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For more information, see: Gulf War.

After the expiration of United Nations deadlines, Operation DESERT STORM, the air campaign against Iraqi forces in Iraq and Kuwait, began on 17 January 1991, at 02:00 local time, with an attack helicopter strike against an early warning radar just inside Iraq. Destruction of that radar opened the gateway for a waiting force of combat aircraft.

Air- and sea-launched cruise missiles had already been in flight, as well as F-117 Nighthawk stealth bombers. The first bombs, from apparently invisible sources, began to strike Baghdad approximately an hour later.

Initial air strikes

By the time combat started, the Coalition had approximately 2,400 aircraft based either within the theater of operations or close enough to be capable of projecting power into it. In contrast, the Iraqis had around 650.

AH-64 attack helicopter returning from the first attack of the war

Most of the initial air activity was aimed at suppression of enemy air defense against the Iraqi integrated air defense system (called KARI), disrupting the leadership and its communications, and WMD targets. They joined a squadron of Air Force search-and-rescue helicopters and flew into western Iraq, using night vision goggles and infrared radar to navigate and keeping low to avoid detection. The first shots to hit Iraq came from U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, which had taken off at 2300 hours local time, led to an early warning radar station on the Saudi border by United States Air Force MH-53 PAVE LOW special operations helicopters.

AGM-86 dropping from bomber

On what was to be the longest bombing mission in history, [1] B-52 bombers took off in the wee hours of the morning, for a 14.5 hour flight to the unmarked point in the sky, from which they would launch then-secret AGM-86C conventional air-launched cruise missiles, known by their crews as "Secret Squirrels", at targets in the Baghdad area. This strike was somewhat controversial, with critics claiming the Air Force flew a needlessly difficult mission to hit eight targets, including powerplants at Mosul and a telephone exchange in Basra. In response, Air Force commanders pointed out that this long-range capability was available had a response been needed as soon as the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, when little else could have gotten quickly into position, yet not jeopardized crews flying into the teeth of KARI.

With some limited exceptions on the outskirts, only stealth F-117 aircraft flew into the Baghdad area, along with cruise missiles fired from ships and submarines in international waters, and B-52s in international airspace. Non-stealthy aircraft, however, ranged all over Iraq, simply avoiding the strongest air defenses in Baghdad.

Suppressing KARI: Poobah's Party

Other than flying into the teeth of the Baghdad IADS, Coalition warplanes attacked all over Iraq and Kuwait, the Arab and Canadian pilots primarily in Kuwait alone. It may have seemed cheering to the Baghdad air defenders when they finally saw aircraft targets and turned on their targeting radars. What they were seeing, however, was a large proportion of all the drone aircraft in the U.S. Air Force and Navy inventory. Once the fire control radars revealed themselves, large numbers of SEAD aircraft on the outskirts of Baghdad showered those radars with AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles.

U.S. intelligence assets such as the RC-135 RIVET JOINT and EC-130 COMPASS CALL, as well as national-level satellite and other systems, constantly characterized the Iraqi system, even as the planning was in progress.

The SEAD plan, developed under the leadership of Glosson's deputy for electronic warfare, BG Larry Henry (call sign Poobah), had five main objectives:[2]

  1. Destroy/disrupt enemy command and control nodes
  2. Disrupt electronic warfare/ground controlled intercept coverage and communications
  3. Force Air Defensive Assets into Autonomous Modes (i.e., cut the missile and gun shooters away from the command and control network linking radars and senior air defense officers to the actual defenses)
  4. Use expendable drones for deception
  5. Employ maximum available AGM-88 HARM shooters

A number of these ideas came from the June 1982 Israeli campaign against the Syrian air defense system in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. [3] While the actual damage figures are argued, destruction of 19 missile batteries and 87 fighters, with no Israeli losses, often is cited. [4]

It has been said that the Bekaa Valley lessons made more of an impact on Navy than Air Force planners, with the Navy thinking more of taking down air defense befoe anything else, and with naval aviation being part of a larger campaign. Glosson, as well as other Air Force officers, hoped that air power alone could bring down Saddam.[5]

Leadership targeting

While there was argument about the order of taking down parts of the Iraqi system, there was little argument that if Saddam could be neutralized, either by killing him or cutting his communications, Iraqi forces would be thrown into chaos. The multiple modes of attack against C3I have been described as "hyperwar":

Operation Desert Storm witnessed another unprecedented fusion of technology and strategy that was so intense; so destructive; that it has been called "Hyperwar." The primary offensive technological components of Hyperwar are stealthy aircraft and precision guided munitions. ...The first goal is politico-military decapitation of the enemy, achieved by destroying C3I (command, control, communication and information) targets. These assets include leadership and the assets that allow them to communicate with other decision-making cells and military resources.[6]

Realities of stealth

O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible,

through you inaudible; and hence hold the enemy's fate in our hands.

