Toward a More Nuanced View of Airpower and Operation Desert Storm
Approaching the 30th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, airpower enthusiasts will undoubtedly crow about airpower’s key role in the coalition’s swift victory, and not without reason. The dominance of coalition airpower, and the U.S. Air Force specifically, enabled one of the most lopsided victories in the history of warfare. During the six-week air campaign, the U.S. Air Force accounted for nearly 60 percent of the coalition’s 112,000 combat missions, all but three of the 35 aerial victories, and over 90 percent of the 7,400 tons of laser-guided weapons dropped by coalition aircraft. Once the ground war began, it lasted a mere 100 hours, and despite the coalition’s two-to-three disadvantage in men and equipment, the coalition suffered just under 300 casualties. During the brief ground war, the invasion penetrated 150 miles into Iraq, traveling nearly twice the speed of the famed Nazi blitzkrieg of World War II. By all measures the campaign was an undisputable success.
Col. John Warden’s influence on the air campaign against Iraqi infrastructure and leadership targets is held up as the principal component to the war. In the year leading up to Desert Storm, Warden led the Directorate of Warfighting Concepts. Known as Checkmate, the organization was charged with studying and solving complex strategic problems. Recognizing the dangerous situation developing in Iraq, Warden anticipated the need for offensive airpower options and directed his staff to construct an offensive air campaign modeled on Warden’s War College paper-turned-book, The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat. The plan, named Instant Thunder, imagined an air campaign focused on Iraqi leadership, communications, infrastructure, and air defenses. Warden’s conceptualization definitely broke from the Air Force plans for defending Saudi Arabia but the influence of Instant Thunder is often overstated.
While important, it was not Warden’s Instant Thunder plan, nor the doctrinal ideologies of strategic attack and air superiority, that made the swift coalition victory possible in 1991. Instead, airpower’s most decisive impact came through the sustained fury of the Gulf War air campaign against the Iraqi army. Further, two decades of interservice cooperation leading up to Desert Storm played a key role in the lopsided coalition victory. Highlighting the role of airpower in defeating the Iraqi army — and not just the contribution of strategic airpower, however important — has had deep-reaching consequences for American military strategy, doctrine, training, and technology acquisitions for the last three decades. Shortchanging the totality of interservice cooperation necessary in the American-enabled coalition victory by focusing on airpower ideology obscures what actually happened. Further, it hinders, rather than promotes, the necessary joint developments required in future conflicts.
Planning for Desert Storm
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 did not come as a complete surprise to observers within the U.S. government. Saddam Hussein telegraphed the attack in the months prior. He desired annexation of disputed territory between the two nations and the erasure of a $40 billion debt incurred during the decade-long Iran-Iraq war. In response to Saddam’s bellicosity, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s U.S. Central Command planners spent the first half of 1990 revamping the command’s operational plans, completing OPLAN 1002-90 — the plan designed for the defense of the Arabian Peninsula — in July. In the weeks following the invasion, President George H.W. Bush committed the U.S. military to defending against further Iraqi incursions into Saudi Arabia with Operation Desert Shield while seeking options for punitive airstrikes.
Schwarzkopf faced a problem fulfilling the president’s request for offensive air operations as both the air and ground portions of OPLAN 1002-90 were defensive by nature and contained no punitive airstrike options. A solution to the Central Command commander’s dilemma seemed to arrive just in time from Checkmate. Warden and Checkmate briefed the Instant Thunder plan to Schwarzkopf on Aug. 10 and presented a slightly revamped version to the Central Command air component commander, Gen. Chuck Horner, 10 days later. But Horner was not pleased. In Horner’s mind, Instant Thunder completely disregarded the single most dangerous aspect of the impending war, the Iraqi army. Further, Horner felt Instant Thunder “used new technologies to refurbish ideas about strategic bombing that could be traced at least to the Army Air Forces in World War II.” In short, the plan was incomplete at best and at worst recycled historically shaky airpower doctrine. Warden’s plan disregarded the Iraqi army and focused exclusively on targeting Iraqi political and military leadership, their command-and-control infrastructure, along with the Iraqi air force and KARI air defense network. In Warden’s mind the strategic air campaign was the only part of the air campaign that mattered and there was no reason to use the air component for any other mission, no matter what. Warden believed that the strategic air campaign would win the war. However, on paper, the 1 million–man Iraqi army outnumbered the assembled coalition and had recent combat experience against Iran. The specter of a ground campaign against the Iraqis worried both Bush and Schwarzkopf, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The experience of Vietnam loomed in these men’s minds and no one wanted a protracted or bloody campaign that might drag up bad memories and old wounds.
