Airpower continued to be decisive during the so-called Second Gulf War in 2003 when United States and British forces invaded Iraq to depose the regime of President Saddam Hussein. Operating under a new national security doctrine of preemptive or preventive war, the U.S.-British alliance began its air campaign on March 19 with limited nighttime bombing of the capital Baghdād, followed days later by intensive bombardment. The U.S. Department of Defense labeled the air campaign “shock and awe” because its ferocity was intended to terrify Iraqi forces and bring about an early surrender. Nearly 14,000 sorties were flown, and more than 800 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a cost of $1 million each were fired at Iraqi targets from March 19 until mid-April 2003, when Iraqi resistance largely ended.
In addition to the intensity of the bombardment, the air campaign was also notable for its use of a new generation of precision-guided bombs and aerial reconnaissance aircraft that provided battlefield commanders with real-time images of Iraqi positions. Precision-guided bombs used in the conflict included Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), conventional bombs outfitted with a device that uses the global positioning system to home in on targets. Despite the improved precision of U.S. weaponry, errant missiles landed in the neighboring countries of Saudi Arabia and Turkey and reportedly in civilian residential areas of Iraq’s capital. U.S. officials, however, maintained that only a tiny percentage failed to hit their targets. Unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Predator drone, provided U.S. forces with real-time images of Iraqi troop movements and positions. Infrared cameras on surveillance aircraft also enabled U.S. and British forces to track Iraqi movements at night.
Iraqi antiaircraft weapons were unable to reach high-altitude U.S. bombers, such as the B-52, or to target stealth aircraft such as the B-2 and the F-117A. United States and British aircraft used radar-detecting devices and aerial reconnaissance to locate and destroy Iraqi antiaircraft weapons. No Iraqi fighter aircraft took to the air to challenge U.S. or British fighter aircraft. So-called bunker-busting bombs, designed to penetrate and destroy underground bunkers, also disrupted Iraqi command and control facilities. The U.S. air supremacy meant that Iraqi ground forces could not seriously challenge American ground forces in a conventional war. United States and British aircraft for the most part flew unmolested over Iraqi territory throughout the campaign. By mid-April U.S. and British forces controlled all of Iraq’s major cities and oil fields.