In its immediate aftermath, the Gulf War has received more attention than any other air war, with the exception of World War II. The stunning videos provided by the USAF and the RAF, even while their combat crews were deconstructing Iraq, presented images that remain with us today – bombs disappearing down the air conditioning shaft of Iraqi air force headquarters, bridges collapsing at the first go, hardened aircraft shelters built to withstand the effects of nuclear weapons being smashed, and finally the huddled, helpless equipment of the Iraqi army being blown to smithereens. To many, particularly in the USAF, it appeared that with such capabilities and accuracy, air power had at least come of age, reaching the promises of Douhet, Trenchard, and Mitchell. In the conflict's immediate aftermath, even critics of the USAF exclaimed that Desert Storm “was probably the most frictionless war we have ever fought.” In fact, it was not. The idea that any human affair – much less war – involving hundreds of thousands of individuals can take place without friction is bizarre. By putting the Gulf War within its operational context, we can access the limitations as well as the actual impact of the air campaign on the course of the war.
Not surprisingly, much, if not all, of the thinking on air power since World War II concentrated on the dark threat raised by nuclear weapons. But the wars waged by air forces since 1945 – and there have been many – all have involved combat in the conventional arena. The result of this dichotomy has been that thinking about air power has confined itself to the theoretical musings of civilian academics about nuclear war, while airmen floundered from one conventional war to the next.