the Berlin Airlift
the Korean War
air war in Vietnam
Linebacker bombing raids
the Falklands War
Air War over Morocco
the first Gulf War
Venezuela’s 1992 coup attempt
the Serbian bombings
the MPQ-53 Radar

the first Gulf War

Iraq invasion of Kuwait

The Gulf War was an anomaly compared to other wars of the second half of the 20th century. It was fought on a clearly delineated battlefield against known enemies and with a clear objective. But the weapons used were like those from a science fiction novel. There were silent airplanes that could not be tracked from the ground, bombs that could be steered to hit a target the size of a chair, missiles that could destroy other missiles in midair, and satellites that could tell a person in the middle of the trackless desert where they were. Damage assessment was done through television news. It was a posthumous victory for the U.S. Air Force’s first Chief of Staff, Henry "Hap" Arnold, who had dedicated his service to research and development for technology that would win wars quickly and with as few casualties as possible. The technology that had cost billions of dollars in the preceding decades was unleashed in a massive demonstration of American power. All levels of air power including stealth bombers, aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, troop helicopters, and satellites worked together to ensure perhaps the fastest ground campaign in history.

When the Iran-Iraq War ended with a ceasefire in 1988, both countries were decimated, and Iraq had accumulated more than $40 million in debt. But rather than working to rebuild his country, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein threatened Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, two neighbouring countries that Iraq held an ancient claim on. He ordered them to cut their oil production to raise its price and not only to forgive Iraq’s debts, but also to compensate Iraq for "protection" from Iran. Although the countries did cut oil production, the demands were just an excuse for invasion, and on August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The invasion began at 2 a.m., as tanks and armoured units rolled down a superhighway connecting the two countries. They were covered by aircraft, including Mil Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships and Sukhoi ground attack aircraft. The Kuwaitis attempted to fight back. Their air force launched U.S.-built Hawk surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and downed 23 Iraq Air Force (IQAF) airplanes, but their supply was quickly exhausted. Pilots took to the air to try to fight back, but quickly found it safer to fly to safety in Saudi Arabia. By dawn, Iraq had control of Kuwait.

The world was shocked. That day the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw immediately. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, fearing his country would be next, asked the world to help, offering air bases and facilities. Many countries jumped to action. The United States immediately began a mobilization to the area by sending 48 McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles. In reaction, on August 8, Hussein annexed Kuwait as Iraq’s 19th Province. Later that day, U.S. President George Bush announced he was sending troops to the region and the aircraft carrier USS Dwight Eisenhower was heading toward the Persian Gulf. Operation Desert Shield had begun.

Following the American example, nations around the world organized either to send troops or to help the effort financially. Although the United States sent the largest force, Great Britain, France, Argentina, Belgium, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Greece, the Netherlands, and Australia all sent either aviation or naval help. The coalition was given legal status through U.N. Resolution 665, passed August 25. Alliances which were unimaginable a year before took place, such as a Royal Air Force maritime patrol plane assisting a Soviet warship in intercepting an Iraqi blockade-running ship.

While these forces built up, Saddam Hussein was watching commentators on television, especially on Cable News Network (CNN), who were predicting disaster for the coalition. His air force was considered the sixth best in the world and he felt that he could be victorious, especially if he could convince other Arab nations to leave the coalition. He also announced that Western nationals, trapped in Iraq, would be held at targets as "human shields." Although he released all the captives by December 6, this maneuver demonstrated his potential ruthlessness.

By November, the focus of the coalition had shifted from protecting Saudi Arabia to expelling Iraq from Kuwait. On November 29, the United Nations passed Resolution 678, ordering Iraq to leave by January 15, 1991. The U.S. Congress authorized President Bush to use force against Iraq on January 12, 1991.

January 15 arrived and Iraq remained in Kuwait. The coalition’s attack, named Operation Desert Storm, began on January 17.  Soon after midnight, a force of Lockheed F-117A Nighthawks flew into Baghdad. And although Baghdad had seven times the defences of Hanoi during the Linebacker II raids, these stealth airplanes slipped silently through them, dropping Paveway laser-guided bombs on various sites around the city. Tomahawk missiles launched from aircraft carriers were also hitting various targets.

