Desert Storm at 30: Aerospace Power and the U.S. Military

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Feb. 28 marked the 30th anniversary of the end of offensive operations in Operation Desert Storm. Desert Storm was a sustained 43-day air campaign including four days of ground operations by the United States and its allies against Iraq between Jan. 17, 1991 and Feb. 28, 1991. In six weeks of fighting, the U.S.-led coalition defeated Iraq, which had initiated the conflict by invading Kuwait the previous August.

While it may seem like a long time ago — especially in the aftermath of the Iraq War of the 2000s — Desert Storm is worthy of study, as it was the last major regional conflict in which the U.S. military was involved. The role of airpower was particularly decisive. For the first time in history, airpower was used as the key force in the strategy and execution of a war. U.S. and allied airpower was the coalition’s key asymmetric advantage in accomplishing President George H.W. Bush’s declared objectives in a manageable time frame and with a minimum of friendly losses. Fewer than 150 Americans died in action. The conflict is instructive for military strategists and offers lessons for those planning contemporary military operations.

There are six key “takeaways” from Desert Storm. First, the United States accomplished its strategic objectives by aligning ends, ways, and means such that it projected force without projecting undue liability for U.S. forces. Next, the effects-based, systems approach applied in the design and execution of the air campaign (i.e., actions taken against enemy systems designed to achieve specific outcomes that contribute directly to desired military and political objectives) worked extraordinarily well, and remains relevant to the conflicts of today and tomorrow. Third, joint operations are best accomplished by using the right forces, in the right places, at the right times — “jointness” is not homogeneity and it is not synonymous with inter-service cooperation for its own sake. Fourth, wars are won or lost by people. Encouraging innovation was essential in Desert Storm. Fifth, preparation and foresight are crucial to future military success. And finally, the probability of success in future conflicts will rise if our armed services actually study and learn from both successes and failures, and apply course corrections as a result of those lessons.



Desert Storm established the character of modern warfare. It foretold of precision in the application of force and airpower. Given the role of the F-117 aircraft, stealth also emerged as a new baseline condition for successful combat in high-threat air operations. Desert Storm demonstrated the success of using desired effects as the focus of strategy in the planning and conduct of operations. Before, the U.S. military primarily used strategies of attrition and/or annihilation. It also set expectations for low casualties — on both sides of a conflict. And finally, the conflict introduced the prosecution of a joint air campaign integrating all service air operations under the functional command of a single airman as opposed to the separate service component commanders who provided the aircraft.

A Revolution from the Start

The opening attacks of Desert Storm were a radical departure in the conduct of war. Over 150 discrete targets — in addition to regular Iraqi army forces and surface-to-air missile sites — made up the master attack plan for the first 24 hours. The coalition attacked more targets in Desert Storm’s first day than the entire Eighth Air Force hit in Europe over the course of two years in World War II. In fact, never before in history had as many separate targets been attacked in less time than in Desert Storm. The results were to paralyze, confuse, and ultimately defeat Saddam Hussein’s gambit into Kuwait.

Desert Storm was a 43-day war in which aerospace forces operated from start to finish. Ground forces acted as a blocking force against any Iraqi incursion into Saudi Arabia for almost the entire war as aircraft attacked key enemy systems from above. The coalition only committed ground forces to re-occupy Kuwait in the final four days of the conflict. The Desert Storm air campaign worked due to the training, technology investment, force structure, and procurement decisions made in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was the existence of that set of capabilities and capacity that enabled a plan based on achieving the desired effects that heralded the success of Desert Storm. Some examples include low-observability or stealth, night vision targeting systems, ubiquitous and accurate location capability with the space-based global positioning system, and penetrating precision guided munitions. Likewise, all-weather ground moving target indicator radars and advanced cruise missiles were valuable new capabilities.

Desert Storm was also the first major application of the construct of joint force operations created by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. In Desert Storm, Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the joint force commander, used the right forces, at the right places, at the right times. He did not insist on inter-service cooperation for its own sake, or assign tasks equally among the services. Instead, for the first time in U.S. military history, the services provided components to a joint force commander who orchestrated them in a unified fashion, instead of each service fighting their own isolated battles. The central advantage of a true joint approach is that it presumes every conflict will be different. Accordingly, a joint force commander can select among service and functional components to adjust different force mixes to meet the needs of the particular contingency. A functional component controls a domain of warfighting no matter what services provide the capabilities to do so. In Desert Storm, Schwarzkopf chose to consolidate airpower from the services and place it under the control of a joint force air component commander. Likewise, he allowed airmen to formulate airpower application to a historic degree.