Sun Tzu,The Art of War, c. 400 B.C.

Some might say that the "Black Jet", or F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack bomber, was an icon of the Gulf War, striking critical targets. Others might argue that an invisible icon is a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, stealth aircraft with precision-guided munitions were the only manned aircraft that went "downtown" to Baghdad, and hit a high proportion of the key targets. In many cases, the issue was more being aware of a target and getting its position, not hitting the target once its position was known. With certain "brilliant fuzes" on guided bombs, position did not simply mean latitude and longitude — a bomb could know that it had to penetrate four floors of a building, and only then explode.

There is a perception that stealth aircraft such as the F-117 Nighthawk move in electronic and infrared silence, but, in complex strikes, that is not the case. If a stealthy aircraft is hard to find on radar when there are no other targets in the sky, imagine how much it is harder to find if there are radar jammers, blasting away at one's radar systems. The problem is rather like hearing the squeak of a timid mouse during a very noisy celebration.

While Glosson objected at first, the F-117 wing commander, COL Alton C. Whitney Jr., wanted supportive jamming to distract the Iraqis from the incoming "Black Jets" in the night, adding to the distraction already spread by cruise missiles (Air Force and Navy, most with explosive warheads), drone decoys, and anti-radiation missiles. The combined approach worked well. [7]

Iraqi response to Coalition offensive counter-air

Iraq had very little success in air-to-air combat against Coalition aircraft. While the degraded KARI system compared to the Coalition E-3 Sentry and EC-130 Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) C3I system certainly played a role in managing the air battle, Iraqi pilots seemed poorly trained in air combat. [3] Iraqi pilots seemed not to react at all, or take defensive actions too late, when they were illuminated by Coalition fighter radar. After the Iraqi ground shelters proved quite vulnerable, Saddam apparently ordered his first-line aircraft to Iran, and was surprised when Iran would not return them.

The Gulf War Air Power Survey also commented on the poor training of Iraqi air-to-air pilots,[8] confirming Cordesman's observations that their best pilots went into ground attack. [9] Volume 4 of the Air Power survey said

Although Iraqi pilots sometimes started encounters with decent setups, the consistent and overriding tactical pattern evident in debriefs of kills by U.S. F-15 pilots indicates a startling lack of situational awareness by their Iraqi adversaries. In general, the Iraqi pilots shot down did not react to radar lock-ons by Coalition fighters. They attempted very little maneuvering, either offensive or defensive, between the time when the air intercept radar locked on to them and the time when they were hit by air-to-air missiles (or, in two cases, before running into the ground). [10]

Exotic weapons

A warhead does not always need explosives to be devastating. Iraqi air defense and C3I generally depended more on commercial electrical power than countries that not only have complete generators, but backup generators for their military systems. The Navy had developed the KIT-18 carbon filament spool payload for BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Vaguely reminiscent of spiders spinning webs, the cruise missiles flew across power lines, spooling out the thin filament, which still could cause massive circuits on the power lines. This had the advantage of knocking out power, but not destroying the hard-to-replace generators and other large components needed to restore civilian service.

Expanding leadership targets, and the al Firdos bunker

In February, F-117's were regularly hitting top leadership targets, including the political as well as C3I for air defense. Alan Arkin, hardly an apologist for the U.S. military, reported that the Amiriyah shelter, known as the Al Firdos C3 bunker to U.S. war planners, was added to the target list in early February. Signals intelligence traced to it, and daytime photography of limousines and trucks outside it, led Air Force targeters to consider it "a newly activated Iraqi command shelter," perhaps to take over from other destroyed shelters.

Bombed on February 13, the Iraqis showed hundreds of civilians, "possibly the families of elite government and intelligence personnel, were using the shelter as a refuge to escape nighttime bombing. About 400 Iraqi civilians, mostly women and children, died in the attack. Another 200 were injured severely. U.S. intelligence never detected the civilian presence and still believes the shelter was used (at least during the day) by Iraq's intelligence agencies as a back-up communications post."

