Maneuver Warfare from the Air Domain (Part II)

Excerpt: Maneuver from the air domain enabled the ground campaign’s rapid advance during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Approximate reading time: 20 minutes

By Keith Anderson

Editor’s Note: Today we present part 2 of a two-part series. In Part 1, published on Monday, Keith presented three methods in which the air domain’s effects can be employed as a maneuver force rather than the traditional attritional force. In this article, Keith Anderson discusses the successes of air maneuver during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He advocates that maneuver from the air domain enabled the ground campaign’s rapid advance to Baghdad.

Operation Iraqi Freedom

On March 20, 2003, US Army and Marine Corps forces crossed the Kuwaiti border and began their drive toward Baghdad, kicking off Operation Iraqi Freedom. Although the original intent was concurrent ground and air assaults, a failed regime decapitation attempt had forced General Tommy Franks to move the ground invasion up by thirty-six hours. This pushed the ground advance ahead of planned air operations but was necessary in order to prevent the Iraqis from setting fire to southeastern oil fields. The decisive phase of the campaign lasted just under three weeks, leading some to contend that the often-cited moniker, “shock and awe,” referred not to the size of the force, nor the scope of its effects, but rather to the speed of its advance. Indeed some of the “most memorable images of Operation Iraqi Freedom are of American armored columns roaring along highways…” This article examines air operations immediately before and during Operation Iraqi Freedom with the goal of highlighting instances of maneuver from the air. Combat operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom were truly a joint endeavor and as such, the speed of the ground force advance was indeed remarkable, but enabled by the other warfare domains. General David McKiernan, the Combined Forces Land Component Commander, was in large part able to keep a high tempo of advance, because he knew air power covered his flanks. More than just covering the flanks however, I argue that the ground force was able to accomplish its rapid advance largely because of maneuver from the air domain.


Although linked with the US Global War on Terror, the final straw justifying the invasion in 2003, was Saddam Hussein’s repeated violation of United Nations Resolution 1441, which called for unimpeded access of weapons inspectors to verify Iraq’s disarmament after the first Gulf War. The roots of the conflict, however, go back to the termination of Operation Desert Storm, and Hussein’s ability to not only hold onto power, but also a large portion of his most capable military forces.

On March 3, 1991, Iraq signed the cease-fire agreement that ended Operation Desert Storm. But, in terms of US military objectives, the campaign was not necessarily a complete success. The goals of the operation set forth by President George H.W. Bush in August of 1990 included “security and stability of the Persian Gulf” which was later translated by General Colin Powell to mean the destruction of the Iraqi Republican Guard. As coalition forces moved into Kuwait, retreating Republican Guard forces sustained heavy casualties from the air, prompting negative responses from the media about the so-called “highway of death.” Not wanting to “screw this up with a sloppy, muddled ending” and with the advice of General Powell, President Bush ordered the cease-fire, allowing half of the Republican Guard forces to escape.

Saddam Hussein’s continued power in Iraq was not a failure in and of itself, as his ouster was never the objective of the operation, but his retention of a large portion of his best military forces did have important implications. Saddam used the survival of the Republican Guard as evidence in his narrative that Iraq had won the war simply because it had not lost. Emboldened by his ability to hold onto power against the coalition, and still in possession of his best troops, Hussein was in a position to consolidate his power through campaigns against both the Kurdish and Shiite populations. Hussein’s actions prompted the United States to establish no-fly zones in both northern and southern Iraq. Ultimately, failure to destroy the Republican Guard at the end of the first Gulf War led to Air Force assets in theater under the auspices of Operations Northern and Southern Watch which would be a crucial factor leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The other important factor emerging from Desert Storm was an increasing focus on airborne ground surveillance and precision guided munitions. Over the course of the war, GPS capability proved indispensable, as did the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Acquisition Radar System (JSTARS). The Air Force even pushed the latter into action five years ahead of schedule in order to make use of its ability to locate moving targets on the ground. The other important development was the laser guided precision munitions that made up about nine percent of the total munitions dropped during the war. These weapons proved highly accurate but were of limited use in poor weather. The result was an effort spurred by the Air Force Chief of Staff after the war to develop GPS guided munitions that are effective in all conditions. In the years after Desert Storm, the Air Force continued to develop all three of these technologies, and they proved crucial to combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Planning and Execution

On September 17, 2001, President George W. Bush signed an order to begin planning military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This was a challenge for planners from the outset as the last update to the Iraq plan occurred in 1998; the plan did not take into account developments in precision munitions and it called for deployment of about 500,000 troops. This was at odds with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of a smaller, more lethal force, and the plan would go through two-dozen revisions before settling on 250,000 coalition personnel, of which only 50,000 to 60,000 were Army and Marine Corps combat troops. The significantly reduced troop numbers for Iraqi Freedom thus made it truly a case in which the United States needed to “fight outnumbered and win.”

