30th anniversary of Desert Storm

  • Published
  • By Walter W. Napier III, 514 AMW historian

The origin of the Gulf War can be traced to 1979, when Iraq and Iran went to war.  The United States largely remained neutral in the first phase of the war.  Iran in the 1970s, was a noted enemy of the U.S., but Iraq maintained close relations with the Soviet Union and was suspected of state sponsored terrorism.  By 1982, however, Iran appeared to be pulling ahead in the conflict.  The U.S. decided to provide weapons and advisors to the Iraqi government, helping to secure an Iraqi victory in 1988.

Following the war, Iraq found itself in debt to its neighbors, most notably Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.  Iraqi President Saddam Hussein tried to pressure the two countries to forgive his debt, arguing that defeating Iran ensured the security of the region, while at the same time applying pressure with the large Iraqi military force.  By 1990, the crisis had reached a boiling point.  Kuwait and Saudi Arabia refused to nullify Iraq’s debt, while at the same time the two nations were producing more oil than their OPEC agreement allowed.  Iraq argued that the overproduction of oil flooded the market, undercut fuel prices and made it more difficult for Iraq to repay its debt.

At the time of invasion, Iraq boasted the fourth largest military in the world, with more than 4500 tanks, nearly two million troops, and over 700 attack aircraft.  Kuwait had less than 20,000 personnel total.  To make matters worse, despite the Iraqi force build up on the border, Kuwait refused to order a general mobilization.  On August 2, 1990, Kuwait was invaded.  Within 48 hours, Saddam Hussein was in control of the country with the majority of the victory being achieved within the first 12 hours of hostilities.

Within the week, President George H. W. Bush had not only condemned the invasion, but began building a coalition to push Iraq out of Kuwait.  On August 7, 1990, President Bush began Operation Desert Shield, and US-led coalition troops began building up in Saudi Arabia to defend against any further Iraqi expansion.  Saudi Arabia not only represented a key ally of the US in the region, but if Iraq was able to successfully invade the peninsula, Hussein would control a majority of the world’s oil supply.  It would further provide a psychological advantage in the Islamic world to be in possession of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in the Muslim faith. 

By November 1990, the troop buildup in the Saudi desert began to peak with an estimated 600,000 forces from 35 different nations.  On November 29, 1990, UN Resolution 678 was passed.  The resolution gave Iraq a time table to evacuate Kuwait, demanding Iraqi forces be out of the country by January 15, 1991. As the date approached, Iraq had made no attempt to evacuate and even began to threaten Saudi borders.

On January 17, 1990, Desert Shield transitioned to Desert Storm.  The first phase of the operation was an air war designed to ground the Iraqi Air Force, and destroy Scud missile sites.  By accomplishing this mission, coalition forces would dominate the skies in advance of the impending ground war.  Lt. Gen. Chuck Horner led the air campaign which saw 42 days of intense air combat over the skies of Iraq.  More than 100,000 sorties were flown, and 88,500 metric tons of explosives were dropped, resulting in the complete domination of the skies.  Allied losses were 75 aircraft, with only 44 being a direct result of Iraqi defense measure (air-to-air and air-to-ground).

Iraqi response was largely ineffective.  Scud missile attacks against Israel were unproductive, while an attempted invasion of Saudi Arabia was repelled at the Battle of Khafji. With the success of the allied air campaign, On February 22, 1991, President Bush issued a 24-hour ultimatum, demanding Iraqi forces be withdrawn from Kuwait, or a ground war would commence.  On February 24, US led coalition forces invade both Iraq and Kuwait. 

By February 28, hostilities were declared over.  Kuwait had been liberated, US soldiers were only miles from Baghdad, and 500,000 Iraqi prisoners of war had been taken. The Desert Shield/Desert Storm conflict denotes a special place in the history of the 514th Air Mobility Wing.  From 1990-1991, 1,949 members of the Wing deployed in support of the operations, representing one of the largest call ups in the Wing’s history.  Air crews flew 20,200 hours, while transporting 10,300 passengers and 20,900 tons of cargo.  It further established the missions of Operation Southern Watch and Operation Northern Watch during the 90’s, where many Wing personnel would deploy to Southwest Asia to enforce a no fly zone on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.