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The Unseen War: Allied Air Power and the Takedown of Saddam Hussein

The Unseen War: Allied Air Power and the Takedown of Saddam Hussein, Benjamin S. Lambeth. Naval Institute Press, 2013, 480 pp.

Most books on modern warfare tend to be overly land-centric by design or default; the role of airpower is often underestimated, unappreciated, ignored, or undercommunicated. The majority of studies on the main combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom follow this pattern; they focus almost exclusively on the land component’s role in toppling the Iraqi regime. Ben Lambeth’s The Unseen War sets the record straight by telling the full story of the allied air contribution, from the initial attack on 19 March 2003 to the capture of Baghdad on 9 April and Pres. George W. Bush’s declaration of an end of major combat operations on 1 May.

Dr. Benjamin S. Lambeth, a top-notch defense analyst with extraordinary insight into airpower, is uniquely qualified to write such a book. He joined the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments as a senior fellow in 2011 after 37 years at the RAND Corporation. His many publications include The Transformation of American Air Power (2000), NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment (2001), and Air Power against Terror: America’s Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom (2005).

Lambeth’s latest book does not downplay the spectacular ground advance to Baghdad or claim “victory through airpower.” Instead, he presents a carefully constructed and balanced thesis demonstrating that the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom “was a true joint and combined campaign by American, British, and Australian air, land, and maritime forces to bring about a decisive end to Hussein’s regime.” The author’s analysis of events in context, deftly balancing breadth and depth, makes this clear, accurate, and valuable book the most comprehensive analysis of the campaign to date.

Lambeth puts his assessment of the air-land offensive in proper context through a framework in which the first chapter sets the political-military stage (“the road to war”), while the last chapter looks “toward a new era of warfare.” The reader gains knowledge of the behind-the-scenes planning that took place in the White House, the Pentagon, and various military headquarters in the months and weeks prior to combat, including GEN Tommy Franks’ “lines and slices matrix.” The concluding chapter then places the results of the campaign into a wider perspective, including thoughts on the problems that surfaced as soon as the United States sought to turn a decisive military victory into a nation-building process—an effort that remains unfinished 10 years after the collapse of the Baath regime and the capture of Saddam Hussein.

The breadth of the study stems from Lambeth’s comparison of the air-land offensive with previous wars, with particular attention paid to Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. Lambeth examines the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war, demonstrating the utility of kinetic and nonkinetic airpower. In the process, he both describes key achievements well beyond “sorties flown and bombs dropped” and identifies where airpower fell “short of expectations.” He points out strengths and shortcomings for the full spectrum of missions: control of the air; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); maneuver (transportation and airlift); and strike. Although Operation Iraqi Freedom was a US-led operation, the author highlights key British and Australian contributions, not only in the political sphere but also in terms of military leadership and overall combat performance.

The depth of the book lies in the detailed treatment of concepts, technology, and leadership, all key elements of the Airman’s profession. Unlike Operation Desert Storm, the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom involved concurrent and synergistic, rather than sequential, actions by land and air forces. Lambeth takes readers through the three weeks of high-intensity combat, discussing the operational concept, which was based on functional effects rather than on destruction or attrition. He examines the logistical challenges, discusses the importance of intelligence as an integral part to the operational plan, and highlights the unprecedented level of coordination among air, maritime, and ground components.

The technological aspect is tremendously important in helping readers understand how the war was fought. This study shows just how technologically complex, time-sensitive, interdependent, and interoperable warfare has become. The author avoids the trap of focusing on targeting alone despite its obvious importance when planning, leading, and executing a campaign of this size and scope. The powerful coming together of concepts and technology is illustrated in the notion of “parallel operations”: airpower can operate against virtually all of the centers of gravity directly related to military-strategic objectives, regardless of their location, and in a very compressed period of time.

The study also provides considerable insight into the operational command and leadership of Lt Gen Michael “Buzz” Moseley, emphasizing the importance of personal relations when conducting joint and combined operations with other services and other countries and reminding readers of the need for trust and respect at all levels of the chain of command.

This is an important book, providing a solid counterpoint to the ground-centric literature of major combat operations and detailing significant lessons on the application of modern warfare. Lambeth’s critical analysis combines the big picture with necessary specifics on achievements and deficiencies. The book also delivers a useful reminder that if a campaign’s overarching goal is to supplant an existing regime, then plans for stabilization, nation building, and defense and security sector reform must receive as much attention as the campaign plan for major combat operations—or even more. Lambeth teaches the sobering lesson that “every war must end” and that exit strategies and transition plans should be in place prior to military engagement. Replacing an existing regime with a functioning and accountable authority in line with Western principles of democracy, individual liberty, rule of law, and human rights requires a focus that extends well beyond the battlefield.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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