#DesertStorm30 – Electric Avenue: Electronic Warfare and the battle against Iraq’s air defences during Operation Desert Storm

#DesertStorm30 – Electric Avenue: Electronic Warfare and the battle against Iraq’s air defences during Operation Desert Storm

By Dr Thomas Withington

In January 1991, a US-led coalition launched Operation DESERT STORM to evict Iraq from Kuwait, which the former had invaded six months earlier. DESERT STORM was a combined operation involving a major air campaign. At the time, Iraq had one of the world’s most sophisticated air defence systems. The radars and communications necessary to spot hostile aircraft and coordinate their engagement were integral to this. As a result, the coalition correctly determined that the air campaign would only succeed by establishing air superiority and supremacy. This would be achieved through an Offensive Counter Air (OCA) campaign against the Iraqi Air Force (IQAF). A crucial part of this was an electronic war waged against Iraqi air defence radars and communications. This article explains the extent to which Iraq’s air defences threatened coalition air power, how the electronic war against these air defences was fought and why they were not able to overcome the coalition’s electromagnetic supremacy.

When Operation DESERT STORM began on the morning of 17 January 1991, Iraq possessed one of the world’s most fearsome Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS). At 02:38, its demise began. Task Force Normandy, an armada of US Army AH-64A Apache gunships and US Air Force (USAF) MH-53J Pave Low helicopters attacked a group of IQAF radars. These were positioned a few miles behind the midpoint of the Saudi-Iraqi border within the Iraqi 1st Air Defence Sector’s area of responsibility. The radars consisted of P-18 Very High Frequency (VHF), P-15 Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and P-15M2 UHF ground-based air surveillance radars.[1] This attack left a large swathe of Iraq’s southwest airspace without radar coverage. As a result, Iraq’s IADS failed to detect waves of incoming aircraft tasked with hitting strategic targets. These planes followed USAF F-117A Nighthawk ground-attack aircraft which had slipped through Iraqi radar coverage earlier to hit targets in Baghdad.

The Story so Far: From Vietnam to DESERT STORM

The United States had learned about well-operated air defences the hard way during the Vietnam War. Vietnam’s air war saw the United States lose over 3,300 fixed-wing aircraft across all services. Rotary-wing and uninhabited aerial vehicle losses pushed this figure to over 10,000.[2] In addition, the North Vietnamese IADS, consisting of Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) and SA-2 high-altitude Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), reaped a grim toll on American aircraft. The experience led to the development of the USAF’s Wild Weasel concept.

Republic F-105G
Republic F-105G ‘Wild Weasel’ in flight on 5 May 1970. External stores include QRC-380 blisters, AGM-45 Shrike and AGM-78B Standard Anti-Radiation Missile. (Source: Wikimedia)

First seeing service in the summer of 1965, customised F-105F Thunderchief fighters outfitted with radar detectors, listened for transmissions from an SA-2’s accompanying radar. The purpose of locating the accompanying radar was that it helped locate the associated SAM battery. The aircraft would then attack the radar, initially with gunfire and rockets and later with specialist Anti-Radar Missiles (ARMs). These attacks destroyed the radar site and blinded the SAM site, thus reducing the threat to incoming attack aircraft. These aircraft were eventually upgraded to F-105G standard. The Wild Weasel concept was progressively honed during and after the Vietnam War with ever-more capable radar sensors, ordnance, and platforms. When the USAF deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1990, the Wild Weasels used F-4G Phantom-II jets with sophisticated radar-hunting equipment and AGM-88 high-speed anti-radar missiles.

The skies over Southeast Asia gave the US armed forces, and their North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies a taste of the potency of Soviet and Warsaw Pact air defences as they had for the Israeli Air Force during the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. No sooner had the last US units left Vietnam than the so-called ‘New Cold War’ began to unfold. Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact prepared for a confrontation that might engulf East and West Germany. Part of the Warsaw Pact’s role was to ensure that air approaches into the European USSR were heavily defended. This required robust IADSs of fighter defences and an umbrella of short-range/low-altitude, medium-range/medium-altitude SAM systems covering the altitudes NATO aircraft were likely to use. This SAM umbrella protected everything from dismounted troops on the front line pushing through the Fulda Gap on the Inner German Border to strategic politico-military leadership targets in the Soviet Union.

The Wild Weasel units were not the only assets involved in degrading Soviet air defences. Also important were SIGINT (signals intelligence) platforms, such as the USAF’s RC-135U Combat Sent ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) gathering aircraft. These aircraft allowed NATO to develop an understanding of where the radars supporting Soviet and Warsaw Pact air defences were situated. Understanding where the radars were located allowed NATO to build up an electronic order of battle of the ground-based air surveillance radars and Fire Control/Ground-Controlled Interception (FC/GCI) radars the air defences depended upon to detect and engage targets with SAMs or fighters. Many aircraft configured to collect SIGINT and prosecute Soviet/Warsaw Pact air defences were the same that deployed to the Persian Gulf. After arriving, they soon discovered similar defences to those on the eastern side of the Inner German Border.

KARI: Defending Iraqi Airspace

The US Department of Defence’s official report on DESERT STORM did not mince its words regarding the potential ferocity of Iraq’s IADS:

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.[3]

The components of Iraq’s air defence system were sourced from the USSR and France. In the wake of the 17 July Revolution in 1968, which brought the Iraqi affiliate of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party to power, France steadily deepened its relationship with Iraq. As a result, France sold some of its finest materiel to Iraq during the 1970s and 1980s. For Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein, who had seized power in July 1979, this was ideal.

