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Armored vehicles — including this M1A1 Abrams tank that arrived just before sunset April 9 — were brought into Bashur airfield in northern Iraq.
Armored vehicles — including this M1A1 Abrams tank that arrived just before sunset April 9 — were brought into Bashur airfield in northern Iraq. (Kevin Dougherty / S&S)

In the best-covered war in history, sandstorms, suicide attacks and live images of American armored columns racing to Baghdad stole the spotlight.

But what TV viewers did not see was critical to victory in Iraq: a merciless pounding from the sky delivered by U.S. fighters and bombers.

Off-screen, the Air Force led a massive air campaign using precision-guided bombs that made it possible for troops and tanks on the ground to roll into the capital.

During the war, retired generals standing on huge floor maps in television studios remarked that air power was “softening” Iraq’s once-elite Republican Guard.

“I find it interesting when folks say we’re ‘softening them up,’” Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, coalition air component commander, told Pentagon reporters by telephone April 5 from his headquarters in Saudi Arabia. “We’re not ‘softening them up.’ We’re killing them.”

From the moment the first smart bomb hit its Iraqi target, the U.S.-led coalition dominated the air. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein never really had a formidable air force, certainly not one that could go head-to-head with the United States, but the fact that not one of his planes left the ground surprised some commanders.

The numbers show that the Air Force led the way, flying the most missions, dropping the most bombs and using the most aircraft in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Aerial strikes wiped out entire divisions of Iraqi soldiers or pummeled them to the point that they weren’t a factor by the time ground forces arrived.

One method of close-air support got its first true test in Iraq: the 24-hour, seven-day presence used during the battle for Baghdad.

The technique, which kicked off April 5, “racked and stacked” fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft flying in a “racetrack” pattern over Baghdad, ready to respond instantly to air-support requests from ground forces.

Aircraft in the lower layers peeled off and headed back to base once they dropped their bombs or ran low on gas, Moseley said. Aircraft positioned higher in the “stack” then dropped down to the “ready” layer, next in line for a combat mission.

Moseley said the aircraft included a mix of Navy, Marine and Air Force planes, including A-10s, F-15s, F-16s, F-14s and F/A-18s.

Other planes acted as forward air controllers, spotting targets and relaying their locations to the fighters.

They don’t know how many Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles they destroyed. They suspect hundreds. It could be in the thousands.

‘Shock and awe’

Planning for the air campaign began last summer.

Commanders mapped out a strategy for what was initially dubbed “1003V,” or what evolved into Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Turkey would be the linchpin, planners thought. Months before the war, the Air Force began negotiations with the Turks to base 20,000 troops and 300 aircraft in their country.

But a last-minute decision by the Turkish government to prohibit U.S. forces from using Turkey as a “northern front” forced the U.S. military to look at other options.

The 16th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force staff, headquartered primarily at Aviano Air Base, Italy, had the challenge of leading the logistics.

The Air Force was eventually left basing only about 4,500 airmen and 100 U.S. warplanes. The Air Force also relied on bases in Sigonella, Sicily, and the United Kingdom, flying B-52s from England.

Air Force F-117s began the first phase of the war by bombing an Iraqi bunker believed to be holding Saddam. The day before, coalition aircraft patrolling no-fly zones in north and south Iraq bombed dozens of Iraqi defense sites.

On the second day of the war, the coalition attempted to deliver a knockout punch with a bombing assault strike planners hoped would convince Iraqi leaders to surrender. They called it the “shock and awe” campaign.

It did not draw the mass surrenders planners had hoped, but the bombing continued. The Air Force flew an average of 300 strike sorties a day the first week.

The “real heroes”

To fly that many combat missions, pilots relied on Air Force tanker aircraft to keep their planes juiced.

Air Force strike planner Col. Mace Carpenter said one of the war’s “real heroes” were the air tankers that kept fighters and bombers fueled to penetrate deep into Iraq and drop ordnance.

Army units moved so fast that fighters were having problems going from Saudi Arabia, where the tankers were, to south of Baghdad to destroy the Iraqi forces. So commanders made the bold decision to move tankers over Iraq to make sure the fighters could fuel up.

