#DesertStorm30 – Leading with Airpower

#DesertStorm30 – Leading with Airpower

By General John Michael Loh, 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 airpowerstudies@gmail.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 General John Michael Loh, USAF (Ret.). In this article, General Loh discusses some of the debates and decisions that took place in Washington in the months leading up to the start of the DESERT STORM air campaign as well as some of what he viewed as the lessons learnt from the campaign.

Desert Storm was the only major war since World War II that ended in victory, with all objectives met; a war dominated by airpower and remarkable for its brief duration—only 43 days. Airpower played the dominant role in Desert Storm. But Desert Storm did not start with airpower in the lead. The air campaign plan had many detractors. The decision to lead with airpower, before and independent of a ground invasion, was a war in itself. I am going to take you through the debates and decisions in Washington that put and kept airpower in the lead in the five months preceding the start of the war, and give you my version of lessons learned from Desert Storm.

The War of the Pentagon

Four battles characterized what I call ‘The War of the Pentagon.’

The first was a phone call from General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of U.S. Central Command and the Joint Force Commander for Desert Storm, to me on Wednesday, August 8, asking for help in expanding the existing war plan for a Middle East regional war.

The second was the meeting of our Air Staff team, called Checkmate, with General Powell and the Joint staff that Saturday, seeking the Chairman’s agreement to proceed with our air campaign planning activity.

The third were the frequent skirmishes in the Tank between me and the other three service chiefs who wanted their service to take the lead and be the dominant player in Desert Storm. I called them the counterattacks.

And the fourth was the meeting at the White House on October 11 with President George H. W. Bush, the Commander in Chief, seeking his approval to proceed with the air campaign plan.

I will briefly describe each of those four ‘battles’ in the ‘war of the Pentagon.’

Request from General Schwarzkopf

I received a call from General Schwarzkopf on the morning of August 8. It surprised me because I only knew Schwarzkopf professionally, but not personally. Here’s what he said:

Mike, I need your help in expanding our war plan to include a more robust air campaign that includes strikes against strategic targets as well as tactical targets. The air operations plans here are traditional air/land battle scenarios in collaboration with, and tethered to, ground forces, but very little independent air operations that destroy strategic targets around Baghdad and other parts of the country.

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Here was an Army commander talking like an airpower advocate. General Schwarzkopf was an airpower champion in a green suit.

Fortunately, our Checkmate planning cell on the air staff was already putting together a strategic-level air campaign concept. Checkmate was formed to think ahead about the application of airpower in several scenarios. Checkmate’s leader was Colonel John Warden, a bright conceptual thinker, who was already designing an air campaign for the Iraq war.

I told General Schwarzkopf:

We have the concept of the air campaign you want. I will take the lead in fleshing it out as best we can and bring it to you ASAP. I need a day or two to make sure it works your problem, and I will bring it to you ASAP. “He said, “Thanks. Please hurry!

I then called our Ops Deputy, and told him to get John Warden and his Checkmate team here immediately. I gave Warden strong marching orders and told him:

Get with Intel, turn your generic plan into one that begins to address the strategic target set in Iraq, and be prepared to brief General Powell later this week.

I also called General Bob Russ, commander of Tactical Air Command, and General Jack Chain, commander of Strategic Air Command, telling them of Schwarzkopf’s call and asking them to send a few of their air planners to the Pentagon to assist Checkmate. They did.

Briefing to General Powell

The second battle was our meeting with General Powell and the Joint Staff directors on that Saturday, three days after the call from Schwarzkopf. The Joint Staff was dominated by Army officers, not just Powell, but particularly the influence of the J-3, an Army general steeped in land warfare and dismissive of airpower.

A stormy session ensued. Colonel Warden briefed and I chimed in from time to time for reinforcement. We emphasized the independent application of airpower against the Iraqi centers of gravity, and our confidence in waging both an air campaign in the greater Baghdad Theater and also tactical-level attacks in the Kuwaiti Theater.

General Powell listened for the most part, but let his J-3 argue against a pre-invasion air campaign. His arguments centered on his experiences in Vietnam, and those of others present. They claimed that airpower could not defeat an enemy and could not even interdict effectively. He even cited the World War II air armadas against Germany, claiming they were ineffective. And on and on. Others piled on.