Consequently, the air campaign of Desert Storm ravaged Iraqi targets across the entire geographic breadth and depth of the country, but more importantly, across all the key strategic and operational level centers of gravity of Saddam Hussein’s regime. This was enabled by a combination of the maturation of aerospace technologies, a realistic training regime that was initiated after the Vietnam conflict, the joint organizational structures directed by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, and a planning approach that put the endgame first and valued outputs over inputs with a focus on effects, not a linear campaign where the enemy was attacked at its periphery and rolled back through attrition and occupation-based strategies.

The Basis of Desert Storm’s Success

Advances in technology and an effects-based approach to planning and execution precipitated a new concept of operations that has been described as “parallel” war: the simultaneous application of force across a number of targets to cause an enemy’s entire military apparatus to collapse. While simultaneous attack has always been a desired element of offensive warfare, it had never evolved into the parallel war demonstrated in Desert Storm. Three new factors made it possible. First, an extremely precise delivery of munitions created the same effect as the traditional massing of large numbers of less precise weapons. Second was the advent of stealth capability that negated the need to rally substantial resources to suppress enemy air defenses. Third, the strategy of the Desert Storm air campaign focused on effects rather than simple destruction to achieve control over the opponent.

Stealth and precision technologies were relatively new, and were not completely mature before the mid-1980s. In the first 24 hours of Desert Storm stealth, precision, and effects-based planning allowed 36 F-117 aircraft to attack more targets than the entire non-stealth/non-precision air and missile force of the six aircraft carriers in the theater. It is worth noting that over the course of the war the stealthy F-117s equipped with precision-guided munitions struck over 40 percent of Iraq’s fixed targets despite flying only two percent of combat sorties.

New technology facilitated the application of a concept of operations designed to achieve control over an enemy’s essential systems (e.g., electricity production and distribution, oil storage and distribution, etc.). Those objectives were achieved by applying aerospace power against the Iraqis at a rate of thousands of strikes a day against their leadership, key systems, infrastructure, and fielded military forces. Stealth aircraft allowed U.S. forces to keep continuous pressure on key leadership and command and control nodes throughout the war and at a fraction of the number of sorties spent on negating the Iraqi army in Kuwait.

While assessing the impact on isolating Iraq’s leadership is difficult to quantify, one can get a sense of the qualitative impact of the attacks by considering a similar assault on Washington D.C. Imagine all the bridges into the city being destroyed; the Pentagon, White House, Capitol, Congressional office buildings, FBI, CIA, and DIA headquarters decimated; all the electric stations powering Washington, D.C., shut down; train stations, radio and telecommunications facilities disabled; Dulles and National airports, and Andrews Air Force base runways cut in half; Ft. Myers, Ft. Belvoir, Ft. McNair hit; and alternate operating locations across the country shut down — with attacks resumed when signs of reconstitution emerged. The airstrikes left Iraq’s leadership paralyzed. While others argue that these airstrikes accomplished little, they did in fact achieve the desired military effects. Those strategic attacks had a debilitating effect on the functioning of Iraq’s deployed forces. The U.S. military learned (or should have learned) that negating an adversary’s ability to operate is as important — if not more so — as the destruction of its forces.

The Iraqi Republican Guard was one of Saddam’s centers of political power, and disabling it — through direct attack by airpower and prior to the introduction of land forces — was a prime air campaign objective. Because of the large number of air forces involved, 30-by-30 nautical mile “kill boxes” subdivided into 15-by-15 nautical mile segments were established into which groups of aircraft were assigned under the control of airborne “killer scouts.” The F-16 killer scout aircraft would do just that — scout out the particular kill box, identify targets, and then direct arriving attack aircraft to destroy Iraqi fielded forces. In conjunction with these tactics, “tank plinking” used 500-pound laser precision-guided bombs to kill armor and artillery, mainly from F-111Fs that racked up over 1,500 kills to their credit. Combined, coalition air forces achieved over 4,200 tank, armored vehicle, and artillery direct attack kills of Iraqi ground forces prior to the start of coalition ground operations.

