WASHINGTON -- The Air Force basked in glory Friday, saying the enormity of air attacks against Iraq marked the 'first time in history that a field army has been defeated by air power.'
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill 'Tony' McPeak called the air war a 'remarkable success,' as he disclosed details of an operation that proceeded as planned, debilitating Saddam Hussein's offensive capability and cutting short a land war that could have caused thousands of casualties.
The Air Force chief, appearing at a Pentagon briefing, stopped short of discounting the need for allied ground forces in the theater. But his remarks suggested a diminished need for land troops.
Coalition air power was so superior to Iraq's strength that U.S.-led forces controlled the skies only hours after President Bush declared war on the gulf state, on Jan. 17, McPeak said.
He called the Persian Gulf deployment the 'equivalent of a Berlin airlift,' in which the military flew nearly half of all aircraft stationed in the United States to support Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
McPeak used dozens of charts that demonstrated coalition prowess, along with two television monitors that displayed video shots of so called 'smart bombs' hitting their targets with the precision of a needle threading a hair.
Air Force fighters and bombers accounted for 60 percent of U.S. aviation deployed to the gulf and 50 percent of all coalition planes. By the time the ground war commenced, there were 2,790 allied fixed wing aircraft in theater, nearly 2,000 of which were fighters.
'In my judgment it will be a generation before the Iraqi air force recovers to anything like it's previous strength,' McPeak said. McPeak detailed a plan involving four stages over 30 days in which allied air attacks would achieve their aim of rendering useless Iraq's military strength to force it from Kuwait.
The plan stretched to 39 days due to worse than expected weather in the gulf and the prolonged mission of destroying the fixed and mobile Scud missile sites used to launch the missiles against Israel and Saudi Arabia.
'We spent three times the effort we thought we would on this job' of eliminating the Scud threat, McPeak said.
The opening attack centered on eliminating Iraq's offensive capability and command and control centers, or facilities used to direct the operation.
'It was a heavy attack, very precisely delivered and in my judgment the Iraqi Air Force never recovered from this opening attack,' McPeak said. 'We took the initiative at the beginning and we held it throughout the rest of the war period.'
Allied forces then suppressed Iraq's air defense system and spent 22 days picking over Iraq's heavily entrenched field army in Kuwait and southern Iraq.
All of these steps, McPeak believes, reduced the ground war to a 100- hour rout.
McPeak showed silent videos in which fleeing tanks were hunted down by allied jets and obliterated. Some Iraqi soldiers veered their T-72 tanks off main roads in a desperate attempt to survive. One video was so clear that it showed soldiers fleeing a tank, followed a few seconds later by explosive smoke created when a bomb hit the tank.
McPeak, clearly proud of the air assault, emphasized that the air war was a 'massive attack against strategic targets,' though he acknowledged that up to 10 percent of the 6,250 tons of precision bombs dropped may have missed their targets.
The 6,250 tons, launched over 43 days, amounted to 50 percent more tonnage than the United States used against Vietnam during the entire war with the Southeast Asian country.
In all, a staggering 88,500 tons of bombs were dropped during the Persian Gulf War.
'This is the first time in history that a field army has been defeated by air power,' he said.
McPeak denied charges that the allies may have ruthlessly pursued retreating Iraqi troops.
'If we do not exploit victory then the president should get himself some new generals,' McPeak said. 'Our war is to end the war very quickly. It's often a brutal thing.'
McPeak took a leaf from Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, citing the success of the operation as ample evidence that expensive stealth technology not only is fancy but works.
He said in the first minutes of the air campaign, F-117A stealth fighters alluded and wiped out Iraqi early warning radar systems, enabling F-15 interceptors to fly deep into enemy territory and take out Scud and other sites.
The Pentagon is struggling to convince Congress to fund the next generation B-2 stealth bomber that it claims can reach any part of the Earth on one refueling.
McPeak said it would 'make a tremendous difference when it is fielded,' though he did not explain how it would have been more useful than the F-117A.