"Generals Schwarzkopf and Powell conferred and the air war planning office in Riyadh was ordered to get approval for any subsequent downtown targets selected for attack." Arkin reports that on a later visit to Baghdad, he encountered a very similar shelter under another government building, also not clearly associated with military operations but probably with the elite.

Again, there are no simple answers. Arkin's column appropriately is titled with Clausewitz's phrase, "the fog of war." [11]

Other targeting pressures

As the Air Force continued to search for leadership "center of gravity" targets, the Army was urging that bombing move to Iraqi military forces, especially the Republican Guard. CENTCOM intelligence reappraised AFCENT bomb damage assessment, and concluded the Tawakalna Division, the southernmost and most vulnerable of RG divisions, had not been nearly as damaged as the Air Force had estimated.[12] Much conflict between the Army and Air Force was reported as going on during the war, but not afterwards.

SCUD surprises

Iraq was known to have both imported versions of the Soviet SS-1 SCUD ballistic missile, as well as domestic clones and derivatives. The derivatives gave up already small payload for increased range, and usually with reduced accuracy. U.S. intelligence knew about most of the fixed SCUD bases, but badly underestimated the number of mobile launchers and the skill of their crews.

The concern was not so much that the SCUD was a truly dangerous weapon. It was at the level of sophistication of a World War II V-2 missile, considered to operate with adequate accuracy if it could hit something as small as a metropolitan area. Had it had a nuclear warhead, the power of the warhead could have compensated for the inaccuracy -- but the Iraqis did not have any. There was also concern that they mught have chemical or biological warheads, but, again, while they had a WMD development program, they had not worked out the details of weaponizing. As one example, while a ton of nerve agent in a warhead is frightening, the reality is that it cannot simply be burst with an explosive charge and expected to have a tactical effect. If for no other reason, nerve agents are inflammable and a burster charge may simply cause them to burn harmlessly.

The real danger

Given that the SCUD family were merely psychological weapons that still could cause casualties, when Iraq started shooting SCUDs at Israel, there was intense Israeli political reaction. At first, the Israelis demanded the right to go after the launchers, but there was very real concern that the overt participation of Israel could split off the Arab members of the Coalition.



U.S. Defense Support Program (DSP) early warning satellites, which detected sudden heat bursts such as that generated by a missile launch, did detect the SCUD launches, and sent the information to the strategic warning center in Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colorado. The information was then radioed, on a high-priority basis, to the theater of operations.

What remains somewhat unclear is whether the DSP satellites only gave a general warning, or if they located the launch points with enough precision so that special operations troops and attack aircraft had a chance to get to the launch site and destroy the launcher, before the Iraqis moved it.

Kill SCUDs before launch

During the 1991 Gulf War, British SAS and United States Army Special Forces units were sent on SR to find mobile Iraqi SCUD launchers, originally to direct air strikes onto them. When air support was delayed, however, the patrols might attack key SCUD system elements with their organic weapons and explosives.

During this conflict, the US senior commanders, Colin Powell and H Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., were opposed to using ground troops to search for Iraqi mobile Scud launchers. This was a part of Schwarzkopf's greater disdain for special operations. Under Israeli pressure to send its own SOF teams into western Iraq, and the realization that British SAS were already hunting Scuds, US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney proposed using US SR teams as well as SAS [2] [13]

On February 7, US SR teams joined British teams in the hunt for mobile Scud launchers [14]. Open sources contain relatively little operational information about U.S. SOF activities in western Iraq. Some basic elements have emerged, however. Operating at night, Air Force MH-53 Pave Low and Army MH-47E helicopters would ferry SOF ground teams and their specially equipped four-wheel-drive vehicles from bases in Saudi Arabia to Iraq. [15] The SOF personnel would patrol during the night and hide during the day. When targets were discovered, United States Air Force Combat Control teams accompanying the ground forces would communicate over secure radios to E-3 Sentry airborne command posts.

Intercepting SCUDs

In principle, the available version of the United States Army MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile had a capability against short-range ballistic missiles. Patriots were deployed in Saudi Arabia, but, as an emergency measure to mollify the Israelis, several batteries were sent to Israel.

There were reports, at the time, that the Patriots were stopping every SCUD, and later reports they had no effect at all. The answer is somewhere in between. Part of the problem was the SCUDs, and especially the SCUD derivatives, tended to break up in flight. The missile would home on the larger pieces of fuel tank, rather than the actual warhead.

