A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force/Air Power Triumphant―The Gulf War

Air Power Triumphant―The Gulf War

The U.S. Air Force found itself in a third major war since 1945 when, on August 2, 1990, forces led by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, seized Kuwait and began a conflict that differed considerably from those in Korea and Vietnam. The ending of the Cold War had eliminated concerns about an expanded war and the client support Iraq might have expected from the Soviet Union. Flexibility of doctrine, technology, leadership, and training allowed the Air Force to adjust to the unique components of the Gulf War―a desert battlefield, a loosely united coalition (including several Arab nations desiring minimal damage to Iraq), and an American people strongly opposed to a prolonged war and resulting heavy casualties. A first phase, Operation DESERT SHIELD, the defense Saudi Arabia and its huge oil reserves, began on August 6, when Saudi Arabia requested American assistance. Two days later F-15C Eagles from the First Tactical Fighter Wing, supported by E-3B Sentry airborne warning and control aircraft, arrived in the Persian Gulf―a first step in the rapid relocation of one-quarter of the Air Force's total combat inventory and nearly all of its precision bombing assets. Military airlift, including the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, rapidly moved 660,000 Coalition personnel to the area, although most supplies and equipment came by sea. Turbojet-powered C-141 and C-5 military transports operating between the United States and the Persian Gulf carried ten times more tons of cargo per day than all of the piston-engine transports designed for commercial traffic carried during the entire Berlin Airlift. That distance insured that U.S. Air Force KC-135 and KC-10 tankers would play a critical role in a war that required more than fifteen hundred aerial refuelings per day. Fortunately, Operation NICKEL GRASS, the aerial resupply of Israel during the October 1973 War, had revealed the need to equip Air Force C-141 cargo aircraft with inflight refueling capabilities, extending airlift's range in time for the Gulf War.

The second phase was Operation DESERT STORM, the liberation of Kuwait and the reduction of Iraqi military capabilities, especially its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The U.N. coalition opposing Hussein depended primarily on air power to hammer enemy forces and achieve its objectives while minimizing casualties. The U.S. Air Force flew nearly 60 percent of all fixed-wing combat sorties in support of DESERT STORM, dropping 82 percent of precision guided weapons.

The air offensive began at 0238 local time, January 17, 1991, with night attacks on Iraqi early warning radar sites, Scud short-range ballistic missile sites, and communication centers, including the interna-

America's Air War in the Gulf


Stars of the Gulf War, opposite, top to bottom: Spectacularly demonstrating the value of stealth technology, the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk fighter performed almost perfectly. The KC-135 Stratotanker's latest version provided necessary aerial refueling over huge distances, and Boeing E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft ensured the Allied air supremacy that won the day over Iraq. Making yet another vital contribution over the battlefield, the venerable B-52, the USAF's longest-serving aircraft, provided heavy, high-altitude bombing capability. The USAF effectively rendered useless massively reinforced concrete aircraft shelters, such as those above, top and center, and vital oil production and storage facilities, bottom, with bombing precise enough to leave little collateral damage.

tionally-televised attack by two F-117A Nighthawks on the so-called AT&T communications building in downtown Baghdad. Air Force and Navy cruise missiles hit additional targets, including government buildings and power plants. It was the beginning of a thirty-eight day aerial offensive consisting of four phases: a strategic campaign against lraq, an air superiority campaign, an effort to weaken Iraqi ground units in Kuwait, and, eventually, close air support for the ground offensive. Over 2,000 combat aircraft in the Coalition inventory struck targets in all four components to be struck simultaneously. Contrasted sharply with the 12 sorties Eighth Air Force launched on August 17, 1942, in its first strike against German targets in World War II, the Coalition flew 2,759 combat sorties on day one of the Gulf air offensive.

The air war defied easy analysis because of simultaneous strikes against targets in all of Warden's concentric rings. In past wars identifiable campaigns were mounted against various kinds of targets―ball bearing, aircraft assembly, oil production, transportation, irrigation, power dams, or interdiction, but in the Gulf War such attacks and more were mounted concurrently. Unlike AWPD planners of 1941, Gulf War planners did not have to choose between target categories―they selected targets from among all categories. Coordinating the two or three thousand sorties required per day was the responsibility of Lieutenant General Charles Homer, the Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC). He controlled all aircraft in the theater except those of the Navy in sorties over water, those of the Marines supporting their own ground units, and helicopters flying below five hundred feet. The lesson of conflicting responsibilities, priorities, and command and control represented by the "route packages" of Vietnam had been learned well. Despite problems with intelligence and communication between the diverse Coalition air forces, never had there been such a carefully directed air campaign.

Lieutenant General Charles Horner, Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) for Operation DESERT STORM, ran the coalition air war.