With tensions growing between Iraq and Iran, the Iraqi armed forces needed as much support as the regime could muster. They were not disappointed. Paris supplied Roland Short-Range Air Defence (SHORAD) SAM batteries. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, furnished Iraq with SA-2 batteries, SA-3 medium-range/medium-altitude, SA-6A low/medium-altitude/medium-range, SA-8, and SA-9 SHORAD SAM batteries. Additional SHORAD coverage was provided by a plethora of ZSU-23-4 and ZSU-57-2 AAA systems and SA-13 Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS). The SAMs were mainly to protect Iraqi strategic targets. Divisions of the elite Republican Guard also had some organic SA-6 and Roland units. AAA was used for corps and division air defence, along with the point defence of strategic targets. These units would also have MANPADS coverage, some SA-8s and Rolands. These provided air defence coverage over the manoeuvre force.[4]

These air defences received targeting information from Chinese-supplied Type-408C VHF ground-based air surveillance radars with a range of 324 nautical miles/nm (600 kilometres/km). Iraq received five of these radars between 1986 and 1988. France also supplied six TRS-2215/2230 S-band ground-based air surveillance radars between 1984 and 1985. These had a range of 335nm (620km).[5] Iraq supplemented these with five French TRS-2206 Volex ground-based air surveillance radars transmitting on an unknown waveband with a range of 145nm (268.5km). The Soviet Union also supplied several ground-based air surveillance and height-finding radars for use with Iraq’s SAM batteries and independently. These included six P-12 and five P-14 VHF ground-based air surveillance radars with ranges of 135nm (250km) and 216nm (400km), respectively, plus ten P-40 radars with a 200nm (370km) range and five PRV-9 height-finding radars with a 162nm (300km) range.[6]

The IQAF’s radars, fighters, airbases, SAM batteries and supporting infrastructure that provided operational/strategic level air defence were networked using the French-supplied KARI Command and Control system.[7] The nerve centre of the IADS was the Air Defence Operations Centre in downtown Baghdad. This was responsible for Iraq’s operational/strategic air defence, particularly industrial and political installations.

Iraq’s airspace was segmented into four sectors (see figure 1).[8] Each was commanded from a Sector Operations Centre. Subordinate to the Sector Operations Centres were the Intercept Operations Centres. The Intercept Operations Centres would control a segment of airspace in a specific sector using organic radars. Their radar pictures would be sent to the Sector Operations Centre. There they would be fused together creating a Recognised Air Picture (RAP) of the sector and its air approaches. The recognised air picture was sent up the chain of command to the Air Defence Operations Centre using standard radio, telephone, and fibre optic links. A ‘Super RAP’ of Iraq’s airspace and approaches was created at the Air Defence Operations Centre. KARI used several means of communication to provide redundancy. If radio communications were jammed, communications with the Air Defence Operations Centre could be preserved using telephone and fibre optic lines. If telephone exchanges and fibre optic nodes were hit, radio communications could be used.

Iraq Air defence
Figure 1 – Iraqi Air Defence Sectors, Sector Operations Centres, and Intercept Operations Centres

Cooking up a Storm

Coalition air planners had two critical Iraqi threats to contest in the bid to achieve air superiority and air supremacy; the Iraqi IADS and deployed Ground-Based Air Defences (GBAD) protecting the Iraqi Army and Republican Guard units. The IADS/GBAD had to be degraded to the point where they would effectively be useless if coalition aircraft enjoyed relative freedom in the skies above the Kuwait Theatre of Operations. Electronic Warfare (EW) was intrinsic to this effort. The IADS and GBAD relied on air surveillance, battle management and weapons control.[9] Air surveillance was dependent on radar, battle management was dependent on communications, and both depended on the electromagnetic spectrum.

The concept of operations for coalition electronic warfare to support the air campaign was to attack the two electronic elements of the IADS/GBAD, namely radar and radio communications, without which situational awareness and command and control would be badly degraded if not neutralised altogether. Alongside electronic warfare, kinetic attacks on radars were made using anti-radiation missiles and against key nodes and targets in the IADS using conventional ordnance. Following Kuwait’s occupation, the coalition’s immediate task was to build an electronic order of battle of the radars and communications intrinsic to the IADS and GBAD. Space and airborne assets were instrumental to this effort. Although much information regarding the specifics of the US Central Intelligence Agency/National Reconnaissance Office Magnum SIGINT satellite constellation remains classified, they were almost certainly employed to collect raw signals intelligence germane to the IADS/GBAD. This would have been analysed at facilities in the US before being disseminated to allies.[10]

SIGINT collection followed a hierarchical approach. The Magnum satellites made a ‘broad brush’ collection of Iraqi electromagnetic emissions, discerning potential signals of interest from radars or communications from the prevailing electromagnetic noise generated by the country.[11] Further investigation of these signals of interest would be done using airborne SIGINT assets.[12] For example, the USAF based two RC-135Us at King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.[13] These jets flew close to Iraq’s borders to ‘hoover up’ as much ELINT as possible.[14] This served two purposes. First, the collection of ELINT allowed the coalition to determine which radars were used by Iraq’s IADS/GBAD and where they were located. This allowed potential gaps or more weakly defended areas in Iraqi air defence coverage to be identified. Second, regular ELINT collection allowed SIGINT experts to determine the pattern of electromagnetic life. This would have helped answer pertinent questions about whether Iraqi SA-2 batteries switched their radars off every evening or every weekend. By identifying geographical or temporal gaps in radar coverage, coalition planners could take advantage of weak coverage.