I listened patiently for a while, but after listening to these false claims, I spoke up forcefully with logical arguments countering accusations about airpower, but, mostly, I argued about the renaissance in airpower in the 20 years since Vietnam. I gave a full-throated defense of our plan based on this rebirth of airpower in the Air Force. I challenged them with information of which they were unaware regarding a new generation of combat aircraft and weapons and training since Vietnam that changed the nature of air warfare, which made possible the innovative plan for Desert Storm. Stealth, precision weapons with lasers, night attack with FLIRs and Red Flag force-on-force training, the real 2nd offset strategy in my opinion, gave us confidence for a dominant air campaign plan.

Ground crews service F-117A aircraft of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing on the flight line in 1990 as the Wingprepared to deploy to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield. (Source: USAF)

At the end of this meeting, General Colin Powell, under great pressure from SecDef Cheney and President Bush to devise a winning plan quickly, agreed to let us continue our planning as we briefed it. His only objection was not to the two-theater air campaign and its strategic nature, but that he wanted us to destroy the Republican Guard Armies as part of the strategic plan. And he insisted we make it a joint campaign, not just Air Force. So, I agreed to include Navy and Marine air where it fit. General Powell said he would tell General Schwarzkopf that he approved.

We briefed Schwarzkopf. He approved and told the team to take it to General Chuck Horner and the operational air planners in Riyadh.

Skirmishes in the Tank

The third battle was a series of skirmishes in the Tank, the room where the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet in the Pentagon. While Air Force planners—Lt. General Chuck Horner, Brig. General Buster Glosson, and the Checkmate guys, Colonel John Warden and Lt. Colonel Dave Deptula—went to Riyadh to plan the specifics of the air campaign, I continued to fight for, and defend, the air campaign as the leading edge of the upcoming war.

The Pentagon is the temple of parochialism. Now don’t get me wrong. We fight as a joint team. Jointness works beautifully on the battlefield. But it doesn’t work as well in the wars of the Pentagon where each service wants to show how vital it is, and, therefore, how it must be in the vanguard of any major military action, particularly a major regional war.

I vigorously defended our leadership role in the Tank during September and October when the other chiefs realized the Air Force was dominating the plan. Each of the other service chiefs—Army, Navy, and Marine—had his own ideas for taking the lead.

The Navy wanted to divide the airspace into route packages the way it was done in Vietnam, which, incidentally, was not an efficient way to allocate airpower. The Navy wanted to control all air action in the east from carriers in the Persian Gulf, and in the west from carriers in the Red Sea. The Navy’s plan would leave only the middle for the Air force working with Army forces. We won those skirmishes handily.

The Marine Commandant argued forcibly that the Marines take the lead with an amphibious landing from the Persian Gulf and then attack through Kuwait. After all, amphibious operations are the Marines’ primary competence. But his proposal was shot down over time.

Now, the Army Chief did not like the idea of the Air Force operating independently. The Army preferred a simultaneous, dual invasion, with the bulk of air sorties tethered to the Army supporting the ground war. Their chief had two motives: position the Army, not the Air Force, as the leading force in the war, and keep most of the air sorties under the air/land scenario doing close air support and shallow interdiction.

In the end, General Powell sided with our air campaign plan because it made good sense.

President Bush Gives his Approval

The final battle was the meeting with President Bush on October 11. General Schwarzkopf sent Brigadier General Buster Glosson to brief President Bush on the air campaign plan. The evening before, Secretary Cheney, General Powell, and the Joint Chiefs previewed both the air and ground plans in the Pentagon. Glosson gave a powerful briefing with detailed information about the air campaign and his confidence in its successful execution. On the other hand, the Army general presented a ground campaign that was unimaginative, lacked detail, and was not a confidence-builder. General Powell was displeased with the Army plan, but also wary of the confidence Glosson displayed in his briefing.

After the meeting, General Powell stopped Glosson after I had already departed for my office. He told Glosson to tone down his confidence level, that the briefing and the air campaign were too optimistic. Glosson hastened to my office and asked what to do. I told him to not change anything in his briefing, but to invoke General Schwarzkopf’s name several times during the briefing.

