By Colonel John Warden, USAF (Ret.)
Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at email@example.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.
Over the coming weeks, From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. You can download the report here.
In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by Colonel John Warden, USAF (Ret.) on the lessons learnt from the conduct of the air campaign during DESERT STORM. Warden is widely acknowledged as the main architect of the theory that underpinned the planning and conduct of the DESERT STORM air campaign.
The first Gulf War, also known as Desert Storm, reversed the successful Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, left Iraq functional but incapable of invading any of its neighbors, lasted 43 days, of which 38 were almost exclusively air operations, saw fewer than 150 American die of which about a half were as a result of enemy action, and cost the US taxpayer about 80 billion dollars. Other American wars since 1950 have been dramatically less satisfactory from the standpoint of results, time, and costs.
For many years prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, Central Command and its air component, 9th Air Force, had been developing plans and logistical capability for a contingency in the Persian Gulf area. As a result, by 1990 the United States had a network of air bases and logistics available in the region. The planning to this point, however, had assumed that the enemy would be the Soviets or perhaps the Iranians and the combat plans were almost entirely designed as defensive reactions to stop an incursion. Immediately after the Iraqi attack, however, President Bush declared, “This invasion will not stand.” The problem then became one of offense, as a successful defense of Saudi Arabia would not have fulfilled the President’s declaration.
On the 6th of August 1990, a small group of Air Staff officers assembled in the ‘Checkmate’ offices in the basement of the Pentagon to develop a plan to win a likely war against Iraq, which would ensure that ‘the aggression would not stand.’ The intention was to use airpower to achieve war success. Two days later, General Schwarzkopf telephoned the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Mike Loh, to ask for help in building what he called a ‘strategic air campaign.’ The Vice Chief told him work was already underway and that the planners would visit him two days later to present the concept. General Schwarzkopf told the planners on 10 August that he was most pleased with the plan and that they should take it to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs the following day, which they did. General Powell was generally supportive but directed that the other services be brought into the planning. That afternoon, Navy and Marine aviators came to Checkmate where they worked with Air Force officers to develop a full air campaign plan, which was to be presented to General Schwarzkopf the following Friday. After the Friday presentation, General Schwarzkopf asked the planners to take the plan to General Horner, who was the Joint Force Air Component Commander in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The plan delivered to General Horner became the basis of subsequent air operations and the underlying architecture for the war itself, to include the very brief ground attack at the end of the conflict. To the best of our knowledge, this became the first example of a war built around an air campaign as opposed to one built around a land or sea campaign.
The first Gulf War was successful by almost every measure and thus is worth emulating. To do so, however, planners, commanders, and political leaders should consider the lessons of this war for application to those of the future.
Recognize what can and cannot be achieved with military force. President Bush said, “This aggression will not stand,” which framed the problem in a way suitable for military force. Military force can prevent an opponent from doing something such as invading, occupying, governing, or even surviving, but it cannot change fundamental philosophical, religious, or political views. In the case of the Gulf War, the objectives suggested to Generals Schwarzkopf and Powell and shortly thereafter presented to the President were straightforward and susceptible to achievement with military force: Iraq out of Kuwait; Iraq weapons of mass destruction programs broken; Iraq incapable of another strategic invasion for the foreseeable future, Iraq capable of defending itself against its neighbor, and Iraq not a basket case. Fortunately, the President did not allow these objectives to morph into political conversions, nation building, or any of the other non-military objectives that are difficult or impossible to realize.
Think about war as against an enemy as a system, not as a clash of military forces. In the weeks—and months—after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, many in the United States argued that the effort should be against the Iraqi army in Kuwait and that there should be no attack on Iraq itself. Doubtless, we could have defeated and perhaps even destroyed the army in Iraq without crossing into Iraq, but the cost would have been dramatically higher, and at the conclusion we would still have faced a potent and dangerous Iraq that could have quickly rebuilt its lost army. As it was, by attacking Iraq as a system to include attacks on its strategic centers of gravity, we were able to achieve long-lasting objectives at a very low cost. A force-on-force war in the Clausewitzian tradition would have been pointless.
Keep wars short. Many years ago, Sun Tzu wrote that ‘no country has ever benefitted from prolonged warfare’ and his words remain true today. The longer a war, the more expensive it is in terms of blood and treasure—for all the participants. In addition, the longer a war lasts, the more opportunity there is for things to go awry: enemies find new allies; enemies develop new weapons or tactics; domestic and world opinion shifts; and political support fades. In a 43-day war, there is little opportunity for adverse events. Wars can and must be planned to be short.
Attack the enemy in parallel. To keep wars short, it is almost imperative to attack relevant centers of gravity in parallel, which simply means bringing key parts of the enemy system under attack in very compressed time frames. A parallel attack that leads to strategic paralysis—and to operational paralysis—as it did in the Gulf War is almost impossible to withstand and precludes effective reaction. The idea is not to deal with a ‘thinking, reactive’ enemy, but to put the enemy into a position where reaction is simply not possible.
