Everyone witnessed the success of the coalition Air Forces in Operation Desert Storm. From the early hours over Baghdad to the final minutes in Kuwait City, the United States Air Force proved it is the world’s best. This effort did not just happen. It was the result of a concerted effort over the past twenty years — twenty years of hard work and commitment to excellence. Quality people, quality equipment, quality training and quality leadership created this force and assured Air Force success during Operation Desert Storm. Environmental impacts — heat, sand and fine dust— were less significant than anticipated. Aircraft, weapons, and ground and aircrews performed and survived even better than predicted. Motivated people proved that flexibility is the key to airpower. Ingenuity, cooperation with industry, and reliable weapons systems enhanced that flexibility. This report captures the flavor of USAF system and personnel performance in Desert Storm. It highlights the performance of a cross section of resources from combat aircraft and combat support to the role of Air Force engineers, logisticians, and space assets. It is not a comprehensive report on capabilities, but an initial report of how the “1100 hour war in the desert” was won.
Much of the prewar debate centered around whether the military had the right doctrine, was buying the right equipment, and could operate effectively in a coalition force. Desert Storm showed that Air Force equipment and doctrine were up to the task. It also demonstrated the U.S. Air Force could integrate ef- fectively into what was the largest coalition air effort since World War II. In this integrated air campaign, coalition air forces quickly gained and maintained air superiority. This achievement opened opportunities for coalition forces to employ the versatility of airpower to meet other military objectives. Airpower destroyed the Iraqi Integrated Air Defense system and those Iraqi pilots who chose to fly. After gaining air superiority, coalition forces proceeded to destroy the strategic industrial and military targets which keep a military running. Electricity, oil, communications, supply depots and transportation nodes are vital to any nation’s ability to use military power. As these strategic targets were destroyed, coalition air forces focused their fire power on enemy forces on the battlefield. The destruction of bridges, tanks, artillery, and other military hardware in the Kuwait Theater of Operations (KTO) demonstrated of how effectively this can be done with modern airpower.
Without air superiority, the full spectrum of airpower could not have been applied against the right targets to avoid casualties and leverage our high-tech advantages. Employing a single Air Tasking Order, CINCCENTCOM selectively employed his best platforms, armed with the most effective munition to attack the target. He used every joint and coalition asset to accomplish the war objectives. Desert Storm revalidated many doctrinal precepts. This war proved U.S. military forces had the quality people, equipment, leadership and training required to fight and win. By employing assets in a well-conceived plan, Desert Storm was won and Kuwait was again free.
As was demonstrated, airpower offers the ability to quickly and quietly respond to any crisis. F-15s were sitting alert, ready to ny defensive patrols along the Iraqi-Saudl border, 7000 miles from their departure bases within 38 hours of notification to deploy. Within five days strategic airlift moved five fighter squadrons, a contingent of AWACS, and an 82 ABN Brigade to the CENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR). Within 35 days, the Coalition Air Forces had a fighter force that equalled Iraq’s fighter capability. The global reach of the Air Force allowed the United States to mass its military power rapidly and to immediately project combat power in this part of the world. Once combat power was in place, it could either defend friendly areas or attack an adversary.
The Air Force flew over 65,000 sorties during Operation Desert Storm and accounted for 31 of 35 kills against fixed wing aircraft. It’s estimated that during the Air Campaign, coalition forces destroyed over 400 Iraqi aircraft, including 122 that flew to Iran, without a single loss in air-to-air combat. The Air Force flew 59% of all sorties, with 50% of the assets and incurred only 38 % of the losses. The mission capable rate for Air Force aircraft was 92 % — higher than our peacetime rate.
F-117 Before CNN’s initial reports of the air war over Baghdad, the F-117 was a stellar performer. Dropping the first bomb of the war on an air defense control center, the F-117 provided us the advantage of surprise. Often the Iraqis would not start shooting until the bombs exploded. With the ability to cruise to the target, identify it before surface threats became active, and hit it with precision, the F-117 was an extraordinary fighter-bomber. Although it represented only 2.5% of the shooters in theater that first day, it hit over 31 % of the targets. During the war, it flew almost 1,300 combat sorties, dropped over 2,000 tons of bombs, flew over 6,900 hours and demonstrated accuracy unmatched in the history of air warfare. The value of the F-117 was that it combined stealth technology and precision delivery. With the use of tactical surprise, the F-117 helped assure air superiority over the Iraqi skies as it destroyed command and control capabilities, the Iraqi Integrated Air Defense System, aircraft shelters, and valuable strategic targets in Baghdad and Iraq. Baghdad was more heavily defended than the most highly defended Warsaw Pact sites in Eastern Europe during the height of the Cold War. The F-117 was the only aircraft to operate in this environment over downtown Baghdad. Precision delivery assured the F-117 could destroy those targets in a single mission with great lethality. Despite its heavy use, the F-117 had a mission capable rate of 85.8% for the war— 4% higher than in peacetime.