Buster, remember this is not your plan, it is not General Horner’s plan, it is not an Air Force plan, it is the Joint Force Commander’s air plan. So, let the President and all present know you are speaking for General Schwarzkopf and he has approved the essence of the air campaign plan.

General Glosson gave his briefing superbly. President Bush, to his credit, knew the value of airpower and was excited about our plan. After hearing the briefing by Buster Glosson, he wanted to begin the war right then. But General Powell dissuaded him arguing that ground operations were necessary to ensure victory. He wanted to deploy the VII Corps from Germany to Saudi. President Bush approved. That took more than two months. We won that battle and the air campaign concept spawned in the Pentagon became the vanguard force in Desert Storm.

Then the war began on the morning of January 17 with a massive air attack against strategic targets around Baghdad led by the stealthy F-117, and continued for the next 42 days, followed by a 4-day ground invasion before the Iraqis surrendered. We won Desert Storm quickly, decisively, with overwhelming force and few casualties, leading with airpower.

Airpower lessons learned

So, what are the lessons learned? There are many. Let me give you three macro, ‘big picture’ lessons that I took from Desert Storm and are still applicable today. One: airpower is consistently underestimated and not well understood, even in the Air Force. Two: computer models and ‘experts’ always over-estimate air attrition. And three: strong, decisive leadership and trust from the top down are essential for success.

Let’s look at each one more closely.

F-15E Eagle fighter aircraft from the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing is parked on a desert airfield during Operation Desert Shield. (Source: USAF)

Airpower disparaged

Recognize that others do not share your enthusiasm about the effectiveness of airpower. Just before Desert Storm the other military services did not recognize the ‘Rebirth of Airpower’ from 1970 to 1990 in the Air Force. In my opinion, the 2nd offset strategy for the Air Force was the investment in three technologies: stealth, precision weapons, and forward looking infrared (FLIR) sensors to take away the sanctuary of night the enemy had enjoyed in Vietnam. We fielded systems that exploited all three technologies: the stealthy F-117 Nighthawk with its FLIR and laser designator; the laser-guided bombs employed by many fighters, and laser designators on the F-11F and F-15E, and going from flares to FLIRs to attack at night. These systems were ready for Desert Storm but most war planners did not appreciate their significance.

Currently, the Army’s zeal to get ‘boots on the ground’ in the war against ISIS has had the unintended effect of disparaging airpower as ineffective in that fight, giving airpower an undeserved bad reputation. The real problem with air attacks against ISIS is the misapplication of airpower, dribbling it out piecemeal, six sorties per day (in Syria, the locus of ISIS) rather than over a thousand strikes a day as in Desert Storm.

In the recent past, our Air Force leaders, seeking to be team players in the joint arena, have promoted airpower tethered to the ground battle rather than having a component of the air campaign in which airpower is employed independent of the ground battle. They have forgotten this valuable lesson of Desert Storm.

And, some seek to promote their own service at the expense of the contribution of air. The Army teaches and preaches Desert Storm as the ‘100-Hour War.’ They deliberately forget that it took only 100 hours to ‘mop up’ after 1000 hours of airpower put Iraq in shambles and rendered the Iraqi army virtually ineffective as a fighting force.

So, we need to continually learn, then educate. Now, don’t get me wrong: airpower can’t do everything. We must have ‘boots on the ground’ to force total victory and surrender. But the right formula should be the Desert Storm formula: lead with relentless, overwhelming airpower, then follow with a massive ground invasion.

Models overestimate air attrition

Computer models and ‘experts’ always over-predict air attrition. Historically, a mismatch exists between the forecasts versus actual attrition experienced in air campaigns. Models have always erred on the pessimistic side. They predict higher loss rates. This was true for Desert Storm and other major air campaigns.

Why is this so? Well, models cannot replicate the complexity of large-scale air battles. Models are good for evaluating the relative impact of changing one or two parameters of threats or air defense systems, but not for predicting the absolute outcomes of large air battles. Modelers also invariably assume the adversary is ‘ten feet tall,’ with systems working at peak performance and 100 percent reliability.

