Looking Back at Iraqi Air Defences during Operation DESERT STORM

Looking Back at Iraqi Air Defences during Operation DESERT STORM

By Colonel Mandeep Singh

Iraqi forces stormed into Kuwait on 2 August 1990 and, after a seven-month occupation of its southern neighbour, was defeated by the United States-led coalition forces consisting of troops from 39 countries. A five-week air offensive preceded the ground offensive on 24 February 1991 to put down the Iraqi air defences and prepare the battlefield for a ground offensive. The air war during DESERT STORM is generally considered a resounding success, with the Iraqi air defences failing to offer any significant opposition. Thomas Withington’s recent insightful article ‘Electric Avenue: Electronic Warfare and the battle against Iraq’s air defences during Operation Desert Storm’ is similar but misses out on some crucial aspects.

This article aims to offer a counter view to Withington’s and put the performance of Iraqi air defences in perspective. It also must be noted that Iraq had the sixth largest air force globally, with about 915 aircraft.[1] However, it put up only minimal opposition, and only the ground-based air defences (GBAD) offered any real resistance to the coalition air forces. This article thus focuses mainly on GBAD and discusses three fundamental issues. First, were Iraqi air defences as lethal and effective as projected before the war? Second, how effective were the suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) operations conducted by the coalition air forces and did they achieve the stated goal(s)? Finally, how did the Iraqi air defences perform during the war?

The commonly held view is that the Iraqi air defences were lethal and ‘potentially ferocious.’[2] This was echoed in Withington’s article, who quoted the following from an official report by the US Department of Defence on DESERT STORM:

The multi-layered, redundant, computer-controlled air defence network around Baghdad was denser than that surrounding most Eastern European cities during the Cold War, and several orders of magnitude greater than that which had defended Hanoi during the later stages of the Vietnam War.

This claim about the lethality and ferocity of Iraqi air defences needs to be analysed to see if it has any merit. The Iraqi integrated air defence system (IADS) comprised a mix of Soviet and Western air defence systems. While the surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were predominantly of Soviet origin, the heart of the IADS, called KARI, was built by the French defence contractor, Thomson-CSF. It was designed primarily to provide air defence against Israel and Iran and had a severe limitation: it could only manage 20 to 40 hostile aircraft. Iraq had over 500 radars located at about 100 sites, but the radar layout did not afford comprehensive coverage with a bias toward east and west. Most radars could not detect stealth aircraft barring the limited capability of the P-12 and P-18 radars and the six Chinese (Nanjing) low-frequency radars.[3]

Iraqi GBAD included SAM and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns. The missiles included the Soviet SA-2, SA-3, SA-6 and SA-8 and the Franco-German Roland I/II missiles. With a range limitation of about 40km, even SA-2s and SA-3s cannot be considered strategic air defence systems, while the SA-8s and the Rolands were purely tactical SAM systems. The SA-6 was used for the tactical role and to fill gaps in the strategic SAM layout. The 58 SAM batteries notwithstanding, Iraq had no strategic SAM system, and with the available SAM batteries, it was capable of limited and thin air defence cover over its strategic targets.

Sam Coverage
(Source: Barry Watts and Thomas Keaney ‘Effects and Effectiveness in Gulf War Air Power Survey – Volume II: Operations and Effects and Effectiveness (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 1993), p. 134.) 

With the country’s material assets widely dispersed; no attempt was made to defend all of them. Instead, the SAMs and AAA were concentrated on defending selected areas or sectors like Baghdad, Basra, the Scud-launching sites in western Iraq, and the northern oil fields only, with the defence of the capital given the foremost priority. With a concentration of the SAMs and AAA in select areas, Iraq had adopted a point defence system.

Fifty-eight SAM batteries, almost half the total 120 batteries, were deployed to defend Baghdad alone and 1,300 AA guns. The other areas with these missile systems were Basra with fifteen and Mosul/Kirkuk with sixteen batteries. In addition, the airfield complex of H-2/H-3 had 13 SAM batteries, and the Talil/Jalibah complex had three.[4]

Location SA-2 SA-3 SA-6 SA-8 Roland Total
Mosul/Kirkuk 1 12 0 1 2 16
H-2/H-3 1 0 6 0 6 13
Talil/Jalibah 1 0 0 0 2 3
Basrah 2 0 8 0 5 15
Baghdad 10 16 8 15 9 58
(Source: Williamson Murray, ‘Operations’ in Gulf War Air Power Survey – Volume II: Operations and Effects and Effectiveness (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 1993), p. 82.)