In a recent War on the Rocks essay, Matt Dietz argued that American success in Desert Storm was due in large part to the inter-service cooperation fostered by the doctrine of AirLand Battle. While the improved ability to conduct joint operations was essential to victory, AirLand Battle itself had nothing to do with the planning and execution of the Gulf War air campaign. AirLand Battle was a combined-air/land concept with land forces maneuvering in an aggressive defense while air forces attacked rear-echelon enemy forces feeding their front. The Desert Storm strategy centered upon the notion of overwhelming strategic attack at the heart of the enemy’s war-making enterprise while also disassembling his fielded forces from the air before any friendly land forces engaged the enemy. It was an entirely different way of thinking. Now that America faces peer threats, it is crucial that members of the military understand what it means to execute strategic attacks in parallel with those against key enemy forces. AirLand Battle is a doctrine of a bygone era — even at the time of Desert Storm.

To be specific, nowhere in AirLand Battle will you find any description of the “kill boxes” or “tank plinking” or “killer scouts” all of which were fundamental to the elimination of the effectiveness of the Iraqi army prior to introduction of coalition ground forces. In the 1980s, AirLand Battle was official Army doctrine for a large, conventional battle against the Soviet Union. Though the Air Force played a key role in that doctrine, it was in the context of supporting the Army’s scheme of maneuver. Desert Storm was a very different campaign, one in which the innovative application of airpower to crush Iraq’s army was foundational to the outcome. As the Gulf War Airpower Survey concluded after a careful investigation,

air power essentially paralyzed or demoralized the Iraqi heavy divisions on which the Iraqi strategy depended … Those left with a will to fight were able to do little more than face the attack and return fire, with no hope of maneuvering or being reinforced or even achieving tactical success.

In the final days of the Gulf War, Iraqi soldiers were so defeated that a group of them famously surrendered to a Pioneer drone, waving white flags as it circled overhead. AirLand Battle was a doctrine designed for a different war in a different place and had no role in Desert Storm.

Another key differentiator of Desert Storm was that the air arms of the individual services and allies operated together under a single air commander. This proved essential to net maximum efficiency and effectiveness. Put it this way — it involved one team coordinated under a single coach, not numerous teams trying to win a game sharing the same field at the same time, each under different leadership. While the latter sounds absurd, it is how past air campaigns were run. In technically correct terms, the success of Desert Storm relied on a unified air command. The idea that there should be a single commander for air — the joint force air component commander — was essential to the successful orchestration of a single air campaign plan. It was successful in spite of attempts by the different services to undermine or bypass the joint air planning process — akin to the example of multiple teams trying to run separate plays at the same time on the same field.

These attempts were driven by traditional Navy, Army, and Marine Corps doctrinal perspectives on the employment of airpower. Those views promoted service interests ahead of campaign-wide objectives. While Dietz asserts, “The lesson of Desert Storm is how devastating the U.S. military can be when inter-service cooperation trumps any one service’s ideology,” in fact, it was Schwarzkopf’s specific direction to use airpower exclusively for the first 90 percent of the war that trumped service component parochialism, not inter-service cooperation. This problem attracted little public attention after the war because component commanders sought to avoid the appearance of anything other than a unified effort. Given the burgeoning security threats around the globe and the small size of U.S. airpower capacity today — with the U.S. Air Force possessing less than half the combat forces it did in Desert Storm — aligned and interdependent teamwork will prove vital in future operations.

Learning from Desert Storm

The revolution in operational strategy in Desert Storm was smothered by a generation-long period of non-stop combat operations devoted to counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and nation-building in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Continued modernization of the Air Force for high-end warfighting was slashed. For example, America’s stealthy and informationized F-22 was cancelled at less than half its stated military requirement. Extraordinary efforts saved the F-35 program from a similar fate. Nonetheless, the impact of post-Desert Storm choices was not to amplify America’s airpower, but instead diminish it. The result is the Air Force today is older and smaller than at any time since World War II — yet more in demand than ever.

Simultaneously, the key lessons of the Desert Storm air campaign were ignored and distorted. Airpower was not incorporated as part of a strategy that optimized its potential strategic effects, but instead used by soldiers on the ground as a supplement for counter-insurgency operations. This resulted in the subordination of airpower to ground maneuver, as was the case in AirLand Battle doctrine. In other words, despite the lessons of Desert Storm, airpower was increasingly relegated to support a land warfare driven doctrine of counterinsurgency.

This decay in the optimal use of airpower, despite the many technological advances in stealth and weaponry since Desert Storm, reached its nadir in the years 2014 through 2017 when virtually all U.S. force application against the Islamic State came from air operations, but was commanded not by an airman, fully trained and vetted in air operations, but by a series of Army generals who knew little of its best use.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy recognized that adversaries had internalized their own lessons on Desert Storm based on their close monitoring of and astute learning from the American experience and were working aggressively to counter the effectiveness of U.S. airpower.