The final plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom had six objectives: drive out the regime; identify, isolate and eliminate weapons of mass destruction; drive out terrorists; secure oil fields; deliver humanitarian aid; and help Iraqis rebuild their country. The overall ground scheme of maneuver focused on speed – V Corps and the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) were to move north from Kuwait, bypassing any cities in their path toward Baghdad, using air power and long range indirect fires to neutralize Iraqi forces before they could engage head on. For the air component, General T. Michael Mosely’s plan focused on seven priorities: strategic attack against Iraqi leadership and command and control, air superiority, countering theater ballistic missiles, counter land operations, support to special forces, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), and lastly, counter sea operations.

One of the key contributions of air power during Operation Iraqi Freedom actually occurred before “official” combat operations began, through Operation Southern Focus. During a briefing on February 7, 2002, Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks asked what the Air Force could do under the auspices of Operation Southern Watch to draw down the Iraqi air defense system before ground operations began. This was crucial, as land based surface-to-air missile systems were Iraq’s only potential counter to coalition air power. The question was important because General Mosely’s initial assessment was that any operation would require a ten to fourteen day preparatory air campaign to simultaneously take down Iraqi southern air defenses and the so-called “Super-MEZ” of air defenses around Baghdad.

Under Operation Southern Watch, strikes on Iraqi air defenses had been retaliatory in nature, but this changed on June 1, 2002 with the approval of Operation Southern Focus, which was billed as a way to conduct intensified operations in response to supposed “more numerous and more threatening attacks.” Iraq had coincidentally launched more than 100 missiles against US aircraft and penetrated the no-fly zone multiple times throughout 2001, only served as additional evidence to justify Operation Southern Focus. The operation reached full swing in the last three months of 2002, when aircraft struck as many targets as during the entire previous year. There was an additional threefold increase in strikes in the first three months of 2003, before the start of ground operations in March. The end result of Southern Focus as stated by General John Jumper was that “we felt that [Iraq’s air defenses] were pretty much out of business.”

Combat air and ground operations on D-day were supposed to be concurrent, but this changed on March 19, when the CIA reported that Saddam Hussein and his sons would be at a known location on March 20. This gave General Franks an opportunity to decapitate the regime, but also presented significant challenges. Planners knew the strike would give the invasion away and assumed the Iraqis would rush to set fire to the country’s southeastern oil fields. This meant the ground forces not only needed to begin their advance ahead of schedule, but that they would have to do so before the planned aerial bombardment. The change of plans generated a high level of concern, with some arguing that advancing the ground force before preparatory air attacks was not only against doctrine, but also put the troops in danger due to lack of direct support. Despite these concerns, even though the decapitation event failed, ground forces were able to advance ahead of schedule successfully in large part because Southern Focus had already established air superiority over southern Iraq, and therefore, air assets were available immediately.

As V Corps and I MEF began their advance, the air component focused on undermining or eliminating Iraqi resistance, in order to allow General McKiernan to maneuver without need to pause in response to the enemy. Of the 24,196 US sorties flown, 79 percent supported counter land operations with interdiction or close air support. Rather than the tactical attrition of Desert Storm, US aircraft now used GPS precision-guided munitions to paralyze and disrupt the enemy, enabling the ground force to cover approximately 350 miles in a little less than three weeks. Air power covered the flanks of the ground force, protected its lines of communication, and prevented time-consuming engagements with Iraqi forces by interdicting them before they could make contact. Overall, the speed of the advance was due in large part to the fact that the Iraqis were never able to mass a big enough force to slow the American troops, and it was principally the air technologies developed in the years since Desert Storm that prevented them from doing so.

Although air assets provided counter land support in a variety of ways, the effort to keep the ground advance moving came down to a relatively straightforward process: “Anytime a [enemy] unit moved, it was acquired by the JSTARS, and its coordinates generated into GPS for targeting by precision guided munitions.” The ability of the JSTARS to detect enemy movement on the ground with its “moving target indicator” radar, coupled with GPS-guided munitions translated to successful air strikes in all weather. This capability was particularly significant beginning March 24 when a massive sandstorm swept across southern Iraq, trapping the 3rd Infantry Division on the enemy side of the Euphrates River, surrounded by Iraqi forces. Informed by real-time surveillance from JSTARS and RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, terminal air controllers embedded with the division called in hundreds of precision strikes through the storm and onto Iraqi positions. During the same period, Republican Guard forces attempted to move south from Baghdad and Karbala under the cover of the sandstorm, to engage the advancing troops. While the initial reports were difficult to confirm, once Republican Guard units started moving, Air Force sensors immediately acquired them, GPS fixed their positions, and attack aircraft engaged them with precision-guided munitions through the storm.

