When a nation invests decades and trillions in preparing for war against an equal adversary, only to find itself entangled in prolonged desert warfare against guerrilla insurgents on its own soil, it exemplifies a critical issue in contemporary military aviation and perhaps the broader military-industrial complex. All the excess costs inevitably have to be accounted for. A decade prior to the tumultuous War on Terror, NATO deployed an assortment of aircraft in a more traditional conflict against a formidable opposing air force, resulting in a resounding success.
This account delves into Operation Desert Storm, hailed as the most exceptional array of military aircraft since the advent of flight. While some may hold a penchant for Second World War aviation, characterized by a core selection of planes from each nation bolstered by numerous lesser-known models, every Coalition jet in Desert Storm was a standout performer, earning its place in the annals of aviation history.
The shift in Air Force doctrines post-1945 played a pivotal role. Jets built post the early 1970s demonstrated a remarkable capacity to execute tasks that previously required a fleet of different aircraft. Deconstructing each jet individually reveals the unparalleled force NATO unleashed on the Iraqi Military, akin to an Olympic Basketball Dream Team in the sky. To truly grasp the formation of this diverse ensemble of military aircraft, it’s imperative to delve into the motivations that led Saddam Hussein to challenge the mightiest air force the world has ever seen.
Even before the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein’s presence posed a significant challenge to NATO. Equipped with seasoned generals, field commanders, and battle-hardened pilots from the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Iraq’s military prowess was not to be underestimated. With 47 infantry divisions, flanked by no less than nine armored mechanized divisions, armed with Soviet T-55, T-62, and T-72 main battle tanks, Iraq stood as a potent force. However, it was the Iraqi Air Force, boasting a collection of iconic Soviet aircraft, supplemented by older French and Chinese models, that transformed Iraq into a formidable threat in the Persian Gulf.
Aircraft from renowned Soviet aerospace contractors such as Sukhoi, Mikoyan, and Tupolev had proliferated in Iraq by the early ’90s. The Iraqi Air Force boasted stalwarts like the MiG-19, MiG-21, and the more advanced MiG-29, alongside the top-tier ground attack jet, the Su-25, and the Mach 3-capable MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor. Additionally, lesser-known jets in the West, such as the Su-7 and Su-17/20 fighter bombers, Tupolev Tu-16 and Tu-22 heavy bombers, and Chinese counterparts like the Shenyang J-6, Chengdu J-7, and the Xian H-6, bolstered Iraq’s formidable air arsenal.
In stark contrast, Kuwait’s Air Force, consisting of around 20 French Mirage F-1s, a few dozen American A-4 Skyhawks, and roughly a dozen English Electric Lightnings, found themselves vastly outmatched when Saddam initiated hostilities on August 2, 1990. On that very day, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) condemned Saddam’s invasion with Resolution 660, granting the United States, NATO Allies, and the entire UNSC coalition the authority to prepare for intervention.
What followed was a paradigm-shifting engagement as U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers steamed toward the Persian Gulf. Four days later, a task force comprising 15,000 U.S. troops, 32 Navy destroyers, and 100 military aircraft and helicopters arrived in Saudi Arabia to commence Operation Desert Shield on August 8th, 1990. As tensions escalated through 1990, the UNSC issued an ultimatum to Saddam’s regime with Resolution 678, demanding compliance with their demands or face war. When this ultimatum was met with defiance, the die was cast.
At 2:38 in the morning on January 17th, 1991, a squadron of eight McDonnell Douglas AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, escorted by four Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low special-ops helicopters, launched an assault near the Saudi Arabian border, heralding the Coalition’s counterattack against Iraq. Shortly thereafter, 22 McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagles, supported by a General Dynamics EF-111 Raven electronic warfare jet, unleashed a relentless assault on Iraqi airfields, catching their jets on the ground. Desert Storm served as the Strike Eagle’s inaugural combat mission, and it acquitted itself admirably.
By 3 a.m. on that fateful morning, the war witnessed a second debut as ten Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter bombers conducted devastating bombing runs over Baghdad. It wasn’t until Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries detected the stealth fighter that they unleashed a barrage of fire, to no avail. Subsequently, the Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II attack jet embarked on its first foray into actual warfare.
Armed with a 30 mm Gau-8 Avenger, tailor-made for taking on Soviet main battle tanks, the A-10 excelled like no other jet in the conflict. Its arsenal of guided and unguided bombs, air-to-ground missiles, rockets, and its formidable main gun secured the “Warthog” a place in aviation enthusiasts’ hearts worldwide. Estimates suggest the A-10 incapacitated as many as 987 Iraqi tanks, 926 artillery pieces, and over 1,300 combat vehicles during Desert Storm.
Despite the A-10’s critics, especially in contemporary times, its reputation was never more resounding than in Desert Storm. This is not to mention the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, which made a triumphant entry into the conflict, alongside stalwarts like the F-4G Phantom II and F-111 Aardvark, both veterans of Vietnam, providing extensive coverage against enemy ground elements.
Simultaneously, long-serving aircraft like the AC-130 Gunship and the B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber, relics from a bygone era, annihilated whatever Iraqi tanks the A-10s had left behind. Meanwhile, Lockheed U-2 and TR-1A Dragon Lady reconnaissance planes, with histories dating back to the mid-1950s, covertly observed Saddam’s military installations and troop movements from altitudes surpassing 80,000 feet. While rumors circulated about the potential involvement of the supersonic SR-71 Blackbird in the conflict, official records confirm its retirement mere months before the Invasion of Kuwait.
The UN Coalition’s air campaign was a testament to the collective strength of pan-European air power, with aircraft like the Tornado F3 strike jet and the Tornado ADV Interceptor playing significant roles. The presence of French Sepecat Jaguars, Mirage F1Cs, F1CRs, and Mirage 2000Cs underscored the coalition’s multinational nature. Moreover, at least 18 Canadian CF-18 Hornets and 12 Bahraini Air Force F-5 Freedom Fighters joined the fray, contributing to the near-blitzkrieg levels of bombardment. Throughout, a diverse range of coalition jets received crucial support from Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers and Handley Page Victor tanker aircraft, reflecting the indispensable role of refueling.
Deploying alongside their land-based counterparts from the Air Force, the Coalition Forces at sea played a pivotal role in the aerial onslaught from the Persian Gulf. A fleet of six U.S. Navy aircraft carriers was deployed during the Gulf War, unleashing the full force of their F-18 Hornets, F-14 Tomcats, and A-6E TRAMS, poised to complement the efforts of the land-based Coalition Forces. Additionally, Marine Corps AV8B Harriers, derived from the British Sea Harriers, lent their support on both land and sea. By the culmination of the Desert Storm campaign in February 1991, this formidable consortium of Coalition aircraft achieved the remarkable feat of downing 36 Iraqi jets and helicopters in air-to-air combat, and 259 to SAM fire, as well as on the ground.
The aftermath of the conflict was starkly evident, with the remnants of destroyed Iraqi armored vehicles and aircraft strewn across military bases and airfields, extending for miles. In a vengeful act, Saddam Hussein infamously targeted Kuwaiti oil pipelines during the retreat, nearly triggering a global environmental catastrophe. Within a mere 42 days, the air power that once dominated the Middle East lay reduced to a heap of wreckage. With the exception of World War II, Desert Storm stood as a testament to the unparalleled air superiority achieved by the victorious coalition. Condensing such monumental achievements into less than two months is an accomplishment unlikely to be replicated in future warfare.