F-15 During Desert Shield, F-15s provided the defensive umbrella that permitted the deployment of air, land and sea assets into the AOR. After D-Day, they shifted to offensive counterair attacks against Iraqi Air Force and helped gain air supremacy within the first ten days of the war. Every Iraqi fixed wing aircraft destroyed in air-to-air combat by the Air Force was a “kill” for the Eagle. Their success permitted coalition air forces to exploit the versatility of airpower over the entire battlefield. The 120 F-15 C/Ds deployed to the Gulf flew over 5,900 sorties and maintained a 94% mission capable rate — 8% higher than in peacetime.
F-1 5 E Forty-eight of these multi-role fighters were deployed to the Gulf. The F-15E’s flexibillty was the key to its success. The F-15E proved its versatility by hunting SCUD missiles at night, employing laser systems to hit hard targets and attack armored vehicles, tanks and artillery. It proved unusually effective with the Joint Surveillance Target and Attack Radar System (JSTARS) for cueing on SCUD locations and using Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night System (LANTIRN) to locate and destroy the missiles and launchers. Its overall mission capable rate was 95.9% — 8% higher than in peacetime. These aircraft deployed with LANTIRN navigation pods (permits accurate navigation at night across featureless terrain to the target area without the need for active navigation aids). Subsequently the targeting pods were deployed. During Desert Storm, the F-15E accomplished Operational Test and Evaluation of the LANTIRN system with spectacular results. Their primary targets were SCUDs, command and control links, armor, airfields and road interdiction. While flying over 2,200 sorties, only two were lost in combat.
A -1 0 The Air Force deployed 144 A-10s into the AOR. Air superiority allowed innovative employment of A-10s in a variety of roles. Primarily killing tanks in an interdiction role, the A-10 proved its versatility as a daytime SCUD hunter In Western Iraq, suppressing enemy air defenses, attacking early warning radars, and even recorded two helicopter kills with its gun — the only gun kills of the war. While the A-10 flew almost 8,100 sorties, it maintained a mission capable rate of 95.7 % — 5 % above its peacetime rates. Despite numerous hits and extensive damage, the A-10 proved it could do a variety of missions successfully.
F-111 Turning in an outstanding performance, the F-111 again proved itself to be a workhorse not only in the interdiction and strategic attack roles but across the spectrum of ground attack missions. With its FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) and laser designation system, the F-111F attacked key military production facilities; chemical, biological, and nuclear sites; airfields, bunkers, C3 assets, and portions of the integrated air defense system with great success. Attacking bridges, hardened aircraft shelters, and individual tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery, it was a stellar performer. In what became known as “tank plinking” the F-111s were credited with over 1500 verified armor kills. In over 4,000 sorties, the 84 deployed F-111s had a mission capable rate of over 85% — approximately 8% higher than peacetime rates. One Wing Commander reported that his unit flew over 2100 sorties with no maintenance non-delivers. These platforms delivered the precision munitions on the manifolds which stopped the oil Saddam was dumping into the Gulf. Overall, the F-111 proved to be a versatile, precise, survivable platform which made significant contributions to the success of the air war.
Electronic Combat With EF-111s Ravens and F-4Gs Wild Weasels, the Air Force blinded Iraq’s Integrated Air Defense System. The 18 EF-111s in the AOR flew over 900 sorties with a mission capable rate of 87.5 %; and the 48 F-4Gs flew over 2,500 sorties with a 87 % mission capable rate. Because the Iraqis feared the F-4G and its HARM missile, they made brief, limited and ineffective use of their radars. When they did choose to operate these radars, the effective jamming of the EF-111 negated their ability to track, acquire, and target attacking aircraft. Every day the Weasels and Ravens supported shooters as they attacked their targets in Iraq and the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO). One sign of their success was that after day four, all allied aircraft operated with impunity in the mid to high altitude environment across the AOR. By decreasing the threat of SAMs to our strike aircraft, EF-111s and F-4Gs permitted aircraft to deliver their weapons from an environment where they can be very lethal.
