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Cruz Says the U.S. ‘Carpet Bombed’ in the Gulf War. It Didn’t.

Cruz Says the U.S. ‘Carpet Bombed’ in the Gulf War. It Didn’t.

Republican president candidate Sen. Ted Cruz keeps calling for “carpet bombing” the Islamic State and citing the 1991 Gulf War as a model for the current fight. But the general who oversaw Washington’s air assault on Iraq 25 years ago said Cruz is harkening back to a tactic the military abandoned a long time ago and won’t be bringing back.

Senior U.S. military officers, including the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Paul Selva, and the commander of the war effort, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, have already dismissed Cruz’s talk of “carpet bombing” as out of sync with American values, and an idea that could endanger the “moral high ground” held by the U.S.-led coalition.

But even when it comes to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the term does not apply, according to retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner, who oversaw the air war.

Horner told Foreign Policy he does not use the phrase “carpet bombing” because it has no technical meaning in military doctrine and stresses that his forces used precision weapons explicitly to avoid indiscriminately hitting civilians when they went after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s troops, tanks, planes, and military installations in 1991.

“Anybody who says that I kind of wonder what in the hell they mean. It’s one of those terms that doesn’t really have a meaning,” Horner said.

He said that carpet bombing — or something resembling it — was a tactic used in both World War II and the Vietnam War “against urban areas or spread out targets such as industrial complexes or when the exact location of the target was unknown.”

The Gulf War marked a historic change: the first significant use of “smart” precision-guided weapons allowing pilots and aircrew to know the exact locations of the targets they were trying to hit — and to have the means of striking only what they were aiming for. “So today ‘carpet bombing’ is not a concept,” Horner said.

Cruz’s frequent use of the term “carpet bombing” on the campaign trail first drew national attention in December, including his comment that “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” When he was questioned about his rhetoric at a Dec. 15 debate, Cruz made no apologies but said he was not calling for flattening cities.

Horner, now 79 and living out his retirement in Florida, said that army commanders during the Gulf War asked him to “carpet bomb” a stretch of landmines that were placed along the front line by Iraqi forces. But he rejected the idea as too risky, as the Americans had already mapped out where the mines were located and bombing them could have created new problems.

“The goal is knowing what you want to achieve, what targets need to be attacked at what level of damage, where they are located, and what is in proximity that may be damaged, at what cost,” Horner said.

Although about 95 percent of the munitions dropped during the Gulf War were not so-called “smart” bombs, the campaign represented a turning point for American air power and how it weighed the risk of civilian casualties.

But unlike the conflicts of the past 15 years, the enemy in the Gulf War was a conventional army that was easily identified from the air. When B-52s pounded Iraqi troops and tanks lined up in the desert of Kuwait, there were no civilians or cities within miles.

Since then, adversaries have figured out that they have to hide among civilian populations and avoid offering up military targets out in the open.

The vast scale of the air war in Operation Desert Storm, which involved more than 48,000 strike sorties in 43 days, is in another category from the current campaign, in which American aircraft have flown just over 7,000 strike flights since August 2014.

Retired Gen. David Deptula, who was the attack planner for the Gulf War air campaign and oversaw the air war for the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, said the role of precision-guided weapons has led to a misguided “zero civilian casualty tolerance policy” that places unrealistic expectations on air crews.

He told FP “carpet bombing,” or using a large number of gravity bombs to strike an area, could be permitted under the laws of war if it involved a legitimate military target. But he said such a target is unlikely in today’s battlefield.

Since he retired from the Air Force in 2010, Deptula has been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State, arguing for an expanded campaign that would empower pilots to go after targets without having to wait for what he calls a slow approval process.

But Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies, also said the term “carpet bombing” is not a part of military doctrine and should be avoided because it carries an emotional charge, especially because no one can agree on exactly what it means.

It’s not clear exactly what Cruz means when it comes to bombing ISIS. Questioned again about calling for “carpet bombing” at the Republican debate on Feb. 6 in New Hampshire, Cruz seemed to be describing an approach resembling the current campaign against Islamic State.

“Now, when I say saturation carpet bombing, that is not indiscriminate,” Cruz said when pressed how heavy bombing would work against militants hiding among civilians.

The bombing would be “targeted” at oil facilities, tankers, command and control locations and other infrastructure, he said.

That, of course, is what the U.S.-led air war is already doing.

 FP reporter Paul McLeary contributed to this article.

Photo credit: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images