element of surprise, and enjoyed the advantage of overwhelming numbers, technical superiority, and over five months to prepare for conflict. Future USAF budget constraints, the proliferation of advanced weapons worldwide, and an increasingly volatile world make such advantages unlikely in the future. In future conflicts, successful anti-air base operations may mean the difference between victory and defeat. A USAF center to study and exploit weaknesses in the air bases of potential adversaries could ensure that Desert Storm's mistakes are not repeated against a more formidable foe.




1. V. K. Babich, Aviation in Local Wars (Moscow: Voyenizdat Publishing House, 1988), in Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) Report--Soviet Union, JPRS-UMA-89-010-L, 2 October 1990, 51.


2. Ibid., 50.


3. Ibid., 52.


4. Fred Vandenbussche, "Belgians Helped Build Eight Air Bases during Gulf War; Iraqi Air Force Tough Nut to Crack," Het Volk, 27-28 October 1990, 2, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service cable, 4 November 1990.


5. Finaly Marshall, "Giant Bases Protect Iraqi Air Force," Nexis Information Services (press association news file), 25 January 1991.


6. Lee Dye and Mark Fineman, "Decade of Digging Aids Iraq; Hussein Imported State-of-the-Art Bunker Building Techniques," Los Angeles Times, 26 January 1991, 1.


7. Lee Hancock, "Saddam Has Long Readied for the Worst, Experts Say," Dallas Morning News, 30 January 1991; Dye and Fineman, 1.


8. "Iraq's Superbase Programme," Jane's Defence Weekly, 2 February 1991, 133.


9. Lt Col Sergey Ivanovich Bezlyudnyy, "I Taught Saddam's Aces to Fly," Komosomolskaya Pravda, 23 February 1991, 3, in JPRS Report--Soviet Union, JPRS-UMA-91-014, 5 June 1991, 62-63.


10. Ibid., 62.


11. Christopher M. Centner, briefing to the US Air Staff, subject: Iraqi Air Base Hardening Program, 26 December 1990.


12. Norman Friedman, Desert Victory (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 169-70. The Foreign Technology Division is now the Foreign Aerospace Science and Technology Center.


13. Additionally, many planners selected tactics that were appropriate for the traditional European theater but ineffective in the new environment.


14. Author's observation. The lack of a centralized air base analysis center also hindered organizations trying to support US Central Command from afar in determining what information was lacking.


15. Friedman, 180-83.


16. Frank Chadwick and Matt Caffrey, Gulf War Fact Book (Bloomington, Ill.: GDW, Inc., 1991), 100.


17. Friedman, 158.


18. Some command centers were so deeply buried that they required specialized munitions. On the war's final dawn, a specialized penetrator, the GBU-28, destroyed Iraq's most hardened command facility. In the span of a few months, the Air Force Systems Command had constructed the 5,000-pound weapon from scrap artillery barrels. "It went through more than 20 feet of reinforced concrete like butter," stated Maj Dick Wright, the GBU-28's program manager. "We're now designing for the next generation of hard targets and delivery platforms. This is all the more important, because everyone now knows we can defeat the current technology of hardened, buried facilities." Capt Leah M. Bryant, "Big Bomb Digs Deep," Leading Edge 33, no. 6 (June 1991): 18-20.


19. Airfields in the Middle East frequently have runways well over 13,000 feet long. Qatar's Doha International Airport maintains a runway 15,000 feet long (The Air Traveler's Handbook [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988], 16). Sizzling summer temperatures reduce aircraft lift and thrust, necessitating long takeoff and landing rolls. In Iraq's case, long runways on military bases allowed airfields to handle transport and commercial aircraft in emergencies.


20. Dye and Fineman, 1.


21. R. Jeffery Smith, "Iraqi Engineers Quickly Repair Some Airfields," Washington Post, 27 January 1991, A-11.


22. "Industry Update," Defense & Diplomacy 9, nos. 5-6 (May-June 1991): 4-6.


23. Although not stated publicly, the JP233 attacks were probably intended to hinder operations at air bases for at least a day. Instead, runways were reportedly repaired in as little as four to six hours. "Air Attack Short of Goal; Husssein's Force Intact, Defense Aides Say Privately," Newsday, 24 January 1991, 5.


24. Any runway damage will slow aircraft operations, simply because it takes time to determine the location and extent of the damage. Thus, if an attacker is trying to temporarily pin down the enemy's aircraft, runway attacks are appropriate.


Modern airfield-attack weapons used by Western forces are typically composed of submunitions delivered across operating surfaces, thus ensuring damage in a single pass. The trade-off for "assured damage," however, is that one delivers small amounts of explosive across a large area. The weapons' designers arrive at the submunitions' explosive requirements by determining the minimum amount of explosive necessary to upheave a "typical target" pavement. Runways, however, are unique. They may rest upon soil that ranges from rock-hard permafrost to impact-absorbing sand. Subbases under the operating surface may range from only several inches of sand to several feet of lean concrete. The operating surface may be built of asphalt, reinforced concrete, or unreinforced concrete. Furthermore, changes in operating requirements and simple wear and tear may mandate runway renovations with overlays, extensions, and reinforcements (G. I. Glushkov, Airport Engineering [Moscow: Mir Publishers, 1988], 305-406). Thus, the submunition is unlikely to encounter anything approximating the pure surface for which it was optimized. The damage produced by submunitions can vary from craters to easily repairable scabs or spalls. In contrast, a large precision guided unitary bomb can ensure massive damage at critical junctures on nearly any surface.


