Desert Storm’s twentieth anniversary

  • Published
  • By Dr. Robert W. Allen
  • 62nd Airlift Wing historian
Air strikes against Iraqi military, political and key infrastructure targets opened Operation Desert Storm on January 17, 1991.

The attack was expected, since the United Nations final deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait had passed the day before. What was unexpected on both sides was how thoroughly the air campaign devastated the politico-military command and control, Iraqi air force and the army. Most of the coalition air strikes were flown by American, British and Saudi forces and their effectiveness over a five-week period enabled coalition ground forces to crush remaining enemy resistance in only 100 hours.

Never before had air power so thoroughly dominated a strong enemy air and ground force and political organization. Iraq had an army of more 500,000 men, an air force of more than 500 aircraft, an entrenched dictatorship of 12 years and Scud long-range ground missiles. The victory was not as easy as our relatively fast ground advance or light casualties would imply.

How did we achieve such success, and why were we there? President Saddam Hussein had sent Iraqi forces to conquer Kuwait on August 2, 1990, renewing claims that his little neighbor was a traditional Iraqi province. A coalition of 36 nations formed in response to his aggression and threat to oil supplies in the Persian Gulf area.

Would the Iraqis invade Saudi Arabia next? The deployment of U.S. air, land, marine and naval forces in and around the Persian Gulf area was known as Operation Desert Shield, and was carefully arranged by President George H.W. Bush with foreign countries and the U.N.

McChord Air Force Base deployed 1,015 active duty and 916 reserve personnel to the Persian Gulf and supporting locations from August 1990 to March 1991. Among the deployers were two airlift control elements to Hill AFB, Utah, and Zaragoza Air Base, Spain, to coordinate en route staging of C-141s and C-5s. At the latter, an aircraft could be quickly serviced after landing and given to a new rested crew, so that the cargo could be rushed eastward.

After President George H.W. Bush declared a ceasefire on February 28, 1991, cargo and people started flowing westward back to the U.S. during Operation Desert Calm. Among them were the first six American prisoners of war from Iraq, flown home by the 4th Military Airlift Squadron.

Military Airlift Command continued to work hard for several months after the ceasefire. The MAC name for the strategic airlift operation from August 1990 to November 1991 was Volant Wind. The 62nd Airlift Wing flew 50,183 hours from August 1990 to March 1991, nearly twice the norm.

Tactical airlift had been heavily used as well. Two of the three C-130 squadrons at Pope AFB, N.C., had deployed during the full seven months of Operations Desert Shield and Storm.

Although Operations Desert Shield and Storm were two decades ago and relatively short, it had some important aspects as a watershed that is worth noting:
  • First combat use of stealth aircraft, F-117. The success prompted more stealth aircraft, B-2 and F-35.
  • Reinforced need for and potential of expeditionary units. Composite and AEF units developed in the 1990s.
  • Increased recognition of the importance of airlift and continued C-5B and C-17 production.
  • Increased coverage of conflicts by the media. Reporters and TV cameras became common on/near battlefields
In short, the Gulf War could be summarized in the words a U.S. ambassador used in describing the Spanish-American War: "It has been a splendid little war."