by Austin Bay
January 11, 2011
The Jan. 17, 1991, air attacks on Iraq that launched
Operation Desert Storm two decades ago gave the world a spectacular look at the
high-tech weaponry the United States had developed to thwart a Soviet invasion
of Western Europe.
The initial air strikes on Baghdad riveted a global
television audience. On that first night of the air offensive, reporters with
cameras poking from Baghdad hotel windows provided real-time video of Iraqi
anti-aircraft guns firing streams of tracer rounds into a blue-black sky
randomly lit by the bursts of American precision munitions hitting targets on
the city's perimeter.
Those cameras, however, only caught a tiny slice of the
broad combat action raging across Iraq and Kuwait. Cruise missiles fired by
warships blasted Iraqi defense complexes and command posts. A variety of
aircraft, from B-52s to attack helicopters, delivered missiles, smart bombs and
dumb bombs (stockpiled for use should the Cold War turn hot), striking
airfields, radars, troop concentrations and ammo dumps.
The air assault was the preparatory phase of a combined air
and ground campaign designed to destroy the Iraqi mechanized army occupying
Kuwait. Colin Powell, at the time chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made
that clear when he said: "Our strategy to go after this army is very, very
simple. First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill
it." In that process, the U.S. and coalition forces intended to severely
damage Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war on his neighbors.
Toppling Saddam, however, was not an approved coalition goal.
Anticipating the air offensive, the Iraqi Army in Kuwait and
southern Iraq took shelter in fortified trenches and bunkers. In NATO's Cold
War nightmare scenario, mobile Soviet tank armies would attack through Central
Europe toward the Rhine River. However, NATO intended to stop the armored
thrust by pursuing a version of the "cut off and kill" strategy. NATO
would cut Soviet command and intelligence links, and destroy their reserve
echelons with deep attacks, while a steel rain of bomblets, smart munitions and
air-delivered minefields hobbled the advancing tanks. The weapons used in
Southwest Asia were built for this campaign.
Conventional war in Europe always risked escalation to
nuclear war. Thanks to a 1981 Israeli attack on his nuclear facilities, Saddam
did not have a nuke. Without the nuclear sword of Damocles, the U.S.-led air
attacks had time to attrit and shatter Iraqi defenses and pave the way for the
ground attack in late February.
In Europe, Soviet theater ballistic missiles -- with
conventional, chemical or nuclear warheads -- would have hammered NATO ports,
command sites and staging areas. The SCUD missiles Iraqis fired at Saudi cities
demonstrated this dangerous could-have-been.
The SCUD barrage was Saddam's attempt to launch deep attacks
on coalition rear areas and sow terror in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Chemical or
nuclear weapons on SCUDs could have cut allied supply lines, killed thousands
of civilians and forced ground troops to disperse.
In Desert Storm, American Patriot anti-aircraft missiles
employed as anti-ballistic missiles provided the frailest of defenses.
Fortunately, Saddam's SCUDs were inaccurate and lacked warheads with weapons of
mass destruction. A senior Indian defense official would later observe that the
lesson he learned from Desert Storm was, "Don't fight the United States
unless you have nuclear weapons."
That lesson has
current relevance, as Iran's radical Islamist regime pursues nuclear weapons.
Iraq was no Soviet Union. Yet Saddam pined for superpower
status. In a speech made in February 1990, he noted that the Cold War was over
and U.S. power unchecked. Then he added, "The big does not become big nor
does the great earn such a description unless he is in the arena of comparison
or fighting with someone else on a different level."
In retrospect, it appears Saddam intended to fill the void
left by a fading Soviet Union, though he may have moved too quickly. As the
Soviets quit Europe, the U.S. began to reduce its forces. On Jan. 17, 1991,
however, America had more than enough Cold War-era wonder weapons to isolate
then decimate his hapless army.