This story was originally published Dec. 1, 2020.
January 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, the six-week war to reverse Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The swift and overwhelming victory over the world’s fourth-largest military stunned allies and adversaries alike, and imbued the U.S. military—particularly the Air Force—with an aura of invincibility.
Thirty years later, the Air Force that executed the bulk of the five-week air campaign—setting the conditions for the quick ground war that followed—has been cut in half. The wonder weapons it used to so thoroughly dominate Iraq—stealth, precision-guided munitions, satellite intelligence—are no longer unique, having been copied and developed by peer adversaries. Precise theater ballistic missiles are now more accurate and commonplace among potential opponents. Sanctuary and months to build up forces in a region is no longer a given.
If the U.S. had to fight another major theater war today, could it notch a similarly rapid and decisive win?
There is no such thing as a bloodless peer fight.Gen. Mark Kelly, head of Air Combat Command
The U.S. still enjoys an edge in most air combat technologies, has better-trained troops and an extensive array of partners and allies, said Gen. Mark D. Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, in a November interview with Air Force Magazine. If the U.S. had to fight such a war now “we [would] again prevail,” he said. However, an enemy’s modern air defenses, theater ballistic missiles, and skills in spectrum warfare would make the fight tougher, he noted. Victory is unlikely to be as lopsided as it was in Desert Storm.
The American public should brace for heavier casualties in future wars, Kelly added, and “look more through the lens of World War II and less through the lens of Desert Storm” or the Afghanistan or Iraq wars for a sense of what the price of conflict could be.
“There is no such thing as a bloodless peer fight,” he said. Modern combat is “extremely fast … extremely chaotic, and extremely violent.”
The Air Force of 1990-91 was built for the Cold War and combat with the former Soviet Union. It was newly modernized, with fighter aircraft averaging less than 12 years old. Readiness was high and aircrews were well-practiced.
Back then, USAF boasted 134 fighter squadrons, compared to just 55 today. The average fighter is now 27 years old. Many of the aircraft in the overall inventory are now older than 50.
Strategy has also changed. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 remind the Air Force that it must reserve some squadrons for homeland air defense, as well as retain enough forces to deter aggression in some other part of the world.
“We did have absolutely overwhelming numbers of aircraft,” said retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Deptula was in charge of selecting targets during the coalition bombing campaign against Iraq, and later became USAF’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Coalition air forces arrayed against Iraq for Desert Storm numbered some 2,430 aircraft, of which 1,300 were deployed by the U.S., including Navy and Marine Corps airplanes operating from aircraft carriers in the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea. Iraq fielded about 700 combat-capable fixed-wing aircraft, not including trainers. Air opposition dropped off quickly.
So great were the numbers of available aircraft, Deptula recalled, that “I often planned 72-aircraft strike packages.” It was too many; wing commanders complained, and strike packages were reduced.
“We could have done what we did in Desert Storm with half of what we had there, quite frankly,” Deptula said.
Today’s numbers are a different story.
“People say, ‘OK, if you have the capability, you don’t need the numbers,’” Deptula said. “Well, not necessarily. The F-22 is the most capable fighter in the world today. But you can really only get 30 to 40 of them in the air at any one time, anywhere in the world.” The rest are either en route to or from the target, used for training, or down for maintenance.
“That’s not a lot of frappin’ airplanes,” Deptula commented. Such numbers make it “difficult to deal with … one theater, let alone multiple areas simultaneously.”
In a contested air war, the dynamics can change rapidly. In the Vietnam conflict, the U.S. lost “50 percent of our F-105 force,” Deptula said. “In 11 days of bombing, we lost 15 B-52s.” Deptula predicts that in a future peer conflict, “there will be a much greater level of attrition than we’ve become accustomed to in the last 30 years.”
Indeed, “the big surprise” in Desert Storm was how few aircraft were lost—just 27 U.S. airplanes. “That doesn’t mean it’s always going to be that way,” Deptula observed.
The gradual but steady reduction in the size of the Air Force over the past three decades has reached a critical level, he said. “We have less than 50 percent of the number of fighter aircraft” USAF had in 1991, Deptula continued. “Bombers are worse; we have less than 43 percent of the bombers we had at that time.”