A brief look at past air campaigns, including Desert Storm, will prove my point and warn you to be wary of attrition analysts.

In December 1972, in operation Linebacker II, B-52 raids over heavily defended Hanoi, Vietnam, were successful in destroying the state-of-the art IADS and other military targets in North Vietnam. This led to the successful negotiation of our exit from Vietnam and the return of our prisoners of war.

Analysts and ‘experts’ predicted we would lose one B-52 out of every three B-52 sorties flown. In the 11-day operation, we lost 15 B-52s in 729 B-52 sorties flown into the teeth of the air defense system—an attrition rate of 2%, not 33%.

In the June 1982 Bekaa Valley campaign, the Israeli Air Force mounted a mass operation against a modern Soviet-supplied air defense system fielded by Syria in Lebanon. Analysts predicted an attrition rate of 15%. In 1,100 fighter sorties, the IAF lost no aircraft—zero percent attrition, not 15%.

How about Desert Storm? In the first five days, the experts, even Air Force leaders, predicted a loss of 70 or so aircraft before total air dominance was achieved. Analysts’ models predicted much higher attrition. After all, the IADS around Baghdad was the state-of-the-art French Kari system. Coalition forces flew more than 5,000 combat sorties in those five days and lost 27 fixed-wing aircraft, an attrition rate of less than 0.4%—less than half of Air Force estimates, and way below analysts’ predictions.

Why are forecasts of air attrition consistently higher than actual results, and why is this important today? Models lose their fidelity when they try to simulate large-scale air campaigns like Desert Storm because they cannot faithfully replicate their enormous complexity. They just cannot account for the countermeasures, both electronic and kinematic, the decoys, on-scene decisions by pilots, changes of tactics as the campaign progresses, or the sheer quantity and swarming tactics air battles. Many models merely extrapolate from a one-versus-one single-engagement to many-versus-many scenarios.

That is grossly faulty modeling.

Why is this mismatch important today? Well, today we again hear the predictions of the analysts that manned aircraft cannot penetrate modern ‘anti-access/area denial’ systems in development by Russia, China, and Iran. They tout results of their models to show that air losses would be unacceptable. I have been hearing that argument for more than 50 years! Manned fighters and bombers can negate sophisticated air defense systems and successfully attack heavily defended targets with the same success enjoyed in these three campaigns with a combination of standoff and penetrating aircraft, decoys, drones, and smart tactics.

The lesson is to challenge assumptions of the models, examine the algorithms critically, and use models only where they apply: for limited, relative changes, not absolute outcomes in large air campaigns. Be skeptical and critical of attrition models.

Leadership from the top down

The third lesson: Strong, decisive leadership from the top is necessary for success. President Bush 41 provided that leadership. He set clear military objectives and let his military leaders plan the campaign without interference from the White House. He gained the support of both the Congress and the U.N. for the war. He skillfully knitted together a large coalition of international partners in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia from Congress and the U.N. He placed heavy demands on General Colin Powell to put together a winning war plan with force sufficient to win quickly. He recognized the problems of a long war without an exit strategy. In short, he wanted to get in, win, and get out after meeting his military objectives.

President Bush 41 was under enormous pressure politically and from the whole U.S. population to not invade. Instead, political leaders of both parties advised him strongly to allow economic sanctions to continue for another year, hoping that would force Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait. The pressure against the war was intense. Various studies concluded upwards of 10,000 American lives would be lost. The airwaves and newspapers were replete with comments like “8,000 body bags are being shipped to Saudi.” One hundred forty-eight American lives were lost in Desert Storm—148 lives, not eight or ten thousand.

Eight of the nine living former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including one Air Force chairman, wrote a letter and testified before Congress that we should not go to war, but rather let sanctions continue. Senator Sam Nunn, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued and voted against the war. This doomed his plans to run for president in the 1992 election. The fierce opposition underscored the lack of understanding of the impact of airpower in 1990, and the advances in airpower since Vietnam.

