Published March 20, 2003
WASHINGTON – The opening salvos in the war to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein relied on tried-and-true cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs dropped by Air Force stealth fighter-bombers. The munitions were aimed directly at the country's leaders, including Saddam, U.S. officials said.
The attacks involved more than 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from Navy ships in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, as well as bombs dropped from two F-117A Nighthawk stealth jets, military officials said.
The Nighthawks each dropped two 2,000-pound bombs called Joint Direct Attack Munitions, which are guided by satellite signals.
Two officials knowledgeable about the operation said the Iraqi dictator was among the "leadership targets" that the strikes were aimed at.
The bombs dropped by the planes are each twice as big as the sea-launched cruise missiles also dropped Wednesday. The F-117s are based at Qatar's Al Udeid air base.
Military officials said the Tomahawks were fired by the destroyers USS Milius and USS Donald Cook; the cruisers USS Bunker Hill and USS Cowpens; and the attack submarines USS Montpelier and USS Cheyenne. The Pentagon released still photos and video of the Donald Cook launching three Tomahawks.
Officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the attacks were not a sign that the main air offensive against Iraq had begun. Rather, they were approved by President Bush in response to time-sensitive intelligence on the whereabouts of Iraqi leaders -- presumably including Saddam.
Officials said it was possible that other limited attacks in various parts of Iraq could be launched over the next day, even before the main air assault begins.
Three of the Tomahawks were launched from the USS Donald Cook, a destroyer in the Red Sea. The Navy released three pictures of the missiles being launched just hours after the attack.
Introduced during the war with Iraq a dozen years ago, the Tomahawk is still a technological wonder, able to fly at just under the speed of sound, hugging the ground to deliver a 1,000-pound warhead onto a preprogrammed target.
The Navy probably has about 1,000 Tomahawks, which at about $600,000 a pop are considered expensive.
Radar detection of the missile is extremely difficult because of the small radar cross-section and low-altitude flight profile.
A next-generation Tomahawk adds the capability to reprogram the missile while in-flight to strike any of 15 preprogrammed alternate targets.
The F-117A Nighthawk, the distinctive fighter-bomber that looks like a bat, is the world's first operational aircraft designed to exploit stealth technology that makes it difficult to detect with radar.
In the Gulf War a dozen years ago, the Nighthawk was the only U.S. or coalition aircraft to strike targets in downtown Baghdad.
The F-117A program created a revolution in military warfare by incorporating low-observable technology into operational aircraft.
Before Wednesday night's strike, a senior Air Force planner said U.S. warplanes are likely to drop 10 times as many precision-guided bombs on the first day of a war against Iraq as they did to open the 1991 Gulf war.
"I don't think the potential adversary has any idea what's coming," said Col. Gary Crowder, the chief of strategy at Air Combat Command, which is responsible for all Air Force warplanes.
At a Pentagon news conference, Crowder said 300-400 precision-guided weapons were dropped on the first day of the 1991 air war and suggested at least 3,000 would be used on the first day this time.
War planning also has become much more efficient, Crowder said. In the first Gulf war, U.S. warplanes attacked each element of Iraq's air defenses in sequence -- early warning radars, followed by air defense operations bunkers, followed by airfields and surface-to-air missile sites -- before getting to the ultimate target: the Iraqi leadership.
This time, due to more accurate weapons and a fuller understanding of targets in Iraq, the leadership will be attacked at the same time that communications, transportation and air defense targets are bombed, Crowder said. Examples of leadership targets are palaces and command centers expected to be used by President Saddam Hussein and his senior generals.
This more efficient approach is based in part on improved weapons technology and more advanced means of matching weapon types with the kinds of damage desired, Crowder said. For example, if the goal was paralysis of the Iraqi electrical grid, the war planners might single out a small number of power stations or transmission towers as targets rather than striking every power station in the grid.
Crowder also said that the experience gained from patrolling "no fly" zones over southern and northern Iraq since shortly after the first Gulf war gives American and British forces a big advantage.
"Having lived over the no fly zones for the last 12 years, it is a significantly less hostile place than it was in northern and southern Iraq on the opening night of the  Gulf war," he said.
"That simple fact will make the jobs of our men and women aircrews out there doing this a whole lot easier," he added.
The routine of patrolling the zones also provides a form of cover for allied aircraft preparing to launch an all-out air war.
Earlier Wednesday, U.S. and British planes attacked nine military targets in southern Iraq. The headquarters for allied air forces in the Persian Gulf announced that the strikes were in response to Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery.
The targets included long-range artillery near the southern city of Basra and the nearby Al Faw peninsula near the Gulf coastline, plus three military communications sites. Also targeted was a mobile early-warning radar and an air defense command and control site at the H-3 airfield complex in western Iraq near the Jordanian border.
U.S. aircraft also dropped nearly two million leaflets over southern Iraq with a variety of messages, including, for the first time, instructions to Iraqi troops on how to capitulate to avoid being killed.