Even in Baghdad, the defence systems did not necessarily protect downtown Baghdad at a higher threat level than the rest of the overall metropolitan area, as the SAM sites were dispersed throughout the Baghdad area. The United States Air Force (USAF)’s claim that downtown Baghdad was where air defences are uniquely dense or severe was thus without merit.[5]

The SA-2s and SA-3s, being vintage missiles, were supplemented by the newer SA-6s with a battery deployed at essential sites. Although the presence of SA-6s at selected locations beefed up the air defences, it had an unintended effect that with the SA-6s moving back from the front-line units, the forward army units were left devoid of the most effective SAM in the inventory. The Iraqis captured several examples of the US HAWK missile system when they invaded Kuwait. The HAWK missile, with a comparable range, would have been an effective deterrent, but as the Iraqis did not have the technical expertise to operate it, it was never not used.[6] Another drawback of the Iraqi IADS was that the 8,000 or so anti-aircraft guns were reportedly not integrated with the overall air defence system and were designed to operate independently.[7]

(Source: Barry Watts and Thomas Keaney ‘Effects and Effectiveness’ in Gulf War Air Power Survey – Volume II: Operations and Effects and Effectiveness (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 1993), p. 132.)

The air defence network was thus far from lethal and was not designed to work against a massive air assault as it was subjected to during DESERT STORM. Instead, it had limited capabilities and was optimised only to take on threats from two axes. These were from Iran to the east or from Israel to the west and did not cater for any significant threat from the south or the north. Notably, only the overall assessment of the Iraqi IADS by the US Navy’s Strike Projection Evaluation and Anti-Air Research (SPEAR) Department was more realistic than other claims as it stated that:

[t]he command elements of the Iraqi air defence organisation (the interceptor force, the IADF [Iraqi Air defence Force], as well as Army air defence) are unlikely to function well under the stress of a concerted air campaign.[8]

The coalition forces launched DESERT STORM at 2:38 on 17 January 1991 when Task Force Normandy struck the two Iraqi radars codenamed Nebraska and Oklahoma, firing 27 Hellfire missiles, 100 rockets and 4,000 rounds of 30mm ammunition. A corridor 30 kilometres wide was now available for the follow-on missions. Next were the eight USAF F-15E Strike Eagles that targeted the local air defence command and control centre, further degrading the network and facilitating the strike by the F-117s preceded by three EF-111 Ravens. Seventeen F-117s were tasked to deliver 27 laser-guided bombs on 15 Iraqi air defence system-related targets. Contrary to initial claims related to the effectiveness of the F-117, only nine of the 15 targets were hit, and eight remained operational even after the air strikes.[9] One of the main targets, Baghdad’s central air defence operations centre was not damaged and remained operational.[10] The F/A-18 Hornets armed with AGM-88 high-speed anti-radar missiles (HARMs) fared not much better as about half of the 75 HARMs fired hit their targets.[11]

The performance of Iraq’s air defence system was effective on Day 1 as they shot down six aircraft: all except one by GBAD. The AAA shot down two aircraft (one F-15 and a Royal Air Force (RAF) Tornado GR.1) while the SAMs claimed three. An Iraqi MiG-25 shot down one F/A-18.[12] GBAD damaged a dozen more aircraft.

The Coalition air forces lost three aircraft to ground fire over 2,250 sorties on Day 2 as one aircraft each was claimed by AAA (a US Navy A-6) and SAM (a US Marine Corps OV-10), while the cause of loss of an Italian Tornado GR.1 could not be ascertained.[13] The next day, several missions were called off due to bad weather though the strikes against Scud launchers continued during the day. The Iraqi SAMs shot down two United States F-16s over Baghdad and another F-15. The RAF and Royal Saudi Air Force each lost two Tornadoes, while a USAF F-4 crashed after being hit by AAA. The air operations on 20 January were scaled down due to continued bad weather, and with losses mounting, especially to AAA, the USAF imposed a minimum altitude to reduce attrition. The Iraqi air defences, for their part, shot down two Coalition aircraft; a United States Navy F-14, downed by an SA-2 and an RAF Tornado, besides damaging three more. The RAF lost a Tornado to ground fire, with a USAF F-15 also being hit by a SAM.

