Before 2003, the Pentagon Planned a Secret Air War Over Iraq
Desert Badger originated with the Clinton administration
In early 2004, as controversy over the decision to invade Iraq the year prior mounted, Pres. George W. Bush endured accusations his administration had decided from the very beginning to take military action to force regime change in Baghdad.
Paul H. O’Neill, Bush’s secretary of the treasury until his dismissal in December 2002, was the subject of Ron Suskind’s book The Price of Loyalty. Highly-critical of the administration, O’Neill asserted that attacking Iraq was considered a top priority during the early days of the 43rd presidency and had even drawn up plans for doing so.
Shortly after the book’s release in January 2004, Bush was questioned regarding O’Neill’s allegations during a press conference. “Like the previous administration, we were for regime change. And in the initial stages of the administration, you might remember, we were dealing with Desert Badger or flyovers, and fly-betweens and looks And so, we were fashioning policy along those lines.”
It appeared the president had, intentionally or not, revealed the existence of a plan from the early weeks of his administration for taking military action against Iraq. Bush’s assertion that the media “might remember” Desert Badger was also peculiar, given that the Jan. 12, 2004 press conference during which Bush made the aforementioned remarks were the first public reference to the plan.
But was Desert Badger, as critics alleged, evidence of a strategy for pursuing regime change via military force? The president’s statement raised more questions than it answered. The details of the operation and the circumstances under which the plan was developed suggests a less nefarious motivation, however.
Between the end of Operation Desert Storm in March 1991 and the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, the United States and its allies, under United Nations authority, enforced no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. The former, starting as Operation Provide Comfort and transitioning into Northern Watch, was commanded by U.S. European Command and aimed primarily at protecting the Kurdish minority of the region from Saddam Hussein’s brutal campaign of oppression.
The latter, Operation Southern Watch, was controlled by Joint Task Force Southwest Asia and aimed to protect the Shia Islamic majority in southern Iraq from the same, while also deterring Iraq from further aggression, such as another invasion of Kuwait. U.N. sanctions against Iraq, including ones pertaining to its weapons of mass destruction programs, were also enforced through both Northern and Southern Watch.
Occupying the vast gray area of “not at war, yet not at peace,” violence flared up on occasion. While no U.S. nor allied aircraft was ever lost to enemy fire in either no-fly zone — a remarkable feat during 12 years of overflying hostile territory — attacks against aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone intensified in the later years leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Iraqi air defenses had improved since the end of the last war and Hussein frequently demonstrated his will to resist to the bitter end. The no-fly zones constituted a “second war” against Iraq, one that was overshadowed by the much-bigger ones preceding and proceeding it.
At top — A U.S. Navy F-14 patrols Iraq during Operation Southern Watch. Above — Royal Air Force warplanes patrol during Operation Northern Watch. Photos via Wikipedia
By 2001, American and allied aircrews were at as great a risk of getting shot down as they might have been at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of CENTCOM at the time, expressed his concerns during a Senate Armed Services Committee in May of that year.
His testimony had been precipitated only three months before by one of the largest airstrikes of the pre-Iraq war era. Franks’ testimony came at a time when not only Iraqi belligerence and the amount of U.S. and allied ordnance expenditures were increasing, the no-fly zones had become increasingly unpopular with both Congress and the military.
Desert Badger was one of multiple options developed during the Clinton administration to deal with the increasingly dangerous environment brewing in the skies over Iraq. Some of these options were to be automatically exercised in response to attacks on U.S. aircraft, while more expansive options involved targets other than the directly-involved enemy units.
As a result, they often required higher-level authorization, sometimes straight from the president. Desert Badger was to be triggered by the downing of a U.S. aircraft, “aimed at disrupting Iraq’s ability to capture the downed aircrew by attacking key command and control nodes in the heart of downtown Baghdad.”
The Bush administration found Desert Badger to be insufficient, however. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, felt it would not do enough to reverse the trend of greater attacks on U.S. and allied warplanes and sought to exact heavier costs on Hussein for such violations.
With the input of military commanders, Desert Badger was revised to encompass a wider range of targets, including those more directly critical to the Ba’athist regime. Instead of merely preventing them from capturing a downed aircrew or impeding a rescue attempt, Rumsfeld and the military sought to severely downgrade Iraqi air defense and command-and-control capabilities at-large with the intent of “crippling” them from executing further attacks.
With time, however, the plan expanded even further. Ground troops were factored into the plans, with the objective of securing “key areas,” although it was not specific what these “key areas” were. Though the introduction of ground forces implied an invasion, Bush administration officials insisted Desert Badger was not a plan to force regime change, with Secretary Rumsfeld asserting the changes to the plan were necessary because of the increasingly greater risks incurred by aircrews patrolling the no-fly zones.
If ordered, Desert Badger would have constituted one of the largest single military actions against Iraq to date. By the end of its revisionary transition under the Bush administration, it was to have been bigger than the largest attack on Iraq during the inter-war years, Operation Desert Fox, which was conducted in December 1998 and struck close to 100 targets across the country.