F-16 The F-16 Fighting Falcon proved itself to be a versatile platform which can attack targets day or night— in good or bad weather. Two hundred and forty-nine F-16s were deployed to the Gulf. These aircraft flew almost 13,500 sorties — the highest sortie total for any system in the war — and maintained a 95.2% mission capable rate — 5 % above its peacetime rate. F-16s attacked ground elements in the KTO, flew SCUD missions, and destroyed interdiction targets, such as military production and support and chemical production facilities, and airfields. The 72 LANTIRN capable (Navigation pods only) F-16s were a real success story. LANTIRN’s mission capable rate was over 98%. Past emphasis on reliability and maintainability paid dividends here.
B-52 The role of the large conventional bomber was revalidated in the Gulf War. B-52s flew 1,624 missions, dropped over 72,000 weapons, and delivered over 25,700 tons of munitions on area targets In the KTO, and on airfields, industrial targets, troop concentrations and storage areas in Iraq. Despite being over 30 years old, the B-52 had a mission capable rate of over 81%— 2 % higher than its peacetime rate. B-52s dropped 29 % of all US bombs and 38 % of all Air Force bombs during the war. Through effectivee modification of the B-52, it remains a useful platform. As Iraqi prisoners report, B-52 raids had devastating effects on enemy morale. Estimates show that from 20 to 40 % of troop strength had deserted their units prior to the G-Day. While fighters employed precision guided munitions to destroy pinpoint targets, the B-52s successes demonstrated the need to preserve the large conventional bombers’ ability to destroy large area targets.
Special Operations Elements of all AFSOC units deployed to Desert Storm and performed a variety of missions, including infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of Special Forces Teams on direct action missions; rescue of downed crew members; psychological operations (PSYOPS) broadcasts; dropping 15,000 pound bombs; and supporting counterterrorlst missions. Over 50 SOF assets were deployed, including helicopters and AC/EC/MC/HC130s. These assets flew over 830 missions to support CENTCOM. SOF crews recovered downed crew members and provided valuable target identification and human Intelligence (HUMINT) work. MH-53J Pave Lows also acted as a pathfinder for the Army Apaches that attacked the radars in Iraq during the first hours of the war. One AC-130 was lost during the war.
The individual performance of Air Force aircraft was overshadowed by the people who fly and maintain these aircraft. Their accomplishments reflect the pride, professionalism, and skill of a well trained force which had the right equipment to counter modern battlefield threats and was led by leaders who understand how to employ those forces. This coupling of quality equipment and well trained people led by visionary leaders who understand how to apply airpower is the real success story of Desert Storm.
Munitions and Missiles
Aircraft get you to the target area, but effective munitions destroy the targets. Vital centers of industrial power were vulnerable to pinpoint attacks. Military equipment and infrastructure were destroyed across the width, depth and breadth of the battlefield with impunity and at a time of our choosing. Once air superiority was gained, every sanctuary and every prerogative was vulnerable to airpower. The success of the F-117 during the first few hours to blind and incapacitate the Iraqi military was the death knell In this war.
Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) Denying the enemy sanctuary has always been a goal of airpower, and magnifies the effectiveness of an air campaign. U.S. pilots used 7,400 tons of precision munitions with deadly effectiveness. Approximately 90% were dropped by the Air Force. F-111s employed GBU-12s to destroy over 150 armored vehicles 8 night during the last few weeks of the war.
F-117s used GBU-27s to hit hard targets such as aircraft shelters, bunkers, and other strategic targets in Baghdad. F-111s and F-l5Es used GBU-24s to destroy chemical, biological and nuclear storage areas, bridges, aircraft shelters and other strategic targets.
Precision munitions highlight the lethality of modern airpower. On several occasions, a two-ship of F-l5Es with 16 bombs destroyed 16 tanks. When one bomb equals one shelter or a tank— the message quickly spread that every sanctuary had been eliminated by airpower. After the commencement of the shelter campaign, Iraqi pilots voted with their afterburners to get out of the war. But, not every target requires a precision weapon. The ability to use the right weapon on the correct target shaped the outcome of the air war. When it was important to avoid collateral damage, civilian casualties, or to directly hit a target, PGMs were the right choice. F-117 attacks over Baghdad demonstrated the ability to precisely kill military targets while minimizing civilian casualties.
M a v e r i c k The Maverick missile, used by the F-16 and A-10, attacked armored targets. This missile has continually been upgraded to handle new threats and targets. The imaging infrared radar (IIR) Maverick’s performance was crucial in the armor war. Since it only took one missile to destroy each Iraqi tank, a $70,000 Maverick equated to a $1.5 million T-72 tank. It is important to note that Iraq had more tanks than Germany and Great Britain combined. It was the fourth largest army in the world. Maverick, an older system which had been continually modified to keep pace with modern war, played a large part in the destruction of that significant military force.