F-15C, D and E models were deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1991 in support of Operation Desert Storm where they proved their superior combat capability with a confirmed 26:0 kill ratio. F-15 fighters accounted for 36 of the 39 Air Force air-to-air victories. F-15Es were operated mainly at night, hunting SCUD missile launchers and artillery sites.

The world watched the attacks live on CNN but was unaware that amidst the images of thick anti-aircraft fire around the city, America’s newest aircraft were darting effortlessly to their marks. And military officials did not need to wait for reconnaissance reports to confirm target hits. One of the targets was the AT&T communications building in Baghdad and with reporters from CNN reporting live on the air via telephone, Pentagon officials knew the target had been struck when they were suddenly cut off.

In Operation Desert Storm, B-52s struck wide-area troop concentrations, fixed installations and bunkers, and decimated the morale of Iraq's Republican Guard. The Gulf War involved the longest strike mission in the history of aerial warfare when B-52s took off from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., launched conventional air launched cruise missiles and returned to Barksdale -- a 35-hour, non-stop combat mission.

Throughout the first day, 655 coalition aircraft flew 1,322 sorties against communication centres and airfields. Planes from the IQAF tried to fight the coalition planes, but their older technology was no match. By the second day, they were fleeing for airfields in neutral Iran. Some thought this was a sign of victory, although others were worried that they had been sent there to wait until the ground war had begun. Within 24 hours, the coalition achieved air superiority and was free to destroy Iraq’s command and control centres and to cut communications between Baghdad and Kuwait. Other planes began to take aim at the Iraqi troops on the ground, destroying tanks, bunkers, and highways.

In the Gulf War, A-10s, with a mission capable rate of 95.7 percent, flew 8,100 sorties and launched 90 percent of the AGM-65 Maverick missiles.

But there was an unexpected delay to the air war. On January 17, Iraq launched its first Scud missile. The SS-1 Scud surface-to-surface missile was built by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and sold to Iraq in the 1970s. The Scuds had limited range and accuracy but were useful weapons of terror. Coalition intelligence had underestimated their numbers and failed to account for them in the war plans. Hussein was using them to break the coalition. By firing them at Israel, he hoped to draw that country into the war, knowing the Arab nations would not fight alongside Israel. And he fired them at Saudi Arabia to try to convince it that it was too risky to host the coalition. Both attempts failed as the United States rushed Raytheon MIM-104 Patriot missile batteries to protect the two countries. The Patriot was not perfect--it did not always intercept the Scud and even when it did, the falling debris often inflicted damage. But the Patriot missile was a major political weapon for keeping Israel and Saudi Arabia happy and to CNN, it made for exciting television.

For a month, airplanes and helicopters pounded away at any targets that might contribute to the ground war, from destruction of communications buildings and bridges to dropping "Daisy Cutter" bombs over the possible frontline to destroy landmines. Precision bombs were used to decrease errors and casualties. Their accuracy was such that a hit was only considered "on target" if it was within 10 feet (three meters) of its mark, very different from World War II, when the hit had to be within 1,000 feet (305 meters) of the target.

On February 24, the ground war began. But there was not much left of the Iraqi military. The remaining soldiers had no communications with command, no reinforcements, and little food or water. Having watched their tanks and vehicles being destroyed, the once-feared Iraqi troops suffered extremely low morale and deserted or surrendered quickly. The hundred hours of the ground war were spent processing prisoners and negotiating around bombed locations. Iraq accepted a ceasefire on February 28 without ever really fighting. Coalition casualties were extremely low, although one quarter was the result of friendly fire.

Air Force officials celebrated the victory as a triumph of air power 60 years after the early air power prophets predicted that air power alone could win wars. They cited the desalination plant in Kuwait City being destroyed on February 24 (with orders issued before the ground campaign began) as a sign that the Iraqis were planning to retreat before ground troops arrived. The victory of air power in the Gulf War was definitely a victory for the Air Force’s technology development program. Stealth aircraft, "smart" bombs, Patriot missiles, the Global Positioning System, F/A-18 Hornets, and other new technologies, supplemented older technologies such as the B-52 Stratofortress and Huey helicopters to destroy a war machine that was regarded as dangerous but in the end, was not advanced enough to fight the world.