American SIGINT aircraft were joined by Royal Air Force Nimrod RMk.1s flying from Seeb airbase in Oman, and Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) C-160G Gabriel and DC-8F Sarigue SIGINT planes based at King Khalid International Airport. However, the Iraqis knew they were being watched. Iraqi air defenders had correctly deduced that coalition SIGINT efforts would extract as much usable SIGINT as possible. As a result, they tried to keep their radar and radio use to a minimum while coalition warplanes relentlessly probed Iraqi air defences to tempt radar activation and communications traffic for collection by SIGINT aircraft hanging back from the fighters.[15]

Support was also provided by the US Navy’s Operational Intelligence Centre’s Strike Projection Evaluation and Anti-Air Research team, better known as SPEAR. This unit helped build a comprehensive order-of-battle of the Iraqi IADS/GBAD.[16] In cooperation with the USAF and national US intelligence agencies, SPEAR identified key nodes in the Iraqi IADS that would badly degrade its efficacy if destroyed.[17] In addition, the process helped draft simulation programmes that built an increasingly detailed model of the Iraqi IADS/GBAD system. These programmes were continually updated as new intelligence arrived, allowing analysts to perform ever-more detailed replications of the expected potency of Iraqi air defences.[18]

DESERT SHIELD
An RC-135V/W Rivet Joint from the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 1700th Air Refueling Squadron Provisional during Operation DESERT SHIELD. (Source: Wikimedia)

Alongside the RC-135Us discussed above, USAF RC-135V/W Rivet Joint and US Navy EP-3E Aries planes primarily collected Communications Intelligence (COMINT) on Iraq’s IADS/GBAD. Although the Rivet Joints were primarily configured to collect COMINT from radios and telecommunications transmitting on V/UHF wavebands of 30 megahertz to three gigahertz, these frequencies were also used by several Iraqi early warning and ground-based air surveillance radars. This allowed the Rivet Joints to assist their Combat Sent counterparts in gathering ELINT.[19]

Determining Iraq’s electronic order of battle allowed the radars to be attacked kinetically by USAF F-4G Wild Weasels using the AGM-88B/C missiles. Radars were also engaged electronically by USAF EF-111A Raven EW aircraft. Likewise, radio communications were attacked electronically with USAF EC-130H Compass Call planes. However, the USAF was not the only custodian of the suppression of enemy air defence mission. The US Navy was an avid user of the AGM-88 and, together with the US Marine Corps (USMC), flew EA-6B Prowlers. These jets could electronically and kinetically target hostile radars and gather ELINT.

Now in the streets, there is violence

‘The attack on the Iraqi electronic order of battle affected every aspect of the air supremacy operation,’ noted the official record of Operation DESERT STORM.[20] The initial focus of the electronic warfare battle was to destroy critical radars and communications nodes in the Iraqi IADS to paralyse the air defence network at strategic and operational levels.[21] At the tactical level, deployed SAM systems were then attacked with anti-radiation missiles when they illuminated coalition aircraft. This was done by patrolling F-4Gs and EA-6Bs, waiting for these radars to be activated or having the same aircraft and other anti-radiation missile-armed warplanes, such as the Royal Air Force’s Tornado GR.1 ground attack aircraft with their ALARMs (Air-Launched Anti-Radiation Missiles) accompany strike packages of aircraft. This had the dual purpose of helping keep these aircraft safe and continually attritting the kinetic elements of Iraq’s air defence.[22]

As noted earlier in this article, plans for attacking Iraq’s IADS/GBAD system became a reality in the early morning of 17 January. While Task Force Normandy laid waste to Iraqi radars, F-117As hit the Sector Operations Centres and Intercept Operations Centres in the 1st and 2nd Air Defence Sectors.[23] The actions of the Nighthawks and Task Force Normandy opened gaps in southern and western Iraqi radar coverage and air defence command and control network, which was then exploited.[24] Stealthy and non-stealth aircraft alike ingressed into Iraqi airspace to reach their strategic targets with electronic attack assistance provided by EF-111As and EA-6Bs. These platforms effectively jammed Iraqi early warning/ground-based air surveillance radars transmitting on V/UHF frequencies and FC/GCI radars transmitting in higher wavebands.[25] Typically, the EF-111As and EA-6Bs flew jamming orbits to protect air operations in a particular segment of the Kuwait Theatre of Operations. For example, USAF EF-111As flew orbits in western Iraq, providing jamming support to strikes in that part of the country, performing similar missions in the vicinity of Baghdad.[26] The EF-111As and EA-6Bs also relayed near-real-time updates on the Iraqi Electronic Order of Battle in their locale using radio and tactical datalink networks. Air campaign planners then adjust the air campaign’s electronic dimension accordingly.[27]

EA-6B DESERT STORM
EA-6B Prowlers of VAQ-130 refuelled by a KC-135 Stratotanker en-route to an attack during Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: NARA)

With one part of its radars destroyed and jamming afflicting the others, coalition aircraft headed into Iraq, clearing a path through the IADS, and hitting IADS targets with anti-radiation missiles and air-to-ground ordnance.[28] As well as hitting these targets, BGM-109 cruise missiles hit transformer yards dispersing carbon fibre filaments. This caused short circuits in the power supply.[29] Air defence facilities without backup power went offline. Even those with generators would still see their systems shut down before being reactivated, costing valuable time.[30]

Influenced by Israeli Air Force operations over the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon close to that country’s border with Syria in June 1982, another tactic used by the coalition was the use of USAF launched BQM-74C Chukar drones to mimic coalition combat aircraft ingressing Iraq’s 1st Air Defence Sector. The intention was for Iraqi air defenders to illuminate the drones and engage them. This allowed anti-radiation missile-equipped aircraft to determine the position of SAM batteries engaging the drones and attack their radars. The US Navy performed similar missions with their ADM-141A/B Tactical Air-Launched Decoys This was an effective tactic as it not only revealed the location of Iraqi SAM batteries, but it forced them to expend missiles.[31]

