Skip to comments.Twenty Years After: Desert Storm's Air War
Posted on 01/12/2011 1:03:14 PM PST by Kaslin
The Jan. 17, 1991, air attacks on Iraq that launched Operation Desert Storm two decades ago gave the world a spectacular look at the high-tech weaponry the United States had developed to thwart a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
The initial air strikes on Baghdad riveted a global television audience. On that first night of the air offensive, reporters with cameras poking from Baghdad hotel windows provided real-time video of Iraqi anti-aircraft guns firing streams of tracer rounds into a blue-black sky randomly lit by the bursts of American precision munitions hitting targets on the city's perimeter.
Those cameras, however, only caught a tiny slice of the broad combat action raging across Iraq and Kuwait. Cruise missiles fired by warships blasted Iraqi defense complexes and command posts. A variety of aircraft, from B-52s to attack helicopters, delivered missiles, smart bombs and dumb bombs (stockpiled for use should the Cold War turn hot), striking airfields, radars, troop concentrations and ammo dumps.
The air assault was the preparatory phase of a combined air and ground campaign designed to destroy the Iraqi mechanized army occupying Kuwait. Colin Powell, at the time chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made that clear when he said: "Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it." In that process, the U.S. and coalition forces intended to severely damage Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war on his neighbors. Toppling Saddam, however, was not an approved coalition goal.
Anticipating the air offensive, the Iraqi Army in Kuwait and southern Iraq took shelter in fortified trenches and bunkers. In NATO's Cold War nightmare scenario, mobile Soviet tank armies would attack through Central Europe toward the Rhine River. However, NATO intended to stop the armored thrust by pursuing a version of the "cut off and kill" strategy. NATO would cut Soviet command and intelligence links, and destroy their reserve echelons with deep attacks, while a steel rain of bomblets, smart munitions and air-delivered minefields hobbled the advancing tanks. The weapons used in Southwest Asia were built for this campaign.
Conventional war in Europe always risked escalation to nuclear war. Thanks to a 1981 Israeli attack on his nuclear facilities, Saddam did not have a nuke. Without the nuclear sword of Damocles, the U.S.-led air attacks had time to attrit and shatter Iraqi defenses and pave the way for the ground attack in late February.
In Europe, Soviet theater ballistic missiles -- with conventional, chemical or nuclear warheads -- would have hammered NATO ports, command sites and staging areas. The SCUD missiles Iraqis fired at Saudi cities demonstrated this dangerous could-have-been.
The SCUD barrage was Saddam's attempt to launch deep attacks on coalition rear areas and sow terror in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Chemical or nuclear weapons on SCUDs could have cut allied supply lines, killed thousands of civilians and forced ground troops to disperse.
In Desert Storm, American Patriot anti-aircraft missiles employed as anti-ballistic missiles provided the frailest of defenses. Fortunately, Saddam's SCUDs were inaccurate and lacked warheads with weapons of mass destruction. A senior Indian defense official would later observe that the lesson he learned from Desert Storm was, "Don't fight the United States unless you have nuclear weapons."
That lesson has current relevance, as Iran's radical Islamist regime pursues nuclear weapons.
Iraq was no Soviet Union. Yet Saddam pined for superpower status. In a speech made in February 1990, he noted that the Cold War was over and U.S. power unchecked. Then he added, "The big does not become big nor does the great earn such a description unless he is in the arena of comparison or fighting with someone else on a different level."
In retrospect, it appears Saddam intended to fill the void left by a fading Soviet Union, though he may have moved too quickly. As the Soviets quit Europe, the U.S. began to reduce its forces. On Jan. 17, 1991, however, America had more than enough Cold War-era wonder weapons to isolate then decimate his hapless army.
Interesting article though, thanks for posting it.
Retired DS/DS AF vet.
No kidding, I was at my daughters school for Veterans day, one of the students asked what war I was in, told him I served during the Gulf War, he looked at me like I made it up.
During Desert Shield, I remember Rush talking about “smart” munitions like smart bombs and cruise missiles.
“Saddam, there is good news and bad news for you. The good news is that we tested a cruise missile and it missed its target. The bad news is that it missed it by two feet”
I was an intel analyst then. First briefing I gave with the information on hand after Iraq invaded Kuwait was that this was to be a limited incursion into Kuwait to seize the oil fields. At that point Hussein would just wait it out, baiting the UN with false promises of resolution, while strangling Kuwait due to lack of oil sales.
Well, I did occasionally get things wrong :-)
. . . .and I’ll never forget John Holliman whooping it up at the window reporting on the action while Bernard Shaw was trembling under the bed. I’m sure he lost it all together when the 500# cruiser hit the pool of the hotel.
The Soviets desperately warned SH about the coming barrage. Thankfully, he did not listen. I remember reading articles in the Desert Shield phase about the mighty Iraqi armed services. The articles indicated that SH would badly bloody our forces perhaps leading to a protacted struggle.
You just gave me an idea, tonight, I’m going to ask some of my sons Boy Scout buddies if they know about the Gulf War.
I can only imagine the look on that kid’s face and your conundrum. ;^)
And we were none to happy about being told to stop, being all ready to go to Baghdad. We knew we'd have to be back to finish the job eventually, either us or the next generation of soldiers. Sometimes it sucks to be right.
Well, I did occasionally get things wrong :-)
Given the conditions at the time, that's a totally reasonable analysis.
Wasn't your primary job, though, to analyze the other guys rather than our side? :=)
So you weren't completely wrong.
I remember seeing the planes take off before it started with everyone wondering where they were going. I went to a bar and the whole thing just lit up.
I wish I had recorded it.
I remember sitting in a bunker with my chem gear on listening to the radio as they announced the air strikes.
You weren’t the only one to get “things wrong”. But you play with the hand your dealt. I can only imagine the level of frustration in trying to figure out intent with someone such as SH.
Sheesh, I can’t remember how many different stories we heard about the whole mess while we were cooling [HA!] our heels between Aug and Jan.
Do y’all remember Teddy Kennedy wringing his hands over the “45,000 body bags” that were allegedly headed to the Gulf?
Maybe Saddam could’ve used them, but as usual, Teddy had his sizable head up an even more-sizable orifice.
I watched it on TV in the mess deck of USS Billfish while tied up at the Charleston Naval Shipyard.
I believe the air war started with a Wild Weasel strike to help take down Iraqi SAM defenses. It was a F-4 Phantom.
I always thought it was fitting that the last enemy that the old girl got to light up was a bunch of rag heads.
They might have if the initial coalition ground advance bogged down. Then chemical weapons might have been employed against relatively static forces. The best protection was to keep the fighting highly mobile.
There were reports that the USAF was running low on precision munitions. Had the cease-fire not happened when it did, things might have gotten a whole lot bloodier for the Iraqis.