Many of the lumbering tanker aircraft were fired at by both artillery and surface-to-air missiles. Carpenter said that commanders were willing to risk a tanker and its crew to get the fighters to Baghdad and protect the fast-moving ground forces.

Pilots flew vulnerable tanker aircraft with no radar-warning equipment, chaff or flairs to evade missiles.

“These guys were gutsy,” Carpenter said.

Commanders expected to lose at least one tanker, but none of them was hit.

In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the limiting factor for putting firepower on the battlefield was availability of tanker aircraft, Carpenter said.

“Same thing in this war,” he added.

Airlift proved critical

The Air Force’s airlift capability also proved to be crucial to moving troops, delivering bombs and supplying units on the ground with bullets and Meals, Ready to Eat.

C-5, C-17, C-130 and C-141 aircraft flew more than 18,500 sorties, delivering more than 100,000 tons of cargo and more than 260,000 passengers.

Maj. Bill Arthur, chief of the Air Mobility Operations Control Center, was the lead planner for airlift in and out of Ramstein Air Base, Germany, during the war. C-130s used the base as a launch point to deliver everything from bombs to newspapers.

C-17 drop

But the shining moment for Air Force cargo pilots came on March 27, when 15 C-17s dropped about 900 Army paratroops into Iraq.

In the north, when the option to stage combat operations from Turkey fell by the wayside, the U.S. military turned its focus to Bashur airfield in northern Iraq.

Military planners identified Bashur as a logical and relatively safe place to conduct air operations long before the first bomb was dropped on Baghdad, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Marra, commander of the 86th Air Mobility Squadron.

Located near the city of Harir and about 30 miles south of the Turkish border, the airfield is situated deep inside the Kurdish-run enclave established by the United States after the 1991 Gulf War.

In the early morning hours of March 27, about 900 paratroops and a score of Air Force personnel parachuted into the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq and secured the airfield.

In the first week, 84 airplanes flew in 6 million pounds of cargo and 3,000 troops, mostly from the 173rd Airborne Brigade out of Vicenza, Italy.

All of the planes during that period landed at night, with aerial porters and mechanics — Marra’s men and women — working in complete darkness with night-vision goggles.

“At the time,” Marra said, “we didn’t know the Iraqi air force had been beaten.”

A northern base

Marra’s squadron is one of two that make up the 86th Contingency Response Group, a rapid-deployment force based at Ramstein. The other unit is the 786th Security Forces Squadron, which brought in Air Force cops from Germany and England.

The group exists to establish airfield operations in austere conditions.

That involves putting a security force on the ground to protect people and equipment.

Senior Airman Bryan Holland is with the 100th Security Forces Squadron, RAF Mildenhall, England.

“We’re in Iraq,” Holland said at the time as he stood guard at the front gate.

“I’ve been in [the Air Force] for almost five years. I never thought I would be in Iraq. It’s crazy.”

So was the pace.

In the 25 days of airfield operations at Bashur, the unit handled more than 350 cargo flights and more than 21 million pounds of cargo, much of it at night. The busiest day was April 11, when 21 aircraft landed. But the 7,300-foot runway began to deteriorate from the cargo traffic.

The mission was shifting, too.

U.S. military officials decided to move the airlift mission from Bashur to Kirkuk, where the 173rd had relocated.

Air power dominant

The success of air power will — again — renew the debate over the importance of ground forces. Early in the war, critics suggested that the Pentagon did not put enough forces on the ground.

In the end, that didn’t turn out to be the case. On April 9, statues of Saddam began to fall.

The Air Force might not have been the media star like it was during the first Persian Gulf War, but it still delivered a powerful punch. And the successes likely will be used to support those who advocate a robust air power.

“When you start analyzing the war, taking a look at what happened, and what was destroyed and the impact and the effect,” Carpenter said, “air power is going to be stronger than ever.”

Lisa Burgess contributed to this report from the Pentagon. Kevin Dougherty contributed from Kirkuk, Iraq.

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