American strategists should remember and revive the lessons learned in Desert Storm if the country is to win future major regional conflicts. While every conflict is unique, enemy capabilities may be different — to include some (e.g., China, Russia, and North Korea) with nuclear weapons — and the U.S. military is much smaller today than it was during Desert Storm, the takeaways from this turning point in the conduct of war are applicable across the spectrum of conflict and are ones that should be studied. Thirty years on, the lessons of Desert Storm are still salient.

Takeaways from the Desert Storm Air Campaign

The success of the Desert Storm air campaign was a result of the juxtaposition of technology, planning perspective, organization, leadership, and training — all combined in a way that optimized the contribution of each. While every conflict is unique, the U.S. military should retain the flexibility to capture and use these elements in a combination that is most relevant in the execution of today’s national security challenges. 

While Iraq was the fourth largest military in the world at the time, Desert Storm was a short war — 43 days — with historically low casualties on both sides. Aerospace forces did the bulk of the fighting and winning. It did not merely “prepare” the battlespace for the four-day ground reoccupation of Kuwait — instead, it rendered the entire military of Iraq completely ineffective. That outcome was not an accident. It was achieved through an effects-based approach for the use of air and space operations with the application of a system-of-systems analysis of the adversary. Strategic objectives were achieved by aligning ends, ways, and means such that America projected force without projecting undue liability for its forces while making it increasingly difficult to impossible for the enemy to counter.

Desert Storm had two key objectives: remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait and ensure Iraq would not emerge as a regional superpower for the next ten years. Even if the region remains unstable to this day, America’s most important security objectives were advanced. They were achieved by applying aerospace power against the Iraqis at a rate of thousands of air strikes a day against their leadership (i.e., command and control), their key systems (i.e., oil and electricity), their infrastructure (i.e. roads, rail, and bridges) and their fielded military forces (i.e., land, sea, and air). The intent of these attacks was to achieve specific outcomes and effects. The effects-based, systems approach worked extraordinarily well, and remains relevant to the conflicts of today and tomorrow.

Jointness” means that among the services, a separately developed and highly specialized array of capabilities is provided to a joint force commander through service or functional components. Simply put, the joint force commander’s job is to assemble a plan from among this menu of capabilities, applying the appropriate ones for the contingency at hand. Jointness is not “going along to get along” nor is it inter-service cooperation. It is recognizing that, in order to be joint, separate and distinct services are required, and that it is crucial that leadership understand how to best exploit the advantages of each. It was Gen. Schwarzkopf’s specific direction to use airpower exclusively for the first 90 percent of the war that demonstrated that he applied these tenets of jointness that were fundamentally responsible for the overwhelming success of Desert Storm. Jointness is using the right forces, in the right places, at the right times. It is not homogeneity or following “Little League” rules of everyone gets to play to equal degrees.

Those responsible for conceiving Desert Storm’s effects-based, systems approach to the air campaign were primarily field and company grade officers who, despite having no mandate or authority to do so, rallied together and made the plan a reality. Many years later Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh coined the phrase, “Every Airman an Innovator.” The planners and operators of Desert Storm exhibited that exhortation to the max. Is the Air Force educating, encouraging, and rewarding current and future leaders to take the risks necessary to achieve success as those who designed the Desert Storm air campaign? Wars are won or lost by people — it is crucial that the service educate people to understand how to develop effective options in their respective domains and then allow them to execute them when called to action — people matter: encourage innovation and empower them to win.

The success of the Desert Storm air campaign was due to multiple factors, but in large part as a result of the maturation of airpower technologies and investment in training, force structure, and systems acquisition decisions made in light of lessons learned from the Vietnam war. It was the existence of that set of new capabilities and capacity that enabled the effects-based plan that heralded the success of Desert Storm. No matter how good a plan, it will never work without the resources necessary for its execution. You go to war with the military you have. Preparation and foresight are crucial to future military success.

Today’s generation of airmen and guardians should renew the spirit of innovation by exploiting the virtues and values of operating in air and space. Those characteristics delivered success in Desert Storm and can do so again in the future. The United States deserves to hear the options uniquely offered by aerospace power and will benefit from their application. War in the future will only be won if America’s military services are willing to learn from the past.



David A. Deptula is a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General who was the principal attack planner for the Operation Desert Storm air campaign. He has twice been a joint task force commander. He is dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies and a senior scholar at the Air Force Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development.

Image: Department of Defense