The Continuing Campaign

Initial overtures in the air defence suppression campaign were aimed at attritting Iraqi long and medium-range/high and medium-altitude SAM systems to help sanitise the airspace for following coalition strikes.[32] Typically, AAA would be effective up to altitudes of circa 15,000 feet/ft (4,572 metres/m), with Iraqi SAM batteries effective up to circa 40,000ft (12,192m).[33] The controlled kinetic and electronic violence unleashed against the Iraqi IADS/GBAD during the first 24 hours of the war was palpable. The official record notes that almost 48 targets, including an array of air defence aim points, were hit: ‘This was not a gradual rolling back of the Iraqi air defence system. The nearly simultaneous suppression of so many vital centres helped cripple Iraq’s air defence system.’[34] This inflicted a level of damage from which the Iraqi IADS/GBAD could not recover.

As the campaign unfolded Iraqi air defenders learnt that activating their radar invited an AGM-88 or ALARM attack. By the end of the first week of combat operations, the Iraqis realised that a significant dimension of the coalition air campaign focused on destroying their air defences.[35] SAMs would still be fired ballistically in the hope of a lucky strike, but sans radar, SAM capabilities were severely degraded. Switching off the radars did not stop the attacks. AAA or SAM sites that kept their radars switched off were engaged with conventional air-to-ground ordnance.[36] Life was increasingly unpleasant for Iraqi air defenders who realised that switching off their radars did not stop the attacks. One can only imagine the demoralisation this must have caused.

Assessment

Benjamin Lambeth correctly asserted that DESERT STORM exemplified the decisive migration of electronic countermeasures and EW in general ‘from a supporting role to a direct combat role.’[37] Quite simply, without EW, the coalition would not have succeeded in degrading the Iraqi IADS/GBAD to a point where it could no longer meaningfully challenge coalition air power in such a short space of time. One of the major successes of the electronic warfare aspect of the air campaign was its dislocation of Iraqi IADS/GBAD command and control. Despite the technological sophistication of KARI, it could not mitigate the hierarchical nature of Iraqi air defence doctrine. The Intercept Operations Centres struggled to operate when their Sector Operations Centre and the Air Defence Operations Centre was neutralised.[38] There appeared to be little redundancy within KARI by which these centres could assume the responsibilities of their destroyed or badly degraded counterparts. For instance, the Air Defence Operations Centre was destroyed as a priority target at the start of the air campaign. It does not appear that Iraqi air defenders could rapidly replicate Air Defence Operations Centre functions at either a back-up facility or at one of the Sector Operations Centres. Likewise, when Sector Operations Centres were taken out of the fight, their functions were not immediately assumed by Intercept Operations Centres in their area of responsibility or adjacent sectors.

While KARI was a sophisticated system, Iraq possessed radars and SAM systems already known to the US and its allies on the eve of DESERT STORM. The US had encountered similar SAM systems in the skies over Vietnam and during Operation Eldorado Canyon in 1986 when the US attacked strategic targets in Libya in retaliation for the sponsorship of political violence by its leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Likewise, Israel had faced similar defences during numerous conflicts with its neighbours. Although Israel remained outside the US-led coalition, it is all but certain that intelligence germane to Iraq’s air defence systems would have been made available to the US.[39] The French are also thought to have shared intelligence regarding Iraq’s Roland and KARI systems in a similar fashion.[40] Egypt, an avid user of Soviet-supplied air defence equipment and member of the US-led coalition, was also believed to have been furnished the latter with intelligence.[41] Some of Iraq’s air defence equipment may have lacked Electronic Counter-Countermeasure (EECM) protection to exacerbate matters. Some of Iraq’s radars, notably early versions of the SNR-75 S-band and C-band 65nm (120km) to 75nm (140km) range fire control radars accompanying the SA-2 batteries may not have been fitted with ECCM.[42]

Once the war commenced, the Iraqis fell for the US ruse of using drones to seduce radars into revealing themselves, only to receive an ARM for their trouble. A glance at the history books would have revealed that given the success the Israeli Air Force had enjoyed using this tactic a decade previously, there was every chance the coalition may follow suit. This tactic was recently revisited during the 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Azeri armed forces skilfully exploited Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). UAVs were used to tempt Armenian GBADs to activate their radars. By activating the radars their location could be determined, and the GBADs then struck with suicide UAVs equipped with explosives.

Furthermore, Iraq’s air defence doctrine lacked flexibility. Indeed, it has been argued that Iraq’s air command and control writ large during the preceding Iran-Iraq War was characterised by over-centralisation and rigid planning.[43] This may have resulted from two factors; the authoritarian nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the procurement of Soviet materiel not only for air defence but across the Iraqi armed forces with a similar acquisition of Soviet doctrine not known for its flexibility.[44] There are significant questions to ask regarding the degree to which subordinates in the IADS believed they had latitude and blessing for individual initiative in the tactical battle. Similar questions apply to higher echelons. Did operational commanders in the air force and air defence force feel emboldened to take decisions as the battle unfolded? Saddam Hussein presided over a totalitarian state where insubordination, real or perceived, could be punished harshly. This raises the question as to whether the fear of taking the wrong decision paralysed decision-making. The result being that the Iraqi IADS lost the initiative in the coalition’s electronic battle. An initiative it never recovered. The net result of a lack of doctrinal flexibility, and against the backdrop of Saddam Hussein’s regime, meant that Iraq’s air defences did not respond and adjust to the electronic battle. Tactical and operational flexibility did not extend beyond radar operators switching off their systems to avoid an attack by an ARM.