Offsetting the smaller number of platforms is their greater capability, particularly in precision attack. “The vast majority of weapons we employ today are precision-guided,” Deptula said. In Desert Storm, only 9 percent of all coalition weapons, by tonnage, were precision-guided, and only 4.3 percent were laser guided bombs, yet LGBs accounted for 75 percent of strategic targets destroyed. (The rest of the PGMs were missiles such as Maverick or HARM.)
The laser guided bombs of Desert Storm impressed CNN viewers who saw black-and-white images of bombs guided onto rooftops and straight down air shafts. But those weapons couldn’t function through clouds, smoke, or other obscurants. In many cases, pilots had to return to base without releasing their weapons. By contrast, today’s precision munitions use satellite navigation and can operate in any weather, day or night.
What strategists learned in 1991 was that precision is a force- multiplier. USAF moved quickly to develop weapons like the Joint Direct Attack Munition, which uses GPS guidance, as well as laser seekers in some variants. “Every munition we developed from that point on became a precision munition—no more dumb bombs,” said Gen. John Michael Loh, who was Vice Chief of Staff and acting Chief for a month during Operation Desert Shield—the regional buildup for Desert Storm. Loh later headed Tactical Air Command and was the first to lead Air Combat Command.
Desert Storm also saw the first application of stealth in combat. The Air Force’s F-117 proved that low-observable aircraft could get through a good air defense system to strike the enemy’s most valued targets.
“We knew we were on the right track,” Loh said. The Air Force “went 110 percent” afterward with stealth in developing the F-22, its next fighter, as well as the then-new B-2 bomber.
Today, stealth is an essential aspect of U.S. air power, but not the only trick in the bag.
“Are lower signatures better than big signatures? Absolutely,” Kelly said. “Is multi-spectral resilience better than putting all your eggs in a single bandwidth to operate in? Absolutely.” Air Force stealth is “very, very capable” and a “very, very relevant element to the way we execute.”
Low observable doesn’t mean invisible, though, Kelly noted. Tactics are as important as the technologies that go into making aircraft hard to detect and track. “If we employ our low-observable assets as if they’re … ‘non observable,’” Kelly said, “that’s when we end up making mistakes.”
The Air Force had an unmatched network of ISR platforms in the air and in space during Desert Shield and Desert Storm—E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System jets, spy satellites, tactical reconnaissance systems on fighters, and the E-8 Joint STARS aircraft, still in development but rushed to the field of battle. Even so, planners struggled with “a serious lack of current overhead imagery of the area,” Deptula recalled. “I was targeting using imagery that was six months to two years old,” he said.
“I would have given a year’s pay for Google Earth,” Deptula said. While the service may not be totally accurate, “you should have seen what was [Top-Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information] back in the Desert Storm days.”
Getting intelligence to the people who needed it was also a problem. There was “no connectivity between attack planners and the people who had control over the overhead intelligence collection platforms,” Deptula said. The intelligence process, especially battle damage assessment, “was totally and completely unresponsive,” he added.
Likewise, “There was no such thing as ‘time-critical’ targeting in Desert Storm,” Deptula said. He put F-111s with precision-guided munitions on alert, but “from the time we got information to the time they were over a target was on the order of eight hours. That’s not very time-sensitive.”
Today, by contrast, aircraft can be airborne with a variety of weapons, ready to respond when ISR reveals an urgent target, or troops in contact need help from above.
Surveillance drones are now standard gear. In the Gulf War, there were no Predators or Reapers; the only drones were target-spotting Pioneers belonging to the Navy.
“There was no 24/7, 365 overwatch that we’ve absolutely become accustomed to,” Deptula said. The need for persistent, or “staring,” ISR would be one of the Air Force’s lessons learned, eventually manifesting into a range of small, medium, and large unmanned systems. The easy access to live ISR feeds is so great today, Deptula said, that when he addresses company-grade and higher officers, he admonishes them not to micromanage junior officers dealing with tactical situations.
