On February 24, 1991, after 39 days of a devastating air campaign, the U.S. led coalition began to liberate Kuwait and systematically destroy most of Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s army, the 4th largest army in the world. 100 hours was all it took. Four days of a stunning display of speed and technology.
On January 17, 1991, U.N. Resolution had expired for Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait. The next 5 weeks saw an air campaign destroy the capability of Iraqi forces to conduct combat operations that the ground war was almost over before it began. Two other key factors would play a huge role in the ground war: Night Vision and G.P.S.
Night vision allowed the coalition forces to seek and destroy Iraqi Republican guard forces at will. The vision system gave coalition forces the ability to detect Iraqi armor through heat detection. In most cases, Iraqi troops were scrambling to even get in their vehicles before U.S. Forces fired. Night vision enhanced the speed capabilities of Bradley Fighting vehicles and the Abrams tank. In addition, the vision systems also provided the ability of the Abrams tank to fire up to a mile and a half away from its target.
New to the battlefield in 1991, GPS, or global positioning system, gave coalition forces a distinct advantage. In a desert, it is easy to get lost. There are no roads, no signs, nor vegetation to give one a clue as to where one is. GPS did. Coalition forces could maneuver, and out manuever, the enemy at will due to the fact that it knew where it was at all times. The US would be able to send forces into a region of Iraq even the Iraqis refused to enter and thereby gain an advantage in outflanking the enemy.
The operation to now liberate Kuwait (Operation Desert Sabre) began and ended quickly. The biggest fear in America was that Saddam would use chemical weapons against ground troops. As the invasion began, the world held its breath. It did not have to hold it very long. Iraqi forces pummeled in the air campaign were physically and mentally incapable of combat. Several Iraqis surrendered to news agencies. In fact, news agencies made it into Kuwait City before the coalition.
As the coalition moved along a single front, a second force sped north into the open desert to outflank the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard. Schwarzkopf called this maneuver a left hook. The left hook provided what some call a turkey shoot of retreating Iraqis and what has since come to be known as the “Highway of Death”. As Iraqis tried to get back to Iraq with all of Kuwait’s treasures, they were met with a barrage of power ending the retreat.
Four days earlier, Americans had been filled with trepidation. After 100 hours of combat, On January 27, 1991, President George H.W. Bush called off the operation as Kuwait had been liberated. It was a controversial move. James Baker, then Secretary of State, commented the fear the US had at the time was of angering the Saudis and other Arab members of the coalition. Many Americans felt the US should have gone on to Baghdad and ousted Saddam Hussein. One person who did not was Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney. Listen to this…
Dick should have listened to himself some nine years later.
In early March of 1991, Iraq agreed to terms of the cease-fire. These included a no fly zone over southern and northern Iraq. Also, inspections of weapons facilities were a part of trying to keep Saddam in check. Two more US presidents would struggle to enforce these terms.
What Desert Storm proved was the US military was back – faster, stronger, and much more technical than ever before. After over 40 years of trying to contain communism, the US military had met with limited and poor results on the battlefield. First in Korea, then in Vietnam, the U.S. was still reeling by the mid 1980s. By the end of 1991, the USSR was no longer a major player on the world stage. The cold war was over. The US was the only major player left, a hyper power in the mold of a Roman Empire. The victory of Desert Storm renewed American enthusiasm at home. The malaise of the 1970s dissipated and the transformation of American optimism was in fashion.
Unfortunately, it would be the highpoint of Bush’s single term in office. A tax hike a year later would doom his presidency. The might of US forces in the Middle East would not last. With limited aims as a peacekeeping force in Somalia two years later, the US would struggle as it had in the 1970s.
But the oil did flow after Desert Storm. The Persian Gulf became a major base of operations for US to protect that flow. By 2001, the US had moved its bases from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. These three countries would be the staging grounds for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Operation Desert Storm began the hegemonic role of the US in the Persian Gulf.