Flexibility in the Storm

Jan. 27, 2016

Ninety-nine percent strength.

That’s how Army Lt. Gen. John J. Yeosock, commander, Army Forces Central Command (ARCENT), assessed the fighting ability of Saddam Hussein’s six elite Republican Guard divisions on Jan. 29, 1991.

Operation Desert Storm had been underway for two weeks. Air superiority was well in hand. The coalition commander, Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, expected air attacks to attrit the Iraqi army to 50 percent strength or below before he began the ground attack.

“Our strategy all along was to hit tanks and artillery because that was how they could inflict casualties,” recalled Gen. Charles A. Horner, who as a lieutenant general was the combined force air component commander.

According to the Army, it wasn’t happening. Yeosock’s alarming briefing came in spite of the fact that F-16s had flown 4,500 sorties and B-52 heavy bombers added 360 sorties over those very same forces. How deep did the problem go

“I could see from the pilot reports and cockpit video that it wasn’t all a feedback problem,” acknowledged Brig. Gen. Buster C. Glosson, who was dual-hatted as director of campaign plans and commander of all USAF fighter units in the battle. “Our pilots were not attriting the fielded forces as efficiently as I wanted.”

February 1991 was crunch time. In the third week of the war, the air component would cope with Scuds, a ground attack at Khafji, unexpected weather delays, all while attriting the enemy ground forces. The next several days would make or break the role of airpower against Iraq’s army in this campaign.

Plan A

Schwarzkopf had already put his trust in the air component. Operation Desert Storm began on Jan. 17, 1991, with a four-phase plan. Gaining air superiority was Phase One. Phase Two extended superiority across the Kuwait theater of operations while in Phase Three coalition airpower hammered the Iraqi army. The Republican Guard was hit from night one.

“Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple,” Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared at a press conference on Jan. 23. “First we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”

By design, Phase Three’s attacks on Iraq army targets were not as tightly choreographed as the first few days of the air war. The segmented plan concentrated first on offensive counter air, command and control, and other strategic target sets. Planners estimated they would need two weeks for those targets before shifting emphasis to Iraq’s fielded forces.

Likewise, Schwarzkopf set no firm date for ground attack in Phase Four. All depended on the pace and results of the air campaign.

But the January weather was slowing everything down. Crews started aborting missions due to impaired bombing conditions. On some days “as many as half of the sorties did not attack or missed their assigned targets because of poor weather,” found the Air Force’s 1993 Gulf War Air Power Survey. At this rate, it would take much more time to phase the effort toward ground force attacks.

The bad weather of the air campaign was an ugly surprise to crews accustomed to the dry desert weather. “During training for the air campaign, skies remained clear for weeks at a time,” noted GWAPS. Planners expected January and February to bring two-day, passing weather fronts followed by three to five days of clear weather. Instead, “the weather fronts came and stayed.”

“This was the worst weather in 14 years,” commented Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak.

Weather updates became central to the joint force air component commander’s staff’s decisions on canceling sorties or pushing ahead. “The decision to load TV guided Maverick missiles, for instance, depended on the forecast of optical slant ranges: Could the pilot see through the haze with his Maverick so he could lock the missile onto the target?” recounted Horner in his Gulf War memoir.

The weather aborts piled up a backlog of strategic targets just as Schwarzkopf wanted to ramp up attacks on Iraqi army targets. Ground commanders for the two US Army corps estimated it would take about 10 days of intensive air strikes to whittle down Iraqi tanks, artillery, and other front-line equipment. They “became increasingly concerned that they would be ordered into battle with their battlefield unprepared,” wrote Richard M. Swain, 3rd Army historian.

The US Central Command deputy commander in chief, Army Lt. Gen. Calvin A. Waller, quickly became a focal point for complaints about the air strikes. “I started receiving a lot of phone calls from commanders saying when are we going to do more to shape the battlefield?” Waller recalled for the PBS program “Frontline.”

“The ground forces commanders were very concerned that the targets out to their immediate front were not being hit with the frequency that they felt … would soften up or destroy these targets so it would make their job easier to breach the enemy lines and to reach their objectives,” he said.