Develop coherent war options. In today’s American military world, planning is done by a joint committee composed of people from all the services with a mélange of experiences, biases, and agendas. One might think this was good, but it almost certainly precludes the examination of plans based on a unique set of capabilities. In the Gulf War, the architecture of the war flowed from a plan developed by airmen with the express idea that it was possible and desirable to fight and win the war with airpower. The theater commander had the opportunity to see an uncontaminated option that he could accept, reject, or modify. In this case, he chose to make minor modifications. With the current practice, however, he would never have heard the unadulterated option.
Identify the key force. Related to the idea of developing coherent war options is the concept of the ‘key force.’ In very broad terms, a war can be fought with air, land, or sea forces or some combination thereof. In a particular situation, however, it is quite likely that one of these forces will either be able to do the job on its own, or will be the most important force. It is also possible that each one will have a dominant role in a phase of the war or, in some cases, there will be separate air, land, and sea wars going on simultaneously in different geographic areas or realms. It is important to think carefully about the key force question and avoid the ‘jointness’ trap of thinking that all components must share equally in planning or participation.
Involve many people from across the government in the planning and in the execution. Starting immediately after General Schwarzkopf’s call to General Loh, there were far more people involved in the planning than would normally have been the case. It started with many Air Force people, expanded rapidly to include Navy, Marine, CIA, and DIA officers, and later included people from the White House, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the State Department, most of the other national defense agencies, and civilian contractors. Having all of these agencies and people visiting Checkmate and participating at various points helped ensure that everyone knew what was going on and it also helped to avoid mistakes. As an example, Ambassador April Glaspie on a fall visit to Checkmate was able to tell us that a key Iraqi agency had recently changed locations—something that was not part of any database. Too often, we allow an obsession with security to interfere with smart planning. If our planning is not smart because we have prevented participation by the right people, security leaks become the least of our concerns.
Redesign the relations between the President and the Chiefs of Staff. Before the advent of the Goldwater–Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, all of the Chiefs of Staff were considered to be military advisors to the President and had access to him. In World War II, four senior officers had direct access to the President and gave him distinct options based on their expertise. The President then made the decisions that were his responsibility under the Constitution. Following Goldwater–Nichols, the Chairman became the chief advisor who was supposed to represent the views of the other Chiefs. Although this is theoretically possible, in reality it becomes extremely unlikely that a Chairman will adequately represent the views of a Chief he doesn’t like or with whom he disagrees. In the fall before the Gulf War, the President learned that there was disagreement among the Chiefs so he called a special meeting at Camp David to hear directly from each. This kind of a meeting should not depend on happenstance but should be institutionalized.
Technology is the real asymmetric advantage of the United States. Our ability to control the 3rd dimension and to do so with relative invulnerability allows us to control almost any opponent to an adequate degree. In the first Gulf War, our technological advantages in this realm were so overwhelming that they helped us to win quickly and inexpensively and without destroying Iraq in the process. Although we still have an advantage, it has eroded over the last quarter-century and no longer gives us the margin we previously enjoyed. Reversing this trend should have the highest national priority.
Plan to win. Planning to win means having a very clear, desirable objective that is attainable through military operations at an acceptable cost in an appropriately brief time period. It does not permit engaging in desultory operations that have little chance of being decisive or ending satisfactorily. A clear plan to win should be part of every war decision. Without such a plan, there should be no war.
In the first Gulf War, we were able to use lessons from the previous half-century of air warfare and to take advantage of technology translated into raw capability in that same time period. Using a new approach and new weapons, we won convincingly. For a variety of reasons, however, in most of our subsequent wars, we reverted to models that had failed us in Korea and in Vietnam. It is time to rethink and to put us back on the right strategic course.
Colonel John Warden, USAF (Ret.) is widely acknowledged as the main architect of the theory that underpinned the air campaign’s conduct during DESERT STORM. Warden graduated from the USAF Academy in 1965 with a BSc in National Security. He subsequently served as a pilot during the Vietnam War where he flew 266 combat missions. Warden graduated from Texas Tech University in 1975 with an MA in Political Science. Between 1985 and 1986, Warden attended the US National War College where he wrote The Air Campaign, which has been translated into at least seven languages. His command appointments included time as both Vice Commander and Commander, 36th Tactical Fighter Wing in Germany during the 1980s. After Bitburg, and at the time of DESERT STORM, Warden served as Deputy Director for Strategy, Doctrine, and Warfighting, Headquarters USAF. Warden retired from the USAF in 1995 after serving as Commandant of the Air Command and Staff College from 1992 to his retirement. Since retirement, he has been Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Venturist, Inc.
Header Image: USAF F-16A, F-15C, F-15E aircraft flying over burning oil wells during DESERT STORM in 1991. (Source: Wikimedia)