Operation Desert Storm had important implications for the Air Force, with the tenet of air superiority taking on new meaning as the air campaign became the initial phase of the war. During this time, the U.S. developed a new strategic concept for the use of airpower that continues to influence air operations today. The lessons learned from this conflict led to development of the modern Air Expeditionary Force which supports combatant commanders with theater airpower capability.
Commonly referred to at the time as the Gulf War or the Persian Gulf War, the conflict began with the invasion and annexation of Kuwait by Iraqi land forces on Aug. 2, 1990.
In response to this invasion, U.S. president George H. W. Bush, along with the United Kingdom, began deploying forces into Saudi Arabia, Aug. 7. The operation, codenamed Desert Shield, was intended to prevent further Iraqi aggression. The U.S. then used diplomacy to build a coalition of forces from 35 countries to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
This combat phase, codenamed Operation Desert Storm, began the night of Jan. 16, 1991, with eight U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, led by two Air Force MH-53 Pave Hawks, destroying Iraqi radar sites in southern Iraq to clear lanes for attacking coalition aircraft and the operation of E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS and refueling aircraft over northern Saudi Arabia and southern Iraq.
Investing in Victory
The Air Force’s post-Vietnam War investment in emerging technologies was critical to the successful air campaign in Iraq.
In the initial phase of the air campaign, the Air Force used an arsenal of more than 30 aircraft types, flying more than 69,000 sorties, to gain and maintain control of the air domain.
These new weapons systems, including stealth aircraft, global positioning system devices, and precision guided technologies, proved essential in neutralizing Iraq’s more than 700 combat aircraft, sophisticated air defense, and anti-aircraft artillery pieces.
The F-117A Nighthawk was employed in combat for just the second time, after participating in the invasion of Panama in 1988.
Ten Nighthawks kicked off the 42-day air campaign by hitting critical air defense and command and communications targets in downtown Baghdad.
Its radar cross-section of only 0.0108 square feet, along with the protection of three EF-111 Aardvark electronic warfare aircraft, made the Nighthawks virtually invisible to Iraq’s top-of-the-line, Soviet-supplied integrated air defense system.
In addition, almost all other major Air Force programs that were funded and developed in the 1970s took center stage in the fighting over Kuwait and Iraq.
F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagles, along with other coalition aircraft, quickly made the Iraqi Air Force a non-factor in the airspace. Strike Eagles were key in searching out and destroying mobile Scud missile launchers in the western Iraq desert.
A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack aircraft tore into Iraqi armor and personnel in Kuwait and Iraq, engaging targets of opportunity within assigned grids.
Historians have called the conflict the “First Space War” due to the military’s successful use of space-based capabilities/satellites. This includes space-enabled precision, navigation, timing, communication, weather, missile warning and integration across land, air and sea. Desert Storm marked the first real application of GPS in combat.
Weather satellites, U.S. Landsat multi-spectral imagery satellites, GPS, early warning satellites, tactical receive equipment and related applications satellite broadcast, the Tactical Information Broadcast Service and communication satellites all played an important role in the coalition’s success in Iraq.
Space systems and operations, proven in the Gulf War, have become integral to the way the military conducts operations.
More than just an enabler for other domains; space-based capabilities directly impact the efficiency and effectiveness of national security operations. The U.S. Space Force is charged with integrating space capabilities into joint, coalition and interagency operations and presenting forces to combatant commanders to meet challenges of the space domain.
Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, now the Space Force’s director of Space Operations, told Popular Mechanics magazine in 2017, “(Operation Desert Shield/Storm) really was the first time that we took strategic space information and integrated it into a theater of operations…Going through a desert, at night, without roads and maps – it was all enabled by GPS.”
Now these Air Force technologies, developed for dominating a conflict such as the Gulf War, have become a crucial part in the everyday life and economy of the modern world, enabling applications such as weather radar and personal navigation on smartphones.
Heeding the Whispers
The technology advances initiated after the Vietnam War were paired with strategic, tactical and leadership lessons learned by young Airmen in that same conflict.
Long before the first bombs fell on Baghdad in January of 1991, the man who would be in charge of one of the most effective air campaigns in history was hearing whispers from that earlier war.
Then-Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, who, as a young captain, flew Wild Weasel missions attacking radar sites during two tours in Vietnam, was determined to avoid the same strategic mistakes in the Persian Gulf that plagued the U.S. military in Southeast Asia.
Fortunately, his boss – Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf – and other military leaders executing Operation Desert Storm had also served in Vietnam, and learned the same hard lessons.