Overall, the major combat operations at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom were a success story not just for air power, but for joint integration as well. Air power was a major factor in the rapid advance of the Army and Marine Corps, but that advance itself contributed to the conditions that made the air strikes so effective. Based on lessons learned from Desert Storm, the defending Iraqi units had dispersed to allow their best chance at survival against air attacks. The ground assault however, forced them to consolidate to defend, making them more susceptible to attack from the air. The component commanders likewise embodied the joint mentality throughout the operation. General McKiernan relied on air power to mitigate the risks associated with a rapid advance launched ahead of schedule, and General Mosely made his commitment to the ground force known in stating, “I will make it my life’s work that the Iraqi air force will not fly.” These sentiments however did not stop some, like General Charles Horner, the Joint Force Air Component Commander from Desert Storm, from advocating a “new air-land dynamic” stating that “the primary maneuver force on the battlefield is the aircraft overhead.” In light of that claim, the last section of this article examines the air maneuver carried out during Operations Southern Focus and Iraqi Freedom.


Before Operations Southern Focus and Iraqi Freedom, Saddam Hussein’s military still possessed at least two major strengths. The first was its integrated air defense network, which was still one of world’s most dense, despite losses in the Gulf War. After Desert Storm, CENTCOM estimated that Iraq had retained about 210 surface-to-air missile launchers and 150 early warning radars; by the start of Southern Focus, some sources indicated the number of launchers had grown to almost 400. The other strength was the numerical superiority in personnel and equipment of the regular army and remaining Republican Guard divisions. At the start of the operation, Iraq possessed about 390,000 troops to the coalition’s 250,000 personnel, of which only 50,000 to 60,000 were American combat troops. In terms of equipment, the Republican Guard boasted an estimated 2,200 to 2,600 main battle tanks, compared to just 850 for the United States. Both of these strengths had to be dislocated to facilitate the seizure of Baghdad and in order to meet the primary objective of driving out Hussein’s regime.

During Southern Focus, the US Air Force employed functional dislocation to negate the strength of Iraq’s southern air defense network, through combined arms executed from the air domain. Three months prior, aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone had transitioned to an ISR focus, mapping the entire southern region and locating all the air defense components within it. Starting September 5, 2002, combined arms formations of suppression and attack aircraft initiated a string of attacks on every sector operations center south of the thirty-third parallel with GPS precision guided munitions, and targeted individual radars and missile launchers as well.

Execution followed a pattern very similar to the generic SEAD example presented in Part 1 of this article series – essentially, suppression capabilities provided access for attack aircraft. On the surface level, the immediate effect of Southern Focus was the destruction of over a third of the Iraqi launchers and radar sites, but of greater importance was the resulting localized air superiority. It enabled freedom of movement for all aircraft operating in southern Iraq, and more importantly, allowed an immediate shift in the weight of effort from counter-air to counter-land. It follows that the suppression operations of Southern Focus also facilitated freedom of movement for the ground force, because the ability for air power to focus immediately on counter-land operations significantly lowered the risk of an earlier than planned advance from Kuwait. Ultimately, the dislocation operations of Southern Focus were an example of maneuver because they enabled freedom of movement across both the air and land domains.

To functionally dislocate the numerical strength of the Iraqi ground forces, the US Air Force executed both combined arms from the air, and acted as part of a joint combined arms team. As the preceding discussion suggests, air power negated the strength in size of the Iraqi Army and Republican Guard because it ensured that the full weight of those forces were never able to engage American ground troops. Even during a massive sandstorm that would have otherwise rendered attack aircraft unable to find their targets, the complimentary capabilities of the JSTARS and GPS weapons identified Republican Guard units on the move and allowed the attackers to target them. Of even greater importance was the complimentary nature of the combined arms team of air and ground forces; air power prevented major engagements through interdiction and close air support, and the ground force advance compelled the dispersed Iraqis to consolidate their positions, rendering them more vulnerable to air attacks. The result of joint combined arms was once again, freedom of movement. Without a requirement to engage in pitched battles against Iraqi forces, General McKiernan was able to advance on Baghdad, pausing only when the sandstorm prohibited movement.