Instead of adopting Warden’s plan and ideology as written, Horner unceremoniously sent Warden back to the Pentagon and instead tapped Brig. Gen. Buster Glosson, Lt. Col. David Deptula, and members of the Checkmate staff to revamp the air plan. The new team formed a planning entity enigmatically dubbed the “Black Hole.” Horner wanted the Black Hole to focus on the ground commanders’ priorities and develop an offensive air campaign far beyond Instant Thunder. Stealing elements of Instant Thunder, the Black Hole air planners set out to do four things. First, decimate Iraq’s KARI air defense network and crush the Iraqi air force — on the ground and in the air — opening the sky for the rest of the air campaign. In this first phase, coalition airpower truly dominated the Iraqi air defense network, and effectively grounded the Iraqi air force after the first week of the war. Coalition air forces lost just 40 aircraft during the war. Anti-aircraft artillery and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles accounted for more than half of the aircraft losses, while the Iraqi air force shot down just one coalition aircraft in air-to-air combat.
Second, coalition airpower targeted Iraqi leadership, hoping to isolate Saddam and destroy his ability to rule and direct the Iraqi army. Following the concept articulated by Warden in Instant Thunder and later in his article “The Enemy as a System,” the coalition achieved neither of these goals. Saddam and his party remained solidly in control during the duration of the war. In fact, Saddam, other Baath Party officials, and Iraqi military leaders endured the fewest attacks of any target category during the war. With little results to show for their efforts, air planners largely abandoned these attacks by the last week of the air campaign.
Instead, the third and fourth objectives, interdicting the Iraqi army and providing close air support to coalition armies, is where airpower truly made its mark. In particular, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, did not want the invading Iraqi army to escape — he wanted it destroyed in the field. The destruction of 50 percent of Iraq’s combat power was a pre-ground invasion goal, and air planners took that goal seriously. The air armada struck Iraqi army targets on the first day of the war, and the onslaught expanded every day. By war’s end, the coalition sent nearly 40 percent of all sorties against more than 27,000 Iraqi army targets, decimating Iraqi resistance, and enabling coalition armies to end the ground war in just 100 hours. The Black Hole placed so much emphasis on air-to-ground support that it categorized the Iraqi Republican Guard as a strategic-level target rather than a tactical one, and these elite units endured relentless air attack during the entire air campaign. As D-Day for the ground invasion approached, coalition airpower poured fire into Iraqi ground forces, with over 90 percent of all strike sorties — and more than 80 percent of all sorties — directed against the Iraqi army in Kuwait and southern Iraq. As coalition armies rolled north, the air arm pushed close air support missions to the front at seven-minute intervals, ensuring a constant supply of on-call airpower. One hundred hours later, the war ended.
The War’s Airpower Legacy
Warden and his supporters insisted, during and after the war, that the ideals of The Air Campaign and Instant Thunder enabled airpower alone to win the war. In 1997, Warden claimed in an article for the journal Security Studies:
The strategic application of airpower was most effective in the Gulf War, even given the restrictions imposed on it and the errors made in its execution. It was strategic attack on Iraq which put it in a position where it was forced to accept the dictates of its opponents and to suffer serious intrusions on its sovereignty since the end of the war.
Further, Warden went on to claim precision-guided weapons and stealth offered “new options to American political leaders” and the United States should “educate potential enemies so they understand what happens to them and to their countries when their strategic centers collapse about them.”
In fact, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak bragged shortly after Desert Storm, “This is the first time in history that a field army has been defeated by airpower.” Even Bush and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney acknowledged airpower’s critical role in the coalition’s victory.
McPeak, however, went on to acknowledge the limits of airpower, even in the lopsided victory of Desert Storm. What McPeak recognized was that the success of Desert Storm did not come from the ideology of strategic bombing but the previous decade of Army-Air Force cooperation developing the concepts of AirLand battle, battlefield air interdiction, deep operations, and network-centric warfare. The victory of Desert Storm was born not only in the U.S. military’s post-Vietnam examination of concepts and doctrine, but also in the development of technology, training, tactics, and unprecedented cooperation between the Air Force and the Army to build a true joint fighting force.