25. "Air War Doctrine Affirmed," Jane's Defence Weekly, 4 May 1991, 738.


26. D. Velikiy and B. Ivanov, "Bombs of a New Generation against the Iraqis," Izvestiya, 13 February 1991, 3, in JPRS Report--Soviet Union, JPRS-UMA-91-008, 18 March 1991, 11.


27. Jeffrey M. Lenorovitz, "Allies Fly Defensive Missions After Air War Smashes Iraq," Jane's Defence Weekly, 11 March 1991, 18-19.


28. Robert Green, "U.S. Puzzled--But Says It Unfazed--by Iraqi Tactics," Reuter Library Report, 23 January 1991.


29. Friedman, 400.


30. Further, assessors and planners were discussing different issues. Some BDA reports listed aircraft bunkers as having "minor" damage because the assessor was reporting damage to the bunker's structural integrity. The planner, however, was more concerned about the aircraft in the bunkers.


31. Some unoccupied dispersal bases were also attacked by B-52s. F-15s, F-16s, and even A-10s were used against various airfield targets.


32. Alfred Price, "Deadly Darkness," Flight International, 10-16 July 1991, 34.


33. "USAF Developed 4,700-lb Bomb in Crash Program to Attack Iraqi Military Leaders in Hardened Bunkers," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 6 May 1991, 67.


34. Friedman, 400.


35. "After the Storm," 738; Operation Desert Storm Update, on "NBC Nightly News," 28 January 1991; and "Interview with Gen Thomas Kelly," Defense Dialog, 29 January 1991, 2.


36. Briefing, US Central Command, subject: Operation Desert Storm Update, 4 March 1991.


37. "Soviets Say Saddam Had Air Chief Killed," USA Today, international edition, 26 January 1991, 3A.


38. "Gulf Peace Plan Weighed As Gulf Ground War Looms," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 25 February 1991, 22.


39. Friedman, 161.


40. Some Air Force personnel have the attitude that air base attacks are irrelevant to ultimate victory. At an airfield-attack munitions conference several years ago, when I was explaining the difficulties in cutting runways, a member of the conference interjected, "That's OK; give me enough AMRAAMs [advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles] and I'll take 'em all out." Despite total coalition air supremacy, Iraqi aircraft were still able to escape into Iranian airspace. It is doubtful that AMRAAMs would have made much difference.


41. This number does not include airfield attacks designed to destroy stockpiles of chemical/biological weapons and delivery systems or attacks against certain HABs and other air base facilities believed to store ballistic missiles.


42. Other air forces facing the possibility of going up against an air campaign like the one waged in Desert Storm are already revising their air defense and air base operability requirements. As stated by Air Commodore Jamal Hussain in Pakistan's Defence Journal, no. 8 (1991): 38-39,


We must be able to bear the brunt of the first assault, absorb losses while inflicting heavy attrition on the attackers. We must be able to bounce back quickly and make the enemy pay heavily in terms of aircraft and pilots [sic] losses. From then on, our air strategy should become more offensive. Excellence in air combat, good ECM [electronic countermeasures] capability, enhanced active and passive air defence and efficient RRR [rapid runway repair] capability are areas which PAF [Pakistani Air Force] would need to constantly work at to absorb enemy offensives and retaliate strongly.




Christopher M. Centner (BFA, Maryland Institute College of Art; MS, Defense Intelligence College) is an arms control negotiations adviser with the Department of Defense. He has also served as chief of the Combined Arms Branch and as a tactical threat analyst with the Air Force Intelligence Support Agency, Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Mr Centner was one of a select group of analysts who provided daily intelligence briefings to the Air Force chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force during Operation Desert Storm.


Published Airpower Journal - Winter 1992

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Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing it, Jan.

I agree whole heartedly. Enjoyed the read during lunch today. Brad, the passages about the RAF airfield interdiction raids reminded me of our H4 discussion a year or so ago.

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Mines--the second component of the JP233--along with cluster-bomb submunitions may have had a more significant impact on air base operations. Indeed, the constant reseeding of airfields by aerially dispensed mines and cluster-bomb submunitions may have eventually overwhelmed the capability of any Iraqi explosive ordnance disposal unit. A Russian account of the campaign describes the coalition's use of cluster bombs to cover terrain with a dense, lethal blanket that "trapped" personnel and equipment.26 When US Marine Corps forces attempted a night assault against Iraqi-occupied Kuwait International Airport, they reportedly were held up, not by fierce resistance, but by unexploded coalition cluster-bomb submunitions and mines.27 Photographs taken of captured Iraqi air bases show areas so thick with unexploded submunitions that they were virtually impassable.