With regard to disruption, the fact that the CENTCOM commander was willing to risk a last-minute change to the timing of the entire operation to attempt a regime decapitation indicates that planners saw Saddam Hussein and his sons as the strategic center of gravity. Reflecting on the chess analogy, identifying with any certainty, the “king piece” whose capture ends the war is certainly a difficult task, but in this case, Saddam and his sons were likely critical. The Iraqi military was structured more to prevent a coup than to defend the country is evidence to the centrality of the Hussein regime, and the fact that Saddam arrayed his best Republican Guard troops around himself in Baghdad rather than engage them against the coalition adds weight to the argument. Thus, over the course of the operation, strategic attack missions targeted a number of nodes in the Iraqi system, but from a maneuver perspective, the single greatest attempt at disruption was the decapitation attempt that kicked off the conflict.

While ultimately unsuccessful, the attack was itself an example of combined arms from the air; the mission incorporated strike aircraft with precision guided weapons, stealth capable strategic attack assets, suppression assets, and electronic jamming platforms. From a tactical standpoint, the attack was a success in that it destroyed the intended target area, but the reports that Saddam and his sons were present proved incorrect. Intelligence is obviously not always correct, but the larger implication is that while not a combat arm, intelligence is a particularly important component of combined arms from the air. Aircraft may be able to collect imagery, signals, and electronic intelligence, but the ability to leverage human intelligence is a complimentary capability that can be crucial to disruption operations – particularly when the center of gravity is a specific person or group of people.

The last maneuver mechanism used during Operation Iraqi Freedom was overload. Proof that air power exceeded the capacities of the Iraqi military is in the actual resistance it put up, especially toward the end of major combat operations. For example, when the 3rd Infantry Division entered the presidential district of Baghdad on April 8, they were opposed only by harassing fire from paramilitary organizations. At that point, of the Republican Guard’s 850 tanks and 550 artillery pieces originally placed to defend the capital, only nineteen, and fifty remained, respectively. Those numbers of course, sound like attrition, but the weak resistance was not just due to outright destruction of troops and equipment. In fact, it was also because “many [Iraqi troops] fled to their homes, took off their uniforms and waited for the end.”

Confronted with overwhelming air power that their own air force and crippled air defenses could not counter, by April 8, the Iraqi ground forces had lost all coherence. Republican Guard troops were scattered, unable to organize or employ above the brigade level. The collapse however, was not simply a result of attacks against equipment and troop formations. After G-day, in addition to interdiction and close air support, the air component continued to target the remaining air defenses around Baghdad, Iraqi leadership, and command, control and communications infrastructure. The Iraqi troops faced extreme and violent change along multiple lines in parallel; they were under attack from the air themselves, they could not retreat under the protection of an air defense umbrella, and the national leadership was either in hiding, or unable to communicate with them for effective command and control. The result was an overwhelmed, overloaded force, unable to react or adapt. Faced with mounting pressure from the air, in the end, “much of the result was psychological as well as physical, in many cases the bombing of several vehicles was enough to convince Iraqi troops to give up the fight and go home.”

Operation Iraqi Freedom is a prime example of air power employed in a maneuver-centric way, as all of the physical and cognitive mechanisms of maneuver warfare theory were present. While ultimately unsuccessful, the decapitation attempt was an example of disruption, aimed at the center of gravity of Saddam Hussein and his sons. Through Southern Focus, the US Air Force used combined arms to functionally dislocate the strength of the Iraqi air defense system before major combat operations began. Combined arms with the ground force also served to dislocate the Iraqi army and the Republican Guard by preventing it from bringing its numerical strength to bear in a major engagement. Lastly, the weight of air attacks on multiple nodes of the Iraqi system served to overload the physical and mental capacity of its troops, shattering their cohesion. If the purpose of maneuver-centric warfare is to enable freedom of movement to a position of advantage, air power in Operation Iraqi Freedom was indeed a crucial maneuver element. Because of air operations, the ground force was able to advance at an unprecedented speed, unhindered by the necessity to protect its flanks, worry about its supply lines, or engage in any pitched battles during its race to Baghdad.


Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.


Keith Anderson is F-15E pilot by trade, currently serving as a Strategic War Planner at US Central Command. His primary focus area is planning the ongoing Operation Inherent Resolve campaign to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Anderson is a graduate of both Air Command and Staff College, and the School of Advanced Military Studies – the U.S. Army’s school for operational planners. His interest in maneuver, maneuver warfare, and its applications in the air domain began during his time in the Cross-Domain Operational Strategist (now MDOS) elective at ACSC, and carried through to form the basis for the SAMS monograph reproduced in part here.


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