On 23 January, coalition air forces claimed to have destroyed 19 Iraqi aircraft thus far and achieved air superiority over Iraq. The losses to Iraqi air defences were 15 aircraft, and AAA and hand-held SAMs’ unexpected intensity of ground fire forced Coalition aircraft to adopt higher-altitude delivery tactics. During the second week, the Iraqi air defences could not put up any concerted opposition. It was not until 28 January that they claimed their next kill when a SAM shot down a US Marine Corps AV-8B, although several Coalition aircraft was hit by AAA fire. KARI was badly fragmented by the end of week two, and only three of 16 Intercept Operations Centres (IOCs) were reported to be fully operational. Coalition losses during week three were again relatively low, with only three aircraft (an A-10, an AC-130 and an A-6E) lost to Iraqi air defences. The following week, Iraqi air defences shot down only three Coalition aircraft – two AV-8Bs and a Saudi F-5E.

The radar-guided SAMs had been targeted repeatedly, but the Iraqis sparingly continued to launch them. In one such instance, an SA-3 shot down an RAF Tornado GR.1 on 14 February. The Iraqis managed to shoot down five aircraft during week five, including two A-10s on the same day (15 February) by SA-13s. This forced the restricted use of A-10s in high-threat areas. As the war entered its final phase with the Coalition aircraft attacking from lower altitudes, the losses went up with Iraqi air defences shooting down eight aircraft during this last week of the war: three AV-8Bs, one OV-10, one OA-10, one A-10, and two F-16s.[14] This marked the second-highest weekly loss rate since the beginning of the war.

During the ground offensive, Iraqi air defences did not fight as they folded up tamely against the coalition air forces. During the whole campaign, a total of 38 coalition aircraft were lost to Iraqi air defences. At the same time, a further 48 aircraft were damaged in combat, totalling 86 combat casualties. Most losses were to infra-red guided SAMs, which claimed 13 aircraft and damaged 15 more, while the radar-guided SAMs shot down ten aircraft and damaged four. AAA caused the lowest losses at nine aircraft, although it damaged 24 more. The remaining losses were to accidents or technical reasons, including, for example, electrical malfunction. Considering the ‘lost’ and ‘damaged’ aircraft, the maximum casualties were due to AAA as it claimed 33 aircraft (38 per cent of the total losses), with the infra-red guided SAMs accounting for 28 aircraft (31 per cent). Only 16 per cent of the casualties were attributed to radar-guided SAMs.

The low kill rate by the radar SAMs is attributable to several factors, the primary one being the SEAD missions conducted by Coalition air forces which forced the radar SAMs to shut down most of the operations. In addition, all the radar SAMs held by Iraq were vintage Soviet-era missiles that had been used in combat earlier – there were no new weapons, like the SA-6s in the Yom Kippur War, which could have posed difficulties for the Coalition air forces.

A close-up view of a damaged section of an A-10A Thunderbolt II of the 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing. The aircraft sustained damaged when an SA-16 missile exploded near it during Operation DESERT STORM, 15 February 1991. (Sorce: Wikimedia)

There was a significantly higher daily casualty rate in the first five days of the war, during which 31 aircraft casualties occurred (36 per cent of the total and an average of 6.2 per day), compared to the following 38 days, with a total of 55 more casualties (an average of 1.45 per day). Losses to radar-guided SAMs fell to nearly zero after day five, accounting for 29 per cent (nine out of 31) of total casualties by then. They accounted for just nine per cent (five out of 55) of all aircraft casualties in the remainder of the war. It is apparent, therefore, that by the end of day five of the air campaign, radar SAMs had mainly been eliminated as an effective threat to coalition aircraft. Moreover, in the first three days of the war, some aircraft (B-52s, A-6Es, GR-1s, and F-111Fs) attacked at very low altitudes, where they were more vulnerable to low-altitude defences. After the imposition of a minimum attack level of about 12,000 feet, the losses reduced, resulting in much less accuracy with unguided weapons.

