The U-2 in Desert Storm Chapter 7 Assessing the U-2's Performance



The Dragon Lady Meets the Challenge
The U-2 in Desert Storm

Chapter 7 Assessing the U-2's Performance

No combat commander has ever had as full and complete a view of his adversary as did our field commander. Intelligence support to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm was a success story.1

General Colin Powell

The great military victory we achieved in Desert Storm and the minimal losses sustained by US and Coalition forces can be directly attributed to the excellent intelligence picture we had on the Iraqis.2

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

At the strategic level, [intelligence] was fine. But we did not get enough tactical intelligence---front-line battle intelligence.

Lieutenant General William M. Keys, USMC

In assessing the U-2s performance in Desert Shield/Storm, one should ask three questions: was the system responsive to the theater commander's desires? did it gather the information he wanted? and, did the system furnish the information quickly enough to be of value? General Schwarzkopf and his unit commanders gave the intelligence function mixed reviews. The House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee studying intelligence successes and failures in Desert Shield/Storm concluded intelligence collection was "generally very good and deserving of praise, although there were some major problems." They considered CENTCOM's failure to "mature an intelligence capability" and tactical imagery systems' inability to provide field commanders the quantity and type of products they needed two major problems. The committee, however, cited three outstanding collection platforms, including the ASARS-equipped U-2 .3  

CENTCOM's failure to "mature an intelligence capability" affected the U-2's ability to respond. When Desert Shield began CENTCOM had one person on the J-2 staff with U-2 experience. CENTAF had no one. Without knowledgeable staff people, there was little likelihood of making the U-2 respond quickly or cover the desired targets. Lieutenant Colonel "Ash" Lafferty, with experience in strategic reconnaissance operations, deployed to CENTAF as a U-2 operations officer. Lafferty and Lieutenant Colonels Spencer and Bonsi used their "connections" at the SRC, the Joint Reconnaissance Center in Washington, and at the 1704RS at Taif to overcome the hurdles and make the system work. They simplified the tasking and approval procedures and made the U-2 responsive to General Schwarzkopf's desires. Lieutenant Colonel Spencer recalled, "We worked hard . . . so Schwarzkopf could maneuver airplanes to meet his needs and still keep the command authority aware of how many airplanes there were, what they were doing, and what their ops tempo was."4

Despite these efforts some in-theater commanders grumbled the U-2 was not responsive to their needs. Lacking experience in high altitude flying, few commanders appreciated the difference between the U-2 and fighter aircraft. First, because the U-2 lacked armament to defend itself, mission planners had to develop flight plans that avoided known threats. The Defense Intelligence Agency, SAC, and CENTCOM each had a threat database, and the three seldom agreed. Conflicting opinions over where the U--2 could safely fly caused frustration. Second, since ground stations controlled the sensors, intelligence personnel and mission planners had to coordinate closely to ensure optimum data gathering. Third, physiological restrictions required pilots to "prebreathe" 100% oxygen before flying and to have longer crew rest between flights. Fourth, the small number of platforms and sensors limited system availability. Fifth, other theaters continued to have reconnaissance needs that prevented the national command authorities from sending all the reconnaissance assets to the Persian Gulf.5

Even with these limitations, the U-2 responded well to taskings. Lieutenant Colonels Bonsi, Lafferty, and Spencer ensured that all approved CENTCOM taskings were in the ATO. The 1704RS at Taif mission planners often worked through the night to plan add-on taskings, and the pilots sometimes flew missions without knowing where they were going until just before flight time. The pilots even responded to dynamic retaskings while in flight, something U-2 pilots had never done before the Gulf War. The criticism of the U-2 for lack of responsiveness seems unjustified.6

Ninth Reconnaissance Wing leaders determined the U-2 provided 30% of total intelligence, over 50% of imagery intelligence and 90% of all Army targeting intelligence for the entire theater. Still, some commanders complained they did not get the type or the quantity of imagery they wanted. The House Armed Services Committee acknowledged the U-2's "continuous coverage all-weather, day and night for targeting during the ground war." But the committee criticized national authorities because the investment in tactical collection assets had not kept pace with national assets. Specifically, there was no system to provide wide-area imagery with sufficient resolution: to make maps and provide terrain for the F-117, the Tomahawk land attack missile, and the F-15E; to locate and count enemy weapons systems and provide adequate BDA; or to locate and target key enemy funding motile missile launchers. The committee found that the retirement of both the SR-71 and a wide-area satellite imagery system simultaneously without follow-on systems was short-sighted.7

