In the Wake of the Storm

Jan. 1, 2001

The Gulf War is officially dated from Aug. 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait, but it was 10 years ago this month that the main event, Operation Desert Storm, began.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 17, 1991, hundreds of coalition aircraft streaked across the border and struck targets all over Iraq. By daybreak, Iraq’s command and control network no longer existed. Within days, the Iraqi air force, once the world’s sixth largest, was out of business. The airplanes that were not destroyed had fled to sanctuary in Iran.

For 38 days, airpower hammered Iraq. By late February, the capability of dictator Saddam Hussein to make war lay in shambles. Almost half of his armor had been destroyed outright. Between 50 and 75 percent of his troops in the first two echelons were either casualties or deserters. Iraqi tanks had taken the initiative but once, at the Battle of Khafji, where they were shot to pieces by airpower.

On Feb. 24, coalition ground troops, supported by airpower, surged into Kuwait and in four days drove out the staggering Iraqis, inflicting still more damage on them in the “Mother of All Retreats.”

The coalition called off the war Feb. 28, and Iraq agreed to accept the UN’s terms for a cease-fire.

With the 10th anniversary of the Gulf War now upon us, all manner of analysts are looking back and asking what it all meant. There are two answers to that. One is military and the other is political.

From the military perspective, Desert Storm was a turning point.

There was none of the gradualism and lack of commitment that had marked our failed experience in Vietnam. From the first night on, the Gulf War was pursued with determination and focus.

In addition, the Gulf War brought four important changes to the way strategists must think about the conduct of war.

It established the expectation that wars would be won quickly, decisively, and with few casualties. That may not always be the case, but in future conflicts, the nation will exhaust the possibility before resorting to the traditional clash of force on force.

It was not obvious ahead of time that the Gulf War would be a rout. Up to 20,000 US casualties were anticipated. The actual total was 613. The difference was not that Iraq was a pushover, but rather in how the war was fought.

The Gulf War told us a “revolution in military affairs” had taken place. Three factors-precision strike, stealth, and information technology-had redefined the concept of the attack.

The stealthy F-117A flew only two percent of combat sorties, but attacked more than 40 percent of the strategic targets. As the world watched on television, a fighter rolled in on the Iraqi Defense Ministry in Baghdad and put a bomb neatly down the air shaft.

Never before had such precise destruction rained from the skies. Until recently, it had not been possible.

Desert Storm introduced “parallel warfare,” in which the enemy is hit everywhere at once, making it virtually impossible for him to adjust, adapt, or mount a counteroffensive. In the Gulf War, the coalition struck 150 individual targets the first day. By contrast, Eighth Air Force in World War II hit only 50 target sets in all of 1943.

The Gulf War changed the relationship of airpower and ground power. In previous wars, ground power had been central with airpower in support. In the Gulf, it was airpower that was dominant and decisive.

Political judgments at the 10-year point are less clear cut. In 1991, the opportunity was open to destroy the last vestiges of Iraqi military power and impose an unconditional surrender. The coalition, however, decided that its mandate was to restore the independence of Kuwait, not to invade Iraq or topple Saddam.

The ensuing political legacy has been a decade of “containment.” Through a combination of sanctions, no-fly zones, and other measures-including inspections, while they lasted-Saddam has been kept in his box. He has not yet disrupted the world’s oil supply, as it was feared he might do. Nor has he been able to threaten his neighbors.

On the other hand, Saddam is still there, and once again cooking up weapons of mass destruction. Encouraged by support from Russia, France, and several Arab states, he is attempting to throw off UN controls and re-establish himself as a power in the Middle East.

For the last year or so, the White House-which had relied mostly on endless warnings and symbolic actions to deal with Saddam-has preferred to avoid the problem.

The United States, and the world, will eventually have to do something about Saddam, but he is nowhere near the threat or the problem he would have become had not Desert Storm dismantled his capability in 1991.

The military victory was as complete as politics would allow. It ended a string of setbacks that included Vietnam and the “Desert One” fiasco in Iran in 1980. It answered the critics who said the armed forces were wasting money on complicated weapons that wouldn’t work. The F-15 fighter and the AWACS radar aircraft, both outstanding performers in the Gulf, had been singled out for abuse.

Properly supported and intelligently employed, the armed forces won the war in a spectacular fashion.