By General Charles A. Horner, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 General Charles Horner, USAF (Ret.). During DESERT STORM, Horner was Commander, US Central Command Air Forces and he commanded US and allied air operations for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia from August 1990. In this article, he provides a view of the war as he saw it.
The 1991 battle to liberate Kuwait was unique in many aspects and should be studied as in many ways it represented a new way to conduct military operations. As a preamble, I must note that I quickly learned not to use the terms ‘strategic’ or ‘tactical,’ as they have such diverse meanings that they only contribute to confusion. In addition, I found that the use of ‘doctrine’ to determine courses of action also is dysfunctional as it all too frequently is used to justify doing something that cannot otherwise be justified by common sense.
There were many elements that comprise the Desert Storm story. The first and perhaps the most important one is leadership.
Leadership starts at the top and in this case, it was President George H.W. Bush. General Schwarzkopf and I went to Camp David two days after the Iraq invasion of Kuwait had been fully recognized. The principal attendees included the Secretaries of Defense, State, White House Chief of Staff, National Security Advisor, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
General Colin Powell provided an overview of his understanding of the current situation in the Area of Responsibility (AOR). He was followed by the Commander in Chief of Central Command, General Norman Schwarzkopf, who provided a description of ground forces that could be deployed in terms of size, speed, and capability. I followed with similar information concerning air power. This information was provided so the political leadership could consider options for military action should the Iraqi forces continue on and invade Saudi Arabia.
There were many questions asked by various Cabinet members and then President Bush began to speak. He noted that the United States would need to first halt any further incursions and inferred that at some point we might have to liberate occupied Kuwait.
From his questioning it became apparent he was concerned about the loss of life from any military actions, not only U.S. lives but also coalition lives, and then I realized he was concerned about Iraqi lives. Next, he asked a number of questions about possible coalition partners. No one could provide any answers, so he tasked us to go with Secretary Cheney to discuss the situation with the King of Saudi Arabia, as his country was the one most threatened by Iraqi forces in Kuwait.
The lesson to be gained was that from the start it was apparent that any political goals he would direct would be achievable using military force. There was no discussion about bringing some sort of reform to Iraq that has subsequently proven to be clearly unachievable 25 years later. The request that we also consider the value of human life and cooperate as an international coalition was deeply appreciated by those of us in the room that had fought in Vietnam, where the measure of merit was dead bodies, and our military leaders discounted the worth of the Vietnamese military as partners.
Next down the Desert Storm chain of command was the Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney. I don’t know the depth of his knowledge in military matters, but he was always fully informed as to our military forces, plans, and strategy and never gave us in the theater specific guidance. He was a good listener, he asked lots of questions, and was open to our views and arguments for or against suggestion that others might put forward. He was easy to work with, he wanted military views on a broad range of issues, and appeared to have confidence in our opinions and decisions. Our failure to halt Scud ballistic missile attacks of Israel was a serious political problem on which he flew top cover for us after we explained our capabilities and limitations.
General Colin Powell was one of us who fought in Vietnam. He was well aware of the importance of the Goldwater–Nichols defense reorganization concerning the roles of the Services and the Unified Commanders. He was always sensitive to our prerogatives and saw his role as supporting the deployed forces and serving as a buffer from interference from those in Washington not in the chain of command. One such action involved the dismissal of the Air Force Chief of Staff as a result of a newspaper article following a visit to the AOR.
General Schwarzkopf deserves all the credit for our success due to his leadership. He was a very intelligent officer who was aware of his own shortcoming especially in the area of air operations. That is why he had me accompany him to Camp David. He understood quickly new concepts, such as ‘Push Close Air Support (CAS),’ a concept where the ground forces would always receive needed support, but were precluded from needlessly tying up air power by requesting ground or airborne alert sorties – another concept that proved to be wasteful in Vietnam. He allowed dissent from me, but it was only provided in private. He was also very concerned about the lives of his soldiers and his persona post war. He and his predecessor General George Crist understood the value of a single air commander and single air strategy executed by a single plan.