Although the committee's assessment that the U-2 could not provide broad-area coverage with high NIIRS (national imagery interpretation rating scale) resolution was valid, there was no operational system available with that capability. The U-2 staff who deployed to Saudi Arabia, however, worked hard to provide the best imagery possible to the field commanders. The Strategic Air Command always considered the U-2 as a "strategic" asset for gathering intelligence data against the Soviet Union. Designers never intended the sensors as battlefield assets for gathering "tactical" intelligence. Before the Gulf War the intelligence community preferred the near-real-time electronic and radar imagery generated by the SYERS and ASARS and neglected photo imagery. Specialists in the ground stations analyzed the images and within a very short time issued an IPIR (initial photographic interpretation report) pinpointing suspected targets by coordinates. Reliance on SYERS and ASARS became almost exclusive after the SR-71 retired and funding was eliminated for the MIPE.8

Pilots and commanders, however, did not like the IPIRs. They wanted photographic quality imagery. After the war, General Schwarzkopf told the House Armed Services Committee, "General Chuck Horner said to me . . . in every other war when our pilots were to go out and hit a target, they generally have an aerial photograph in their laps that was no more than 24 hours old of exactly what it was they were going to hit. . . . We didn't have that capability."9

While both the Blade and TRAC vans could produce hard copy images, the process took about twenty minutes for one hard-copy print and interfered with the near-real-time collection. To compensate for the slow hard-copy processing, during the Gulf War Air Force bombardiers and Army staff officers joined the ground stations and reported what they saw directly to their commanders or to flight crews. This allowed dynamic retasking, even while the attacking aircraft was in-flight. In one instance, the bombardier in the TRAC van saw a likely target and redirected a B-52 in- flight. The B-52 struck the new target and reported secondary explosions up to six thousand feet, indicating an apparent bomb dump. When the ground war started the Army representative relayed battlefield conditions and enemy positions and movement to his commander. This gave the ground commanders near-real-time information from one of their own observers. The TRAC (which supports the ASARS) and Blade (which supports the SYERS) van performed extremely well, especially for unproven systems. Neither the TRAC nor the Blade van had completed operational testing and evaluation before they deployed to the theater.10

To satisfy the demand for "hard-copy" imagery before the we, began, the 1704RS flew IRIS-III and H-camera missions that provider broad-area coverage of Iraqi positions within 50 miles of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq and Saudi Arabia-Kuwait borders. The "customers" likes the broad-area coverage, but wanted higher resolution. After the air war started and coalition forces established air supremacy over Iraq, the squadron flew sorties with the H-camera taking bomb damage photos from the nadir position. This never-before-tried technique produced results that exceeded the camera's advertise capability. The customers liked the resolution, but wanted broaden coverage. There was no sensor available to provide both high NIIRS and broad area coverage, so increasing customers' expectation surpassed the U-2's capability.11

To provide more photographs in less time, the 9th SRW brought a refurbished MIPE to Riyadh in late December 1990. Before that film had to be flown to Germany for processing. Processing film in the MIPE is a time-consuming, labor-intensive operation, requiring about 12 hours for one roll of film. Equipment limitations and chemical processing dictate the time needed. Also, field commanders wanted many targets covered on each roll. Pinpointing each target and making individual prints slowed the process even more. In response to the ever-increasing demand for photographs the U-2 flew more camera missions. The U-2 output quickly, overwhelmed the MIPE's processing capability. The bottleneck was in dissemination of the intelligence products, not in the gathering.12 General Horner's criterion of pilots having "an aerial photograph in their laps that was no more than 24 hours old of exactly what it was they were going to hit" was beyond the capability of the available systems. With a larger and more U-2 educated staff, General Horner and the field commanders could have realized they had unrealistic expectations for the sensors and the processing element.

Targeting, or taking pictures of the sites commanders wanted covered, also got mixed reactions in the Gulf War. Order of battle reconnaissance covering the Iraqi Army served the coalition forces well and got good reviews.13 The House committee, however, considered battle damage assessment, the ability to determine if the air campaign had made Iraqi heavy equipment inoperative, the "greatest challenge and greatest failure of the intelligence community in Operation Desert Storm."14 The committee also labeled the "Great Scud Chase" a "double loser." Hunting the mobile launchers diverted resources needed elsewhere and "there is no hard evidence that the Great Scud Chase destroyed even a single Scud missile or mobile launcher."l5

