1991: Air War in the Gulf Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the early hours of August 2, 1990, Iraqi military forces occupied the tiny, oil-rich nation of Kuwait, Iraq’s Arab neighbor on the Northern Persian Gulf. Ordered by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the invasion employed hundreds of tanks and surprised nearly the entire world. Within twenty-four hours, Iraq had taken complete control of Kuwait and moved thousands of Iraqi troops to Kuwait’s Saudi Arabian border. Industrialized nations, such as the United States, that depended heavily on Kuwaiti and Saudi petroleum immediately terminated its foreign policies that had previously benefited Iraq. The United States and the United Nations organized a coalition of thirty-nine countries, including Egypt, France, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, that expelled Iraq within just six weeks and restored Kuwaiti independence without stripping Hussein of power. The United States made the unusual request that other countries contribute financially to the campaign. More than fifty-three billion dollars was received, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait the largest donors. Several countries donated resources but not personnel.

The 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the overwhelming and decisive role of air power in modern warfare. As the first major international crisis following the Cold War, the war demonstrated that a cooperative effort between the United States and the Soviet Union, along with the support of China, could enable the United Nations to quell a world crisis in a volatile area such as the Middle East.

During the early hours of August 2, 1990, Iraqi military forces occupied the tiny, oil-rich nation of Kuwait, Iraq’s Arab neighbor on the Northern Persian Gulf. Ordered by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the invasion employed hundreds of tanks and surprised nearly the entire world. Within twenty-four hours, Iraq had taken complete control of Kuwait and moved thousands of Iraqi troops to Kuwait’s Saudi Arabian border. Industrialized nations, such as the United States, that depended heavily on Kuwaiti and Saudi petroleum immediately terminated its foreign policies that had previously benefited Iraq. The United States and the United Nations organized a coalition of thirty-nine countries, including Egypt, France, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, that expelled Iraq within just six weeks and restored Kuwaiti independence without stripping Hussein of power. The United States made the unusual request that other countries contribute financially to the campaign. More than fifty-three billion dollars was received, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait the largest donors. Several countries donated resources but not personnel.

Military Buildup

Immediately following the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia invited U.S. troops onto Saudi soil for protection against further aggression. This coalition, termed Operation Desert Shield, deployed 1,800 combat aircraft, 3,500 tanks, and 670,000 troops (425,000 of which were American), into the Gulf region by mid-January. The coalition also had moved 200 warships into the Gulf region, including six U.S. aircraft carriers and two battleships. By contrast, Iraq mobilized between 350,000 and 550,000 troops into Kuwait and southern Iraq, along with 550 aircraft, 4,500 tanks, and a small navy.

Had Hussein taken advantage of his initial military leverage and invaded Saudi Arabia in August, 1990, no military force in the immediate area could have deterred him. Any immediate American retaliation would have been limited to air and missile attacks from the USS Independence aircraft carrier in the Gulf and by B-52 bombers stationed on Diego Garcia Island, 2,500 miles away in the Indian Ocean. Hussein’s unexplained delay gave U.S. president George Bush time to organize the largest deployment of air power and troops since World War II. Fifty thousand air and ground troops were sent to bases in Saudi Arabia in addition to three aircraft carrier fleets: the Independence, the USS Eisenhower, and the USS Saratoga. The number of American troops in the region had increased to more than 200,000 by November, after which Bush tried to scare Hussein into retreating by doubling the size of the American force.

Operation Desert Storm began with 539,000 American troops in the Gulf, along with 270,000 other coalition troops. There were 545,000 Iraqi troops in and around Kuwait. U.S. general H. Norman Schwarzkopf commanded the non-Arab units and Saudi general Khalid Sultan commanded the Arab units.

Air Power Strategies

The primary goal of the coalition air command was to destroy Iraq’s ability to launch either offensive or defensive air campaigns. Secondary goals included the elimination of Iraq’s weapons facilities and the disruption of Iraq’s ability to gather information about coalition forces and to communicate internally. Coalition aircraft first bombed the Iraqi capital of Baghdad before attacking strategic military targets throughout Iraq and Kuwait. The allies focused their heaviest bombing on Iraqi troops, artillery centers, tanks, transportation routes, and supplies of ammunition, food, fuel, and water, as Hussein attempted to shield his military behind civilians. Iraq then launched crude Scud missiles at populated areas in Israel and Saudi Arabia, enraging many by killing civilians.

Operation Desert Storm

Hussein was given a deadline of January 15, 1991, to exit Kuwait. When he made no attempt to honor this deadline, Operation Desert Shield was upgraded to the military offensive Operation Desert Storm.

On January 16, 1991, at 6:40 p.m. eastern standard time, the White House announced that “the liberation of Kuwait has begun.” Intensive air attacks continued for five and one-half weeks, concluding with a ground assault that began on February 23, 1991, at 8:00 p.m. eastern standard time, and lasted for exactly one hundred hours. The United States flew most of the campaign’s sorties, and the British, French, and Saudis flew most of the rest. The coalition deployed unprecedented technological weapons systems, such as the unmanned Tomahawk cruise missile, the antimissile version of the Patriot antiaircraft system, and advanced infrared targeting that illuminated Iraqi tanks buried in the sand. Iraqi forces were overwhelmed by the use of new aircraft such as the British Tornado and the U.S. F-117A stealth fighter.