Thirty years later, Horner, now a retired four-star general residing in northwest Florida, looks back on the Air Force that struck Saddam Hussein’s forces during Desert Storm as one of the best-trained force to date.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait, the U.S. led the coalition in a stellar airlift campaign that placed more than 900,000 troops in the Arabian Peninsula for Operation Desert Shield and the buildup for Desert Storm. It was the beginning of an air campaign that would become the largest employment of U.S. airpower since the war in Vietnam.
“When I think back on the past 30 years after Desert Storm, I see the immense impact that particular war had on how we planned to fight in the future and the kind of equipment we would need,” Horner said. “But most of all, I think about the spirit and attitude of our young warriors who were going to be faced with the next battle.
“I’m so proud of the way we performed in Desert Storm because of the leadership we had from Schwarzkopf and (Gen. Wilbur L. “Bill” Creech, former Tactical Air Command commander), and the way we had equipment that worked. We had all of the advantages the world had not seen before Desert Storm.”
One of Horner’s first priorities, while planning the air strategy as Schwarzkopf’s joint force air component commander, was to avoid making what he considered the main mistake from Vietnam.
He didn’t want bombing target selection to come from the president or defense secretary. As the architect of the air campaign against Iraq, Horner wanted targeting decisions to be made by commanders directly involved in the area of operations. “Washington was not the place to plan a war,” he had said. “If people there wanted to fight, let them come to the theater (of combat).
“That is the lesson of Vietnam,” Horner said in ‘Airpower Advantage: Planning the Gulf War Campaign 1989-1991,’ a book by Diane Putney for the Air Force History and Museums Program. “Remember our great president (Lyndon B. Johnson) saying, ‘They don’t bomb a s*** house in North Vietnam if I don’t approve it.’
“Well, I was the guy bombing the s*** houses, and I was never going to let that happen if I ever got in charge because it is not right,” Horner said. “If you want to know whether war is going to be successful or not, just ask where the targets are being picked. If they say, ‘We picked them in Washington,’ get out of the country… because it is a loser.”
The day Horner, then the commander of 9th Air Force and U.S. Central Command Air Forces at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, received the call that eventually launched Desert Storm, he was flying his F-16 on an air-to-air training mission near the North Carolina coast with two F-15s from Langley AFB, Virginia.
He’d expected the call from Schwarzkopf since the invasion of Kuwait. But once the call came from the Federal Aviation Administration to notify him to return to Shaw AFB, he instantly knew what it meant. He and his staff had to prepare the air portion of a CENTCOM briefing for President George H.W. Bush at Camp David, Maryland, the next morning.
The Mother of All Airlifts
After the invasion of Kuwait, the coalition’s first priority was protecting Saudi Arabia. Horner, who had developed friendships with the Saudis earlier, remained in Saudi Arabia after he and Schwarzkopf went there a few days after the invasion of Kuwait.
The coalition organized for Desert Shield and Storm gave the branches of the U.S. military an opportunity to work closely with each other, as well as with forces from other nations, as they would later do during operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.
A massive pre-positioning of equipment, supplies, munitions and fuels around the Persian Gulf, begun by the Joint Rapid Deployment Force in the 1980s, expedited preparations to conduct military operations in the area of responsibility, Horner said.
“When our aircraft landed in the Gulf airfields, they were met with spares, fuel, munitions, living facilities and all the other things they would need to survive and fight,” he wrote in ‘Desert Storm: A View From the Front.’ “This material had been stored on ships anchored in theater and in leased warehouses throughout the AOR.”
Well before the crisis in the Gulf began, the military had trained for an eventual showdown with Iraq.
A month before the invasion, a CENTCOM war game used a scenario of a “Country Orange” attacking Kuwait and Saudi Arabia from the north.
At the time Iraq invaded Kuwait, it fielded the world’s fifth-largest army, with a million soldiers; larger than the U.S. Army and Marine Corps combined, according to a Los Angeles Times article on Aug. 13, 1990.
The weaknesses coalition military planners hoped to exploit included an incompetent senior staff chosen for their devotion to Hussein rather than their military prowess, and only about one-third of its soldiers were experienced combat troops, according to U.S. officials quoted in the article.
“When Gen. Schwarzkopf took command of (CENTCOM), he said we have to plan for an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia because Iraq came out of the Iran-Iraq War very powerful militarily,” Horner said. “So, of course, they were sitting right next to the Fort Knox in the Middle East. So, when it happened, I wasn’t surprised. We’d anticipated it was going to happen, but the speed with which we had to react was surprising.”
“The things that guided our strategy was to be unrelenting and to bring such a powerful force, so quickly and so thoroughly on the enemy, that they would be forced to leave Kuwait,” Horner said. “It was not going to be piecemeal. It was not going to be to play Mr. Nice Guy. It was going to be as vicious as possible, and that drove the strategy. The second part of our strategy was to get control of the air first and foremost, which we did not do in Vietnam.”