Concepts like interdiction and deep operations were certainly not new in 1991. The U.S. Air Force, and its Army Air Force predecessor, carried out successful interdiction campaigns in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Similarly, both the Soviet Union and Germany developed deep operations land warfare concepts between the world wars. The developments led to the initial German successes in Europe in World War II, along with the string of victories won in the massive Soviet counteroffensive on the Eastern Front. However, in the decade after Vietnam, the United States and the Soviet Union renewed their strategic competition in Central Europe. The Soviet Union revamped its doctrine, tactics, and force structure, emphasizing aggressive armored maneuver warfare supported by advanced mobile surface-to-air missiles. The 1973 Yom Kippur War demonstrated just how fast and violent a potential NATO-Warsaw Pact showdown on the plains of Central Europe might be. To counter the Soviets, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, began work on a concept known as AirLand battle in the mid-1970s. Eventually, the concept morphed and expanded to include the concepts of deep operations and network-centric warfare. The U.S. Air Force’s Tactical Air Command working in conjunction with U.S. Training and Doctrine Command, developed battlefield air interdiction as airpower’s partner to the Army’s concepts.
The Air Force’s Tactical Air Command and Army’s Training and Doctrine Command work led to deeper Army-Air Force cooperation. In 1976, the two services agreed to co-develop new acquisition requirements. Further, in 1983, service chiefs signed a joint memorandum titled “Joint USA/USAF Efforts for Enhancement of Joint Employment of the AirLand Battle Doctrine” and the next year began a joint acquisition and development project known as the 31 Initiatives. During the 1980s, the initiatives produced a host of successful doctrine, training, and weapons systems programs in close air support, air base defense, airlift, and joint force development. Coupled with the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, the Army and the Air Force briefly reversed four decades of doctrinal and budgetary competition and animosity. The services added large-scale and realistic training scenarios — like Red Flag and the National Training Center — the implantation of new weapons technologies like stealth, new attack helicopters, advanced armored vehicles, Global Positioning System, and laser-guided weapons to the mix. With all the innovation in training, doctrine, and technology, both the Army and the Air Force stood at an unmatched level of capability and readiness on the eve of the Gulf War. But the victory of Desert Storm went far beyond one technology, ideology, doctrine, or service. It showcased a conceptual and technical interoperability and understanding from senior leaders like Schwarzkopf and Horner down to the soldiers and airmen on and above the battlefield.
In the aftermath of Desert Storm, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the deep reductions in military spending in the United States, doctrinal and budgetary animosity between the Air Force and the Army returned as airpower advocates pushed for a return to more air-centric doctrine, embodied by Warden and articulated in The Air Campaign. The debate over control and allocation of air assets between the Army and the Air Force is historically contentious, and that friction continues. The issue is more difficult during times of budgetary austerity or transition in U.S. strategic focus, like the 1970s, 1990s, and 2010s. However, airpower was not one-dimensional during Desert Storm, beholden only to the whims of the land component. Coalition airpower prowled the entire battlefield, striking both strategic and tactical targets. Air planners weighted the bulk of airpower missions against the Iraqi army not just because the Army demanded it but because it made the most warfighting sense to do so.
After Desert Storm, the Gulf War narrative offered a simplified view of the role of airpower. It often presented the war as an airpower victory and touted the Air Force as the force of the future. But this overlooks the importance of the use of airpower against the Iraqi army and the significance of interservice cooperation in the U.S. military. Undoubtedly, the Air Force’s contribution in Desert Storm was pivotal, but it was born in the previous decade, and was a direct product of cooperation in acquisitions, doctrine, and training. It was not a victory of strategic airpower or air superiority alone. The lesson of Desert Storm is how devastating the U.S. military can be when interservice cooperation trumps any one service’s ideology. Further, the refocus by the United States on peer adversary competition in a potential NATO-Warsaw Pact showdown during the late 1970s and 1980s — and all the reforms and cooperation that era produced — should serve as inspiration for the entire defense enterprise as the United States once again transitions from a prolonged counter-insurgency war to face a military competition with China and Russia.
Lt. Col. Matt Dietz is a former F-15E pilot and currently a professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in history and specializes in military history, policy, and strategy.