A Baghdad hotel destroyed by Allied bombing. (Barry W. Barker)

Other new technology included coalition smart bombs, which utilized previously untested laser guidance systems and accounted for 7 percent of all bombs dropped. Modern media coverage enabled the entire world continually to view coalition bombing raids. As Hussein desired, Iraq’s longstanding neighbor and enemy, Iran, did not make a stand. As the bombing intensified, Iraq evacuated to Iran 137 aircraft, all of which Iran kept after the war.

For its initial thirty-seven days, Operation Desert Storm was almost exclusively a war of air bombardment. Iraq’s military installations, communications facilities, air bases, armed forces in the field, missile launchers, weapons-producing factories, and nuclear production facilities were relentlessly bombed by more than 100,000 sea-launched sorties and missiles from the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi air force had surprisingly been grounded by Hussein after only the one day of bombing. Iraq’s only offensive effort after its initial invasion of Kuwait was to launch eighty-five Scud missiles against Israel and Saudi Arabia. They resulted in a relatively minimal loss of life. Some were intercepted by American Patriot antimissile rockets, and others broke up upon reentry or missed their targets.

Operation Desert Saber

The land offensive Operation Desert Saber was launched on February 23, 1991, and lasted for four days. Deployment of ground troops was restrained until nearly the entire Iraqi infrastructure, including bridges, highways, electric power systems, water filtration plants, and airports, had been destroyed. With thousands of Iraqis already dead, surviving troops surrendered by the tens of thousands. The few Iraqi troops, including many of the elite Republican Guard, who continued to fight while retreating, shot their surrendering comrades in the back. When President Bush ordered a cease-fire on February 27, Kuwait was liberated, and the most extensive air bombardment and land offensive since World War II was over. Bush’s early termination of the ground war was later criticized, as Baghdad was able to rescue a substantial amount of military equipment, which was later used to suppress postwar Shiite and Kurdish rebellions as Hussein remained in power.

Military Warcraft

Initial air attacks led by the United States included Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from warships in the Persian Gulf, F-117A stealth fighter-bombers armed with smart bombs, and F-4G Wild Weasel aircraft loaded with antiradar missiles. These attacks permitted F-14, F-15, and F-16 fighter-bombers, and F/A-18 Hornet fighters to gain air superiority. Bombing missions were timed to reduce the effectiveness of Iraqi ground radar defenses. The A-10 Thunderbolt, with its Gatling gun and heat-seeking or optically-guided Maverick missiles, effectively provided support for ground units. Other essential coalition support was provided by the AH-64 Apache, Black Hawk, AH-1 Cobra, and Super Cobra helicopters, which fired laser-guided Hellfire missiles, the E-3A airborne warning and control system (AWACS), and a modernized fleet of older B-52G’s.

The coalition’s 2,250 combat aircraft, including 1,800 U.S. planes, over-matched Iraq’s 500 Soviet-built MiG-29’s and French-made Mirage F-1’s. Coalition combat missions dropped more than 88,000 tons of bombs. Precision-guided missiles, night-vision devices, an infrared navigation and target designation system, and target sensors enabled round-the-clock bombing by the coalition. Coalition ground-based firepower included the multiple-launch rocket system, the M-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicle, the M-60A3 main battle tank, the M-109 self-propelled howitzer tank, the M-1A1 main battle tank, and ninety Patriot missile launchers.

Casualties and Aftermath

Immediately following the Gulf War, the United States Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that 100,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed, 300,000 wounded, 150,000 deserted, and 60,000 taken prisoner. U.S. representatives later stated these estimates could be off as much as 50 percent following claims by various human rights organizations of significantly different numbers. U.S. casualties included 148 killed in action, 407 wounded, and 121 killed in nonhostile activities, such as friendly fire.

Coalition bombing severely damaged Iraq’s transportation systems, communication systems, and petroleum and other industries. Much of Iraq’s electric power and clean water were destroyed, resulting in many civilian deaths from lack of food or medical treatment. Severe environmental pollution resulted after Hussein ordered approximately six hundred Kuwaiti oil wells set afire. The blazes took more than twelve months to extinguish and caused severe air pollution. Huge amounts of Kuwaiti oil were dumped into the Persian Gulf as the war ended. Postwar economic sanctions continued to cause great hardship to the civilians of Iraq and neighboring countries, as efforts to strip Hussein of power repeatedly failed. The operation had another, unintended effect: The presence of U.S. troops angered Osama bin Laden and other Islamic fundamentalists. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that killed almost three thousand people were tied to the Gulf War.

Following Gulf War duty, many veterans complained of physical and psychological ailments, including memory loss, fatigue, and joint pain, collectively known as Gulf War syndrome. In 1996, the Pentagon warned five thousand veterans of the war that these symptoms might have been caused by exposure to nerve gas during an attack on a weapons depot.

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