On Point: Twenty Years After: Desert Storm's Air War

by Austin Bay
January 11, 2011

The Jan. 17, 1991, air attacks on Iraq that launchedOperation Desert Storm two decades ago gave the world a spectacular look at thehigh-tech weaponry the United States had developed to thwart a Soviet invasionof Western Europe.

The initial air strikes on Baghdad riveted a globaltelevision audience. On that first night of the air offensive, reporters withcameras poking from Baghdad hotel windows provided real-time video of Iraqianti-aircraft guns firing streams of tracer rounds into a blue-black skyrandomly lit by the bursts of American precision munitions hitting targets onthe city's perimeter.

Those cameras, however, only caught a tiny slice of thebroad combat action raging across Iraq and Kuwait. Cruise missiles fired bywarships blasted Iraqi defense complexes and command posts. A variety ofaircraft, from B-52s to attack helicopters, delivered missiles, smart bombs anddumb bombs (stockpiled for use should the Cold War turn hot), strikingairfields, radars, troop concentrations and ammo dumps.

The air assault was the preparatory phase of a combined airand ground campaign designed to destroy the Iraqi mechanized army occupyingKuwait. Colin Powell, at the time chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, madethat clear when he said: "Our strategy to go after this army is very, verysimple. First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to killit." In that process, the U.S. and coalition forces intended to severelydamage 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 andsouthern Iraq took shelter in fortified trenches and bunkers. In NATO's ColdWar nightmare scenario, mobile Soviet tank armies would attack through CentralEurope toward the Rhine River. However, NATO intended to stop the armoredthrust by pursuing a version of the "cut off and kill" strategy. NATOwould cut Soviet command and intelligence links, and destroy their reserveechelons with deep attacks, while a steel rain of bomblets, smart munitions andair-delivered minefields hobbled the advancing tanks. The weapons used inSouthwest Asia were built for this campaign.

Conventional war in Europe always risked escalation tonuclear war. Thanks to a 1981 Israeli attack on his nuclear facilities, Saddamdid not have a nuke. Without the nuclear sword of Damocles, the U.S.-led airattacks had time to attrit and shatter Iraqi defenses and pave the way for theground attack in late February.

In Europe, Soviet theater ballistic missiles -- withconventional, chemical or nuclear warheads -- would have hammered NATO ports,command sites and staging areas. The SCUD missiles Iraqis fired at Saudi citiesdemonstrated this dangerous could-have-been.

The SCUD barrage was Saddam's attempt to launch deep attackson coalition rear areas and sow terror in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Chemical ornuclear weapons on SCUDs could have cut allied supply lines, killed thousandsof civilians and forced ground troops to disperse.

In Desert Storm, American Patriot anti-aircraft missilesemployed as anti-ballistic missiles provided the frailest of defenses.Fortunately, Saddam's SCUDs were inaccurate and lacked warheads with weapons ofmass destruction. A senior Indian defense official would later observe that thelesson he learned from Desert Storm was, "Don't fight the United Statesunless you have nuclear weapons."

 That lesson hascurrent relevance, as Iran's radical Islamist regime pursues nuclear weapons.

Iraq was no Soviet Union. Yet Saddam pined for superpowerstatus. In a speech made in February 1990, he noted that the Cold War was overand U.S. power unchecked. Then he added, "The big does not become big nordoes the great earn such a description unless he is in the arena of comparisonor fighting with someone else on a different level."

In retrospect, it appears Saddam intended to fill the voidleft by a fading Soviet Union, though he may have moved too quickly. As theSoviets 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 isolatethen decimate his hapless army. 

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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