However, the coalition’s success was underpinned by a vitally important factor, the luxury of time. DESERT STORM was not a ‘come as you are’ war. The US and its allies had 168 days between Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the commencement of the air campaign to plan the electromagnetic scheme of manoeuvre that supporting the air war.

DESERT STORM underlined a truism in air power: Air superiority as a prerequisite for air supremacy must be achieved over an opponent as early as possible. OCA was central to this effort. Electromagnetic superiority and supremacy are central to OCA. One must ensure one can manoeuvre in the spectrum with minimal interference from one’s adversary while denying their adversary use of the spectrum. Working towards electromagnetic superiority and supremacy reduces red force access to the spectrum, denying its use for situational awareness and command and control. Denying Iraqi air defenders’ situational awareness and command and control blunted the efficacy of the kinetic elements of Iraq’s IADS/GBAD, which were then attritted using ARMs and conventional ordnance.

DESERT STORM ended on 28 February. Electronic warfare was intrinsic to the air campaign’s success. Iraq’s IADS and GBAD were prevented from meaningfully interfering with the coalition’s actions. However, this was not the end of the story. The US and the UK would continue to confront the rump of Iraq’s air defences for several years to come until the final showdown with Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Dr Thomas Withington specialises in contemporary and historical electronic warfare, radar, and military communications, and has written numerous articles on these subjects for a range of general and specialist publications. He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham.

Header image: EF-111A Raven aircraft prepare to take off on a mission during Operation Desert Shield. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] C. Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm: The Electronic Battle, Part-2’ @http://www.ausairpower.net/Analysis-ODS-EW.

[2] J. Schlight, A War Too Long: The USAF in Southeast Asia 1961-1975 (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museum Programme, 1996), p. 103.

[3] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress, (Alexandria, VA: US Department of Defence, 1992), p. 15.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Author’s proprietary information.

[6] Ibid.

[7] KARI is the French name for Iraq spelt backwards.

[8] ‘Iraqi Air Defense – Introduction’.

[9] P.W. Mattes, ‘Systems of Systems: What, exactly, is an Integrated Air Defense System?’, The Mitchell Forum No.26, (Arlington VA: The Mitchell Institute, June 2019), p. 3.

[10] Confidential interview with US electronic intelligence expert, 17/3/21.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] S. Morse (ed), Gulf Air War Debrief, (London: Aerospace Publishing, 1991), p. 37.

[16] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 124.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[19] Morse (ed.), Gulf Air War Debrief, p. 37.

[20] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 220.

[21] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 153.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid, p. 172.

[26] Ibid, p. 220.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Confidential interview with US electronic intelligence expert.

[31] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 202.

[34] Ibid, p. 156.

[35] C. Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm: The Electronic Battle, Part-3’ @http://www.ausairpower.net/Analysis-ODS-EW.html consulted 12/2/21.

[36] Ibid.

[37] B. Lambeth, The Winning of Air Supremacy in Operation Desert Storm, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1993), p. 5.

[38] ‘Iraqi Air Defense – Introduction’.

[39] Confidential interview with US electronic intelligence expert.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm: The Electronic Battle, Part-1’.

[42] Ibid.

[43] A.H. Cordesman, A.R. Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War Volume-II: The Iran-Iraq War, (London: Mansell, 1990).

[44] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 9.

#DesertStorm30 – On the Brink of Combat: The Women Aviators of DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM

#DesertStorm30 – On the Brink of Combat: The Women Aviators of DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM

By Eileen Bjorkman

At one minute past midnight on 17 January 1991, US Air Force Major Kathy Rambo-Cosand prepared to take off in a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It was snowing, and her aircraft was packed with 44,000 pounds of cluster bombs headed for Saudi Arabia. The aircraft was severely overweight: she was authorised to fly at ‘emergency war weights.’ If the C-141 lost an engine on take-off from Ramstein’s short runway, they would most likely crash. She worried about what the cluster bombs might do if that happened. Moreover, an accident was a realistic possibility: A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy had crashed, taking off from Ramstein just a few months earlier, killing 13 of the 17 people on board.

As Rambo-Cosand and her crew waited for their take-off clearance, a call came on the radio: “All missions are cancelled.” The airspace over Saudi Arabia had been shut down as coalition fighters and bombers kicked off Operation DESERT STORM, the coalition effort to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Rambo-Cosand and her crew waited in their aircraft as planners decided what to do. Finally, at 2:30 a.m., she received the call to take off. With the C-5 crash and the enormity of her cargo weighing heavily on her, Rambo-Cosand pulled onto the runway and lumbered into the sky. Unfortunately, the most stressful take off of her career was for naught: when they arrived over Italy, they were turned back to Ramstein.[1]

At that point, Rambo-Cosand had been flying in and out of Saudi Arabia for the past four months, and it would be many more months before she finally returned home to her family. Indeed, the rapid build-up, sustainment, and eventual employment of forces in the Middle East as part of Operation DESERT SHIELD/STORM was only possible because of support aircraft that did everything from hauling cargo to communications jamming.[2] Moreover, it was these aircraft that women like Rambo-Cosand flew since they were not allowed to fly in combat; a provision within the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act passed by Congress in 1948 prohibited that. This article explores the experience of some of those women during DESERT SHIELD/STORM and details some of the challenges faced by US females operating in a combat environment.

Wells
Major Stephanie Wells and her C-5 crew delivering tanks to Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia on 19 January 1991 (Source: Stephanie Wells)

The Women Aviators of Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM

Despite the combat restrictions, women soon arrived in Saudi Arabia. Some of the first women were pilots, like US Army Captain Victoria Calhoun, a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who deployed on 9 August, two days after Operation DESERT SHIELD began in response to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Calhoun had asked to be stationed at Fort Bragg the previous year because she figured if any action happened, it would happen there. She was right, but shortly after arriving, her unit deployed to support the 1989 invasion of Panama, and her operations officer would not let her go, replacing her with a less-experienced male pilot. A year later, she feared the same thing might happen. However, when someone questioned her battalion commander about whether women would deploy to Saudi Arabia, he said, “They have to go. If they don’t go, we’re not mission capable as a unit!”