Iraq managed to maintain a fair degree of air defence capability throughout the war. The primary reason for this was KARI, which expanded the responsibilities of various nodes and developed local back-up air-defence networks using different communication networks over combat phone lines and wire between multiple stations. These back-up networks could control local air defences, even when the communication to the central network was down. These back-up systems used ground observers passing information over voice and data channels for information on Coalition aircraft. Radars associated with the Roland or SA-8 would be used to gain information about the altitude of inbound aircraft. The radars would be brought online for short 15-second bursts to ensure survivability in a hostile environment. The SAMs were sometimes fired without using the target-tracking radars to prevent being targeted by the anti-radar missiles. Optical tracking mode was also used while firing the SAMs.

At the war’s end, Iraq’s air defence was far from finished. According to Anthony Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Iraq retained at least 380 Soviet-made surface-to-air missile launchers, about 80 French-made Roland units and ‘large numbers’ of portable Soviet-made anti-aircraft systems, not counting the hundreds of AA guns.[15] After initially claiming almost the complete destruction of the Iraqi air defence network, the claims were revised as the operations progressed. As USAF Colonel David Deptula, one of the architects of the air campaign, put it in 1996, ‘We didn’t go in there to eviscerate the whole network. The aim was to suppress their defences.’[16]

The Soviet reaction to the Gulf War was significant as the entire Iraqi IADS consisted of Soviet SAMs. In an understatement, Marshal Dmitri Yazov, the Soviet Minister of Defence, admitted that Iraq’s air defences ‘failed in most cases.’[17] Commenting on the initial attack on the IADS, Lieutenant General V. Gorbachev, Dean of the faculty at the General Staff Academy, opined that:

‘The Iraqi air defence system was paralysed by powerful electronic warfare devices. Command and control of troops was overwhelmed in the first few minutes.’[18]

Gorbachev also added:

[a]s far as Soviet equipment is concerned, it is not so much a problem, I think, as the people operating it. Iraqi military professionalism is not, as we can see, up to the mark.’[19]

Reinforcing this view, the Soviets believed that, as the air defence systems employed by the Iraqis were able to down most types of Coalition aircraft used, it suggested that the problem was more one of staffing than technology. It also reinforced an emerging view that modern wars demand well-trained professional soldiers to man and maintain it, not a large conscript army.[20]

After DESERT STORM, Iraq’s air defence system continued to harass the Coalition aircraft, defying the restrictions imposed by the no-fly zone. During Operation DESERT FOX, Iraq engaged Coalition aircraft more than 1,000 times over three years and fired nearly 60 SAMs.[21] The Iraqis even fired unguided rockets at the aircraft to harass them. The Iraqi IADS remained operational throughout and was never ‘put down.’

The Iraqi IADS had limited capabilities and was not as lethal or effective as initially projected; however, its capabilities had been exaggerated in most of the assessments conducted before DESERT STORM. Considering its limited capabilities against a modern air force, aggravated by poor training standards, it performed reasonably well and inflicted a fair amount of attrition. On the other hand, the SEAD operations by coalition air forces were not as effective as claimed during the operations. Even as the surveillance network and radar-guided SAMs were suppressed, the Iraqi IADS continued to function, albeit with reduced efficiency and continued to attrite. It must be remembered that GBAD cannot be suppressed entirely and will continue to inflict losses. It was so during DESERT STORM and will remain so in future conflicts.

Colonel Mandeep Singh, a veteran air defence gunner, has a Masters in Defence and Strategic Studies. He has contributed several articles on air power and air defence for specialist journals. His books include Air Defence Artillery in Combat, 1972 to the Present: The Age of the Surface-to-Air Missiles (2020) published by Air World.