The result was a prolonged air campaign that set up a short but decisive ground campaign. As the air war kicked off the first night of Desert Storm, Horner watched from the tactical air control center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as coalition aircraft flew north. At first, he wasn’t completely confident about how successful the attack would be or the cost it would take in aircraft and personnel.
However, Horner knew it was going well when he saw CNN’s live feed from Baghdad disappear. As CNN’s television satellite transmission equipment was not allowed entry into the highly controlled, secretive, authoritarian state, they had to transmit through antennas atop the AT&T building in downtown Baghdad.
It was the same building that housed Iraq’s air defense operations and from which communications emanated from Iraq’s air command control system. It was the target of one of the first bombs dropped from U.S. planes.
When CNN reporter Peter Arnett went off the air at the precise moment the strike was scheduled, cheers went through the air operations center, Horner said. If CNN was off the air, so was Iraq’s air defense system.
“So as the sun came up the next morning and all of our airplanes were coming home except one, we became aware that this was going to go a lot better than even the best critics thought it might,” Horner said.
By Feb. 23, the air campaign was mostly complete. Coalition ground forces swiftly drove the Republican Guard from Kuwait and advanced into Iraq, forcing a ceasefire within 100 hours. Desert Storm was won at a much lower cost than even in the most optimistic prognostications, with 148 Americans killed in action and another 145 non-battle deaths. The Defense Intelligence Agency numbered Iraqi casualties at about 100,000, although later the figure was disputed to be more in the 20,000 to 40,000 range.
Horner said the bombing campaign proved most productive attacking Republican Guard and armor units because Hussein depended on them to retain power. The attacks to gain control of the air, coupled with medium-altitude operations, air-to-air excellence and defense suppression attacks were also effective, he said.
“When the ground war started, I expected rapid gains given the fact that we had reduced the Iraqi ground units to a level of ‘not combat ready,’ using our Army’s definition,” Horner said. “What surprised most of us was the surrender rate. That was beyond our expectations. Once I became certain, early in the war, that our losses were manageable, I knew the ground war would go well, but I underestimated how well.”
Horner, who co-wrote his account of the air war with the late Tom Clancy in “Every Man a Tiger,” gives much of the credit for training the force he led during Desert Storm to Creech and Marine Corps Gen. George B. Crist, Schwarzkopf’s predecessor as CENTCOM commander-in-chief, who both placed great importance on making training as close to real world as possible. They led the push for more realistic exercises, an emphasis on aircraft maintenance, bomb scores, and the right tactics, which all came together during Desert Storm.
Another lesson from Crist that played into Horner’s strategy was to force decisions down to the lowest level and hold those people responsible. Horner saw the benefits of that policy during a meeting with a munitions technical sergeant. Horner was visiting the bomb dock where munitions were built and saw the noncommissioned officer sitting on a dust-covered wooden crate, and he asked him how things were going and if he was running into any problems.
“He said, ‘Well, those dumb guys in Riyadh, meaning me, told me one day to load 2,000-pound bombs on each F-16,” Horner said, smiling. “Those dummies didn’t know that I didn’t have any 2,000-pound bombs, so I went ahead and put four 1,000-pound bombs on each of the airplanes, and the mission flew. If he had not been empowered, all he had to do was say I don’t have two 2,000-pound bombs, and we would have never gotten those two planes off. It was empowerment that made the difference, and that was one of the secrets we saw in Desert Storm.”
Iraq’s air force was almost non-existent during Desert Storm. Hussein hoped to wait out the coalition bombardment, which he didn’t expect would last more than four or five days. As a result, gaining control of the air almost immediately allowed the coalition forces to interdict supply lines and degrade command and control links, according to a GlobalSecurity.org article. Air supremacy also drastically destroyed the will of the Iraqi army; they surrendered in droves when the ground war began 38 days later.
At the cessation of hostilities, coalition forces had destroyed 3,700 of Iraq’s 4,280 tanks and 2,400 of its 2,870 armored vehicles. The bomb tonnage dropped by U.S. planes per day equaled the average tonnage dropped on Germany and Japan during the entirety of World War II, according to the “White Paper – Air Force Performance in Desert Storm, Department of the Air Force,” published in April 1991.
Aside from the superior training that was on display during Desert Shield and Storm, Horner believes another legacy of the first war in the Gulf was the technological advances it put on display for the Air Force.
“I think the American public and the world were amazed at the technology that was exposed by Desert Storm,” he said. “The stealth of the F-117 and its ability to go anywhere in heavily defended areas of the world and carry out its mission with absolute precision, the training of our air-to-air combat people and the ability to defeat a very sophisticated surface-to-air missile threat all came into play, and they weren’t appreciated because of our experiences in previous wars such as Vietnam. It served us very well and created an illusion that we were more successful than we really were. But I’ll accept that.”