Calhoun arrived at Dhahran Air Base with an advance party to conduct reconnaissance and prepare the base for more arrivals. At first, there was not much flying for the Chinooks, mainly because the sand in Saudi Arabia caused maintenance nightmares. The missions Calhoun flew transported parts and supplies around to other units, a mission nicknamed “Desert Express.”[3]

Reserve units began activating on 24 August. All C-5 reserve squadrons were activated as the massive cargo aircraft hauled most of the Army’s tanks and larger helicopters to the theatre. Major Stephanie Wells, a C-5 pilot from Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, was activated on 29 August. She was thrilled to be part of the team: when she had initially called her unit on 6 August to inquire about deploying, she was told that women would not be allowed to go.[4] Nevertheless, Wells was soon flying C-5s all over the world. At first, she never knew where she would be going on any given day, but then things settled down, and she began flying missions out of Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.[5]

Technical Sergeant Donna Davis, a C-5 flight engineer in a reserve unit at Travis Air Force Base, California, soon wound up in Germany. When a crew landed, after eight hours of crew rest, Davis says they were normally assigned to an aircraft brought in by another crew. The crews stopped to rest, but the aeroplane kept going. The crews often pulled 24-hour shifts before going back into crew rest, and Davis found it hard to sleep more than about four hours at a time. She was not alone; most of the crews were exhausted all the time and, as she says, “Thank goodness for autopilot.”[6]

Wells 2
Major Stephanie Wells in the cockpit of a C-5 at the beginning of Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: Stephanie Wells)

As the initial troops and equipment flowed to Saudi Arabia, Rambo-Cosand, who was in a reserve unit at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, debated what to do. She had met her husband when she had been one of the first ten women to attend US Air Force pilot training in 1976, and they had just settled with their two children into new quarters after a move to Honduras. She hated to leave her 2-year-old and 7-year-old at home, but she decided to volunteer to fly some missions, thinking that if enough reservists volunteered, her unit would not be activated. However, before she could arrive to begin her volunteer tour, her unit was activated on 9 September. Rambo-Cosand moved heaven and earth to get to McGuire in less than 24 hours, begging the US Embassy to get her on a 6:00 a.m. flight out of Honduras the following day. Even living overseas, she beat several airline pilots in her squadron to McGuire.

After arriving at McGuire, Rambo-Cosand flew first to Zaragoza, Spain, and then began flying shuttles to Saudi Arabia. Working 30-hour days, she and her crew flew 150 hours in 16 days compared to the normal 75 hours they might fly in a month. She recalls, “We were like zombies.” But like most pilots, Rambo-Cosand enjoyed what she was doing. She found aeromedical evacuation flights of wounded personnel to be the most special. Whenever she carried patients, she always went back to talk to them and hold their hand before returning to the cockpit, hoping they would make it.

By early October, enough forces were in place to defend Saudi Arabia should the Iraqis attack. An additional a build-up of forces began in early November to prepare for an offensive operation.[7] In November, the United Nations Security Council also set a deadline for Iraq to withdraw forces by 15 January 1991. The deadline passed, and the air war started on 17 January.

On the first day of the war, US Air Force Captain Sheila Chewing helped two McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle fighter pilots shoot down two Iraqi Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrums. She was a weapons controller onboard a Boeing E-3 Sentry, an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft distinguished by a gigantic disc-shaped radar antenna mounted on top of the aircraft and used for tracking both friendly and enemy aircraft. She spotted the MiG-29s on her radar screen onboard the AWACS and then directed the F-15 pilots until their own radars could track the enemy aircraft and launch missiles at them. Chewing later said, “When that happened [bringing down an enemy plane], we really felt like we were doing our jobs.”[8]

While airlift crews shuttled endlessly among the US, Europe, and the Middle East, some women who flew refuelling tankers and other support aircraft settled at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Air Force Captain Christina Vance Halli, a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, was happy to deploy to support DESERT STORM. She was tired of being at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, where she mostly sat alert with bomber crews and rarely flew. Instead, she and the rest of her crew flew as passengers to get to Incirlik. During a stop in Greece, it was obvious they were getting closer to the action: a man wearing a flak jacket met them at the aircraft and instructed them to low crawl across the ramp to his vehicle.

The aircraft that launched from Incirlik did so as part of a large strike package of tankers, communications jammers (EC-130s), tactical reconnaissance aircraft (RF-4Cs) and the fighter aircraft that would be striking targets deep into Iraq. For most missions, the slower Lockheed EC-130s launched first to get into position to provide jamming protection for the striking aircraft. At the same time or shortly after, McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom aircraft took off and finally, the KC-135s departed, followed by the striking aircraft. A typical strike package had three to five tankers, each servicing four to eight fighters. The refuelling’s were a bit of an adventure, done in radio silence and mostly at night, but the skill of all crews involved prevented any mishaps. The fighters followed the tankers to Iraq’s northern border, refuelling as needed and getting a top-off before entering Iraq. At that point, the tankers did a U-turn and held in orbit, waiting for the strikers to return.[9]