Air superiority came quickly, as Saddam Hussein ordered his air force not to compete for command of the skies. His plan was to absorb any air blows and force the Coalition into bloody trench warfare, in the "mother of all battles." Losses to Coalition attackers on the first night were limited to one Navy F/A-18. Considering the quantity and quality of the forces arrayed against Iraq, Hussein's withholding of his Air Force was perhaps appropriate. Coalition air forces shot down only 32 of 700 fixed-wing combat aircraft in the Iraqi Air Force (27 by the U.S. Air Force), although they destroyed many more on the ground. There would be no air aces in this war. Rules of engagement that allowed the firing of missiles at enemy aircraft beyond visual range aided Coalition success against the few Iraqi jets rising to do battle. Pressed by U.S. Air Force attacks on their protective shelters, more than one hundred Iraqi aircraft fled to safety in neutral Iran. The struggle for control of the air was primarily against Iraqi ground defenses, which absorbed many Coalition strikes. These included 122 airfields, 600 hardened aircraft shelters, 7,000 antiaircraft guns, and 200 surface-to-air missile batteries.

Never had the world seen such a variety of bombing targets and aircraft. Air Force crews dropped laser-guided bombs down air shafts in hardened buildings and on oil tank valves when Saddam Hussein ordered millions of gallons of oil poured into the Persian Gulf. They "plinked" tanks with laser-guided and electro-optically guided bombs and missiles. They carpet-bombed Iraq's Republican Guard divisions from high altitude in B-52s. Coalition aircraft, including more than 70 distinct types from ten countries, struck at command, control, and communications centers, bridges, oil refineries, air defense facilities, radar sites, nuclear weapon production facilities, chemical and biological production facilities, electrical production facilities, weapons production facilities, missile launch sites, ports, and others. There were plenty of targets. The initial INSTANT THUNDER air plan for the strategic bombing of Iraq identified 84 to be hit in less than a week. By the start of the air war on January 17, however, the Coalition target list had increased to 481, compared to the 154 of World War II's AWPD/1.

The most sensitive targets were in Baghdad, defended by the heaviest concentration of antiaircraft weapons. The world press observed Coalition strikes there and reported collateral damage and civilian casualties with special interest. General Homer limited these most dangerous and most critical attacks to Air Force F-117 stealth fighters flying by night and Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles striking by day and night. The stealthy F-117 Nighthawk fighters proved most valuable to Coalition success, bombing 40 percent of strategic targets in Iraq while flying only 2 percent of combat sorties. Their favorite weapon was the laser-guided bomb, which although amounting to less than 5 percent of all bombs dropped, accounted for most of the key targets. Precision guided munitions and F-117s proved their value as "force multipliers," increasing the impact of the bombing campaign. Their strikes were not completely free of political interference, however, as President Bush made Baghdad off-limits to bombing for a week after two laser-guided bombs hit the A1 Firdos Bunker on February 13, a command structure also used as an air raid shelter by civilians. The attack left hundreds dead.

The Iraqi army mounted Scud surface-to-surface ballistic missiles on small, mobile launchers. Hidden in civilian traffic, and fired at night, the Scud counteroffensive proved nearly unstoppable, although Iraq launched only eighty eight of these weapons during the war. One Scud landed in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, and killed twenty-eight American soldiers, the deadliest single action for the United States during the war. Like the V-1 and V-2 weapons of World War II, Scud missiles caused a major diversion of sorties from the air offensive. The Coalition leadership diverted 22 percent of its sorties from strategic targets to eliminate the politically significant Scud missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia, but the mission proved impossible.

The Gulf War demonstrated the vital importance of the U.S. Air Force's Space Command. Organized on September 1, 1982, it provided a first look at what warfare would be like in the twenty-first century. The Air Force began launching satellites of the Navstar Global Positioning System, made famous simply as GPS, in 1973, but GPS was not fully operational until after DESERT STORM. Nonetheless, signals from the constellation of available GPS satellites provided Coalition forces information about Iraqi Scud Missile position, altitude, and velocity with unparalleled accuracy during most hours of the day. DSP satellites furnished early warning of launches, while DSCS satellites ensured secure communications between the Gulf, the United States, and facilities all over the world. These satellite systems were controlled through the Consolidated Space Operations Center at Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the Satellite Control Facility at Sunnyvale, California.

When General Norman Schwarzkopf launched the "100-hour" DESERT STORM ground offensive on February 24, 1991, his forces met little resistance. Air power and total command of the air made possible the maneuver warfare of Schwarzkopf's "Hail Mary"―the employing of American Army and Marine and Arab ground forces in a direct assault on Kuwait while Coalition armored units looped around it to cut off enemy forces retreating into Iraq. Three thousand air sorties that day provided air support, but found few tactical targets―the air campaign had worked. The greatest threat to ground troops that day was friendly fire. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme in World War I, British casualties amounted to 57,000, including 20,000 killed. On the first day of the Gulf War ground attack, Coalition casualties totaled 14, including 3 killed. Over the next several days the Air Force focused its attention on battering the Republican Guard divisions held in reserve in southern Iraq and interdicting the flood of Iraqi units retreating from Kuwait. The most visible of these efforts was the bottleneck created on the highway northwest out of Kuwait City, in what was called the "highway of death." The strategic bombing campaign continued through the one hundred hours of the ground offensive, including a last effort to destroy Saddam Hussein's bunker sanctuaries. Early in the morning of February 28 President Bush and the Coalition unilaterally declared a cease fire. Despite flying 37,567 combat sorties, the Air Force lost only 14 aircraft to hostile action (all from ground fire)―testimony to the professionalism, training, technology, leadership, and doctrine of the post-Vietnam U.S. Air Force.