McNair Paper 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995

Institute for National Strategic Studies


McNair Paper Number 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995

Lessons of the Gulf War

At the inception of the Coalition air war against Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf War, removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait was the primary motive for the Allied campaign. Such a campaign was not launched purely to prevent an Iraqi atomic bomb. However, the Coalition was acutely aware of the potential danger of Iraqi WMD. Therefore, as part of a much wider effort to defeat the Iraqi forces, there was also a very concerted effort to destroy Iraq's WMD in order to protect allied troops and territory, as well as to remove a future threat to the stability and peace of the region.

This was the first time that anyone had deliberately attacked a nuclear reactor while it was in operation. (Note 55) One of the principal lessons to be learned from the 1990-91 War is that successful attacks against WMD sites and forces can be very difficult to execute short of all-out ground combat and occupation of the rival's homeland. Air power needs to be augmented by ground power. According to the U.S. Gulf War Air Power Survey (GWAPS):

The Iraqi nuclear program was massive, for most practical purposes fiscally unconstrained, closer to fielding a weapon, and less vulnerable to destruction by precision bombing than Coalition air commanders and planners or U.S. intelligence specialists realized before Desert Storm. The target list on 16 January 1991 contained two nuclear targets, but after the war, inspectors operating under the United Nations Special Commission eventually uncovered more than twenty sites involved in the Iraqi nuclear weapons program; sixteen of the sites were described as "main facilities." (Note 56)

After the war, it was concluded that "the air campaign no more than inconvenienced Iraqi plans to field atomic weapons." (Note 57) The GWAPS study states that "We now know that the Iraqis' program to amass enough enriched uranium to begin producing atomic bombs was more extensive, more redundant, further along, and considerably less vulnerable to air attack than was realized at the outset of Desert Storm." (Note 58)

In total, the Coalition mounted approximately 970 air strikes against NBC targets. (Note 59) Despite this, post-war surveys showed no evidence that Iraqi biological weapons were either destroyed or even found to exist. (Note 60) Further, the U.N. Special Commission teams uncovered some 150,000 chemical munitions that were untouched by the bombings. (Note 61) Finally, as stated, only two of twenty nuclear sites were even identified and targeted during the war. (Note 62)

Unfortunately, there also was no great allied success in destroying Iraqi Scuds during Desert Storm. As GWAPS states, "Over the 43 days of Desert Storm, roughly 1,500 strikes were carried out against targets associated with Iraqi ballistic missile capabilities." (Note 63)

Despite this, GWAPS also concludes that:

"The actual destruction of any Iraqi mobile launchers by fixed-wing Coalition aircraft remains impossible to confirm. Coalition air crews reported destroying about eighty mobile launchers, another score or so were claimed by special operations forces. Most of these reports undoubtedly stemmed from attacks that did destroy objects found in the Scud launch areas. But most, if not all, of the objects involved now appear to have been decoys, vehicles such as tanker trucks that had infrared and radar signatures impossible to distinguish from those of mobile launchers and their associated support vehicles, and other objects unfortunate enough to provide 'Scud-like' signatures." (Note 64)

Nor was the Coalition any more successful in finding Scuds in the countryside. Background clutter hid Scud locations. Indeed, official conclusions now are that "few mobile Scud launchers were actually destroyed by Coalition aircraft or special forces during the war." (Note 65) GWAPS concluded that "there is no indisputable proof that Scud mobile launchers-as opposed to high-fidelity decoys, trucks, or other objects with Scud-like signatures-were destroyed by fixed-wing aircraft. Luckily, the Iraqi Scuds were inaccurate and carried only conventional ordnance in the 1990-91 Gulf War.

The lack of success of the air campaign against NBC/Scud assets should not be laid at the feet of the U.S. Air Force. Rather, this was a U.S. intelligence failure, since information about NBC/Scud target locations was very incomplete.

What this Gulf War experience demonstrates, however, is that carrying out a counter-proliferation attack can be difficult in the extreme. Intelligence may not be able to locate WMD due to enemy countermeasures (i.e., constant relocation, mobility and decoys) thwarting even determined attacks on such assets. The 1981 Osirak example may be misleading because that target was a fixed and fragile installation whose continued operation was absolutely key to the rapid development of Iraqi nuclear weapons at the time. By 1991, Iraq's NBC and missile assets were hidden and dispersed, and far less vulnerable to air attacks. Saddam Hussein had learned a lesson from the destruction of his Osirak reactor a decade earlier. (Note 66)

After Israel's 1981 bombing of the Osirak reactor destroyed Iraq's fast-track plutonium path to nuclear weapons, Saddam Hussein chose to develop several less vulnerable alternative paths to the bomb using highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium. Besides using gas centrifuge techniques, Iraq adopted another older, less efficient technology, since discarded by the United States, to produce this enriched uranium, calutron electromagnetic separation. (Note 67)

Western intelligence missed this Iraqi calutron effort entirely, focusing mistakenly only upon gas centrifuge technology which was more advanced and more widely adopted elsewhere. (Note 68) This was a case of cultural bias, assuming that the Iraqi leader would opt for the efficient, state-of-the-art technology that so appeals to Americans.

When there are several ways to develop a nuclear weapon, or any other WMD, a Third World leader may opt for a very different path to the same end. U.S. intelligence should be guided by how persons from that culture might think rather than how the United States would attack the problem. For example, there are several ways to make an A-bomb, and such weapons need not be the most advanced, clean, and miniaturized versions that the United States designs.

Presidents contemplating a PCP action should realize that they may not know the entire scope of the enemy NBC or ballistic missile capabilities. Unfortunately, if an attack misses even a few such enemy weapons, they could cause tens of thousands of American casualties in retaliatory strikes. Even the relatively complete destruction and occupation of a country might not arrest its NBC and ballistic missile program entirely. Indeed, as former CIA Director Robert Gates has testified, once Iraq is left free to operate independently, he predicted that it will take no more than two years to return to the nuclear technology level it had achieved at the inception of the Gulf War. (Note 69)

Looking back, experts now believe that "If Iraq had not invaded Kuwait in 1990, ... it would still have needed three to four years to produce its first nuclear weapon." (Note 70) Thus, if the United Nations leaves Iraq, the Hussein regime may be able to build its first nuclear weapon about five to six years later.

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