In the meantime, the EC-130s orbited nearby to provide jamming support. Captain Amy Hermes Smellie was an EC-130 co-pilot. She recalls sometimes seeing anti-aircraft artillery in the distance as the strikers reached their targets; on other occasions, she wore night vision goggles look for targets. Unlike the other support aircraft that might carry one or two women aviators on a mission, the EC-130s were often packed with women linguists in the back of the aeroplane. Smellie says the linguists were the driving factor in EC-130s; the Air Force might have been able to fly EC-130 missions without women pilots, but they did not have enough male linguists.[10]

The ground campaign began on early 24 February. That day Major Marie Rossi, the company commander of one of Calhoun’s sister units, appeared on CNN, saying, “[T]his is the moment that everybody trains for – that I’ve trained for – so I feel ready to meet the challenge.”[11] To prepare for the assault, coalition ground forces had quietly moved hundreds of miles to the west, including Calhoun’s CH-47 unit, which moved from Dhahran to Rafha. Instead of flying to Rafha, Calhoun was put in charge of a convoy for the move. However, once at Rafha, she got in on the action. On the second day of the ground war, she flew Chinook missions to move elements of the US 101st Airborne Division to Forward Operating Base Cobra, 93 miles inside Iraq, to provide a logistics base for the 101st as they conducted their assault. Overall, Calhoun flew 22 hours of combat, flying into Iraq and coming within 90 miles of Baghdad.[12]

DS Map
Map depicting Army unit locations at Dhahran and Rafha; FOB Cobra is north of Rafha. (Source: Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress)

Offensive operations ended at 08:00 on 28 February, but that did not stop the danger. Marie Rossi, the pilot who had appeared on CNN, died on 1 March, the day after the cease-fire, when her helicopter hit an unlit radio tower.

US Navy women did not get as many opportunities to fly during the war as their Air Force and Army counterparts. A handful of women, mostly in helicopter combat support squadrons, carried personnel and equipment around the Persian Gulf and flew other support missions, including search and rescue.[13] Lieutenant Commander Lucy Young, who had qualified to fly Douglas A-4 Skyhawk strike aircraft and was the US Navy’s first female strike instructor, nevertheless was not allowed to fly in combat. By 1991, she had left the Navy and was in a reserve unit in Atlanta, flying McDonnell Douglas C-9s, a small cargo aircraft like the commercial DC-9. Young’s squadron was never activated, but she spent three weeks flying people and cargo around the Middle East during the build-up in September 1991 while male strike pilots she had trained headed for the war on aircraft carriers.[14]

Captain Peggy Phillips, a C-141 pilot in the reserves at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, says that the women transport pilots were the ‘first in and last out’ of the theatre. This was especially true of the reservists; many were activated in August or September of 1990 and not deactivated until May or June 1991. Another aspect of being an airlifter was that the crews received no parades or big welcomes when they returned home like many of the combat units, who deployed and returned as a group. Instead, the airlifters dribbled over and back, activating, and deactivating on individual timelines. Phillips had a two-day notice to deactivate. She quietly went home with no fanfare.[15]

The Dangers faced by Female Aviators

Going up against the fourth largest army in the world, planners expected the overall battle to be short but potentially very bloody, with as many as 30,000 casualties.[16] Given that the all-volunteer force in place since the mid-1970s was 15% female, at least some of those casualties were expected to be women.

Although the aircraft flown by women aviators largely kept them away from enemy fire, the missions weren’t risk-free. Tankers occasionally flew over hostile territory with their strike package. For example, Captain Ann Weaver Worster reportedly flew her tanker 250 miles inside Iraq on one mission.[17] In another instance, an SA-8 surface-to-air missile exploded above a KC-135 flying out of Incirlik.[18]

Once the Iraqis started launching SCUD missiles during Desert Storm, the transport and other support crews were vulnerable when they landed in Saudi Arabia. For example, Rambo-Cosand received word of a ‘black flag’ SCUD alert during one flight, and the crew donned their chemical warfare gear before landing. Once on the ground, the crew dashed to a bunker in their gear, where they stayed for several hours until their aircraft could be refuelled and reloaded for their return flight.[19]

In addition to dealing with hostile forces, the women aviators also dealt with a hostile environment from their hosts. For example, Saudi ground crews refused to take fuel orders from women crewmembers and women who stayed in Saudi Arabia overnight had to cover up if they wanted to go off base.[20]

Family Issues

Naysayers had predicted that women would become pregnant to avoid going to war. Some pregnant women could not deploy, but it was not only women who wanted to stay home for family reasons. Halli, the KC-135 pilot, recalled that her navigator did not want to deploy because his wife was pregnant; he was replaced with another navigator.[21]

During their deployments, men and women left behind families, including small children. For example, C-5 flight engineer Donna Davis left her son with her parents, although she made it home for Christmas.[22] Unlike crewmembers who lived near McGuire, Rambo-Cosand found it difficult to get home whenever she had a few extra days in the US, although she did make it back to her family in Honduras for a few days about every six weeks.[23] Sometimes childcare took creative juggling. For example, C-141 pilot Peggy Phillips had three small children and an airline pilot husband who was also an activated reservist. The couple served in the same unit at McChord, and their commander allowed them to work their schedules so that while one was flying on a trip, the other worked in the squadron.[24]

Conclusion – An Opportunity for Change

Carolyn Becraft, a significant player in the fight to overturn the archaic combat exclusion law, says activating the reserves had a huge impact on the public’s acceptance of women going into hostile territory. Unit activations turned into local stories, and people saw their neighbours, both men and women, heading to war.[25]

The women aviators in Desert Shield and Desert Storm and other women who served in the Middle East, collectively proved they could participate in combat. After legislation and a Presidential Commission to further study the issue, women aviators finally earned the right to fly combat aircraft on 28 April 1993. However, for most women who flew in Desert Storm, the change came too late in their careers. Tanker pilot Christina Vance Halli left the Air Force and applied to fly General Dynamics F-16s at the Air National Guard unit in Fresno, California. The unit seemed receptive, allowing her to go through a process of visits and interviews before turning her down. Their reason? She did not have any fighter experience.[26]

Eileen A. Bjorkman is a former flight test engineer in the USAF with more than thirty-five years of experience and over 700 hours in the cockpits of F-4s, F-16s, C-130s, and C-141s. Her most recent book is Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind (2020) She is also the author of The Propeller under the Bed: A Personal History of Homebuilt Aircraft and has published articles in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space MagazineAviation HistorySport Aviation, the Everett Daily Herald, and the Herald Business Journal.