Waller was unsympathetic about the weather. He couldn’t understand why the air component kept changing sorties as it struggled to check off strategic targets and keep the heat on the Republican Guard. Adding to the pressure, key bomb-droppers like the F-15Es were diverted to hunt for Scud missile launch sites.

According to Waller, that pressure boiled over. “Buster, if you change one more target without my approval I’m going to choke your tongue out,” Waller said to Glosson in a fit of exasperation one day.

Glosson was unperturbed. “You either try to compensate, or you just cancel everything and wait for another day,” he explained later. “I wasn’t about to do the latter.”

Killer Scouts

The air component was already making changes to improve tactical effectiveness. Two February fixes helped put Phase Three of the campaign back on track. They were Killer Scouts and tank plinking. Glosson’s objective was to “make sure that we destroyed as much as we could” and “make the ground effort as close to a police action as we possibly could.”

Glosson had asked for a handful of officers from the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB, Nev. Leaving the Las Vegas desert for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the “Nellis brain trust” was led by Lt. Col. Clyde “Joe Bob” Phillips. Glosson later described Phillips as “probably the best natural aviator” he’d ever known, with a sideline as a bright tactical thinker. His job was to get battlefield attrition in the Kuwait theater of operations back on track.

Phillips and his team brought recommendations forward to Glosson on Feb. 3.

“We need to go to FACs,” Phillips told Glosson. The forward air controller or FAC concept worked in Vietnam. Pilots in slower OV-10s and “Fast FACs” in fighters such as the F-100 looked for emerging targets, then directed other airborne aircraft to strike.

Glosson liked the idea of designating fighters to locate targets and direct the attacks on Republican Guard units in Kuwait. As he recalled, the post-Vietnam air force was once full of pilots who knew the airborne FAC job. But were there any in the Gulf now

The Air Staff ran a check for pilots in theater with forward air control experience. One squadron of F-16s, the 4th TFS, had “16 pilots with FAC experience, A-10 close air support experience, or both,” wrote then-Lt. Col. Mark A. Welsh III in “Day of the Killer Scouts” for this magazine in April 1993. As it turned out, F-16 pilots also wanted a better solution. The 388th Fighter Wing sent a message to US Central Command Air Forces (CENTAF) on Feb. 3 requesting “an airborne platform be stationed in the second echelon area to validate air tasking order targets and find new targets if required.”

To implement the concept for Operation DesertStorm, Glosson’s staff first laid a grid over the battlefield dividing it into 30-mile blocks, then subdividing each into kill boxes measuring 15 miles by 15 miles. The bulk of Iraq’s army clustered in nine of the 30-mile boxes spanning Kuwait and the northwestern borders with Iraq.

The bulk of Iraq’s army clustered in nine kill boxes spanning Kuwait and the northwestern borders with Iraq. The Republican Guard divisions ringed the northern kill boxes. Most held elements of multiple divisions. Kill Box AE6 held the Tawakalna Republican Guard Division, 52nd Armored, and 12th Armored. Kill Box AF7 perched on Iraq’s border with Kuwait contained parts of four different Republican Guard divisions.

At dawn on Feb. 4 the first of eight new Killer Scouts—call sign Pointer —began one-hour orbits over the Republican Guard.

The forward air controllers would fly over their assigned box or boxes, spot Iraqi equipment, drop a marker bomb, then call in fresh fighters to follow up with more bombs. F-16s with new Global Positioning System units could pinpoint coordinates. In this concept, the same pilots would fly over familiar kill boxes each day. They’d learn the status and terrain and report back with accurate bomb damage.

Killer Scouts worked in pairs with the flight lead marking a target with bombs. Wingmen in fluid tactical formation flew cover. Typical missions featured three one-hour time on station blocks and four in-flight refuelings adding up to over five hours in the air. Killer Scouts first worked multiple kill boxes, then came to concentrate on single boxes or even sectors. AWACS and tankers passed them updated targets.

Killer Scouts concentrated on hitting back at random Iraqi SAM launches, too. Both SAM launches and anti-aircraft artillery fire in the KTO decreased.

