After the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the overthrow of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the United States Government turned its attention to Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein. Citing intelligence information that Iraq had stockpiled and continued to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) such as poison gas, biological agents, and nuclear weapons, as well as harboring and supporting members of Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network, the United States and Great Britain led a coalition to topple Hussein’s regime in March 2003. Since the end of the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, the United States Air Force had maintained a continuous presence in the Middle East, enforcing no-fly zones in the northern and southern portions of Iraq, termed Operation NORTHERN WATCH, based out of Turkey, and Operation SOUTHERN WATCH, based out of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The Air Force command and control element for Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was the Combined Force Air Component Commander (CFACC), Lt. General T. Michael Moseley, who had overseen operations in Afghanistan. The primary political goal of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was to create “a stable Iraq, with its territorial integrity intact and a broad based government that renounces WMD development and use, and no longer supports terrorism or threatens its neighbors.” Based on that primary objective, the combined force commander’ s top three objectives were to “defeat or compel capitulation of Iraqi forces, neutralize regime leadership, and neutralize Iraqi theater ballistic missile/WMD delivery systems.” Although Operations NORTHERN WATCH and SOUTHERN WATCH had significantly degraded the Iraqi air defense system and the Iraqi Air Force had essentially ceased to exist, planners remained concerned with Iraqi Air Defenses. Indeed, during the initial invasion of Iraq, the Air Force noted more than 1,000 anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) firings, and more than 1,600 surface to air missile (SAM) launches. During the same period, however, the Air Force lost just one A-10 to enemy fire and two Air Mobility Command (AMC) aircraft suffered SAM strikes out of 236 attempts. The first air operation of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was a psychological operation leaflet drop on 9 March 2003. The leaflets urged non-interference and stressed coalition support for the Iraqi people.
On the evening March 19, 2003, one day prior to the onset of combat operations, Air Force F-117 stealth fighters struck the Dora Farms complex southwest of Baghdad based on intelligence that Saddam Hussein was in the area. Unfortunately, the attack was not successful. Combat operations began the next day and the USAF participated in air strikes on key targets in and around Baghdad, launching more than 1,700 coalition air sorties and missile launches against Iraq. Similar to Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, during the first six weeks of operations 68 percent of weapons employed were precision guided munitions. Additionally, on March 26, 2003, C-130 and C-17 aircraft dropped nearly 1,000 paratroopers of the 173d Airborne Brigade onto Bashur airfield near Erbil in Northern Iraq. That marked the first time that the C-17 had been used in a combat airdrop. The mission took place because Turkey refused to allow the Air Force to use its air bases to deliver troops and supplies into northern Iraq, necessitating the capture of the airfield. On April 6, 2003, CENTAF leadership declared air supremacy over all of Iraq and on April 16, 2003, the first humanitarian relief flight landed at Bashur airfield.
Coalition Air Forces flew nearly 1,000 Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) sorties during the initial weeks of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, collecting 42,000 battlefield images and more than 3,000 hours of full motion video. As of April 30, 2003, coalition air forces numbered 1,801 aircraft, 863 of which were U.S. Air Force fighters, bombers, tankers, special operations and rescue aircraft, transport aircraft, and ISR and command and control aircraft. In the first six weeks, coalition air forces flew more than 41,000 sorties and the USAF accounted for more than 24,000 of the total. Likewise, Air Force C-130 aircraft transported over 12,000 short tons of materiel during the initial stages of the operation, while Air Force tankers flew more than 6,000 sorties and disbursed more than 376 million pounds of fuel. At the end of April 2003, the Air Force had approximately 54,955 active duty personnel in Iraq, 2,084 Air Force Reserve personnel, and 7,207 members of the Air National Guard. In addition, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) was called upon for only the second time in its history (the first had been during Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM). Although only active for four months, the CRAF moved nearly 100,000 troops to the Area of Operations (AOR).
The Air Force also employed Global Mobility Task Forces (GMTF) during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. The GMTF accompanied advanced forces and made determinations on whether or not captured airfields could be quickly converted for coalition use as logistics hubs or as close air support bases. The success of those teams in identifying suitable bases led to the first basing of coalition aircraft inside Iraq on April 4, 2003, when U.S. Air Force A-10s were based at Tallil Airfield.
Major combat operations were declared over on May 1, 2003. However, Iraq remained unstable, with little security and massive looting. The situation continued to deteriorate and coalition forces soon found themselves facing an insurgency caused by a number of factors, including lack of infrastructure and basic services for citizens, as well as ethnic and religious tensions among various groups. Since 2003, the U.S. Air Force has maintained a continuous presence in Iraq.
Air Force operations during that period, although classified as security, stability, transition, and reconstruction operations, remained at a high operations tempo. The Air Force provided constant combat air patrols in support of ground forces, and as well as providing airlift, ISR, aerial refueling, aeromedical evacuation, and combat search and rescue capabilities. Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) provided command and control for close air support missions, while the Air Force performed a range of other missions using civil engineers, security forces, logistics readiness personnel, and dozens of other Air Force specialties. Similar to Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, this also included hundreds of Airmen filling “in lieu of” taskings to perform tasks with the Army. Finally, remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) also filled the skies of Iraq and were heavily relied upon by military leaders at all levels because of the real time situational awareness and persistent ISR presence they provided. The Air Force also surged its assets when required. For example, during the period January to April, 2005, when the Marines increased their forces in Iraq, the Air Force supported that surge with 325 inter-theater airlift missions and 1,059 intra-theater missions, completing what Marine Corps historians believed to be the largest troop rotation in U.S. military history. Likewise, when the Army “surged” forces into Iraq in late 2007 and 2008, the Air Force supported those operations with increased airlift and close air support missions.
Much as it had done in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, the United States Air Force performed major combat operations and sustained logistical operations over an extended period of time and performed a wide range of missions under difficult and changing circumstances. The contributions of the men and women of the United States Air Force in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM will be told long after the last Airmen has returned home.