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Desert Storm at sea commenced at night with carrier aircraft and Tomahawk strikes on Iraq. (Here, the Saratoga launches her aircraft from the Red Sea.) But there’s much more to the rest of the rest than the air campaign.
When one looks at the performance of the Navy/ Marine Corps team during Desert Storm, a clear understanding of the significant achievements that occurred during Desert Shield is necessary. This was not an operation that just revolved around the striking power of six aircraft carriers. Most histories of Desert Storm will play heavily on the success of the air campaign, to which Navy and Marine Corps aircraft contributed significantly, and treat lightly the events that led up to this dramatic and successful effort.
Iraq’s swift move into Kuwait on 2 August set into motion a massive deployment on a scale, when measured in quantity and speed, never seen before in modem history. The proximity of the Independence (CV-62) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) carrier battle groups, a ready and potent strike force, provided a stabilizing U.S. influence at the time of the Iraqi invasion. As events unfolded, the full value of the flexibility of the Navy/Marine Corps team and its reserves was demonstrated fully. The rapid deployment of the hospital ships, USNS Comfort (T-AH- 20) and USNS Mercy (T-AH-19), the Maritime Prepositioning Shipping Squadrons, the fast-sealift ships, and Afloat Prepositioning Shipping Force all created the firm impression that we were in the Gulf to play for keeps. The U.S. Navy did it right, from cargo-handling teams to harbor security, erecting field hospitals, and establishing forward logistics-support sites with maintenance and salvage facilities. We were prepared for every contingency.
While this activity was ongoing, the numbers of ships at sea in the area continued to grow. Eventually our afloat forces consisted of six carrier battle groups, two battleships, and an amphibious task force that numbered 31 gray hulls, commercial ships with assault follow-on equipment, and two embarked Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEBs). Approximately 120 U.S. ships and 50 allied ships were on scene when Desert Storm commenced.
One of the most significant activities that has continued since the implementation of the U.N. sanctions has been the multinational maritime intercept operation. Not only did this operation initiate the strangling of Iraq’s ability to support its war machine and its source of revenue, it also provided the opportunity to polish and hone the skills of the Coalition’s maritime forces at working in close coordination. At the time of this writing, even though hostilities have ceased, this operation has challenged more than 8,000 ships, boarded more than 1,000, and diverted 50- plus. These boardings have been a challenge and have placed hundreds of young Sailors, Coastguardsmen, and Marines at risk. The impressive impact these operations have achieved on Iraq’s infrastructure is a tribute to the dedication and professionalism of these fine young men.
One key capability that had to be established early was the ability to conduct amphibious assault operations. The November Exercise Imminent Thunder was designed to do just that. The area selected for the operation was south of the Kuwait/Saudi border, sure to attract the attention of the Iraqis—and it did. From that time, a continual reinforcement of this capability was pursued. Press coverage of the deployment and arrival of the West Coast amphibious task force, exercises in and out of the Gulf, and the visibility of various amphibious units in the Gulf contributed to the
public awareness of this warfighting capability.
The same procedure was followed with the presence of an aircraft carrier in the Gulf. We came a long way from the past—i.e., “no, we won’t operate a carrier in the Gulf”—to our final configuration of four carriers— Midway (CV-41), Ranger (CV-61), America (CV-66), and Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)—in the Gulf. This ability to bring the massive striking power of these carriers contributed greatly to the overall success of the air campaign. Starting with one carrier coming in for a few days at a time, the presence increased to two just prior to the start of the air campaign and escalated to three with the arrival of the Theodore Roosevelt on 19 January. The America filled out the force when she rotated from the Red Sea to add strike support for the ground campaign.
The Storm Starts
In the early morning hours of 17 January Operation Desert Storm was executed with the commencement of the air campaign. It is well known by now that Desert Storm was planned as a four-phase evolution. The strategic air campaign found all six carriers fully integrated into the structure, together with our Tomahawk cruise missile launch platforms. The choreography of this portion of the campaign was exceptionally well done and much credit must go to Air Force Lieutenant General Charles Horner, Joint Force Air Component Commander, and his air campaign planners. Using every type of theater-based asset and some from out-of-theater, this precisely timed event placed as many as 1,000 sorties per day on very discrete and carefully planned targets. Command-and-control and communications facilities, headquarters, power-distribution centers, and early warning radars were primary targets. Our having enough forces to hit this wide range of targets—nearly simultaneously—had a devastating effect on Iraq’s ability to actively engage follow-on strikes with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) or ground-controlled interceptors. Iraq’s inability to pose a significant threat permitted aircrews to optimize their delivery tactics, to avoid the considerable antiaircraft artillery threat and to reduce the number of combat air patrol (CAP) aircraft required over the target area.
