Operation Southern Focus

John Kuehn Blog Post

Handgrenade Feb 2022

Did Air Power achieve the objectives?

The 20th Anniversary of Operation  Iraqi Freedom (OIF)  approaches, however the 20th anniversary of its predecessor, Operation Southern Focus has passed (or rather is ongoing).  Southern Focus was the enhanced air campaign that took place covertly prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom and was conducted to provide the necessary precursors to commit ground forces in Iraq.   It is not well known, even though air force historian Ben Lambeth has written about it open source.   In Lambeth’s telling in The Unseen War (Naval Institute Press 2013), the air campaign was initiated due to a variety of complex factors, one of which was to avoid the perception by the American public that the Army needed an Air Campaign (as in 1991) to soften up the Iraqi Army before going in to divest Saddam of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD), among other things.

                The so-called compromise involved the Army still wanting key targets, as well as assured air superiority, serviced and in place when the “generated start” of the ground war finally began once the go ahead for OIF was given.  Southern Focus was thus conceived to “service” these targets prior to the invasion.  The result, and Lambeth alludes to this in his book, was that many of the goals of the Iraq War regarding the threat of Saddam Hussein (other than his removal from power) had been accomplished by Southern Focus before the ground invasion began.  Of particular concern to General Tommy Franks was the ability of the Iraqi military to hit the invasion force with chemical weapons.  Southern Focus reported that all known or suspected sites for WMD storage and weaponization had been neutralized.  If this was what military leaders truly believed, why did they not then recommend cancelling the operations since its main goal had been achieved?

Post facto, we now know that most of these sites were inactive or defunct, and most lower grade chemical munitions such as mustard gas buried far away from delivery systems—but this changes nothing. The Air Force reported the truth as they knew it and it reflected reality as it actually existed. So why invade Iraq???

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The US government believed that Iraq had a lot of active, currently functional WMD sites. If this belief had been correct, a significant fraction of them would have been neither known nor suspected by the US. Destroying all known or suspected sites would not have meant destroying all, or even almost all, currently functional WMD sites.

But I am sure the US had not actually destroyed all of what it thought of as known or suspected Iraqi sites. “Southern Focus” was called that for a reason. If Southern Focus reported that all known or suspected sites for WMD storage and weaponization had been neutralized, this would have meant all the known or suspected sites in the area covered by Southern Focus. That would have left a bunch of sites in central and northern Iraq.

In the last weeks before the beginning of the American ground invasion of Iraq, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the US government had been seriously exaggerating the extent of Iraq’s WMD programs. Saddam Hussein was allowing international inspectors to operate much more freely than in the late 1990s. If he had had half the WMD programs the US said he had, the weapons inspectors would have been finding some of them. If one wants to make an argument that the invasion should have been postponed or cancelled, I think this makes a better basis for the argument than the destruction of supposed WMD sites in Southern Focus.

Read Lambeth, The goal was to reach a point of success in neutralizing these sites to give ground forces assurance of protection from chemical attacks. This was a sine qua non for the invasion, but the raison d'etre for the invasion was existence/threat of these very threats! so if the was threat gone (or gone enough), the reason to invade was gone (or gone enough). When I first read about the entire debate over the "generated start" in _Cobra II_ I puzzled over why--thinking it was the Army generals wanting to avoid the Air Force being able to claim the lion's share of the victory as some of them did in 1991. But then reading about it 10 years later in Unseen War the fundamental logical contradiction for the casus belli became clear. Of course, I cannot imagine any of the general officers, least of all Franks, telling Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld that the primary reason to invade was no longer valid (or valid enough to justify more force).

The other key aspect here is that the war heated up* in 2002 via the mechanism of air power/air war, but it was opaque to most audiences given the previous decade of Southern Watch/Desert Fox ops which had gone hot and cold so often. My other handgrenade here, OIF full out air campaign started in 2002. "Shock and Awe," was just a later phase of it that applied Warden's theories (that did not work so well) against the "inner" ring of command and leadership.


*not started-- my view that if I am flying in 1995 over Iraq and getting fired at, and I was, then that sure seemed like war and I was allowed to log the flight time in green ink as combat flight time. I can send you copies of my flight log book pages if you wish. I now count myself a veteran of 2 Cold Wars, the one with USSR and the other with Iraq.


This would not be the first time military ops were justified on the basis of pretext.

