Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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November 27, 2002

No-Fly Zone Enforcement Seen as Mechanism for Coalition to Roll Into Major Conflict With Iraq

Analysis. By Michael Knights, GIS. With the US under considerable pressure not to act unilaterally in the ongoing tensions with Iraq, the northern and southern no-fly zones in Iraq — a result of the Iraqi defeat in the 1991 Gulf War — have attained a new significance. For the Ba’athist Administration in Baghdad, the no-fly zones represent the centerpiece of national military resistance and an ongoing opportunity to embarrass the US and its regional allies. For the UN Security Council partners, the no-fly zones represent an unwelcome gray zone in which the US and Britain operate with considerable freedom, beyond the reach of the Security Council vetoes of Russia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and France. In Washington, meanwhile, the no-fly zones continue to offer a complex patchwork of opportunities and risks, and represent a loophole which may allow the US to begin a low-profile slide into the anticipated major war with Iraq.

The utility of the Iraqi no-fly zones seemed to have reached a nadir in the late 1990s, offering little benefit to the US, relative to the readiness costs and risks involved. This has changed to some extent in the complex diplomatic environment that shapes the current Iraq crisis. The no-fly zones allow the US to present military actions as part of a continuum dating back to Baghdad’s aggression against Kuwait in 1990, and Iraq’s own minorities, instead of stressing the current crisis as a discrete subject, requiring a new UN mandate for the use of force. A forthcoming operation is likely to begin – and arguably has begun – as a rolling war, with suppression of enemy air defenses, air superiority operations, command and control warfare, and psychological operations being initiated under the rubric of the no-fly zones. The slide into war will mature into a tightening noose around Baghdad, involving piecemeal dismemberment of the Ba’athist state. The no-fly zones give the US a pre-existing force pool, operating with the vital bare minimum of host-nation tolerance, which can change its raison d’être with little notice to take advantage of conditions on the ground in Iraq.

The no-fly zones are clearly not a casus belli in and of themselves. The legal basis for the no-fly zones is weakly traced to UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 688, approved in April 1991, which makes provision for the protection of Iraq’s Kurdish and Marsh Arab minorities. Yet the no-fly zones themselves – established in April 1991 in the north and August 1992 in the south – were not specifically ordered by UNSCR 688, and are not supported by an invocation of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which authorizes enforcement actions. This basic weakness prevents Iraqi resistance of the no-fly zones from representing a material breach of the new UNSCR 1441, as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan plus the Russian and British representatives recently stated. Though Clause Eight of UNSCR 1441 states that “Iraq shall not take or threaten hostile action against … any member state taking action to uphold any Council resolution”, the connection between the no-fly zones and UNSCR 688 is too weak to force the UN Security Council to authorize a decisive military action.

Conversely, the no-fly zones represent a potent mechanism through which the US could gradually escalate military action of Iraq, either unilaterally or by offering Security Council partners the opportunity to authorize limited military action to achieve an objective short of “regime change”. A number of events inside Iraq could trigger expansion or transformation in the no-fly zones.

No-fly zones support “coercive inspections”

Iraqi obstruction of inspections is one potential driver for expanding the remit of no-fly zones, offering the US and its Security Council partners a third way between acquiescing to proliferation and launching an invasion with regime change as its objective. No-fly zone forces and techniques would play a central rôle in “coercive inspections” undertaken by a UN-backed inspections implementation force, the enforcement arm envisaged by Carnegie Foundation panels to complement UNMOVIC arms inspectors. This system could work by imposing additional no-fly windows and corridors over suspected areas of concealment following Iraqi obstruction of inspection teams, to facilitate the entry and establishment of a perimeter by highly mobile ground or airmobile forces from neighboring states. Remote sites could be isolated by imposition of a no-drive zone to prevent materials from being removed before inspectors gained entry, albeit with a risk of collateral damage to innocent parties.

A more simple and enforceable sanction against Iraqi obstruction would be the extension of no-fly zones across the whole country, an option which was seriously mulled following Iraq’s invasion of the Kurdish areas in September 1996. On that occasion, the US punished Iraq by extending the no-fly zone by a further one degree of longitude, from the 32nd to the 33rd parallel, setting a precedent for unilateral expansion of the zones. Yet even this option has been considerably complicated by the resumption of limited civil flights to Baghdad.

Overflight by US aerial reconnaissance assets may play a critical rôle in the UNMOVIC inspection regime, despite the inspector’s access to commercial satellite imagery. This was the case under UNSCOM, the previous inspection regime, when the US formally warned Iraq of the time and place of U-2 missions, and the Iraqis signaled their tacit acceptance of the overflights by making no comment on the missions. Yet such missions have always carried the risk of sparking a hot war. In 1997-98, the no-fly zone planners at Joint Task Force South-west Asia were poised to launch an extensive cruise missile strike operation whenever the U-2 flew, and imposed a moving 70 mile-radius no-fly zone around the reconnaissance aircraft, forbidding Iraqi aircraft from moving above a certain altitude in that radius. To the threat of MiG-25 interception, US planners must now add upgraded Iraqi surface-to-air missiles (SAM), such as the electro-optically guided SA-2 which achieved a near-miss on a U-2 flight in July 2001.

