“Lesson One” of the Gulf War

July 1, 2010

“Commencement Remarks”

President George H. W. Bush

Falcon Stadium, US Air Force Academy

Colorado Springs, Colo.

May 29, 1991


Rarely if ever has an American President promoted airpower more unequivocally than did George H. W. Bush at the US Air Force Academy’s 1991 commencement. The Gulf War had just ended. In it, US fighter, bomber, and related forces had administered a startlingly swift and thorough beating to the forces of dictator Saddam Hussein. For Bush, the paramount lesson of the war was “the value of airpower.” Almost as important, he said, was his lesson two: the value of stealth.

As the world changes, our military must evolve and change with it. Last year, I announced a shift in our defense focus away from old threats and toward the dangers that will face us in the years to come. We need a more agile, flexible military force that we can put where it is needed, when it is needed. I also called for new technology in our defense systems. And I proposed a defense package to the Congress that meets these demands.

In the years ahead, defense spending will drop to below four percent of our gross national product, the lowest level in over 50 years. But we must spend that money in ways that address the threats that we are likely to face in the future. Although we developed this budget before the Gulf War, it anticipates very important lessons of that war—lessons that, frankly, some in the United States Congress now ignore.

Gulf lesson one is the value of airpower. I remember meeting with General McPeak [Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, USAF Chief of Staff] up at Camp David. In his quiet but forceful way, he told me exactly what he felt airpower could do. After he left, I turned to my trusted national security advisor—who’s with me here today, a former political science professor here at the academy and a pilot, [Lt. Gen. Brent] Scowcroft—and said, “Brent, does this guy really know what he’s talking about?” General Scowcroft assured me he did. And General McPeak, like the entire Air Force, was right on target from Day 1. The Gulf War taught us that we must retain combat superiority in the skies.

Then there’s Gulf lesson two: the value of stealth. Surprise is a classic principle of warfare, and yes, it depends on sound intelligence work. But stealth adds a new dimension of surprise. Our air strikes were the most effective, yet humane, in the history of warfare. The F-117 proved itself by doing more, doing it better, doing it for less, and targeting soldiers, not civilians. It flew hundreds of sorties into the most heavily defended areas without a scratch.

The F-117 carried a revolution in warfare on its wings. The next step in that revolution is the stealth bomber, the B-2. Not only for its contribution to nuclear deterrence, but also from the standpoint of conventional cost-effectiveness, the B-2 has no peer. It carries over 10 times the conventional load of an F-117 and can fly five times farther between refuelings. It gets to the job faster, with more tons of ordnance—without the force buildup and time we needed prior to Desert Storm—and without needing foreign airfields in the immediate proximity of a conflict. And it replaces B-52 aircraft approaching twice the age of you graduates—and I say that respectfully. Yet, last week, the House of Representatives voted to terminate the B-2, redirecting those funds at unnecessary weapons. Anyone who tells you the B-2 is “too expensive” hasn’t seen flak up close lately. America needs the B-2 bomber, and I’m going to fight for it every inch of the way.

Gulf lesson three: We learned that missile defense works and that it promotes peace and security. In the Gulf, we had the technologies of defense to pick up where theories of deterrence left off. You see, Saddam Hussein was not deterred, but the Patriot saved lives and helped keep the coalition together.

That’s one reason that we’ve refocused strategic defense toward Global Protection Against Limited Strikes or GPALS, as we call it. It defends us and our allies from accidental launches or from the missile attacks of international renegades. While the Patriot worked well in the Gulf, we must prepare for the missiles more likely to be used by future aggressors. We can’t build a defense system that simply responds to the threats of the past.

Yet some in Congress want to gut our ability to develop strategic defenses. Last week the House irresponsibly voted to cut nearly a billion from GPALS and to kill its most promising technologies. I call on the Senate today to restore our missile defense programs, to safeguard American and allied lives, and to promote security.

Gulf lesson four, the most fundamental, is the value of people. People fight and win wars, and this nation never has fielded better fighting men and women than it does today. In 1980, 68 percent of those enlisting in the military had high school diplomas. Now it’s 95 percent and climbing. The military has become our greatest equal opportunity employer. It offers everyone a chance, and it promotes people solely on the basis of merit. The men and women you will soon be leading are the best educated and most motivated anywhere, anytime, ever. …

You graduates will find that no other combat force you encounter will have your skills, your technology, or support. You’ll find that in world leadership we have no challengers. But in our turbulent world, you will find no lack of challenges. And I know you are ready.