A high rate of failure among the cluster submunitions seems to have inadvertently served the coalition well. If they had performed well - i.e. exploded - then its possible they may have had less overall effect, much like the submunition component of the JP233 weapon system. I wonder what might have happened if the Soviets were able to deliver cluster bombs against NATO airfields in Central Europe, and their submunitions had an even higher "failure" rate ?

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(...)I wonder what might have happened if the Soviets were able to deliver cluster bombs against NATO airfields in Central Europe, and their submunitions had an even higher "failure" rate ?


i'm wondering what is the part of truth in the soviet "high failure rate" myth? Like their western counterpart, the soviet forces prepositioned in eastern Europe maintained an high readiness state.


That myth is even more easily accepted due to the fate of the soviet union but isn't the History is full of example of efficient military tools that have defeated by their own political authorities?





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i'm wondering what is the part of truth in the soviet "high failure rate" myth? Like their western counterpart, the soviet forces prepositioned in eastern Europe maintained an high readiness state.


I was referring to the submunition failure rate. It varies between about 1% and 23% for Western manufactured submunitions, and although there isn't much publicly available information, I don't think its a stretch to guesstimate that the Soviet submunition failure rate would be at least that high, and possibly higher.


Ask the Afghans and Chechens about the prevalence of unexploded Soviet/Russian manufactured submunitions.


My point is, that even if there was a high failure rate among Soviet submunitions sprinkled over NATO airfields, the end effect would have been the same or perhaps appreciably worse than if the submunitions had actually exploded. That end result being the virtual shutdown of the NATO airfield until the unexploded ordnance (UXO) was cleared.

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From my experience CBU-type ordnance is equally effective, provided it is on target, whether it explodes and does the intended damage or become UXO and thus needs to be cleared as such.


There is also the legacy effect of UXO's. Depending on the surface and angle that exposive rounds may impact on, all sorts of ordance becomes in effect an area denial weapon, with potentially catastrophic results. As I may have mentioned here before, in immediately post-hostilities Kuwait, I lost a HMMWV to american UXO bomblets lying on the sand. Didn't destroy it, but was an effective "mission kill". I also was present at a fam-fire over there when a Light Anti-tank Weapon (LAW) bounced off the sand and then to add fuel to the fire, the braniacs decided to fire some 40mm Mk-19 rounds at it in order to trigger a sympathetic explosion, when all it accomplished was shutting the range down and calling in EOD. :D

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From my experience CBU-type ordnance is equally effective, provided it is on target, whether it explodes and does the intended damage or become UXO and thus needs to be cleared as such.


Yup. And I further wonder if Soviet airfields might have been less sensitive to the UXO threat (real or perceived) than their NATO counterparts ?


I think maybe Jan was interpreting my earlier post as an opinion that Soviet equipment in general was sub-standard, but as discussed with him on IRC, thats not my opinion at all.


Overall, the rate of failure among cluster bomb submunitions seems to have been fairly high, regardless of origin of manufacture, and there's no reason to expect that Soviet submunitions would have performed any better. And, given the apparently high rate of UXO in Soviet/Russian battlefields like Afghanistan and Chechnya, it might (repeat might) have been worse. If anyone has numbers on Soviet submunition failure rates, I'd like to hear about it.

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While it is true Russian/Soviet Union had quality "joys" most of those quality problems were infact DESIGNED defects for export grade weapons.


Something that we mostly western world people are just finding out about now.


For example. The AA-10 Alamo (R-27R) was made in 2 versions R-27R and R-27R1. The R-27R1 was the export version. The Difference? Motor was the same (in theory) missile control systems were identical (again in theory) but the seeker was obviously DIFFERENT. Infact it was the same seeker as the old AA-7A Apex R-23 missile (the AA-7C Apex R-24 missile shares its seeker with the R-27R.)


To the theory portion of my above statement. I have 4 sources stating that Soviet export practice was to ship the components with the worst tollarences to it's non Warsaw Pact countries.


As a further example there were THREE versions of the MiG-29 Fulcrum A.

Izdeliye 9.12 Soviet/Russian use

Izdeliye 9.12A Warsaw Pact use (MOSTLY identical to 9.12 except for things like nuclear capability etc)

Izdeliye 9.12B Countries like Syria, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, India just to name a few. Radar does not have as many ECCM modes, Lack Radar Identification Friend or Foe (all but requiring proper Ground based control have Poitive ID on Bogeys before launching intercepts)


No Western power to date has actualy flown Combat vs Russian/Soviet standard equipment. Well atleast not since 1958-70ish!


The only "Russian/Soviet" issue aircraft to go into combat against a western airfroce is the orgional Su-17 (since 1958). A small batch of early production Su-17s were striped of their Nuclear equipment and given to Egypt. They were used against Isreal. This was before the Export Su-20/22 was put into production for export swing wing fighter bombers.



Craig P

Sources include:

Articles on the web about "invasion of Hungary" circa 1956,

Several issues of World Air Power Journal/International Air Power Review

Famous Russian Aircraft Mikoyan MiG-31

Famous Russian Aircraft Mikoyan MiG-29

Several books in Aerofax series including the Su-7/17/20/22 family.

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