The Air Force’s approach to targeting in Desert Storm was also a change. Instead of “hammering” all of Iraq’s military, Deptula applied an effects-based operations (EBO) approach, striking a range of related targets at once. This “parallel” warfare created chaos and confusion from which Iraq never recovered during the conflict.
“This was very different from the way militaries have traditionally planned,” according to Deptula. Without the effects-based logic, “what would have happened would have been random attacks on discrete enemy elements unrelated to the ultimate objectives—not unlike what happened in the Vietnam War and what some might say happened in the first part of the air war over Serbia.”
The lesson hasn’t been taken to heart, though. The EBO approach was not applied “over the last 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Deptula observed.
Loh praised Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the Desert Storm campaign, as “an Airman in disguise.”
Schwarzkopf“was very strongly in favor of leading with … overwhelming air power,” Loh said.
The relentless pace of attacks on Iraqi targets—starting with air bases, the air defense system, command and control nodes, and later expanding to ground formations—overwhelmed Iraq, Loh said. Saddam Hussein “never really had a chance” to put his air force to work; after a few days, his most advanced jets fled to Iran, or were hidden in hardened shelters where they were picked off by bunker-busting bombs, Loh recounted.
“We had overwhelming force,” he said. “We attacked when he didn’t think we were going to, we were prepared, and we led with air power, and stealth, and stand-off weapons.” The coalition continued with the attack “every day, continuous pounding—1,000 attack sorties a day. … He just couldn’t cope with that.”
Echoing Deptula, Loh said, “We could have done what we did in Desert Storm with half the air power we had … but we didn’t recognize that at the time. You always want to go in with overwhelming force.”
That lesson needs to be re-learned, Loh asserted. In 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was forgotten, he said. “The Army wanted to go simultaneous with the Air Force, and it got very confusing.”
Russia and China have studied Desert Storm the conflict for 30 years, Loh said, and it has directly influenced how they’ve structured and postured their own militaries since.
Iraq believed it was safe because of the KARI air defense system (KARI is Iraq spelled backward in French; France sold the system to Iraq). KARI netted together more than 150 batteries of Iraqi air defense missiles and anti-aircraft artillery, and more than 700 combat-capable fixed-wing tactical aircraft. Iraq had thousands of surface-to-air missiles, as well as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons.
Allied air commanders anticipated heavy losses. “[We] thought we would lose about 100 to120 airplanes the first two nights of the air campaign,” Loh said. “Attrition experts said 20 to 25 percent.” Even after air defenses were beaten down, Loh said, it was estimated that air losses “would tail off to about five or 10 per day for the next week or two.”
Instead, only 75 coalition aircraft were lost—and only 27 of those by U.S. forces—across the entirety of a five-week bombing campaign before ground combat began, and four days of close air support and interdiction afterward.
Modern air defense systems, such as Russia’s S-300 through S-500, can detect threats at far greater range than those of the Desert Storm era. An SA-2 from the Gulf War could engage targets 20 to 30 miles away, Deptula noted, but an S-400 can engage targets at ranges approaching 400 miles. “That is a huge leap,” he said. Modern surface-to-air missiles are faster, have their own guidance systems, and are tougher to fool, he added.
Stealth remains essential, Deptula argued. “Low observability is the entry-level requirement for … operating against a near-peer threat today,” he said. “If you’re not low-observable, you’re not going to survive.”
Stealth is also a force-multiplier. “If it takes 10 to 20 non-stealth aircraft to do the same thing as one stealth aircraft, the stealth aircraft are a bargain at 10 times their cost,” he argued.
After Desert Storm, the Air Force retired the F-4G Wild Weasel Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defense aircraft, and the EF-111 Spark Vark electronic warfare/jamming aircraft. Block 50/52 F-16s assumed the SEAD/DEAD mission and the Navy took over the escort jamming mission with its EA-6B Prowlers, and later the EA-18G Growlers.
Loh called that decision “a mistake,” saying the Navy hasn’t been able to handle “all the Air Force’s requirements for electronic attack.” USAF officials announced plans this year for an EMS (electromagnetic spectrum) wing to buoy “electronic warfare, electronic attack, information warfare, cyber, and ISR” capabilities, which Loh sees as encouraging.