In the most serious incident, where a single SCUD hit a U.S. barracks in Dharain, killing 28 and wounding over 100 soldiers, it was later found that a software bug had caused the Patriot system to decide that particular SCUD was not a threat, and it was not engaged. The software fix was known, but simply was not installed on the launchers and radars protecting Dharain.

Planning the ground offensive into Kuwait and Iraq

Sometime in late October, although kept quiet not to affect the November Congressional elections, Powell's request, including two corps and doubling Navy and Marine air, was approved. [16] With the two Army corps, new operational concepts became practical. Even with limited forces, the goal was to thread through gaps, perhaps gaps blown by firepower and engineers, in the Iraqi defenses, or perhaps limited bypass with heliborne or amphibious forces.

Real desert logistics base for 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)

The "Jedi Knights", however, planned an operation in which a corps would make one of the longest flanking maneuvers in military history, hitting into the Iraqi rear lines of the Kuwait Theater of Operations from the far west, essentially empty desert. GPS was one of the enabling technologies here, to allow closely synchronized maneuver without roads.

Preparation for the "Left Hook"

The difficulties even before combat cannot be overemphasized: a force of tens of thousands of troops and vehicles. XVIII Corps, had to move, without the movement being discovered by the Iraqis, and with new logistical support areas being built in front of the XVIII Corps' planned path.

  1. West through the rear areas of troops in combat positions, without interfering with their supply lines and other communications lines
  2. West and north into an empty area of Iraq, again remaining undiscovered.
Magic decoy 101st Airborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps command post

One of GEN Schwarzkopf's hobbies is stage magic. For the "left hook" to succeed, Schwarzkopf had to carry out the basic principle of magic: misdirection: He had to make the Iraqis see what he wanted them to see (the Pan-Arab forces, the Marines at sea and to the south of Kuwait, and VII Corps), without them noticing the hidden movement.


In this case, he wanted the Iraqis see the threat of the frontal attack they expected, to be delivered by the Arab forces and the Marine forces on land. The Iraqis were also very aware that a U.S. Marine expeditionary brigade was at sea, and could land on the Kuwaiti coast, or Iraqi coastal areas such as the Faw Peninsula.

Prior to the actual DESERT SABRE movement, the 1st Cavalry Division carried out raids in the Wadi al Batin, an expected invasion route. Their raids primarily used artillery, but they returned to the role of strategic reserve before the main offensive.

Khafji: an attempted counteroffensive

Khafji is a coastal city inside Saudi Arabia, which was deserted on January 29, 1991. Iraq launched its only organized ground offensive into Saudi Arabia, apparently to capture Khafji. At the time, and even today, the Iraqi intentions are not completely clear. Drawing on patterns from the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq had a pattern of sending an armored probe against Iran, inviting a pursuit, and then leading the enemy into strong defensive areas, covered by preregistered Iraqi artillery. [17]

Given the ineffectiveness of Iraqi air, Saddam may have decided that since his regular army III Corps was still intact, a limited ground attack, drawing Coalition forces into his defensive belt, might be just the thing to cause the casualties he believed would break the opponents' will.

It took several days to assemble the attack force, which was under constant surveillance, especially by the E-8 Joint STARS. United States Marine Corps forces had been in the Khafji area, with some large and important logistics bases outside the city. When the Iraqi forces began moving toward Khafji, a number of Marine forces fell back to a prepared defensive line, although two small observation teams, led by corporals, stayed in Khafji. Their key role was an example of the idea of the Strategic Corporal.

Special Operations

Increasingly, special operations forces have become an additional branch of service for modern militaries. Schwarzkopf was known as being generally hostile to such organizations, partially because he believed that they diluted regular units by pulling out the best soldiers, and also as a result of disappointment with their performance in Operation URGENT FURY, the 1983 operation in Grenada, where he was deputy commander.

Psychological operations

Through the war, he began to see more value, but from the beginning, he saw value to special operations. The greatest effect on Iraqi leadership, of course, would be to kill them or cut off their communications, but failing that, interfering with their authority was within the mission scope. The air campaign planners had hoped to generate popular uprising, but the security control was too strong. [18] In retrospect, there was very little psychological warfare directed at Baghdad. Aside from a leaflet drop by F-16 aircraft, leaflets were delivered closer to the battle lines. Baghdad was out of range of the propaganda broadcast transmitters.