As to the Iraqi situation, It is very obvious the 'exaggerations' were contrived to create an justification for taking out the Iraqi regime based on dissatisfaction by political elements in American politics that still existed, to allow for a complete invasion of Iraq after the Gulf war victory of the US.

Those in that Administration who did not like stopping at the Kuwait border wanted to march into Baghdad and this made up event let them do exactly that outcome.

The second fact is an obvious patterning of the argument made to the UN, attempting to duplicate those same events which propelled the Kennedy Administration in 1962 over Cuba. The pattern followed was blatantly obvious, if anyone paid attention to how their Cuban crises was managed in 1962.

John - You say I should read Lambeth. Can you specify a page or pages on which Lambeth suggests that Southern Focus even came close to destroying all the Iraqi WMD facilities?

Lambeth makes occasional references to the Americans having discussed attacks on WMD facilities when drawing up plans for the war. But I cannot find any indication that the planning specifically for Southern Focus included attacks on WMDs, or that the Americans believed Southern Focus seriously reduced Iraqi WMD capabilities.

What I see in Lambeth is the opposite: "The general absence of hard and reliable intelligence on Iraqi WMD sites precluded a robust attempt against that target set, although such WMD delivery systems as surface-to-surface missiles, artillery, and UAVs were struck whenever they were located and positively identified" (p. 84).

Therefore my request for a page reference.

Ed, Chapters 1 and 2, especially two. I talked about this in 2014 in my review for Dave Winkler and the Naval Historical Foundation.
Here is a link to that review. https://www.navyhistory.org/2014/04/book-review-the-unseen-war-allied-a…
And yes, I do not go into that issue in the review, when I was writing my Military Disasters book I went back to Lambeth (as well as the Iraqi Perspectives Project by Pease et al.) and came to the thesis I have lobbed here as an incendiary.
We got snowed in today so the specific page references in the chapter are in my copy of Lambeth at work.


John, The references to Southern Focus in Chapter 1 say go to Chapter 2 for details. The discussion of Southern Focus in Chapter 2 seems to be almost entirely in the section "Prewar Defense Suppression Moves" (pp 60-71). This describes Southern Focus as an attack on Iraq's air defense system. It does not suggest that attacks on WMDs were a goal, even a minor secondary goal, of Southern Focus.

I can see no suggestion in this section that Southern Focus was believed to have degraded Iraq's WMD capabilities even a little bit.

While I haven't read it, somehow I don't think this particular story made it into Benjamin S. Lambeth's, "THE UNSEEN WAR: ALLIED AIR POWER AND THE TAKEDOWN OF SADDAM HUSSEIN"

This is a story of how the USMC kept the USAF from poaching it's "Manned UAV Surrogate" support during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

The US Army was stripped of all it's USAF owned Predator and Global Hawk UAV support at a key time in the drive for Baghdad from when the 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment was preparing it's ill fated deep strike through to a time after the 3rd ID and Vth Corp were crossing the Karbala Gap. This left the US Army with a single Hunter UAV unit that was down part of that time from moving, maintenance & weather.

See http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/2004/onpoint/ch-4… for a more complete story of the Operation Iraqi Freedom UAV support priority games.

At the same time the USMC was using P-3 Orions with long range video/thermal cameras as "Manned UAV Surrogates" and suffering the same problem with USAF theater air commander pre-emption as the US Army.

Until, that is, it started to put USMC Colonels on the P-3's to fight the orders from the USAF Centcom theater air commander.

See below:


"During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some of the P-3 AIP (Anti Surface Warfare Improvement Program) reconnaissance aircraft proved useful to marine ground units, but only if the marines put a senior marine officer (usually a colonel) on the P-3s. This insured that the P-3 crew was constantly reminded of what the marines on the ground needed, and the P-3 was not "hijacked" by some other headquarters for a recon mission that was of no use to the marines."


"...Naturally, such a capable recon aircraft was in great demand, which is why the marines learned that if they could get a colonel on board the P-3, they would basically "own" the P-3 for that flight."

Having a Marine officer on the P-3's that outranked the USAF air controllers, outranked their immediate superiors, and was outside the chain of command that USAF Generals could reach into killed the USAF run CENTCOM air commander's ability to re-task USMC air surveillance assets to "Higher Priority" AKA USAF missions.

The looks and mealy mouth complaints about "Theater Command Air Tasking Priorities" I've gotten from USAF officers after telling them this story these last 20 years have been classic.

