Horner’s Anxious Moments

Feb. 1, 2010

“Desert Storm”

Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, USAF

Address to Business Executives for National Security

Cannon House Office BuildingWashington, DC

May 8, 1991


It was only a few months after the smashing US victory in the first Gulf War. Then-Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, the “air boss” of Operation Desert Storm under Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, gave an eye-opening insider account of the conflict. To the outsider, the triumph over the forces of Saddam Hussein seemed like a walkover; for Horner and others who were there, it was anything but. Horner recalled the aftermath of the Aug. 2, 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as “some of the worst nights of my life,” as he and others pondered the ease with which Saddam could have seized Saudi oil fields. Horner and his top aide, then-Brig. Gen. Buster C. Glosson, worried mightily about whether the F-117 stealth aircraft would survive. In short, Horner had sweated it out—more than anyone knew.

There was no certainty that Iraq would not continue its attack. There were no military forces other than some light Saudi National Guard units between him and the oil fields at Abqaiq, the oil production at Al-Jubail. And so it was a very tense, serious situation. …

The buildup went very rapidly. The idea was we were to deter an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, and if an invasion did come, we had to be prepared to defend. General Schwarzkopf flew back to the States to push the forces over [and] left me over there to receive them, and we flew up to Riyadh and set up the headquarters.

Those were some of the worst nights in my life, because I had good information as to what the Iraqi threat was, and quite frankly, we could not have issued speeding tickets to the tanks as they would have come rolling down the interstate highway on the east coast. It was an opportunity the Iraqis did not take, but every night, we’d get more forces, and we’d sit down and get a game plan of what we’d do if we came under attack.

The first forces deployed were air defense forces. We brought F-15s. The Saudi Air Force was flying their AWACS and their F-15s, so we just fell in on their operations and had a more robust air defense as we went along.

Next, we brought in air-to-ground aircraft, and the role of these systems [was] we were going to trade space for time, if he attacked, and we would attack the forces, meanwhile falling back as far as the United Arab Emirates. … The 82nd Airborne showed up very light, would not have been able to forestall the tanks, but would have given us the means to delay the onslaught. We brought in A-10s, the Marine Corps arrived, and of course, the carriers arrived in the Gulf.

Later, we were able to add more heavy forces, and the point where the issue is no longer really in doubt was when we got the 24th Infantry Division there with their tanks. Then we knew we could defend the Port of Dammam, which is just across from Bahrain, and that would allow us to bring our forces on board. …

As we went on, in October and November, it became obvious that Iraq was not interested in negotiation and that at some point in time, there would be a decision made to eject them, and that’s when the briefing was brought to the president of the strategic air campaign. …

The decision on when to attack obviously, given the cutoff date of Jan. 15 that came from the UN resolution, was made based on moonlight and weather. We wanted as dark a night as possible, because [of] the F-117, the stealth fighter going into Baghdad. And we wanted good weather obviously for air operations. The 16th was picked, 3 o’clock in the morning our time. …

We had the first two days of the war mapped out in detail; I mean, we knew each target, each sortie, what time it hit, where it refueled, what country would fly the sortie, what … munitions—and all the detail was there. I would not let them prepare a third day. I said we have to learn how to manage chaos, because that’s what war is, it’s chaos. And so the first day of the war, while the nation was watching the bombs fall, the Black Hole guys came out of the Black Hole, and all the staff got to work and started planning for the third day, and using the intelligence inputs that we could generate. …

I guess the biggest thing I worried about was loss of friendly aircraft. We had stealth technology, we had a lot of technical data about stealth technology, but I had no way of knowing that we wouldn’t lose the entire fleet the first night. Those boys were going in there naked, all alone. We were betting everything on the data. As it turned out, they flew every night and we did not suffer any battle damage to any of the F-117 aircraft, but that had to be a big lump in my throat right there, as I watched them go over Baghdad the first two nights.

And I think you all saw on television the vast amounts of ground fire. My intelligence people told me that Baghdad was twice as heavily defended as any other target in the Soviet Union or in Eastern Europe. And I can believe it, looking at all the SAM sites and the guns on every building. So that paid off, but we had no way of knowing. We had no way of knowing how well our ECM [electronic countermeasures] would work because those are things you don’t practice in peace.

We wanted to seize control of the air so we could do all of the other things. And that’s a very individualistic thing. And your training comes to bear as much as your equipment and the courage of your pilots, and the robustness of your command and control. And so I worried about that.

There were a lot of questions about losses—what did you anticipate and what did you have—so on and so forth. Buster and I, about two days before the war started, we were sitting in the command center, and he said, what do you think the losses are going to be? And I wrote 39 down on a piece of paper. That meant I thought we’d lose 39 aircraft. As it was, we lost, I believe the number is about 41. … I’d like to take credit for being brilliant. Actually, when I wrote 39 down, I thought we were going to lose 39 USAF aircraft. And in fact, I expected our [coalition] losses to be nearly 100 airplanes.