Though the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for aerial inspections is an option, Iraq’s growing aggressiveness towards the relatively defenseless drones poses an operational question mark over their ability to operate in support of UNMOVIC without an explicit designation as part of the inspection effort. Since August 2001, Iraq has sent its MiG-25 into the no-fly zones to buzz Predator UAV being employed by CENTCOM. Iraq claimed to have destroyed three Predators admitted to have been lost over Iraq, though only one of these claims has been validated. In the latest incident, Iraqi MiG-25 buzzed Predator drones on three occasions in September 2002, unsuccessfully strafing the aircraft on the final occasion.

These assets could be used to cue UN-approved strikes on facilities from which inspectors have been barred. Though this kind of dual-key control proved to be an uncomfortable experience in UN-NATO operations in Bosnia in 1994-1995, such an arrangement would allow limited military action under a firm UN mandate.

No-fly zones are expanded to protect Iraqi minorities

A less likely possibility may be that the no-fly zones could be expanded in size and mission to provide new protection for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) zone in the north, or the Shi’ite areas in the south. Senior Kurdish leaders told Defense & Foreign Affairs that the main Kurdish parties had asked the US to assuage their fears of a new invasion of the north or chemical weapon strikes by establishing a no-drive zone in the north, as exists in the south (applying to mass transit of forces via road and rail, rather than all road traffic). Whilst Turkey has consistently vetoed such a step, the US has not pressed the case very hard. US European Command has never adequately developed plans to defend the KRG, nor trained or equipped Kurdish Peshmerga to work with US special forces or direct air strikes themselves. Being drawn into a defensive commitment and forced to respond at a time and place of Saddam’s choosing are anathema to the US Air Force.

Yet, if major uprisings occurred within southern Iraq – say the establishment of an alternative seat of government at a major city like Basra – the no-fly zones could very quickly be turned into a protective air umbrella. In a contested civil war environment, with the legitimacy of the Baghdad Administration under question, the US could move far more assertively than at present. The far larger forces operating in the southern no-fly zone would be able to operate a more effective no-drive zone in the featureless terrain of southern Iraq than in the mountainous areas of the north.

Supporting the slide to general war

Even if neither of the above families of scenarios came to pass, the no-fly zones would still represent an accelerating program of military action which could produce unintended as well as intended military results. However unlikely it is, the shootdown or mechanical failure of a US or British aircraft and the subsequent combat search and rescue effort are fertile ground for the unintended slide into war.

This possibility has grown with a higher US and British operational tempo and Iraq’s resistance to the no-fly zones has increased in quantitative and qualitative terms. Activity in the no-fly zones has now exceeded the tempo it reached prior to September 11 2001. Following the increase in exchanges of fire in the no-fly zones since the end of Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, Iraqi air defense activity reached new levels in 2001, with major fiber-optic reintegration of the integrated air defense system and increasingly audacious violations of the no-fly zones and SAM shots at US surveillance and command and control aircraft and drones. In qualitative terms, Iraq has displayed advances in the mobile mounting of SAM, the rapid and systematic dispersal and relocation of air defense sites, missile guidance and range improvements, and – reportedly – passive tracking capabilities.

Operational tempo in the zones dropped off after September 11, 2001,but thereafter slowly increased until by July 2002 they had reached their previous levels, particularly in the south. Since September 2002, an intense, rolling program of strikes has been undertaken in the no-fly zones that are clearly linked to military preparations for a broader campaign. Four of six air defense command centers were struck in 48 hours, and on September 6, 2002, more than 100 aircraft were employed to launch heavy strikes on the western air defense command centers at H-3 airbase and Al Rutbah, a key precursor to Scud SSM launch suppression. By November 2002, 43 strikes had been launched in the south on 2002, compared with 19 in 2001 and 32 in 2000. In the north the response rate continued to fall since the aggressive 1999-2000 period, with only 13 strikes in the first 11 months of 2002 and seven strikes in 2001, compared with 48 in 2000.

As an active theater in the Information Operations sphere, the no-fly zones do not appear to be working in Baghdad’s favor. In October 2002, the first leaflet drops were made for over a year, and since then at least three more psychological operations leaflet drops have been made to encourage Iraqi air defenses to hunker down. Such operations represent the first steps in a broader conditioning of the Iraqi regular military. Iraq, meanwhile, continues to try to make political capital out of collateral damage in the no-fly zones – a gambit that has been weakened by decreasing number of civilian deaths in recent years. Though claiming 1,400 civilian deaths since the inception of air patrols, the actual figure is likely to be closer to 300. From 54 confirmed deaths in 1999, fatalities have dropped to 14 in 2000, and six in 2001. Three Iraqi civilians appeared to have been killed in early October 2002, but when Iraq claimed other deaths in late September 2002, the US scored a coup by showing imagery of the strike that refuted the claim.

Though Iraq is clearly laboring under the almost daily strikes – as witnessed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri’s complaint letter to the UN in late September 2002 – Baghdad continues to give the US all the ammunition it needs to keep up the pressure. Since September 2002’s acceptance of UNSCR 1441 and November 2002’s acceptance of UNMOVIC inspectors, both Iraqi surface-to-air firing and US and British responses continue at a high rate. Very high levels of air patrolling guarantee high levels of Iraqi responses, which in turn guarantee high levels of western responses in the current climate and under the current permissive rules of engagement.