Americans were mesmerized by the spectacular images of airpower devastating the Iraqi military in the weeks leading to the ground assault in Operation Desert Storm. It was at that point warfare in the modern age changed. Policy makers saw in precision airpower a new dynamic that could achieve broad political and military goals in a limited manner. The television images of “smart” bombs convinced many this was the new way of war. In reality, smart bombs were a small percentage of the weapons used against Iraq and victory was not secured until a massive ground force entered the equation. The images stuck, however, and from the end of the First Gulf War until the invasion of Iraq in 2003, airpower would be the primary means by which the United States applied military strength.
It was not massive airpower; it was precision airpower. Precision airpower allowed, it was believed, goals to be achieved with limited physical and collateral damage while at the same time keeping American ground forces out of the fray. The actual results were far from perfect. An examination of US military policy from Bosnia in the mid-1990s to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 shows the ability of airpower alone to achieve national goals has been broadly exaggerated.