AIM-7 / AIM-9 The AIM-7 proved to be an effective air-to-air weapon. Twenty-two enemy fixed wing aircraft were downed by AIM-7s. Through an aggressive product improvement program, the AIM-7 has become a more lethal weapon with a bigger launch envelope. The AIM-9 destroyed six enemy fixed-wing aircraft, and worked as advertised. High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) Its hard to assess the success of the HARM missile due to the Iraqi tactics used to counter it. The Iraqis understood that if a radar went on, a HARM was on its way. This deterrent kept them from using their operable radars and control centers. Throughout the war, surface-to air missile (SAM) sites would turn off their radars after launching missiles, leaving SAMs unguided as they flew toward their targets. Lethal SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) permitted us to operate from the mid to high altitude where aircraft were beyond anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) range.
Deployment, Sustainment and Resupply Efforts
Airlift, tanker support, prepositioning of supplies, and a large, modern, base infrastructure permitted movement of forces into the AOR, and provided the ability to operate quickly from Saudi Arabia. These forces assured we had the “global reach” and support to exercise “global power.”
Strategic Airlift Desert Storm was the largest airlift since World War II. Airlifters moved combat forces half way around the world. By the cease fire, airlift had moved over 482,000 passengers and 513,000 tons of cargo Into the AOR— the equivalent of moving Oklahoma City, all of its people, all of its vehicles, all of its food, and all of its household goods halfway around the world.
Air Force C-5s and C-141s, moved 72% of the air cargo and about one-third of the people while commercial augmentation moved the rest. C-5s were 90% and C-141s 80% committed to Desert Storm. The remainder of Air Force airlift flew other high priority DOD missions to the rest of the world. This operation was the first time in Its 38 year history that the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) was activated. On 18 August, the first stage of CRAF, 18 passenger and 23 cargo aircraft, was activated. When fighting commenced, the second stage, 77 passenger and 40 additional cargo aircraft, were activated. These commercial carriers provided additional airlift capacity needed to meet CENTCOM’s requirements. These commercial aircraft carried the majority of the troops to the AOR.
Strategic airlift forces have been going at full speed since Desert Storm started and will continue until our forces are redeployed home. Airlifters with Airlift Control Elements were the first to land in the Arabian Peninsula and will be the last to leave. Many of these people are Guardsmen and Reservists who have twice demonstrated their patriotism during the past 18 months—in Panama and now the Arabian Peninsula.
Air Refueling The rapid deployment of fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia resulted from Air Force tanker capability. Within 38 hours of the deployment notice, the first F-15 aircraft had landed in Saudi Arabia and were ready to defend the Persian Gulf area. The Strategic Air Command deployed 256 KC-135s and 46 KC-10s into the AOR during the war. In Desert Shield, tankers flew 4,967 sorties and 19,089 hours, refueled 14,588 receivers, including 5,495 Navy and Marine aircraft, and offloaded 68.2 million gallons of fuel. Tankers surpassed this effort during the six weeks of Desert Storm when they flew 15,434 sorties, logged 59,943 hours, refueled 45,955 aircraft and offloaded 110.2 million gallons of fuel. Approximately 20% was used for Navy and Marine receivers. Every aircraft —fighter, bomber, airlift, AWACS, or JSTARS — and every service and some allies used Air Force tankers to do their mission. One F-15 pilot commented about tanker accessibility: “There was more gas in the sky over Saudi than in the ground below” — a testimony to the tanker force. No other nation has such a capability.
Prepositioning and Base Infrastructure Saudi Host Nation Support was superb. During the past decade, whole bases were built, stocked and prepared for war. These locations made it easy for forces to quickly move from a deployment phase to full combat operations. The Gulf Cooperation Council provided fuel and many other materials. In other locations, the Air Force operated from open runaways. There, civil engineers literally built cities on the sand. During the past decade, the Air Force developed tents, hospitals, supply areas, ramps and other base essentials had been developed as modular buildings. This investment guaranteed operation from austere locations anywhere around the globe. Afloat and ashore preposittoning included bare base and fuels equipment, supplies, vehicles, and munitions which were required to sustain and project Desert Storm forces. These suppiles saved an estimated 1,800 airlift missions to the AOR and provided prepositioning of supplies and base infrastructure for 21 principal airfields.
Article originally appeared on front line