The Gulf War Air Power Survey (GWAPS) stated, "Coalition intelligence provided remarkably complete tactical intelligence on the locations and dispositions" of Iraqi ground forces in Kuwait. The Coalition ground forces "encountered no major surprises" during the one-hundred-hour campaign. U.S. Army Brigadier General John F. Stewart, Jr., noted, "The enemy was exactly where intelligence said he was, disposed as intelligence described." The Coalition forces' rout of a large, well-equipped, dug-in Iraqi Army in one hundred hours with few allied casualties proves the quality of the intelligence. As mentioned earlier, the U-2 provided 90% of the U.S. Army's target intelligence. 16

Although almost everybody agreed that bomb damage assessment (BDA) was inadequate in the Gulf War, causes for the problem were nearly as many as the people giving opinions. General Schwarzkopf told Congress, BDA "led to some disagreements. As a matter of fact, it led to some distancing on the part of some agencies from the position of CENTCOM at the time, as to what the bomb damage assessment really was."17 When Colonel John Warner presented the basic concept that became the Desert Storm strategic air campaign, he envisioned "centers of gravity" that were necessary for Iraq to continue functioning and supporting the Iraqi Army. His plan's objective was to stop these centers' functioning long enough to cause war support to collapse and the Army to surrender. Measuring a system's ability to function is far different from evaluating physical damage to a structure. 18

Even assessing physical damage was difficult because Desert Storm, unlike previous air campaigns, relied heavily on "smart bombs" to destroy important functions with minimum collateral damage or injury. These weapons could destroy a building's interior while leaving the exterior intact. The only visible sign might be a six-inch diameter hole. Gathering BDA on heavy equipment was also confusing as the Iraqis placed burning oil cans on tanks and artillery pieces to simulate bomb damage. Only the U-2's H-camera, flown at the nadir position, could differentiate between a real tank fire and a simulation. The H-camera at nadir, however, covers very little area. Unfortunately, the Air Force only had two H-cameras in its entire inventory, which were not enough to cover the entire area of battle with this pinpoint photography.19

Battle damage assessment suffered, too, especially after the Great Scud Chase began, because it lacked the priority of other missions. With only twelve U-2s available, authorities had to choose which requests to support. According to the GWAPS, "once the war began . . . Horner and Glosson made a conscious decision 'not to waste aircraft to shoot pictures of targets we knew had already been struck.' Iraqis Scuds presented little military threat. But their psychological effect on Israel and the diplomatic implications of possible Israeli retaliation made the Scuds an important political target. Scud hunting became more important than BDA. 21

The short-range Scuds posed little danger to Coalition forces. Saddam knew, however, how to use them for maximum effect. By aiming Scuds at Israeli cities and leaving open to speculation whether they carried poisonous gases or deadly viruses, Saddam hoped to draw a retaliation from Israel and split the Western-Arab coalition. Locating and destroying Scuds and their transporter erector launchers (TEL), therefore, gained high priority for the national command authorities in Washington. The U-2 had little trouble finding fixed launchers and coalition aircraft destroyed several.22

The TELs, however, proved much more difficult. There were several reasons for this. First, intelligence analysts believed the Iraqis would employ the Scuds the same way the Soviets had during Warsaw Pact exercises. The Soviets took hours to carefully erect, calibrate and aim the missiles before firing. The Iraqis arrived at a launch site, erected the missile, fired, and moved on within ten minutes. Also, the Iraqis almost exclusively launched the Scuds at night. This procedure made the Scuds ineffective militarily, but effective psychologically. It also made them very hard to locate. To further complicate the task, the Iraqis created decoys that were difficult to distinguish from the TELLS.23

Since American forces had never hunted mobile missiles before, planners had to create new tactics. They devised the continuous combat air patrol, primarily with an ASARS-equipped U-2 and an F-15E. When the ASARS located a suspected TEL, the F-15E destroyed it. In the air campaign's first ten days, aircrews claimed several mobile launcher "kills" using this technique. A slowdown in Scud launches seemed to confirm the claims. Subsequent investigation revealed, however, that the kills were of decoys, other short range missiles, or trucks. As previously stated, the House committee found there was no "hard evidence" of any Scud or TEL kills. The committee also admitted that even when the fighters knew the exact location of a Scud launcher, pilots had trouble finding and destroying them. The committee concluded, however, that the allied effort probably "retarded the Iraqi Scud effort" and made the firings much more inaccurate by forcing the Iraqis to act so quickly. If the Scud hunt's purpose was to prevent Israel from retaliating and entering the war, which it apparently was, then the hunt succeeded even though it was ineffective militarily.24