The full Strategypage.com text is below in case the posted link has aged out:

"Maritime Patrol Aircraft Come Ashore
October 27, 2008: Recently, a U.S. Navy P-3C maritime reconnaissance aircraft crashed on landing at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The crew of eleven escaped, but the aircraft caught fire and was destroyed. The commander of the P-3C squadron, who was piloting the aircraft, was relieved of command several days later. The squadron only had three aircraft, and these maritime recon aircraft have been quietly (away from the public eye) operating over land in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. About a third of the navy's 156 P-3Cs have been equipped for operations over land (mainly by adding cameras that can zoom well enough to get good images of what's down there.)

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some of the P-3 AIP (Anti Surface Warfare Improvement Program) reconnaissance aircraft proved useful to marine ground units, but only if the marines put a senior marine officer (usually a colonel) on the P-3s. This insured that the P-3 crew was constantly reminded of what the marines on the ground needed, and the P-3 was not "hijacked" by some other headquarters for a recon mission that was of no use to the marines.

The AIP version of the P-3 has synthetic-aperture radar and electro-optical cameras that provide real time video, day and night, of surface areas. While this capability is useful at sea, the marines have discovered that the P-3 AIP is an excellent recon aircraft to support their ground operations. The P-3s carry enough countermeasures to protect them from portable anti-aircraft missiles, and can stay in the air over a marine unit for ten hours or more at a time. The P-3 has a satellite link and GPS onboard. The land recon versions of the P-3 can carry and use Maverick guided missiles and Harpoon missiles (configured for hitting ground targets). The aircraft also has equipment to detect and identify enemy radars operating in the area. Naturally, such a capable recon aircraft was in great demand, which is why the marines learned that if they could get a colonel on board the P-3, they would basically "own" the P-3 for that flight.

Over the next few years, some P-3s were equipped with Littoral Surveillance Radar Systems (LSRS) were also shifted to use over land. These aircraft had a wide-aperture active electronically scanned array (AESA) type radar that enables them to track vehicles on land, and ships at sea. Such high resolution radars are already installed in JSTARS aircraft, Global Hawk UAVs and many fighters. Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar consists of thousands of tiny radars that can be independently aimed in different directions. The AESA radar used on JSTARS aircraft, enabled it to locate vehicles moving on the ground. A new AESA radar for JSTARS enables them to spot smaller, man sized, objects. AESA type radars have been around a long time, popular mainly for their ability deal with lots of targets simultaneously, and produce a more accurate picture of what is out there."

Ed, I agree that Southern Focus was primarily an air defense suppression campaign. And for many of us in the Intelligence Community at the time, the WMD presence was inconsequential -- contrary to what the drafters of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq WMDs were saying. In my own agency, the DOE Office of Intelligence, the conviction of our experts was that Iraq had no nuclear program. (Sadly, only the State Dept. took a "footnote" in the NIE on the nuclear question -- a footnote drafted for State/INR by one of our DOE National Laboratory analysts.) And even before "Curve Ball" was exposed as a hoax, I was just as certain about their supposed biological weapons program. That left chemical weapons, and many of us believed that, at most, a few tons of chemical munitions might be buried out in the desert somewhere but it hardly amounted to anything of military significance.

So no real pretext existed for going to war. Still, it was glaringly obvious that the Bush administration was determined to effect "regime change" in Iraq and the CIA would give them a deeply-flawed NIE that would, in turn, persuade Congress to grant the president an AUMF.

Apologies for the sidebar. But the somewhat self-congratulatory P-3 story ("We clever Marines kept our assets from those evil AF guys by putting a Colonel on them!") struck a bit of a nerve. Suffice it to say there will always be tensions in air asset allocation because the needs almost inevitably outweigh the resources. It's also true that I lack background on the details of the specific missions being discussed for P-3s.

But I can offer a counter-context to the hoary old trope that "any air asset taken from the Army, Navy or Marine Corps missions is by definition being wasted/misused for *Air Force* missions." We've been literally fighting this perspective war since WW2 and it will no doubt continue to be that way. My main objective is to make sure "both sides" of that perspective war are understood as legitimate.

The trope dates from ground troops perspective, classicly summed up as "any air asset not flying over MY foxhole/hitting targets that threaten ME/doing things I WANT are BY DEFINITION wasted/misused assets." This very human reaction is quite understandable (if given a choice I will naturally prioritize taking out things that can kill ME). But while that is a *powerful* priority, it is ultimately up to the Joint Force Commander to decide where and how to allocate assets based on missions assigned by National Command Authority. Unity of Command is, after all, considered a fundamental principle of war.