Air also responded through the TACC. Sorties could be diverted to emerging targets. Fortunately, “the tactical air control system designed to do the defensive close support job [during a Soviet attack] could also move ahead easily to support coalition ground forces,” stated the Gulf War Air Power Survey.

Tank Plinking

Horner and Glosson had another spectacular tactic. “The No. 1 shortfall at this juncture: attriting tanks,” Glosson jotted in his diary. “Killer Scouts will help, but significant change will require F-111 and F-15E success with GBU-12.”

Try 500-pound laser guided bombs against Iraqi tanks, Phillips recommended. This tactic had also been successfully tried out late in the Vietnam War. By placing a laser spot on an enemy tank, a bomb equipped with a laser-homing guidance system could drill in on the laser dot and hit with great precision.

The F-111F swing-wing fighter-bomber had just such a system called Pave Tack. A pod projected a laser beam. A guidance kit on the Mk 82 500-pound bomb followed the laser-designated spot on the target. According to Horner, some US units had already practiced the technique during the fall.

The F-111Fs tried the first laser tank plinking mission on Feb. 5. Their targets were in the Medina Division of the Republican Guard. Col. Tom Lennon, the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing commander, flew the mission himself on Glosson’s orders.

“Unbelievable,” Lennon reported back. “I got seven out of eight hits.”

By late February, the F-111Fs were achieving up to 150 armor kills per night. At their peak the F-111Fs were destroying Iraqi armor seven times faster than the A-10s. Iraq’s 52nd Armored Division lost 77 vehicles in a matter of hours.

Not that the Army was buying into the concept. “It took several days of pressuring CENTCOM and ARCENT staffs and showing F-111F video film of exploding tanks and artillery before ARCENT agreed to count the BDA,” wrote Col. Richard B. H. Lewis, one of Glosson’s planners, in a postwar study for the US Army War College.

Better bomb damage assessment was part of the fix. Overhead imagery picked up the destruction wrought by air attacks. Twelve U-2s based at Taif, Saudi Arabia, flew nightly missions lasting 11 hours and more.

“From our altitude, at night, we had a box seat to watch some of the most phenomenal light shows ever produced—the war,” recalled Capt. Stephen I. Feldman, a U-2 aircraft commander, for the book Airpower in the Gulf.

U-2s flew specific routes producing crisp wide area pictures of the destruction of the battlefield. “Sometimes, we would be called on the radio to do some spur of the moment BDA,” Feldman added.

The U-2 and satellite overhead imagery showed tanks with tracks or turrets blown off. Soon imagery also showed Iraqi tank crews sleeping away from their tanks in fear of the deadly accurate attacks.

During the Iran-Iraq War, “my tank was my friend because I could sleep in it,” one prisoner of war explained later. “During this war my tank became my enemy. … None of my troops would get near a tank at night because they just kept blowing up.”

“If anything, the psychological impact of tank plinking was more important than the sheer physical destruction,” summed up McPeak. “Previously, tank crews assumed that if they came under air attack, they could dig in and make it expensive in airplanes. … Now, Iraqi soldiers simply abandoned armored vehicles, distancing themselves from their equipment.”

Even Waller applauded the tank plinking. “I was elated because I said now finally we are providing the ground commanders with something that they sorely need to reduce the number of tanks that they’re going to be faced with.”

Officials verified over 1,500 F-111 tank and armored vehicle kills, wrote USAF historian Richard P. Hallion.

Appeasing the Army

By early February, the trend in armor attrition was headed in the right direction. The Republican Guard was down to 84 percent strength on Feb. 6.

Educating ground commanders on the overall effects proved another difficult task.

Part of it was a problem of perspective. Initial target lists came from the two Army corps in theater. Schwarzkopf directed his Army, Marine Corps, and Gulf ally commanders to list targets for air strikes needed in their sectors to execute their ground scheme of maneuver. They approached their target nominations by looking at what lay in front of troops in their sector.

VII Corps planners “worked this list hard, both because they believed it was their duty and responsibility and because they believed air would be wasted going after targets that didn’t matter to the real war if they didn’t,” Horner concluded.