But, throughout it all, President Bush was steadfast and resolute. He displayed undaunted courage, and he placed unprecedented trust in his military leaders. That trust pervaded all the way down the chain of command to the troops engaged in Desert Storm. Trust was the coin of the realm at every level of command from the commander-in-chief to the aircrews and troops on the ground. And trust went both ways: down the chain and back up the chain. The pilots and troops trusted their leaders. They knew their leaders had their back and that confidence allowed them to perform knowing their leaders would support them even if they made an occasional honest mistake in the heat of battle.

Desert Storm compared to the War against ISIS

 The contrast between Desert Storm and the current war against ISIS could not be sharper. President Bush 41 gave the military clear objectives, gained approval of Congress and the U.N., formed a strong coalition that participated willingly and actively, and won quickly and decisively with few casualties on both sides. None of these principles defining a justified war are present against the Islamic State.

The trust, so prevalent in Desert Storm, is weak in the ISIS war. Rules of engagement for pilots are so restrictive that the pilots are fearful of retribution and thus too risk averse in combat. Instead of clear military objectives and a defined end state for combat action, attrition of ISIS members appears to be the measure of success. Vietnam taught us the folly of using body count as a measure of success. How soon we forget.

Since Desert Storm, airpower seems to have stepped backward. Current conflicts do not unleash airpower like Desert Storm. Today, critics disparage airpower, but only because it is misapplied against ISIS. That must change.

Closing Observations and lessons

At the start of Desert Storm, airpower was not the leading force. Airpower had to fight its way to take the lead. We had to convince our critics that a rebirth of airpower took place after Vietnam, emphasizing the asymmetric application of stealth, precision weapons, and night attacks. That took away the sanctuary of night the enemy enjoyed previously. The battles in the Pentagon were waged and won that positioned airpower as the dominant force with compelling arguments and forceful logic.

President Bush 41 let the military plan both the air and ground campaigns without interference, approved the air campaign plan, and never wavered from his support.

The air campaign became the vanguard force in Desert Storm. Generals Horner and Glosson broadened the conceptual work done in the Pentagon, put together detailed force packages to take down the air defenses, and matched air forces against targets in both the Baghdad and Kuwait theaters. The six-week air campaign allowed the ground forces to complete the victory in just four days.

Three broad lessons emerged. First, we have already forgotten the lesson of Desert Storm that airpower can be applied independent of a ground campaign and in close support of ground forces at the same time. Airpower continues to be misunderstood and misapplied in the War against ISIS.

Second, air attrition is always over-predicted because computer models and ‘experts’ do not understand how airpower is applied in an overwhelming way. The examples of Desert Storm, Linebacker II, and the Bekaa Valley campaign prove the point. Modelers do not understand and account for the many complex variables in air campaigns that allow for changes in tactics and on-scene decisions. Over-predicting air attrition is happening in models today to declare that manned fighters and bombers cannot penetrate A2AD air defense systems of Russia, China, and Iran. Airpower advocates need to challenge the assumptions and methodology of air attrition models.

And third, President Bush 41 placed enormous trust in his military leaders to plan and wage a decisive two-theater campaign that allowed the coalition to win, quickly, decisively, with overwhelming force, and few casualties. That trust flowed down to the pilots and troops in the cockpits and on the ground. In turn, the pilots and troops trusted that their commanders would support them in the heat of the battle. That mutual trust is not as strong today as it was in Desert Storm.

The lessons of Desert Storm, from inception of the air campaign through its execution that led to victory, must not be forgotten. Rather, as we look forward to future enforcement of deterrence and plans for wars across the spectrum of conflict, airpower should be the leading force, the vanguard to pave the way for the successful conduct of campaigns and victory.

General John Michael Loh, USAF (Ret.) graduated from the USAF Academy in 1960. His final command was as Commander, Air Combat Command from June 1992 to July 1995. During Operation DESERT STORM he served was the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. He served as Commander, Tactical Air Command from March 1991 to June 1992. Loh has a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He commanded the Aeronautical Systems Division, Air Force Systems Command. He was a command pilot with more than 4,300 flying hours, primarily in fighter aircraft, and flew 204 combat missions in Vietnam. Loh retired from the USAF in 1995.