With many of these early flights going to the vicinity of Baghdad, Navy strike aircraft were flying long missions. If one superimposes Baghdad on Detroit, the Red Sea strikes were launching from Little Rock, Arkansas, and the Arabian Gulf strikes from Richmond, Virginia—long round-trip flights by any measure. The Red Sea crews were getting five-hour flights with pre- and post-target tanking. That takes a lot of physical and mental stamina.
We launched Tomahawk missiles from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. This “reach out and touch someone” weapon proved to be a real plus. During periods of bad weather when you needed to keep the pressure on Baghdad, you could continue to keep their eyes (as well as the cameras of CNN) open. The pinpoint accuracy and resultant low risk of collateral damage were what kept this system in the air when others were diverted to secondary targets. The guided-missile cruiser USS San Jacinto (CG- 56) holds the record for launching the first Tomahawk; the destroyer USS Fife (DD-991) was the most prolific shooter; and the USS Louisville (SSN-724) became the first U.S. submarine since World War II to strike in anger. With nearly 300 Tomahawks launched, there is a wealth of data to point us in the right direction for upgrades and/or a follow-on system. The first operational deployment of this system should validate the careful manner in which this program was brought into the fleet. By every measure, this system performed superbly.
While the world through the eyes of CNN was riveted on the air campaign, the Storin-at-Sea was off and running. After reports by strike aircraft of receiving fire from oil platforms, the guided-missile frigate USS Nicholas (FFG-47) with her embarked Army OH-58D (AHIP, Army Helicopter Improvement Program) helos along with a Kuwaiti Navy patrol boat cleared the platforms and captured the first enemy prisoners. (See “Taking Down the Oil Platforms,” page 53, April 1991 Proceedings.) It was learned later that this action caused the Iraquis to begin vacating the remaining platforms and offshore islands. A few days later, a suspected minelayer was caught near Qaruh Island, disabled, and the guided-missile frigate USS Curts (FFG-38) and Navy personnel captured 51
prisoners and raised the U.S. and Kuwaiti flags on Kuwait’s first soil to be freed. (See “When the Liberation of Kuwait Began,” page 51, April 1991 Proceedings.)
The air war turned to the task of destroying Iraqi airfields, SAMs, and chemical/biological warfare facilities. The key objective of this phase was to ensure a threat-free environment over the Kuwaiti theater of operations (KTO) in anticipation of starting Phase III, battlefield preparation. The elusive Scud ballistic-missile launchers became a real issue, and “Scud CAPs” were created in order to pounce on a launch site before additional launches could be accomplished or the mobile rail launcher returned to a safe hiding area. Scud versus Scud CAP became a true
cat-and-mouse game—one that continued right up to the end of the campaign.
Back at sea, the Iraqi Navy, which had remained in port for most of the buildup period, decided to make a run for it instead of being sunk at the pier. Thus on 30 January the Battle of Bubiyan came about, and of the approximately 20 ships that tried to make it to Iran, only one damaged Osa-II missile patrol boat got through it. At this time, there is no explanation why those ships carrying Exocet and Styx antiship missiles went to the bottom, rather than try for a lucky hit. The stage was now set to conduct minesweeping and amphibious operations, with Silkworms posing the primary threat.
The Iraqi Air Force had run, their navy had tried to run, and all that remained were their ground forces. The tempo of sorties increased to hundreds a day; then on 24 February, the ground campaign launched. Several amphibious assault options were available, but it was necessary only to use feints to hold the Iraqi defenses in position. Visiting the Kuwaiti coastline, one can see how strongly Saddam Hussein was convinced that the allies were going to come ashore. In their shore-bombardment role, the battle wagons were superb. More than 1,000 16-inch projectiles rained down on the Iraqi positions. At the end, Iraqi soldiers were even surrendering to the remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs). Getting the battleships into firing position through the previously swept minefields cost us hits on the USS Tripoli (LPH-10) and Princeton (CG-59), but their heroic crews kept them in the fight until we could relieve them and get them into local shipyards for repair.
The flexibility of naval power proved a big winner. Naval forces stabilized the Gulf states and enforced U.N. trade sanctions; participated as full partners in every phase of the campaign; fixed enemy forces in meeting an amphibious threat; absorbed tremendous numbers of engineer man-days constructing fortifications to counter the amphibious threat; and kept commercial trade routes for the Gulf open.
Technology in general was a winner. Although the precise list of winners should await a more thorough postwar analysis, it seems clear that most high-tech systems worked extremely well. A Bravo Zulu should go to all who designed and purchased these systems and fought off their critics all these years. One should not be mesmerized by high-tech weapon systems, however, because the real question is whether less high-tech systems that cost much less might have worked just as well.