Header image: Members of the US.’ Air Force disembark from a Lockheed C-141B Starlifter aircraft upon their arrival in support of Operation DESERT SHIELD. This is the type of aircraft flown by Major Kathy Rambo-Cosand and Captain Peggy Phillips as mentioned in this article. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Interview with Kathy Rambo-Cosand, 21 April 2021.

[2] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Defense, 1992), p. 45

[3] Interview with Victoria Calhoun, 2 May 2021.

[4] Jeanne Holm, Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution, Revised Edition (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993), p. 450.

[5] Interview with Stephanie Wells, 29 April 2021.

[6] Interview with Donna Davis, 22 April 2021.

[7] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 83

[8] Joby Warrick, ‘AWACS Proves to be Gulf ‘Trump Card,” Air Force Times, 26 March 1991, p. 11, as quoted in Holm, Women in the Military, p. 452.

[9] Interview with Christina Vance Halli, 30 April 2021.

[10] Interview with Amy Hermes Smellie, 21 April 2021.

[11] Holm, Women in the Military, p. 460.

[12] Calhoun interview.

[13] Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Tailhook (McClean, VA: Brassey’s, 1993), p. 264.

[14] Interview with Lucy Young, 29 April 2021.

[15] Interview with Peggy Phillips, 2 May 2021.

[16] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. ii; Richard P. Hallion, Storm over Iraq: Air Power and the Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), pp. 2-3.

[17] Holm, Women in the Military, p. 449.

[18] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, pp. 234-235

[19] Rambo-Cosand interview.

[20] Multiple women mentioned these issues to me during interviews.

[21] Halli interview.

[22] Davis interview.

[23] Rambo-Cosand interview.

[24] Phillips’ interview.

[25] Interview with Carolyn Becraft, 21 April 2021.

[26] Halli interview.

#DesertStorm30 – Desert Storm: A View from the Front

#DesertStorm30 – Desert Storm: A View from the Front

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 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 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.

A ground crew member signals to the pilot of a 614th Tactical Fighter Squadron F-16C Fighting Falcon as it prepares to take off on the first daylight strike against Iraqi targets during Operation DESERT STORM. (Wikimedia)

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.

A US Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker aircraft refuels a US Navy F-14A Tomcat aircraft as the two planes fly over Kuwait in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm. (Source: USAF)

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.

#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.

#DesertStorm30 – Call for Submissions: DESERT STORM Revisited

#DesertStorm30 – Call for Submissions: DESERT STORM Revisited

In 2021, From Balloons to Drones will run a series that examines the use of air power during Operation DESERT STORM in 1991.

A Royal Air Force Jaguar aircraft is serviced on the flight line as a US Air Force F-15E Eagle aircraft taxis in the background during Operation Desert Shield. (Source: Wikimedia)

2021 is the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM, which sought to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. DESERT STORM has long been considered a significant turning point in the use of air power. As Richard Hallion reflected the 1990s, ‘[s]o profound [was] the change in warfare exemplified by what occurred in Desert Storm, that, for the United States, aerospace power [was] now de facto accepted as the natural and logical form of crisis intervention.’ In many respects, much of the rhetoric that had characterised air power thinking during the 20th century arguably coalesced in 1991. Nevertheless, the use and impact of air power both during the conflict and in the years afterwards, has remained controversial. As such, From Balloons to Drones is seeking submissions for a series of articles that examine the varied use of air power during DESERT STORM as well its impact on the conduct of military operations since 1991. Themes to be explored might include, but are not limited to:

Strategy, Theory and Doctrine | Organisation and Policy | Roles

Operations – Kinetic and Non-Kinetic | Tactics, Training and Procedures

Strategic and Operational Effect | Technological Developments

Ethical and Moral Issues | National, International and Transnational Experiences | Personal Experiences

We are looking for articles of between 500 to 4,000 words, though we will accept larger pieces and we reserve the right to publish them in parts. To understand the types of articles published by From Balloons to Drones, please visit our submissions page. As well as scholarly articles, we are keen to publish personal reflections on the use of air power by those who served during DESERT STORM. We would also be interested in potentially conducting interviews with veterans.

We plan to begin running the series in January 2021, and it will continue for as long as we receive potential contributions. We will also be looking at publishing extended versions of selected articles in an edited volume. We welcome and encourage submissions from academics, policymakers, service personnel, and relevant professionals. We also welcome submissions written from diverse academic disciplines.

Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the address below with ‘SUBMISSION – DESERT STORM Revisited’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. Footnotes can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. If you are not sure if your idea fits our requirements, then please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION – DESERT STORM Revisited’ in the subject line to discuss.

If you are interested in contributing, please email our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or contact us via our contact page here.

Header Image: Two US Air Force McDonnell Douglas F-4G Phantom II aircraft of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing pass over the Saudi desert while on a training flight during Operation Desert Shield on 11 January 1991. The aircraft are carrying external fuel tanks on their outboard wing pylons and AGM-88 HARM high-speed anti-radiation missiles on their inboard wing pylons. (Source: Wikimedia)