A New Storm Front
The proven ability to employ air and space capabilities to achieve swift effects, as demonstrated during Operation Desert Storm, is increasingly at risk putting the Air Force and Space Force at a tipping point similar to the post-Vietnam era.
The capability gap separating the Air Force and Space Force from potential adversaries and competitors continues to narrow and is more competitive, creating an international security environment more dangerous than we have seen in generations.
Old adversaries and emerging threats have closely studied the U.S. military’s success in Operation Desert Storm and have aggressively worked to negate long-standing warfighting advantages and challenge our current technological advantage.
These threats require accelerated change through continued investments in key modernization programs to maintain the asymmetric advantage. This creates a delicate balancing act between maintaining readiness of today and modernizing for tomorrow.
Continued investment in Air and Space Force capabilities and readiness are essential to ensuring that the U.S. stays ahead of its adversaries in all domains and deter war from beginning or extending into Space.
Prioritizing investments in modernization and development of game-changing technologies, such as 6th Generation aircraft, artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons, will provide joint and coalition forces the advantages they have had in past conflicts, such as Operation Desert Shield/Storm, and produce the new advantages the Air and Space Forces will need in the future.
Airframe: F-117 Nighthawk
The F-117 Nighthawk was a twin-engine stealth attack aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. The aircraft changed the tactical conversation from “How many aircraft do we need to take out a target?” to “How many targets can we take out with a single aircraft?”
B-52: Global Strike Workhorse
In its sixth decade of operational service, the B-52 Stratofortress is the most combat capable bomber in the U.S. inventory and can perform the greatest variety of missions of any bomber platform in the fleet.
Airframe: HH-60 Pavehawk
Based on the Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk, the HH-60G Pave Hawk is a highly modified version with upgraded communications and navigation suite. The in-flight refueling probe and auxiliary fuel tanks allow the Pave Hawk to outdistance other rescue helicopters.
Airframe: KC-135 Stratotanker
For more than 60 years of continuous service, the KC-135 Stratotanker has been the core aerial refueling capability for U.S. operations around the world. The KC-135 provides the Air Force with its primary mission of global reach, but it also supports the Navy, Marine Corps and allied nations in assisting training, combat and humanitarian engagements.
Airframe: C-5 Galaxy
Since 1969 the C-5 Galaxy has dwarfed all other airframes in the Air Force inventory. Providing the U.S. Air Force with heavy intercontinental-range strategic airlift capability capable of carrying oversized loads and all air-certifiable cargo, including the M-1 Abrams Tank.
Airframe: F-16 Fighting Falcon
The F-16 Fighting Falcon, originally developed by General Dynamics (now Lockheed-Martin), is a proven compact, single-engine, multi-role fighter aircraft. Since the F-16A’s first flight in December 1976, this highly maneuverable air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attack aircraft has provided mission versatility and high-performance for the U.S. and allied nations at a relatively low-cost.
Airframe: E-3 Sentry (AWACS)
Since 1977, the E-3 Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) has provided airborne surveillance and command and control functions over battle spaces in conflicts around the globe.
Airframe: A-10 Thunderbolt II
The A-10 Thunderbolt II is a single-seat, twin turbofan-powered aircraft designed specifically for close air support and ground attack missions against armored vehicles. It utilizes its 30mm GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon, which can fire 3,900 depleted uranium shells per minute, the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles or laser-guided bombs with devastating affect.
Airframe: F-15 Eagle
During its heyday, the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle was the pinnacle of U.S. air superiority, incorporating advanced technology and a forward-thinking design that created a highly-maneuverable multi-role fighter aircraft. The F-15 was born out of necessity, as the Vietnam War demonstrated the Air Force’s need for a new fighter aircraft with the power and agility to overcome any current or projected Soviet threat.
Airframe: U-2 Dragon Lady
The U-2S is a high-altitude reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft providing signals and imagery intelligence and has the ability to detect radar, acoustic, nuclear, chemical and biological signatures. The plane’s long, high-profile wings give the U-2 glider-like flight while the fuel-efficient engine eliminated the need for aerial refueling on long missions.
The F-4 Phantom was a workhorse weapons system for the Air Force through the 1990s and it still hold the distinction of being the first multi-service aircraft. During it’s heyday, the F-4 set 16 speed and altitude records and demonstrated its effectiveness time and again throughout its lengthy career.
The AC-130 gunship is a devastating display of force and firepower. Through the years, the aircraft has been equipped with an array of side-fired canons, howitzers, mini-guns, wing mounted missiles and bombs and laser guided missiles launched from the rear cargo door, earning it the moniker the “Angel of Death.”