The themes used, therefore, were tactical:[19]

  • Why and how to surrender
  • Blaming Saddam
  • Abandoning of equipment and fleeing

Prisoner interrogation demonstrated these were effective, because:

  • PSYOP coverage was extensive. If officers tried to keep soldiers away from it, they apparently lost credibility and authority
  • The PSYOP itself had credibility, especially the use of B-52 bombers even only for effect, a weapon Schwarzkopf respected from his Vietnam experience
  • PSYOP influenced desertion and surrenders.

Psychological effects cannot be overestimated, especially considering the combination of fear of the B-52 attacks, casualty-producing or not, with fears of a ground attack. [20]

Overall, while there were many allegations of huge Iraqi military deaths, postwar analysis there was much more desertion and surrender than killings in action. U.S. burial teams found only several hundred Iraqis, although other bodies certainly were not recoverable.[21]

An "unplanned dividend", however, came from intense bombing, both from B-52s and with the largest U.S. bomb, the BLU-82, appeared to have unexpected strong impact on the Iraqi troops expected to have the best morale. Propaganda and demonstration bombing had more objective impacts:[22]

  • Convincing officer and me of Coalition air supremacy and effectiveness
  • Proving the inadequacy of Iraqi air defense
  • Confirming the inevitability of defeat
  • Intensifying hardship
  • Magnifying fears about their own lives and those of their families.
  • Avoiding drawing the attention of Coalition air forces

Not only the air force psychological operators, but multiservice PSYOPS personnel, working well with Saudi and Kuwati soldiers to understand the cultural nuances, caused a pattern of token resistance:

They (the Iraqis) would take us under fire. We would return fire with effect — killing a few — and then they would just quit. This proved to be the pattern for the entire 100 hour war. Once we took them under heavy fire, they'd fire a few more rounds, then quit. LTG William Keys, USMC

Ground operations

Later in the war, Schwarzkopf began to accept,partially from pressure from his British counterpart, who came from a Special Operations background, the role of ground forces in special reconnaissance and in combat search and rescue.


  1. Tirpak, John (April 1994), "The Secret Squirrels", Air Force Magazine 77 (4)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gordon, Michael R. & Bernard E. Trainor (1995), The Generals' War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf, Little, Brown pp. 111-113
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hurley, Matthew M. (Winter 1989), "The BEKAA Valley Air Battle, June 1982: Lessons Mislearned?", Aerospace Power Journal Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Hurley" defined multiple times with different content
  4. Grant, Rebecca (June 2002), "The Bekaa Valley War", Air Force Magazine 85 (6)
  5. Gordon & Trainor, p. 99
  6. Bolkcom, Christopher & John Pike, Hyperwar: the Legacy of Desert Storm, Attack Aircraft Proliferation: Issues for Concern, Federation of American Scientists
  7. Gordon & Trainor, pp. 117-118
  8. Murray, Williamson, et al. (1993), Gulf War Air Power Survey Volume 2, Air Force Historical Office pp. 97-99
  9. Anthony Cordesman (9/26/2003), Chapter XIII: The Air and Missile Wars and Weapons of Mass Destruction, The Lessons of Modern War: Volume II, The Iran-Iraq War, Center for Strategic and International Studies
  10. Blanchfield, Richard J. et al.'' (1993), Gulf War Air Power Survey Volume 4, Air Force Historical Office pp. 57
  11. Arkin, William (1998), "The fog of war: The Battle for Hearts and Minds", Washington Post
  12. Gordon & Trainor, pp. 329-330
  13. Rosenau, William (2000), Special Operations Forces and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets: Lessons from Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War. U.S. Air Ground Operations Against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, 1966-1972, RAND Corporation
  14. Ripley, Tim. Scud Hunting: Counter-force Operations against Theatre Ballistic Missiles. Centre for Defence and International Security Studies, Lancaster University. Retrieved on 2007-11-11.
  15. Douglas C. Waller (1994). The Commandos: The Inside Story of America’s Secret Soldiers. Dell Publishing. 
  16. Gordon & Trainor, p. 153
  17. Grant, Rebecca (February 1998), "The Epic Little Battle of Khafji", Air Force Magazine 81 (2)
  18. Hosmer, Stephen T. (1996), Persian Gulf, 1991, Psychological Effects of Air Operations in Four Wars. 1941-1991. Lessons for U.S. commanders, RAND pp. 53-54
  19. Hosmer, pp 144-148
  20. Jon Huss (Winter 1999), "Exploiting the Psychological Effects of Airpower: A Guide for the Operational Commander*", Aerospace Power Journal
  21. Hosmer, pp 153-154
  22. Hosmer, p. 162