On this day in 1991, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm as the US along with other coalition countries began a massive bombing campaign against the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis had invaded the country of Kuwait during the summer of 1990 and the coalition began forming up to force Iraq to withdraw.
A day after the deadline set in United Nations Security Council Resolution 678, the coalition began a bombing campaign to destroy dug-in Iraqi forces, gain aerial superiority, and prepare for the eventual ground assault into Kuwait.
In less than a week, the Iraqi air force was swept from the skies, most of their air defenses were smashed and their ground forces became easy targets for coalition aircraft and smart bombs. By the time the air campaign ended on February 23, the Iraqi army in Kuwait was softened up so much, the ground offensive began and the coalition units sliced thru the Iraqi defenses.
The coalition air forces had nearly a 4-1 advantage and 1800 of the 2250 aircraft belonged to the U.S. Iraq had 934 aircraft but only slightly more than half (550) were operational.
Opening Moves: The air phase of Desert Storm began shortly after 0230 on 17 January when Army Apache helicopters and Air Force Pave Low helicopters blasted Iraqi radar sites that would warn the Iraqis of an impending air strike. By identifying and knocking the radar sites along the Saudi Arabian border, the coalition had a narrow corridor to fly in. As the choppers finished their destruction of the radar sites, the pilots reported seeing an almost traffic jam of coalition jets pouring thru the gap.
The initial strikes were conducted by Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, and “Wild Weasel” aircraft targeting the Iraqi radar and anti-aircraft sites. That was followed by a massive bombing of command and control bunkers, Scud missile launch pads and equipment storage areas, communications and radio facilities, and Iraqi airfields. Within the first 24 hours, coalition aircraft flew 2775 sorties.
Iraqi air defense systems, installed by the Russian military were very ineffective. In over 100,000 sorties flown, only 75 aircraft were lost. And of those only 42 were shot down, the other 33 were lost due to accidents. Since Iraqi commanders were strongly discouraged from independent action, all of their orders came down from Saddam Hussein’s headquarters. So the coalition began the systematic elimination of all command and control facilities.
Iraqi Air Force High Tails It to Iran, Its Enemy: Iraq’s Air Force had several modern aircraft from the Russians as well as the French Mirage F-1 fighters. They exhibited little stomach to meet the coalition fighters who had air combat control with AWACs. Whenever they did attempt to mix it up, they were swept from the sky. In the first week of the campaign, Iraq lost 38 aircraft shot down.
Saddam Hussein decided to save his Air Force for another day and rather than slug it out with the coalition, he contacted one of his neighbors to stash his aircraft away from the coalition. Most expected it to be Jordan, who was close to the Iraqis. In fact, the coalition was prepared for this and set up blocking positions to stop Iraqi planes from going there.
But Hussein contacted his archenemy, Iran to store his aircraft. Of course, the Iranians accepted and Iraq’s aircraft began pouring into Iran’s airspace. About 140 aircraft landed on Iranian airfields, the same ones who fought a bloody war against Iraq in the 1980s.
But the Iranians, true to form, were not to be trusted. They kept the Iraqi aircrews interned for several years. And the aircraft, they kept sequestered for more than 20 years. They released only 88 aircraft and not until 2014.
SCUD Hunting: The coalition dedicated a large number of their strike aircraft, nearly a third, to hunting Iraq’s mobile rocket launchers, the SCUDs. Iraq attempted to break apart the coalition by launching SCUD missiles at Israel. The hope was that Israel would respond and that would cause a rift between the US and the Arab coalition countries. Although Israel’s policy is to respond in kind, the diplomatic efforts by the U.S. convinced them not to attack.
But as an assurance, the coalition had to put a huge effort into spotting and eliminating the SCUDs which were killing Israeli citizens. Besides aircraft, Special Operations Forces including Delta Force, Navy Seals, and British SAS forces scoured the desert and fixed many mobile rocket launchers before they could attack.
Iraqi Infrastructure Wiped Out: In just a few short weeks, the coalition air forces destroyed the vast majority of Iraq’s infrastructure. At the beginning of the war, Iraq had 20 major power stations providing electricity to its citizens. During the bombing campaign, 11 of those were completely destroyed and another half dozen was damaged, while 119 substations were destroyed. As a result, only 4 percent of the electricity production from the start of the war was still operational.
Coalition bombing destroyed all of the major dams, most major pumping stations, and many sewage treatment plants, telecommunications equipment, port facilities, oil refineries and distribution centers, railroads, and bridges.
No help would be forthcoming from the Jordanians. All of the major bridges linking the two countries were bombed.
Losses: The coalition air forces lost a total of 75 aircraft. Of these 52 were fixed wing and 23 helicopters. Only one was shot down in air-to-air combat. Of those 44, 39 fixed wing and 5 helicopters were lost in combat. Iraq aircraft losses totaled 259 which 105 were lost in combat. An additional 68 fixed wing and 13 helicopters were destroyed on the ground. And 137 were interned in Iran and not returned.
This set the stage for supporting the ground troops and the close air support of the coalition air forces pounded the Iraqi army positions. In some instances, entire Iraqi brigades dug into defensive positions were annihilated in place by bombing in the desert that offered no cover or concealment.
In late February, the Iraqis attempted to flee Kuwait in every manner of vehicle carrying all of the loot they could carry. This massive traffic jam was bombed and strafed by ground attack aircraft in an area that became known as the “Highway of Death.”
Not long after, President Bush ordered the cessation of combat operations. The first Gulf War was over. And the air forces were the main players in the destruction of Iraq’s military.
Photos Courtesy: DOD/Wikipedia