Thirty years pass in a flash. More than 80 percent of today’s Air Force was not born when Maj. Gregory “Beast” Feest, flying an F-117 Nighthawk, dropped the first bomb of Operation Desert Storm at 2:51 a.m. Baghdad time on Jan. 17, 1991.
U.S. and allied forces had spent five months building up to that moment, gathering a force of more than 500,000 in Saudi Arabia, and all the gear needed to house, feed, and support them. Another 200,000 supported the operation, whether in the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere in the Middle East. CNN was a new media sensation, sharing live daily briefings from the combined forces commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, on-the-scene reporting—and airing grainy, black-and-white videos showing bombs guided to their targets with stunning precision and devastating results.
Desert Storm was an air power triumph. In the face of one of the most sophisticated air defenses on the planet, the Air Force systematically degraded and destroyed Iraq’s ability and will to fight. Stealth, precision, and an effects-based air campaign designed by then-Lt. Col. Dave Deptula demonstrated a radical departure in the conduct of war. It enabled Feest and his fellow Nighthawk drivers to attack key targets throughout Iraq, while USAF’s then-modern fleet of F-16s, F-15Cs, F-15Es, and F-111s took out most everything else. Naval aviation contributed, but its air wings had been built for a different kind of combat and lacked the range and capability to be primary contributors; instead, Navy destroyers and submarines contributed Tomahawk cruise missiles to the precision attacks in the opening salvo.
This war justified the investments the Air Force made in the wake of painful losses in Vietnam:
- Precision-guided weapons to destroy targets with fewer aircraft
- Stealth to evade enemy defenses and proceed unhindered to well-defended targets
- Satellites for eyes-in-the-sky intelligence, targeting, and instant communications.
The Air Force paralyzed Saddam’s command and control and then destroyed the Iraqis’ intelligence capability, blinding them to the maneuvers of two U.S. Army corps that shifted to attack from the west, rather than the anticipated frontal assault in Kuwait. The much-anticipated tank battle was over in hours, and totally one-sided. So demoralized was the Iraqi army after six weeks of air assault that many couldn’t wait to surrender. After air power destroyed 50 percent of Iraq’s fielded forces, U.S. tanks engaged targets beyond their line of sight, while air attacks continued with greater ferocity. The highway to Baghdad became a shooting gallery from the air until President George H.W. Bush called off the rout.
The air, space, and cyber domains will take precedence over land and sea in future conflicts.
Troops came home to a victory parade in Washington, where America shed its collective embarrassment and guilt over the failures of the Vietnam war and the maltreatment of its unappreciated veterans. We lavished praise on the victors.
While Desert Storm was a turning point in the conduct of warfare, it was also the closing phase for forces built to fight the Cold War. Even before Desert Shield began, the Pentagon was planning a massive drawdown to shrink the military by some 25 percent. Desert Storm did nothing to slow that plan. Afterward, each of the services took deep force structure cuts and aging weapon systems were retired. As a reward for bankrupting the Soviet Union and its communist satellites in Eastern Europe, Americans sought a peace dividend in the form of a smaller defense budget.
Meanwhile, the first Gulf War’s unfinished business fell to the Air Force. Having left Saddam Hussein in power, U.S. forces imposed no-fly zones in both Northern and Southern Iraq, both to keep Saddam from attacking his own people and to ensure he didn’t seek revenge on his neighbors. Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch dragged on for years, even as the Air Force led NATO air campaigns in the Balkans, including the decisive air war that ended Slobodan Milosevic’s Kosovo war. When al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11/2001, the Air Force was still flying Northern and Southern Watch. Now, nearly two decades hence, USAF’s deployments to the region continue unabated, yet its force today is smaller and older—and poorly sized for a peer fight with the likes of China or Russia.
For all who care about national defense, this is a pending emergency. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s call to “Accelerate Change—Or Lose” is a rallying cry to get on with the transformation of the force that has been too long delayed. Modernization is not gilding the lily, but an imperative. America’s defense strategy has long assumed we could afford to have smaller forces than some rivals, so long as we ensured we are technologically superior. Force multipliers like precision, space, and stealth pay for themselves by enabling America to wage war with fewer, but more capable forces.
Here’s the rub: Our adversaries are not only larger today, they are growing more capable, developing means to counter our advantages in space and stealth. Where Americans, tired of a 19-year war that’s produced little for its trillion-dollar investment, crave another peace dividend, our adversaries perceive weakness. China sees America in decline, and its own ascendance as inevitable; Russia seeks to exploit a growing American preoccupation with the Pacific by growing more assertive in the Arctic and Europe.
Aerospace power is the root of our national defense and the key to our strategy to deter the aggression of others and to fight and win when needed. The speed, range, flexibility, precision, and lethality of our Air and Space Forces are unparalleled today, but their superiority is not guaranteed in the future and their margin of advantage is narrowing. The air, space, and cyber domains will take precedence over land and sea in future conflicts, and without air, space, and cyber, our land and sea forces can only be minimally effective, anyway.
Only months before Iraq launched its ill-fated invasion, the Air Force rolled out “Global Reach—Global Power,” a strategy paper that defined aerospace power and the advantages it brings in terms anyone could understand. It proved prescient for the combat that soon followed; it remains an effective argument today.
Our aerospace forces must accelerate change for a reason: to become faster, more agile, more flexible, and more precise—of course—but more importantly to retain global reach and global power. America will not prevail in any domain if it cedes its dominance of air, space, and cyberspace.