Returning to the three original questions to assess the U-2s performance in Desert Shield/Storm: was the system responsive to the theater commander's needs? "Yes," despite the lack of U-2 educated people on the CENTCOM staff. Knowledgeable people in key positions used their contacts to make the system respond, even to dynamic, in-flight retaskings, something the U-2 had never done before. Did it gather the information he wanted? "Yes and no." The U-2 provided a clear picture of Iraqi Army field positions and insured there "were no surprises" during the ground war. Imagery for battle damage assessment and finding Scuds was much less successful. Did the system furnish the information quickly enough to be of value? Electro-optical and radar imagery was near-real- time. With Air Force and Army observers in the ground stations, aircrews and ground commanders received near-real-time intelligence. Many commanders, however, wanted photographs. The U-2 had no camera that could provide broad-area, high resolution photographs. Also, the demand for photographic imagery overwhelmed the processing and dissemination system. So it was virtually impossible to provide the quantity of photographs within time to be useful.

Some criticisms of the U-2, therefore, were valid and others were not. Even the valid ones, however, should not reflect negatively upon the men and women of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing. They showed great flexibility, ingenuity, and dedication in adapting the U-2 to its new "tactical" wartime role. Any shortcomings reflected policy and planning failures "at a much higher pay grade."  

Notes for Chapter 7

l.Rpt (U), DOD, "Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress," Apr 92, C-1.


3.Rpt (U), HR, "Intelligence Successes and Failures in Operations Desert Shield/Storm," 16 Aug 93, 1-7. -

4.Intvw (S/NF), Cross with Lt Col Spencer; intvw (S/NF), Cross with Col Lafferty; intw (S/NF), Dr C.F. Cross, 9RW/HO, with Lt Col D. Bonsi, 10 Feb 95; msg (S/OADR), HQ SAC/DOR to USCINCCENT/CCJ2, et al, "SAC SWA Reconnaissance Tasking and Execution Procedures (U)," 142225Z Jan 91, info used (U), per SAF/PAS security review 95-1070.


6.Intvws (S/NF), Cross with Lt Col Bonsi, Col Lafferty, and Lt Col Spencer; citations (S), 9RW, "Citations to accompany the award of DFCs," Appendix 2, info used (U), per SAF/PAS security review 95-1070.

7.Rpt (U), HR, "Intel Successess and Failures," 7-10; memo (S/NF/LD), 9RW, "Justification for Outstanding Unit Award," ca Jul 91, info used (U), per SAF/PAS security review 95-1070.

8.Intvws (S/NF), Cross with Lt Col Bonsi, Col Lafferty, and Lt Col Spencer, info used (U), per SAF/PAS security review 95-1070. 9.Rpt (U), HR, "Intel Successes and Failures," 30.

10.Intvws (S/NF), Cross with Lt Col Bonsi, Col Lafferty, and Lt Col Spencer, info used (U), per SAF/PAS security review 95-1070.



13.Rpt (U), HR, "Intel Successes and Failures," 13.

14.Ibid., 18.

15.Ibid., 11-12.

16.Rpt (U), "Gulf War Air Power Survey Summary Report," 1993, 138.

17.GWAPS, 139.

18.See Richard T. Reynolds, The Heart of the Storm: Genesis of the Air Campaign Against Iraq (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 1995) for a discussion of Colonel Warden's role and the planning of the air campaign.

l9.Intvw (S/NF), Cross with Lt Col Spencer and Lt Col Bonsi, info used (U), per SAF/PAS security review 95-1070.

20.GWAPS, 131.

21.Intvw (S/NF), Cross with Col Lafferty, info used (U), per SAF/PAS security review 95-1070.

22.GWAPS, 123-24; rpt (U), HR, "Intel Successes and Failures," 11-12; intvws (S/NF), Cross with Lt Col Spencer and Col Lafferty, info used (U), per SAF/PAS security review 95-1070.

23.GWAPS, 123-24; intvws (S/NF), Cross with Lt Col Spencer, Col Lafferty, and Lt Col Bonsi, info used (U), per SAF/PAS security review 95-1070.

24.GWAPS, 123-2i; rpt (U), HR, "Intel Successes and Failures," 11-12; intvws (S/NF), Cross with Lt Col Spencer, Col Lafferty, and Lt Col Bonsi, info used (U), per SAF/PAS security review 95- 1070.



The Dragon Lady Meets the Challenge
The U-2 in Desert Storm