Post-strike assessment: 'Essentially a hole in the ground'

Wednesday, April 9, 2003

The U.S. Air Force destroyed a suspected bunker of the Iraqi leadership within 12 minutes of receiving its mission, but might have arrived too late to kill President Saddam Hussein.

U.S. and British defense and intelligence officials said Saddam might have survived Monday's air attack on a suspected bunker located underneath a Baghdad restaurant. They said Saddam could have left a meeting of his leadership minutes before the bunker was destroyed, Middle East Newsline reported.

U.S. defense officials said four 2,000-pound bombs, directed by global position system, or GPS, were dropped by a B-1B heavy bomber. The GBU-31 hard-target penetration bombs, also termed Joint Direct Attack Munition, Version 3, destroyed at least three buildings in the Al Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad. The mission's target was a bunker in which Saddam and his sons hosted up to 30 senior Ba'ath Party members.

By Tuesday, U.S. officials withdrew from an initial CIA assessment that Saddam was killed in the attack. Officials cited the continuation of Iraqi command and control capability around Baghdad.

"What we have for battle damage assessment right now is essentially a hole in the ground, a site of destruction where we wanted it to be, where we believe high value targets were," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. "We do not have a hard and fast assessment of what individual or individuals were on site."

The uncertainty of Saddam's death comes amid U.S. plans to declare the fall of Baghdad by the weekend. The planned announcement was meant to coincide with the launch of a civil interim authority in Iraq.

Officials said the mission to kill Saddam demonstrated the tremendous flexibility of the U.S. Air Force and its campaign over Iraq. They said the B-1B Lancer heavy bomber had just refueled when it was summoned for the mission.

The mission was prompted by both human intelligence and a communications intercept of what sounded like Saddam's voice. At that point, U.S. Central Command in Qatar was told to order an immediate strike of the target.

Air Force Lt. Col. Fred Swan, the weapons systems officer aboard the B-1B, said the order relayed by an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft termed the mission "the big one." Within 12 minutes, the four-member B-1B crew dropped four JDAMs on the target.

Two bombs were first dropped, Swan told a briefing of U.S. defense reporters on Tuesday. Three seconds later two Version 3 JDAMs, containing 25 millisecond fuzes, were released. The Version-3 has half the amount of explosives of a standard JDAM and is regarded as a 1,000-pound-class weapon. "When we got the word that it was a priority leadership target we immediately got an adrenaline rush, but then you fall back to your training that says, 'Hey let's get the job done,'" Swan said. "For me, what I was thinking was 'Well, this could be the big one, let's make sure we get it right.'"

Officials said the air force sent F-16CJs to suppress Iraqi enemy anti-aircraft batteries while an EA-6 Prowler accompanied the B-1B to provide surface-to-air radar jamming. At the same time, ground forward-air controllers ensured that the bomber found the coordinates of Saddam's bunker.

The B-1B, which carries 24 GBU-31 bombs, dropped the JDAMs at an altitude of 25,000 feet. Officials said the JDAMs maintain an accuracy of within 40 feet, or 12 meters, of its target. The U.S. heavy bomber did not come under enemy fire, officials said. "The way we operate in a situation like that, in an urban area, or even in other target areas, there's generally Special Forces or somebody on the ground that they can see the target, can figure out, derive coordinates, pass them up the chain and then pass them back into the cockpit," Swan said.

Air Force Col. James Kowalski, the 405th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, said his unit has maintained B-1Bs airborne over Iraq since before the campaign started. He said this requires the operation of three heavy bombers 24 hours a day.

"We have struck quite a few airfields," Kowalski said. "We've struck some bunkers, we've, of course, struck leadership targets on several occasions. When we are able to get imagery of those back, the weapon is performing well above 99 percent."

Officials said despite the attack on the suspected Saddam bunker, Republican Guard forces continue to receive orders from Iraqi command and control facilities. They said these facilities, based in both Baghdad and Tikrit, could be relaying orders directly from Saddam.

"We have not been certain for a very long time of who's in charge in this regime," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy operations chief at U.S. Central Command, said on Tuesday. "What we've seen is that the regime leadership structure has been fragmented."

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