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Iraq’s air defense will be first hit

When the United States goes to war, it is Pentagon gospel that enemy air defenses be the first target. By NBC News military analyst William M. Arkin.
/ Source: contributor

When the United States goes to war, it is Pentagon gospel that enemy air defenses be the first target. Since the Korean War, no U.S. soldier has charged into battle without “air superiority.” The American style of warfare depends on accurate air attacks against enemy forces, and that hinges on first delivering as much freedom as possible to U.S. warplanes. When war begins, then, Baghdad’s network of early warning radars, air defense command centers, communications links, surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery sites will be among the first targets.

As the war opens, bombs designed to penetrate thick defenses will rain down on hardened bunkers while electronic jammers and possibly cyberwarfare experts seek to confuse Iraqi radars. U.S. anti-radiation missiles will home in on any Iraqi signals emitted, and Saddam Hussein’s array of surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites will be meticulously and individually targeted for destruction.

With the U.S. war plan focusing intensely on Saddam’s regime, destroying the defenses that protect his center of power is a key priority. The New York Times reported Monday that Iraq was beefing up its air defenses around Baghdad. Senior military commanders in the Persian Gulf were quoted as worrying about the strength of Iraqi defenses, which they characterized as even greater than 1991.

Iraq may well have beefed up its air defenses around the capital as war grew closer, but The Times story dramatically overstates the defense system’s potency. Iraq’s air defense system is an aging shadow of its former self, with barely half the launchers and missiles that it had in 1991. In fact, the system is probably weaker today than it has been at any time since 1991. Under the guise of protecting U.S. aircraft operating in the northern and southern no-fly zones, U.S. and British aircraft have been bombing the air defense network for a year now, picking apart important components. This process has accelerated in recent months and weeks.


Today, Iraq’s air defenses are thought to include some 12,000 operational air defense launchers, just over 50 percent of the 1991 total. There are about 1,200 long-range missiles, about 34 percent of the number at the beginning of Desert Storm. Iraq still possesses about 6,000 anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns of 23mm or larger and some 6,000 short-range and shoulder-fired SAMs. The greatest concentrations of radar-guided SAMs today, as in 1991, are in the outlying regions of the capital.

But numbers can still be deceiving. Iraqi systems, though numerous, are mostly from the Vietnam War era, are well understood by U.S. intelligence and are limited in capability. The SAMs with the greatest range, the ex-Soviet SA-2s and SA-3s, are at the end of their operational lifespan, between 30 and 40 years old. There is still no evidence that Iraq has made significant upgrades to its missile systems.

Since Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, moreover, the United States has destroyed about 30 percent of southern air defense capability and 15 percent of northern capability. Iraq has also been expending SAMs at the rate of about 140 to 160 annually in attacking U.S. and British forces in the no-fly zones. The U.S. attacks (which more recently have extended into western Iraq) have thwarted Iraq’s efforts to improve its early warning and command infrastructure. Fiber-optic data links designed and built by the Chinese, first detected by the United States in early 2000, have been a particular target of U.S. attack.


The Iraqi air defense network has always been primarily concentrated around Baghdad. At the start of the Gulf War in 1991, 552 SAM launchers were within 60 miles of the capital. Another 380 AAA sites containing 1,267 guns were identified by U.S. intelligence around Baghdad.

Then, as now, the Iraqi force was formidable. In total, there were some 20,000 launchers of all types. However, over 7,000 of those were short-range shoulder-fired SAMs, and an even greater number were AAA guns of 23mm or larger.

The most feared threat was the long-range ex-Soviet SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6 SAMs. But during the Gulf War, for a variety of reasons, Iraq was never able to properly employ its weapons. Its network was not designed to defend against an attack as large as the one waged by the United States.

In practice during the Gulf War, electronic attack and bombing, combined with chaos introduced by disruption of communications, electrical power and command systems, all helped degrade Iraq’s ability to target coalition aircraft. This is not to say that Iraqi guns and missiles were ineffective. But the radar-guided SAMs proved the least effective. They accounted for less than one-fifth of the number of coalition aircraft shot down or damaged.

Radar SAM sites also proved most vulnerable to attack and destruction. Every time radar was switched on, it shined like a beacon for allied pilots. If Iraqis operating SAM sites choose not to turn on their radars to avoid being detected and attacked, they had to launch their SAMs “ballistically” — that is, without radar guidance. This proved an extremely inaccurate way to fire these weapons.


There were still thousands of shoulder-launched infrared-guided SAMs and AAA guns without radars — weapons that rely on the skill of the trigger man rather than electronics to hit home. The portable, shoulder-launched SAMs, in fact, ended up being the leading cause of Gulf War aircraft losses for coalition forces, accounting for 13 of 38 downed aircraft — 34 percent. Anti-aircraft artillery, also known as “flak,” was the leading cause of damage: Iraqi gunners were real “trigger pullers,” sending up barrages of fire against approaching aircraft. Eventually, U.S. air commanders moved aircraft to higher altitudes to avoid most of the SAM and AAA fire, another counter-measure that proved effective, even if in many cases it significantly degraded bombing accuracy.


Even without the degradation of Iraq’s defense, U.S. aircraft today are far less vulnerable to attack by Iraq’s SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery than they were in 1991. As U.S. and British forces prepare to attack Iraq, air commanders know there has been a significant advance in U.S. stealth and cruise missile technologies, the American systems least vulnerable to attack.

The introduction of the satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) makes it possible for U.S. aircraft to bomb from safer altitudes. These weapons maneuver to a set coordinate on the ground and can be launched from 40,000 feet and above. What is more, virtually all U.S. aircraft are capable of launching laser-guided bombs. This generally allows the aircraft to operate at higher altitudes, as optimum delivery can often be achieved from about 15,000 feet.

U.S. pilots still talk of the “golden BB,” the lucky AAA bullet that will hit some airplane, and for that reason, maximum precautions will be taken in approaching the lethal areas around the Iraqi capital. But there is no reason to imagine that Iraq will be any more capable of threatening U.S. or coalition forces today than it was in 1991.

(William M. Arkin, an NBC News military analyst and contributor to, conducted the most thorough battle damage assessment study after the 1990-91 Gulf War. He writes a column on military affairs for the Los Angeles Times.)