Kelly noted that while China and Russia are making inroads with stealth and precision navigation, it’s their efforts in spectrum dominance that concern him more.
“Their ability to jam across the electromagnetic spectrum, where they choose to, is significant,” he said. They can jam “from extremely low frequencies down to 3 Hz” through the sensing bands and radio bands, radar bands like the X, Ku, and Ka bands, “all the way up through the [infrared] spectrum, even ultraviolet wavelengths,” Kelly said. Coupled with advances in 5G, quantum computing, space, and cyber, he said, adversaries are effectively using the EMS to “enhance red kill chains and … break blue kill chains.”
The Air Force intends on not only “surviving but thriving in the electromagnetic spectrum,” he said. Besides being stealthy, the Air Force must “hold our cards tight” in terms of capability and tactics, “and we need to make sure we can absorb the signals that they are putting back at us, and use them to reprogram quickly.”
It will depend on the particular threat as to how much “we’re going to be able to power through it,” Kelly added.
Agile Combat Logistics
The Air Force had months to build up forces and practice the tactics and procedures that proved so effective in Desert Storm. Iraq had tactical ballistic missiles with which to disrupt those preparations, but used them sporadically. Most went off course and landed harmlessly, or were intercepted by Army Patriot missiles. While the Air Force suffered just two tactical ballistic missile hits during Desert Storm, they endured 27 deaths and 90 injuries as a result.
The profusion of such systems since then—and startling gains in their accuracy—means large theater air bases in the future will be “big fat targets that are easily found and easily geo-located,” Kelly said.
The lack of enough Army air defense systems to go around in a war and the risks of being a sitting duck are “driving us to Agile Combat Logistics,” Kelly said. The strategy will be to deploy small units, such as a “four-ship” of fighters, to austere bases where they can rearm, refuel, and launch again quickly. They’ll depend on minimal ground crews “organized, trained, and equipped as a cohesive expeditionary mission team,” he explained. They’ll have “multiple skill sets” for providing quick, limited missions support.
“We don’t have everything we need” for this concept, but it highlights the need to maintain alliances and partnerships worldwide, Kelly noted. Having a host nation that can provide an airfield and maybe even air defense will be a huge benefit in this approach, he stated, and having those partnerships is a big discriminator with China and Russia, who don’t have such networks and must look “internally” for expeditionary support.
Loh and Deptula both said that the Air Force needs to again embrace giving decision authority to combat leaders at the flight level, to adapt to changing conditions and fight through a possible denial of communications.
“We’ve got to move from a concept of centralized control/decentralized execution to one of centralized command/distributed control/decentralized execution,” Deptula said. “You should not have to call back to the air operations center and ask, ‘Mother, may I?’ before you engage or employ a weapon.”
A Matter of Risk
The central question in deciding if the success of Desert Storm could be replicated today lies in how much risk the nation wants to take. Even the Air Force’s own “The Air Force We Need” white paper on what it requires to fulfill the national strategy is considered a “moderate risk” force, and that’s not what it had in 1991.
“Moderate risk is not a ‘Desert Storm’-like operation,” Deptula said. “It’s not winning 99-1. It’s winning, like, 55-45.”
That risk is driven by resources.
Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s “Accelerate Change —or Lose” directive “is also a message for the greater DOD and the American public,” Kelly said.
There are “four distinct choices” about the shape of the future military, Kelly said. The U.S. can “invest and build a force to address a growing peer threat across key domain.” It can “‘divest to invest’ to remain relevant,” by getting rid of older hardware now to pay for new gear later. It can reduce its ambitions by determining the U.S. military no longer needs to “defend the global commons.” Or, Kelly said, “If we don’t do any of those things, we have to make a decision to raise our risk calculus of a high likelihood of kinetic defeat. Basically, that’s the ‘lose’ aspect of General Brown’s ‘Accelerate Change or Lose.’”
The Air Force and the Defense Department in total will follow whatever direction they’re given, Kelly said. “If you don’t like change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more. And you’re going to outright hate a kinetic defeat.”