The USMC is particularly (but not uniquely) touchy about this based on USMC doctrine on the critical synergy between their air/land components. One of the most surreal conversations I've had as a professional officer was the straight-faced, deadly serious attitude of a USMC Lt Col student of mine at National War College in 2012 (2012!) who emphatically and repeatedly defended the line that USMC air assets are USMC air assets under control of the MARFOR (Marine Forces Commander)--and that the MARFOR was fully able to tell the Joint Force Commander to pound sand if the MARFOR didn't agree with the JFC's priorities. The Marine would.not.budge--the JFC was not their commander, if the MARFOR disagreed they would do what the MARFOR said. It was like Goldwater-Nichols had never happened.

If the joint system is working properly, a JFACC (Joint Force Air Component Commander, usually but by no means always USAF) allocates assets based on priorities given them by the Joint Force Commander (JFC). QED, if the JFC has given the JFACC a mission the P-3 is the best available asset to meet the JFC's stated priorities, that notional USMC Colonel preventing the P-3 from being "hijacked" is by definition telling the Joint Force Commander what that USMC Lt Col told me in 2012...that the JFC's priorities are advisory in nature and the MARFOR can (and will) tell the JFC "sorry, mine, not yours."

One way I tried to further understanding on this contentious, emotional issue was to flip around the question for my ground force compatriots. For example, under Joint Doctrine circa 2010 the Joint Force Land Component Commander (JFLCC) was responsible for rear area security. My "flip the question" was:

"As the JFACC, I need my bases secured from terrorist/SPETSNATZ type threats out to MANPAD/light morter/RPG range from the runways. I don't know when/how they will show up, but when they do show up I NEED you there. So we would like to allocate (say) a company of infantry to patrol/hold a safe perimeter around each of our airbases. You're good with that, right?"

The (correct) land force answer to that could be summed up as "That's a ridiculous misuse of assets. If we do that I won't have the force needed to do the missions the JFC demands I get done! What we need is a system to make sure we identify and if needed have assets that can rapidly move to react to a given threat and support you when/if it happens or seems imminent."

To which I said "EXACTLY! Which is why a JFACC may need to use assets you'd rather have direct control over to do other things the JFC tasks them to do."

Or put another way, if you wouldn't give an AF airbase commander ability to grab/keep scarce land combat assets requested by the JFC for other missions to deal with the AF airbase commander's priorities, don't grant your own service the ability to do the exact same thing to meet every MEU/battalion's priorities. We're all supposed to be working on the same team.

This one-way "AF supports us, not vice versa" mindset can be hard to break. Even when I got land officers to nod their heads with the above "flip the question" analogy, they almost invariably came back to "but we're different." The fear seemed to be that once they agreed a JFC could EVER grab Army/USMC (or even Navy) assets for other missions, the AF stalking horse (aka the JFACC) would take over and abandon them entirely.

This mindset shows up in other ways. For example, when writing doctrine on "Joint Fires," land components generally regard "Joint Fires" as "firepower the AF [or Navy] provides me to get my mission done." The idea that (say) Army ATACMs could be used to take out opposing air defense assets strikes many land component folks as near heresy (or to coin a movie phrase, "INCONCEIVABLE!"). I've had Army officers I've been working with on Joint Doctrine state they felt "Task Force Normandy"--using Army AH-64s to take out radar sites at the beginning of the 1991 war air campaign--was an unfortunate precedent. In their minds, "Joint Fires" did not mean "WE provide stuff to YOU"--it meant "YOU provide stuff to US."

And silly as it sounds, it was (again, circa 2000-2010) a continual struggle to get other services to formally define Joint Fires as "fires on targets different components provide to each other" rather than "Air Force/Navy fires on targets the land component wants them to hit." Just acknowledging the Air Force and/or Joint Force Air Component could *receive* support as well as *provide* support was (and likely ever will be) a bitter struggle never fully settled.

Tl:dr. My apologies for length here. Just putting a marker down that stories like "We put a USMC Colonel on the asset and thus kept it away from those AF geeks" may actually translate to "Maritime assets work for us--if the Joint Force Commander wants them for something else that's the JFC's problem, not ours."

Mike Condray
Colonel, USAF (Retired)