No one disputed the Army’s expertise in generating targets. Counter-battery-radar and putting together the Iraqi order of battle were Army skills.

However, Horner and his staff grew frustrated when targets sent forward to the air planners turned out to be based on faulty intelligence that was days or weeks old. Air strikes couldn’t hit Army-nominated targets if they weren’t there.

Other times, Schwarzkopf’s priorities didn’t align with those of Lt. Gen. Frederick M. Franks Jr. at VII Corps or Lt. Gen. Gary E. Luck at XVIIIth Airborne Corps. By definition, these commanders did not have the same theaterwide responsibilities and perspective as Schwarzkopf.

Nor were they expected to take into account each other’s priorities. Schwarzkopf was the only one with a full view on priorities and tasking to the air component.

Artillery targets were a prime example. Major Iraqi units loomed in front of VII Corps commanded by Franks. His force numbered 146,000 American and British soldiers organized in five armored divisions—a force roughly equivalent to Patton’s army in Europe in World War II.

Given Franks’ plan to breach the lines, he was most concerned with when air attacks would hit artillery and other targets near the front lines. What “got me heated up prior to … the ground campaign,” Franks told “Frontline,” “was my lack of success in getting the air that was forming in the VII Corps sector to attack artillery within range of the breach.”

Schwarzkopf had different priorities. Artillery was being hit, but another surge would come later. “Artillery had to wait because it was so easy to replace,” Glosson wrote later. “If we destroyed it too early, there was a good chance the Iraqis could go back into other areas in the northern part of Iraq and around Baghdad and pull new artillery down toward Kuwait.”

In comparison, Luck’s XVIIIth Airborne Corps had fewer Iraqi forces to face as it wheeled toward Basra. “I never got the impression he felt he was going to need any significant help,” observed Horner.

Equally important was digging in to why the Army assessed so little progress had been made. It turned out ARCENT was at first counting only reports from A-10 pilots. They’d literally discarded the impact of 15 days of bombing from F-16s and B-52s—strikes from any platform other than the A-10.

The air component began keeping a spreadsheet tracking attrition. Army ground liaison officers checked each equipment kill. Rules remained conservative with some counts crediting one-half or even one-third of a kill per sortie.

100 Final Hours

Even with ground officers keeping the scoresheet, the air war made fast progress in February. By G-Day, the Republican Guard was assessed at 66 percent strength while the enemy in the KTO was rated at 63 percent overall.

Coalition forces began the Phase Four ground attack at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24, 1991. Rain, fog, and wind created miserable conditions. Burning oil fires added smoke and gloom. Despite a few memorable skirmishes, they found the Iraqi army broken, just as Schwarzkopf intended. Coalition ground forces were soon racing ahead of schedule.

“The Army’s speed of movement during the ground assault meant that forward units could move up to 20 miles in a single hour,” wrote Welsh. Direct radio communications between Killer Scouts and ground units massed aerial firepower and “gave the ground commander a readily available source of real-time intelligence along his line of advance.”

JSTARS detected Iraqis beginning to flee north on the night of Feb. 25. Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait City stole Mercedes autos, limousines, trucks, and even school buses and fled toward the causeway at Basra. Coalition airpower struck the retreating invaders. “The wreckage was still smoldering four days later,” wrote P. J. O’Rourke in Give War a Chance.

It wasn’t only the sheer numbers of equipment lost. Each plinked tank also punctured the cohesion of that fighting unit. Concluded Horner: “There is powerful evidence from the 88,000 POWs that air’s most significant impact on Iraqi fighting strength was the destruction of morale.”

Overall numbers devoted to attriting the ground forces told the same tale. The Gulf War Air Power Survey listed 31,578 sorties handled by the Kuwait Cell, more than three times the number of the strategic cell. Horner described this Phase Four ground attack as “the 10 percent war “ because its 100 hours roughed out to about a tenth of the total time of Operation Desert Storm.

It was, concluded McPeak, perhaps the first time in history that an army had been defeated by airpower.

Rebecca Grant is president of IRIS Independent Research. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “Comms Through the Aerial Layer” in December 2015.