Once again a balanced, combined-arms force proved essential. Iraq had a strong army (at the outset), but a weak navy and a not-so-strong air force. Furthermore, its army was relatively weak in tactical air defense. In modem warfare, any single system usually is rather easy to overcome; combinations of systems, with each protecting weak points in others and exposing enemy weak points to be exploited by other systems, make for an effective fighting force. Thus, during Desert Storm, Coalition ground forces made Iraq mass its soldiers in the Kuwaiti theater of
operations, so they became good targets for air power. Our naval superiority allowed us freedom to threaten an amphibious landing. This amphibious threat held large Iraqi forces near the coast, making the Iraqis more vulnerable to the western flanking movement. Air power blinded Iraqi eyes, masking the movement of U.S. and allied forces to positions far on the western flank. Air power also weakened the Iraqi ground forces and demoralized them. The ground attack then forced the Republican Guard to move from its covered positions, making it especially vulnerable to more air power.
Tomahawk cruise missile appears to have performed well. Final evaluation of effectiveness at reaching and then damaging the target must await careful analysis, but target-arrival percentages look good. When dealing with a system such as Tomahawk, all the details can be planned carefully. Then when the missile is fired, the electronic gizmos take over. These integrated circuits do not get
scared; they do not forget; they follow orders well. The critics—who said Tomahawk would work only on a single test range and that it would get lost in the desert—were wrong. News reports seem to support the idea that attacks by robots have a unique psychological effect on people.
Low-technology mines are one of the most cost-effective weapons in existence. Our forces devoted a lot of energy trying to avoid relatively old and low-cost mines.
Remotely piloted vehicles proved to be marvelous, versatile devices. They allowed the battleships to attack the enemy on their own, without the need for outside assistance in spotting. Spotting by the RPVs not only allowed for accurate naval gunfire support, but also provided instant battle damage assessment. The RPV offers quick response and flexibility, because it is under positive tactical control and has the ability to get below a low ceiling. Of course, the highlight of the war for the RPV has to be the incident in which a remotely piloted vehicle flew over Iraqi troops. By that time, the Iraqis knew what would be coming next, so they surrendered to the RPV— presumably the first occasion in the history of warfare for
human beings to capitulate to a robot.
Battleships made significant contributions. First, their presence off Khafji shored up the Saudi defense along the coast. This gave the Marines confidence that their flank was secure, so they could concentrate on their minefield breaching and magnificent advance inland. Second, the battleship helped the Saudis breach the defensive barriers in their sector. Finally, 16-inch gunfire contributed mightily to the amphibious deception. Because shallow water extended well offshore, only the battleships were able to range the shore. The power of 16-inch gunfire was demonstrated when a bombardment caused the Iraqis to abandon the coastal port of Ras A1 Qualayah. Naval gunfire contributed greatly to the intensity and continuity of attack. Be that as it may, this is not a plea to save the battleships— their day is gone. In this limited operations-and-mainte- nance dollar world, these magnificent dreadnoughts simply use too much fuel, require too many people, and are too expensive to operate. Still, they will be missed.
Mobility makes targets hard to hit. If you do not know where a target is and it is camouflaged, it is really hard to find. And if you cannot find it, you cannot hit it. When the allied air forces proved to the Iraqis that they could take out the aircraft bunkers, the Iraqis moved their aircraft out in the open—but they kept moving them every day.
It is hard to hit what you cannot see. Smoke from burning tires was not much of a hindrance, and smoke generated to make Coalition forces think we had knocked out vehicles did not work often, but dense smoke over Kuwait from hundreds of burning oil wells did cause problems. Several air sorties had to be scrubbed because of the inability of our pilots to find designated targets.
Initiative at the unit level is vital. The initiative shown by the surface combatants was heartening. On 18 January, the guided-missile frigate Nicholas, working with her embarked AHIPS helicopter, captured the oil platforms in the Durrah oil field. Then, on 24 January, after an A-6E Intruder stopped an Iraqi minelayer, Navy personnel went in to capture prisoners while the guided-missile frigate Curts and her AHIPS provided cover. When the AHIPS started taking fire from nearby Qaruh Island, the helo went to “discourage” this activity. As a result, the Iraqis surrendered and much valuable intelligence was gained on minefields in the area.
Jointness is here to stay. The Navy has made great strides in working with the other services, but there are a number of ways Navy assets could be better used in the future. Desert Storm could not have been waged so effectively without the Joint Forces Air Component Commander (JFACC).