Leaders who were not deployed also played an important role. General Bill Creech had retired years before Desert Storm, but his legacy contributed greatly to our success. He took the Reagan budgets of the early 1980s and concentrated on organization, equipage, and training of our air forces. The Red Flag realistic air combat training exercises taught airmen of all Services to fight as a team. Green Flags were similar exercises that taught us how to fight the electronic warfare battle. Blue Flag—a command and control exercise—was vital to my forces as our unified commanders, Generals Crist and Schwarzkopf, made sure their assigned Army, Navy, and Marine Corps components participated in our Air Force command and control annual exercises where we learned to build air strategy and publish an air tasking order (ATO). The most significant concept Creech taught us was how to decentralize decision authority with its accompanying delegated responsibility. In this way the flight leads challenged the headquarters when they were told to do something stupid. In battle they were expected to decide if the mission could be efficiently prosecuted. They were empowered as they were on scene—a vital concept that has to be relearned in every conflict.
Last but not least. Brigadier General Buster Glosson deserved much of the credit for creating the team known as the ‘Black Hole’ that planned Desert Storm. Since war is chaos, we only planned the first two and a half days of operations. Plans can become an anchor, keeping one from the agility needed as new situations arise. So, on day one of the war the Black Hole completed the ATO for the third day and started fresh on the next day. As the war progressed, they became more adroit at meeting unforeseen challenges and developed new targeting strategies. Buster was not always easy to work for, but his team proved to be world class.
The second-most important factor in our success was that the airmen were prepared to deploy and fight. I cited the impact of the Reagan budgets in terms of equipment and training. One of the most important benefits was high morale. Warriors want to be confident they can whip an enemy. In the Carter budget years, readiness was pencil whipped; ratings were inflated to hide our lack of flying hours needed to train. Maintenance and supply failed to support training, crews would be given aircraft with broken weapons systems and told to do the best they could. Creech fixed maintenance and supply first. He demanded tough standards of training even if there was an increased risk of accidents. This increase in readiness was realized by the other Services’ airmen due to our joint exercises such as Top Gun and Red Flag.
The preparation to conduct military operations in our AOR was also a result of a massive pre-positioning of equipment, supplies, munitions, and fuels in the AOR started by the Joint Rapid Deployment Force in the 1980s. 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. This material had been stored on ships anchored in theater and in leased warehouses throughout the AOR.
It was the organization and personnel that made Desert Storm so different from previous conflicts. I have already cited Goldwater–Nichols, but Vietnam was deeply ingrained on all of serving under General Schwarzkopf. John Yeosock, 3rd Army, Walt Boomer, United States Marine Corps, Stan Arthur, NAVCENT, and I were a team. We could disagree respectfully and work out a solution. For example, the Navy F-14 did not have the systems needed to conduct beyond visual range missile shots. Stan asked that I change the rules, I in turn urged he bring the matter up with General Schwarzkopf. He did and the issue was resolved without acrimony.
We had some problems. Initially the Navy wanted to reinstitute the route package system in Iraq. I had flown in North Vietnam and I told Stan Arthur’s predecessor I would resign before I would agree to that, he was shocked and left in a huff. Stan, who had flown over North Vietnam, agreed with my position. The Army does not have doctrine for fighting at levels above Corps. As a result, one of the corps commanders thought he was in charge of his share of the battlespace. He would also submit inflated target requests with the idea if he asked for more, he would get more, apparently not concerned about the lives of the other soldiers. I didn’t ever have to raise these issues with Yeosock or Schwarzkopf; however, to this day there are some Desert Storm Army veterans who firmly believe ‘we could have won that war if only we had been able to get control of the Air Force’ – not many, but a few.
Special Operations pose special problems. The regular Army and Special Operations Army often are separated by choice. This doesn’t work for air, as was found out when on two occasions two insertions were discovered by the Iraqis and F-16s were needed to recover the teams. The separation of forces sought by the Special Operations meant their teams were not trained nor equipped to work with non-Special Operations aircraft. Fortunately, a Special Operations airman on the team had brought a regular air rescue radio and could communicate with the F-16s that held the Iraqis at bay until the team could be rescued.
