Desert Storm: The Air War

It is hard to believe it has been 20 years since the Operation Desert Shield turned into Operation Desert Storm. On January 15, 1991, coalition forces began a five-week campaign to liberate Kuwait. The war, however, turned out to be something out of a science fiction movie. Most people expected something out of Armageddon, a slug fest if you will. As the world sat waiting on January 15, 1991, Norman Schwarzkopf surprised the world with an amazing display of force via the air.

What I remember most about the conflict at the time was the fear. America had a palpable fear for what was about to happen. Saddam Hussein, we had been told, had the world’s fourth largest army.  That army, had spent the most of the last decade fighting against Iran in a bloody conflict. Americans were most afraid of chemical warfare and of the conflict spreading, taking on biblical proportions. As a result, the Cable News Network (CNN) became the go-to source for up-to-the-second information. Wolf Biltzer and Arthur Kent became stars and careers were launched. But back in Saudi Arabia….

As the U.N. deadline passed, the world waited. But the unexpected happened. Not one coalition force crossed the border into Kuwait. Schwarzkopf, instead, avoided a prolonged ground assault and using a new form of blitzkrieg, launched the most precise air attack the world has ever seen. Using a combination of stealth technology, laser guided weaponry, unmanned planes, cruise missiles, and precision guided weaponry, the US began to turn this conflict from a three-dimensional war into a two-dimensional conflict. Within days, US and British planes took out Iraqi communication systems, power generators, airfields, airplane bunkers, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure Iraqis needed to make war. American fears still were there, but Schwarzkopf’s briefings began to assuage many fears and to show the awesome power of American technology and air superiority. Go to 5:08 in this video to see an example of the precision, and the humor of “Stormin’ Norman”.

This conflict had very few objectives. National Security Directive 54 stated the objectives of the forces were…

1. to effect the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Iraqi forces in Kuwait;
2. to restore Kuwait’s legitimate government
3. to protect the lives of American citizens abroad; and
4. to promote the security and stability of the Persian Gulf.

In support of these objectives, the coalition forces conducted an air campaign beginning on January 17, 1991 that lasted five weeks until February 23, 1991. This part of the war included over 100,000 sorties. Amazingly, the US only lost 75 planes during the five-week span. The effect of this air campaign was devastating. First, the US took out Iraqi capabilities to communicate and command. The US and British planes ruled the sky within a few days and the Iraqi air force was a non-existent combatant. The only threat posed by Iraq during the whole conflict was SCUD missiles. The Soviet made missile hit several targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Saddam had hoped to widen the conflict and to turn Arab coalition partners to switch to his sides and to push Israel to retaliate. More often, the fear of a SCUD armed with chemical missiles was pervasive, but in reality, the SCUD was a weapon whose accuracy was not reliable.

Back in Kuwait, US and British planes began to target Iraqi forces on the ground. It would prove to be successful. However, just how successful would not be known until the ground war began. For several weeks, with a clear dominance in the sky, the US turned the conflict into a two-dimensional war for the Iraqis. Iraqi forces on the ground were pummeled and demoralized by weeks of constant bombing. The mental and physical toll on the Iraqi soldiers hunkered along the Saudi border  was staggering. They were in no shape to fight after five weeks of constant bombing. In fact, several surrendered to CNN when the ground war began.

Surprisingly, Americans were relieved to see the superiority of American and British planes in the air. For almost 20 years, American military forces, and its supporting public, had been in a malaise since Vietnam and Watergate, Americans were not trusting of what their government was telling. On the other hand, the command of US forces did not allow the US press to go anywhere and everywhere as they did in Vietnam. The Department of Defense strictly controlled the flow of information in all forms throughout the war.

In the end, the air campaign was so devastating to the capability of Iraqi forces to conduct combat operations that the ground war was almost over before it began. The greatest effect of air assault may have been on the end of the Cold War. America, acting in concert with a coalition, was going to be the dominant force in world affairs in a post-Cold War world. The US was on its way to becoming a hyper-power and the air dominance first achieved in World War II, and mismanaged in Vietnam, was now technically superior to any other force on the planet.

Next month, I will conclude the 20th anniversary of the conflict with an examination of the four-day ground assault and the ramifications of how it ended.

There have been two great videos that have come out on the conflict…
The first one is Dogfights: Desert Storm

The Second is 20th Century Battlefields from Peter and Dan Snow of the BBC and has the best special effects of any educational film I have seen.

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