Header image: An Iraqi SA-6 Gainful low-to-medium altitude surface-to-air-missiles on its transporter-erector-launcher. This system was captured by US forces in 2006; however, during the first Gulf War, Iraq operated a number of these systems. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] The Iraqi Air Force had a mix of combat aircraft, ranging from 190 advanced Mirages, MiG-25s, MiG-29s, and Su-24s to about 300 moderate-quality MiG-23s, Su-7s, Su-25s, Tu-16s and Tu-22s. Most of the air force however comprised of older aircraft like the MiG-17s and MiG-21s.

[2] ‘Conduct of the Persian Gulf War,’ Final Report to the Congress (Washington, DC : Dept. of Defense, 1992), p. 15.

[3] The P-18 radar, which uses metre-length waves in the Very High Frequency (VHF) bandwidth, can detect targets at a greater range than centimetre or millimetre wave radar which stealth aircraft are optimised against. It was a P-18 radar of the Yugoslav Army that detected an F-117 Nighthawk during the Kosovo air war, which led to its shooting down by an SA-3 missile. Similarly, P-12 radar also operates in VHF and can detect stealth aircraft. Kenneth Werrell, in his book Archie to SAM, mentions that Iraq had low-frequency radars though this is not mentioned by any other source. See, Kenneth Werrell, Archie to SAM: A Short Operational History of Ground-Based Air Defense, second edition (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 2005), p. 218. Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf (New York: Little Brown, 1995), p. 105; Williamson Murray, ‘Operations’ in Gulf War Air Power Survey – Volume II: Operations and Effects and Effectiveness (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 1993), pp. 77-82.

[4] Iraq had 7,000 SAM and 6,000 AA Guns with the Republican Guard had its own air defence System with about 3,000 AA Guns and 60 SAM Batteries. See: Anthony Tucker-Jones, The Gulf War: Operation Desert Storm 1990-1991 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2014), p. 40.

[5] United States Air Force, ‘Reaching Globally, Reaching Powerfully: The United States Air Forces in the Gulf War’ (United States Air Force, 1991), p. 5.

[6] Richard Blanchfield et al, Part I – Weapons, Tactics, and Training’ in Gulf War Air Power Survey – Volume IV: Weapons, Tactics, and Training and Space Operations, directed by Eliot Cohen (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 1993), p. 15.

[7] Tucker-Jones, The Gulf War, p. 40.

[8] ‘Iraqi Threat to U.S. Forces,’ Naval Intelligence Command, Navy Operational Intelligence Center, SPEAR Department, December 1990, p. 3-14.

[9] ‘Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign’ (Washington DC: General Accounting Office, 1997), p. 137.

[10] ‘Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign,’ p. 137.

[11] Jim Corrigan, Desert Storm Air War: The Aerial Campaign against Saddam’s Iraq in the 1991 (Guilford, CT: Stackpole Books, 2017), p. 59.

[12] Lon Nordeen, Air Warfare in the Missile Age, second edition (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2010), pp. 413-4.

[13] James P. Coyne, Air Power in the Gulf (Arlington, VA: Air Force Association, 1992), pp. 67-71.

[14] ‘Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress, April 1992,’ (Washington, DC: Dept. of Defense, 1992), p. 197.

[15] Bradley Graham, ‘Gulf War left Iraqi Air Defence Beaten, Not Bowed,’ Washington Post, 6 September 1996.

[16] Graham, ‘Gulf War left Iraqi Air Defence Beaten, Not Bowed.’

[17] Quoted in ‘Outgunned Weaponry is Under Fire in Kremlin,’ The Irish Independent, 2 March 1991, p. 6. See also Alexander Velovich, ‘USSR Demands Post-Gulf Air Defense Review,’ Flight International, 13-19 March 1991, p. 5.

[18] Benjamin S. Lambeth, ‘Desert Storm and Its Meaning: The View from Moscow,’ A RAND Report (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1992), p. 23.

[19] Lambeth, ‘Desert Storm and Its Meaning,’ pp. 23-4, fn. 10.

[20] Daniel Sneider, ‘Soviets Assess Their Arsenal After Iraq’s Defeat in Gulf,’ The Christian Science Monitor, 8 March, 1991, p. 1.

[21] Tucker-Jones, The Gulf War, p. 201.