Operation Desert Shield

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.


Operation Desert Shield – 20 Years Later

It has been a tangled web we have woven the last twenty years. On Thursday, August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein, “without provocation or warning, invaded and occupied the state of Kuwait, there by placing vital U.S. interests at risk.”1 Within two weeks, the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions 660 and 662 calling for the immediate removal of Saddam’s forces from Kuwait. While the UN would say this was about Kuwait, along with President George H.W. Bush, everyone knew what the conflict was about. It was about oil, simply oil.

For any one to say it was not was not paying attention. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein had racked up huge debts fighting Iran. The war was costly in terms of both money and manpower. Saddam knew he had one way to pay off those debts and it was oil. Saddam tried unsuccessfully to get other oil countries to raise the price of oil. So, Saddam did the next best thing. He used on old territorial dispute with the tiny nation of Kuwait to get more oil.

“Our action in the Gulf is about fighting aggression and preserving the sovereignty of nations. It is about keeping our word, our solemn word of honor, and standing by old friends. It is about our own national security interests and ensuring the peace and stability of the entire world.” — President George Bush Remarks to Pentagon Employees, 15 August 1990

President George H.W. Bush denied it was about oil.

In the public, everyone knew it was about protecting the flow. “THE OIL MUST FLOW!” could have been taken directly out of the book Dune. In the coming weeks, Bush used his many years of contacts in the CIA and U.N. to build a coalition to stop Saddam Hussein from further expanding the conflict. Within 100 miles of the Kuwaiti border lay the richest oil fields in the world in Saudi Arabia. Bush began assembling forces to protect those fields. For if Saddam Hussein invaded Saudi Arabia and took those oil fields, he would control more than half of the world’s oil supply.

The U.S. had a tenuous relationship with the Middle East. Starting in 1933, the U.S. originally was helping the Saudis find water when it found oil instead. From President Franklin Roosevelt on up to Bush, every U.S. President tried to hold together that relationship. At times it was not easy – especially following the establishment of Israel. But somehow, the doors to the Kingdom always opened to the money of the US. Initially, Roosevelt and King Saud struck an oil for security deal back in 1945 and President Bush was going to live up to that bargain. The mission would be called Operation Desert Shield.

An experienced Saudi millionaire also offered his services to defend the Kingdom and the holy sites free of charge. This Mujaheddin freedom fighter who had spent the last few years fighting the godless communists in Afghanistan was rebuffed by the Kingdom. His name was Osama Bin laden.

The strange thing about what would become Operation Desert Storm was the UN would pass almost twenty resolutions to try to get Saddam out of Kuwait. Hussein would have none of it. Finally, Hussein was given until January 15, 1991 to get out of Kuwait. Saddam began to rattle his own sabers and proceeded to spout his version of trash-talking by putting down the royal family in Saudi Arabia as well as the US led coalition.

Over the course of four months, the circus played out on worldwide television. The conflict turned CNN from a fledgling cable network into the source of all information – in real-time. During the Vietnam War, the media was allowed to go wherever and whenever it wanted to but it was always a few days late with the real story. During Desert Shield, everything was captured live before the deadline of January 15, 1991. After that date, it was a different story, but the point is this conflict was going to be televised.

Despite the aggression, and despite reports of atrocities and stories of abuse, the buildup was not an easy sell in the U.S. The last war America had did not go so well. America was wary for a reason. Under the War Powers Act, the President needed the approval of Congress to send forces into the desert. After stories of babies being tortured were spread in the news did the measure pass the Senate by a slim 52-47 vote. Visions and prophecies of Nostradamus and the end of time flooded televisions. Americans were preparing for the worst. No one really knew what to expect as over 500,000 Americans poured off of ships and planes into the desert to protect the Kingdom. Saddam turned surreal as he began using human shields, hostages, and Kuwaiti children in his public appearances. It was getting weirder by the minute. Adding to the fact, images of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (with hair) and Secretary of State James Baker were put on the news as the two men made last gasp attempts at diplomacy. Baker even claimed the conflict would create jobs

In the end, the mission succeeded in defending and deterring the Kingdom from invasion by Saddam Hussein. The presence of US forces on Saudi soil would have repercussions later. The whole situation proved to be Bush’s finest moment. His whole political career had been about cultivating relationships. In the fall of 1990, Bush called in every contact he had made in his twenty-plus years in D.C. and used them to build a stunning coalition of force. This was a new test for the US in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War was on its deathbed. The USSR would be gone in less than a year. The US was the only superpower left. If it did not protect the oil, who would? No matter what Bush said, everyone knew it was about oil. “The oil must flow…the oil must flow.”

Operation Desert Shield ended on January 15, 1991. It became Operation Desert Storm.

Next Post: Operation Desert Storm: The Fear of War