Because of the international political top cover provided by our President and the other national leaders our military leaders worked well together. At Schwarzkopf’s direction we created a co-equal leader from the primary host Saudi Arabia. Lieutenant General Prince Khaled bin Sultan, son of the Saudi Minister of Defense, was in place when General Schwarzkopf arrived in mid-August. Their teamwork resolved problems that could have caused serious disruptions if left to fester.
Another lesson from Vietnam was that while our military is well respected, we lose that respect when we try to be the boss. Coalitions have to be built on trust and mutual respect. On the air side, all national senior airmen were equal regardless of rank. We met twice a day and discussed any matter from tactics to support. We listened together, supported one another and often the national military leader resolved concerns from his national political leadership that could have impacted military operations in a negative manner.
In Vietnam, we had strict Rules of Engagement (ROE), which often assisted our enemy. In Vietnam, those of us flying in the North would ignore dysfunctional ROE and as a result we gave away our integrity in the post-mission debriefs. Afterwards I promised if I could I would never let that happen again. As a result, I kept a close eye and control of ROE. We have the Law of Armed Conflict and that is good guidance, even sufficient. Bad things happen in war, but a responsible empowered force will keep them to honest mistakes. We had mistakes such as the bombing of a command bunker converted into an air raid shelter, but that was a mistake not a crime. Political leaders will try to keep bad things from happening by using ROE to control the military. Such measures do not work and cause those being shot at to lose respect for those who think they are making the battlefield a better place.
In Vietnam, the measure of success was body count. In addition to being obscene it didn’t provide useful data on how things were going. Under Creech we learned to measure output not activity. It didn’t matter how many holes we put in Iraqi runways, the measure of success was how many of our jets were downed by Iraqi fighters or how many pilots were kept from hitting their target because of an Iraqi fighter. People in government capitals, higher headquarters, and the press all want to know how it is going. They will try and force you to use metrics based on activity rather than output, which is infinitely more difficult to measure.
In Vietnam, the Secretary of Defense and the President selected our targets in the North. In Desert Storm the captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels who were the war planners in the theater selected them. We welcomed information and suggestions from any source, but target decisions would remain in theater with all being kept aware of the current plan.
In Desert Storm we did some things very well: for example, building the air tasking order. My Air Force staff was small but, when augmented by other service and coalition airmen, national intelligence members, and team members stationed around the world at communication, space, and logistics hubs it functioned well because it was united by a common cause and vision. We were fortunate to have an evil enemy who posed a significant threat. That made it easy to pull together planning, building, and executing a huge number of activities that are controlled by a single ATO. It too often was delivered to the units hours late, but it was essential in getting the air armada that defeated the Iraqis.
Airlift, inter- and intra-theater, was revolutionary. The speed of the initial Iraqi attack meant our response from halfway around the world had to happen within hours. It did. Then our forces were spread out over thousands of miles in an environment where to live off the land you had to be able to eat sand and drink salt water. The initial deployment was frenzied, but in time sustainment of forces in theater was never lacking. That is a key factor that is underappreciated—hard work but few headlines.
We gained control of the air quickly. In Vietnam we chose not to dominate the enemy air defenses, and, in the north, the surface-to-air missiles and anti-air artillery took a huge toll on the air throughout the war. Those of us who flew over North Vietnam swore ‘never again!’ A Navy unit, the Warfare Analysis Center, provided a detailed description of the Iraqi air defense system. Brigadier General Larry Henry, and later Brigadier General Glenn Proffitt, constructed a plan based on our anti-SAM efforts in Vietnam, and the Israeli operations in the Syria that took the initiative away from the radar-guided SAMs, rendering them almost useless. We flew at medium altitude beyond the range of most conventional artillery.