The best defense against the Exocet missile is destroying the missile-carrying platform. The Exocet threat caused a lot of worries prior to the war. Desert Storm demonstrated once again that a very effective defense is shooting the archer. Our Navy destroyed most of Iraq’s Osa patrol boats while they were in port, as well as a number of their Super Frelon helicopters. However, this defense tactic must be backed up by highly capable selfdefense systems to handle leakers. The archer’s arrow is still a problem that we must continue to address.
The warfighting principle of concentration proved its validity once again. Unlike the gradualism of Vietnam, air power was turned on full at the outset, as ground power was later. The concentrated air attack dealt Iraq a blow from which it was never able to recover. This tactic stands in direct contrast to a gradual buildup of attack intensity, in which the enemy has the opportunity to adapt to being under attack—both psychologically and tactically. Given time, an enemy can find tactical adaptations to minimize the harmful effects of the attack. Thus, he can make his defenses strongest before the attack peaks. Psychologically, an enemy can withstand much more deprivation than one would reasonably think possible, whenever the pain is increased gradually. At each increased level of attack, he gains confidence that—even though conditions are not pleasant—he can survive. The sudden, violent, and sustained attack that started on 17 January is the way to overcome such defensive adaptations.
Fully integrated, multi-carrier battle forces work. The U.S. Navy has had few opportunities in recent years to practice battle-force operations. Some have claimed that the problems are too complex to operate more than two carriers together in an integrated command-and-control structure. Pacific Exercise 90 provided a rare opportunity to exercise with a three-carrier battle force, though only briefly, in the Pacific. During Desert Storm, four carriers, their associated escorts, the former Middle East Force, and many allied ships operated as an integrated battle force, in an extremely complex environment without serious problems.
Our mine countermeasures (MCM) capability is inadequate. We definitely need to put more emphasis on MCM and end the neglect that has plagued this area for years. We will learn big lessons in the ongoing mine clearance operations, and we need to develop a coherent program to address them.
Operational security was a loser. Because of the fear of compromise, critical plans were tightly compartmented. Unfortunately, this had the side effect of having people plan operations without knowledge of other key parts of the plans. For example, people deciding how much ordnance to request and those planning the amphibious operations did not have access to the strike plans.
IfIraq had perfected a paper-seeking missile, we would have been in deep trouble. Trees were big losers in Desert Storm—not trees in the Middle East, but trees in the United States that supplied all the paper we went through. Seriously, we did have problems with the communications systems and with the manner in which we handle paperwork internally.
Readiness, both of ships and aircraft, was incredibly high. We expected that hurried deployments, long supply lines for spare parts, a paucity of opportunities for yard periods, strenuous schedules, and harsh environments would take a heavy toll on material readiness. Yet, despite heavy flying schedules, aircraft readiness typically hovered around 90%. Despite having ships that deployed on short notice, in excess of 90% of all the ships were consistently in a high state of readiness. This unexpected great performance is a tribute to the men and women on the
The Tomahawk cruise missile —here fired from the submarine Pittsburgh (SSN- 720) at an Iraqi target— performed well in Desert Storm. Not only did it negotiate its way over the desert to its target; it proved to be an intimidator of people, as well.
tenders and to those who provide spare parts and maintain our complex equipment. Bravo Zulu to all. One of the issues we would most like to learn from the postwar analysis is just how our forces managed to fare so well.
Carriers can operate in confined areas. Four carriers operated inside the Persian Gulf and conducted heavy air operations for extended periods. The carriers encountered no serious sea-room problems. Exercises over the past few years in using near-land operating areas proved valuable in preparing for these Desert Storm operations. In a high- threat environment, of course, we would prefer having lots of sea room, in which to use the carriers’ mobility to improve reaction times.
When all the analysts start to pick Desert Storm apart they must carefully understand and account for the boundary conditions: modern port facilities, large and numerous airfields, and an enemy whose military did not believe in their mission and who never gave it their best shot. We should never overestimate the success of our weapon systems, but we must never underestimate the quality, dedication, and confidence of our fine young men and women. No matter what level of effort Saddam could have thrown at our Coalition forces, the outcome would have been the same—An Allied Victory.
Admiral Arthur is Commander Seventh Fleet and was Commander U.S. Naval Forces Central Command lor Desert Storm.
Marvin Pokrant received his PhD in Physics from the University of Florida in 1970. He was a Technical Director at ManTech International Corporation and is now on the professional staff at the Center For Naval Analyses (CNA). He is now the CNA representative at Commander Seventh Fleet/Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command, and has been in the Persian Gulf since August.
Editor’s Note: Department of Defense Security and Policy Review cut and amended this article.