And they certainly had the means to deliver. Up to a couple hundred U.S. and allied warplanes were stationed at airfields in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at any given time, with many more embarked aboard anywhere from one to three aircraft carriers patrolling the Persian Gulf. Guided-missile cruisers and destroyers, as well as nuclear-powered attack submarines were always on hand to deliver the hammer via the tried-and-true Tomahawk cruise missile.
The development of Desert Badger reveals more about the war between the wars than it does about the Bush administrations intentions for Iraq in its early days in Washington. Though regime change was a publicized goal and President Bush pursued a more aggressive Iraq policy prior to 9/11, the revision of Desert Badger appears to have been a reaction to the risks posed to U.S. and allied pilots enforcing the no-fly zones.
As the incoming administration, the hawkish Bush White House would have probably wanted to at least signal a tougher posture towards Baghdad, even if it did not intend to follow through with any overt attempt to terminate the Ba’athist Iraqi regime. In fact, in the summer of 2001, patrolling in the southern no-fly zone became more restrained, in hopes of reducing the risk to aircrews.
A U.S. Air Force F-15 takes off for Operation Southern Watch. Air Force photo
Unsurprisingly, Hussein exploited this retreat of sorts, stepping up Iraq’s violations of the restricted airspace. Until after 9/11, the trend was towards lowering the pressure on Iraq, at least in the south. Desert Badger might have justified all sorts of responses in the event of the loss of aircraft, but the Bush administration’s initial approach appears to have favored caution and judiciousness.
it have been used as part of a regime-change strategy? The answer is yes (for reasons that will be touched upon later), but it is unclear just how effective this approach would have been. The no-fly zones, while quite direct on the tactical and operational levels of war, was, at the strategic level, an indirect approach to ending Hussein’s rule.
To be successful, the Ba’athist regime would have to be de-legitimized through constant economic and military pressure over a long period of time. Hussein, however, had shown, time and again, his ability to resist the pressure and side-step attempts to thwart him. Through a strategy referred to as “cheat and retreat,” Hussein would draw the U.S. and the international community into large, costly confrontations, only to create the impression of compliance at the last minute to avoid suffering the consequences of their behavior.
More importantly, if Hussein was able to get around the diplomatic and military pressure and sanctions, any long-term campaign comprised of small-scale strikes and occasional large-scale attacks would never force acquiescence or induce regime change. Furthermore, the asymmetric nature of the conflict meant Iraq was able and willing to endure losses, while the United States and its allies were less enthusiastic about doing so.
While some American military commanders, such as Air Force colonel David Deptula, Northern Watch commander from 1998 and ’99, promoted a more aggressive approach to patrolling Iraqi air space, only a major military action that left Iraq’s ability to defend itself and maintain internal order hanging by a thread would have achieved such lofty strategic aims.
Thus, enter invasion – as controversial as it was and remains, Iraqi Freedom essentially exchanged an air-sea occupation for a ground occupation, in addition to overthrowing Hussein. The logic behind invading Iraq was based partly on the belief it would deal with the Iraqi menace once and for all, as opposed to a containment strategy lasting indefinitely, with no distinct end state in mind other than maintaining the status quo.
Of course, this was contingent on establishing a functional, democratic state in place of the authoritarian Ba’athist regime of Hussein. Optimism reigned supreme in Washington and the dice rolled – and the guess was wrong. What followed a successful invasion was eight years of hideous and intense insurgency, a contentious withdrawal of a major ground presence in December 2011, only to be followed up with a soft-return to Iraq in the summer of 2014 to assist the fledgling Iraqi armed forces in subduing the emergent threat of the Islamic State.
Though Desert Badger remained a contingency plan, no-fly zone operations did offer a means of implementing a “rolling start” to the Iraq war. In June 2002, an unpublicized operation code-named Southern Focus was launched with the aim of degrading Iraqi air defense and command and control capabilities to assist in establishing air superiority in the event of war.
Over the course of the next nine months, hundreds of targets were struck under the guise of routine no-fly zone enforcement, though the quantity of ordnance expended increased dramatically. One of the largest pre-Iraq war air attacks occurred on Sept. 5. A 100-aircraft strike package attacked an air defense facility in the western end of the southern no-fly zone.
As was the case during most of the no-fly zone era, the results were lopsided in favor of the enforcers, with Iraq’s only success coming in a shoot-down of an RQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle on Dec. 23, 2002. Southern Focus also saw, among other things, the combat debut of the then-three-year-old Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet in November of the same year. An airframe belonging to VFA-115 “Eagles” flying off USS Abraham Lincoln hit command and control and SAM sites near Al Kut. By the eve of Iraqi Freedom, coalition air superiority was all but guaranteed.
The no-fly zones over Iraq were, on their own, ultimately inconclusive. Ending the regional menace that was Hussein would have eventually required deft diplomacy or full-scale war. The United States and its allies chose the latter. Fourteen years later, the outcome is still very much in doubt.
Meanwhile, U.S. and allied warplanes now fly in the friendlier skies of Iraq.