The Iraqi fighter force was modern and posed a deadly threat. In the late 80s I had dinner in Pakistan with a Pakistan Air Force fighter pilot who had been training the Iraqi Air Force. He had been sent home by the Russians who managed the program because he had been teaching Western air combat tactics. The Russians demanded the Iraqis use close control, with the ground controller even calling when the pilot should launch their weapon. We knew that without contact with the ground controller the Iraqi pilots would be lost, so our first strikes were designed to take away their air picture and ability to control the interceptors from the ground, rendering the Iraqi Air Force impotent.
The effort to isolate the battlefield, interdict, and hit point targets such as command bunkers and dug-in tanks was highly efficient because of precision-guided weapons.
The air refueling force was the key element in planning the air effort. The sky was filled with fighters, bombers, and command aircraft all going to or from a coalition tanker. It is a tribute to all the aircrews flying day and night in all weather without external lights that they did so thousands of times without mishap.
We could have done some tasks better. Our reconnaissance was primarily film based. That was fine for fixed targets, but the Iraqis learned quickly that they could not stay in one spot for very long. We were able to shorten the time from target location to putting a weapon on that target by flying F-16 aircraft over a given area on the ground and then the F-16 pilot, called a Killer Scout, could lead newly arrived attack aircraft and direct their strike.
We could have done a better job of working with the media. We failed to realize there are different media with different requirements and timelines. Also, those of us who flew in Vietnam had reservations as to the integrity of the media and their willingness to truthfully report what they observed.
We failed to think through to post-conflict needs. For example, our ground forces overran large amounts of modern Russian equipment and we did not have an intelligence exploitation plan. Instead, soldiers would simply throw a grenade into the cockpit of a parked advanced fighter.
Our cyber operations were hampered by a lack of interagency cooperation. The bickering precluded significant opportunity to confront the Iraqis. I see little improvement today, 25 years later.
Perhaps our biggest error was a failure to plan for the end of hostilities. We were directed to cease our attacks and then the military was directed to negotiate the peace. This was something that should have been planned using an interagency political process well beforehand. General Schwarzkopf and Prince Khaled bin Sultan met with the Iraqis at Safwan. Our first concern was the return of prisoners of war and separation of forces to preclude more bloodshed. But there were a number of issues that could have been resolved that may later have caused the need for a second war with Iraq.
Desert Storm created a halo that in some ways may not have been fully justified. The American people had low expectations for our performance due to our experience fighting in Vietnam. We did not make the same mistakes on the political and military level, but one must wonder, given our current combat, if those valuable lessons have to be relearned. Stealth, precision, and high sortie rates were underappreciated by the public in general and even by some of our military. The budgets of the early 1980s, the leadership in Congress that led to Goldwater–Nichols, astute political leaders who set achievable goals, low casualty rates, quick decisive action, and involvement of the total force all helped to make our hometown folks feel great relief. Our allies in the region were surprised by the excellent conduct of our military personnel in their countries. They told me they were ashamed that they harbored concerns about the very negative images they garnered from the media during the Vietnam War.
Saddam offered to withdraw from occupied Kuwait prior to the beginning of ground operations. The armies of the world define war as ground force fighting ground force until one prevails; hence the labeling of Desert Storm as the four-day war. Every war is likely to be different; to require a different mix of force to accomplish the desired strategy determined to achieve the desired goals. The lesson of Desert Storm is not only an air power lesson. It is that there are many ways to employ military force, and generals need to do what Norman Schwarzkopf did: temper doctrine with common sense; create cooperation between service components and Allies; and connect the needs of the political leadership with those of the people who bear the brunt of the battle.
General Charles A. Horner, USAF (Ret.) entered the US Air Force through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program and was awarded pilot wings in November 1959. During his service, Horner commanded a tactical training wing, a fighter wing, two air divisions and a numbered Air Force. While Commander of the US 9th Air Force, he also commanded US Central Command Air Forces, in command of all US and allied air assets during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. His final command was a Commander in Chief of North American Aerospace Defense Command and the US Space Command; and Commander of Air Force Space Command, Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. He retired from the USDAF in 1994. In 1999, in conjunction with Tom Clancy, he published Every Man a Tiger, which focused on many of the command issues related to the conducted of Operation DESERT STORM.