Victor Tanker with Tornado and Buccaneer

The Conduct of Operations

Air Power in the Gulf War - The Conduct of Operations

By Group Captain Andrew Vallance - Director of Defence Studies for the Royal Air Force

The Build-up

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a salutary reminder that - while the direct threats which we have faced for the last forty and more years are now receding - significant risks of conflict elsewhere in the world remain.

Within 24 hours Kuwait was occupied and large Iraqi forces began to mass on the Northern Saudi border. The grave and apparently immediate threat to Saudi Arabia demanded an immediate response from the international community.

The air power build-up was particularly rapid and proved decisive in deterring further Iraqi aggression and containing the crisis in its early critical stages. By Day 5 of the crisis, 301 Allied aircraft were in theatre: by Day 35 this had increased to 1,220 and by the start of the Allied air campaign it stood at 2,430. The numbers continued to increase, and by the start of the Allied land attack, some 2,790 Allied aircraft were either deployed in the theatre or capable of projecting military power directly into it.

While the build-up continued, Allied aircrews already in the theatre carried out intensive operational flying training. Ultra-low flying was introduced, and intercept training under AWACS control became the norm for air defence crews. Inevitably, the Allied air forces sustained some losses during this period. Overall, some 21 Allied aircraft were lost in accidents of which the RAF lost one Jaguar and one Tornado.

Throughout the build up the Allies were conscious of the danger of an Iraqi pre-emptive attack against the growing concentrations of high-value assets, equipment and personnel within Saudi Arabia and the Northern Gulf. To protect against this threat, coalition forces maintained up to 20 fighters flying combat air patrols (CAPs) for 24 hours per day, for months on end. Airspace control was achieved by dividing the Gulf and adjacent areas into a number of zones: the Red Sea, South, West, Central East and Gulf. AWACS(airborne warning and control system) were airborne constantly and - like the fighter CAPs were supported by a stream of tankers. JSTARS(joint surveillance and target acquisition radar system) and RIVET JOINT(RC-135 signals intelligence aircraft) assets were also used to keep tabs on the enemy. A layered air defence system was created using Patriot and Hawk surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to provide area defence while SHORAD(short range air defence) was deployed for point defence of key points. The management of this very crowded and potentially deadly piece of airspace was one of the many triumphs of the war. During seven months of crisis and conflict and several hundred thousand sorties, not one 'blue-on-blue' air engagement took place.

While military preparations continued, diplomatic efforts were intensified. On 29 November 1990, the United Nations Security Council applied further diplomatic pressure on Iraq by passing Resolution 678 which authorised the multi-national forces in the Gulf to take necessary action if Iraq failed to withdraw its forces from Kuwait by midnight Eastern Standard Time on 15 January 1991. However, as December gave way to January it became increasingly clear that Saddam would not agree to evacuate Kuwait. But by this time Allied air power was ready. Training skills had reached a peak, stocks of spares and weapons were at wartime levels and personnel, aircraft and ground equipment were fully prepared and protected. Thus, nineteen hours after the expiry of the Resolution 678 deadline - and with no sight of an Iraqi withdrawal and no prospect of a peaceful resolution to the crisis - the Allied forces began a major offensive under the code name Operation Desert Storm.

The Balance of Forces

The operational problem that faced the Multi-National Forces in the Gulf was quite severe. In numerical terms, Iraq had the World's fourth biggest army and the tenth biggest air force. On the ground the balance of advantage lay firmly with the Iraqis. The number of troops and tanks deployed by each side within the Kuwait theatre of operations was broadly equal, but the Iraqis enjoyed important advantages. They held strong field defences, had a marked superiority in artillery and their troops and commanders were highly experienced in fighting defensive battles. In terms of a ground versus ground fight the Allies faced the prospect of a costly stalemate, perhaps involving high casualties with the consequent danger of a collapse of public and political support.

The Iraqis also enjoyed some important advantages in the air. They had a very strong, integrated surface-to-air defence system employing perhaps 7,000 SAMs and 10,000 anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) pieces. They also operated substantial numbers of fairly advanced aircraft, most notably the Mirage F1, Su-24, and MiG-29. But perhaps their greatest strength lay in the survivability of their bases. The Iraqis possessed some twenty four very large and heavily fortified main operating bases and a further thirty major dispersal airfields. Most had runways 10,000 feet in length with parallel taxiways, and many covered huge acreages. For example, Talill air base in South East Iraq covered 9,000 acres - over twice the area of London Heathrow! The Iraqi air bases were also well provided with hardened aircraft shelters connected to the operating surfaces by multiple access lanes, and all were protected by multiple SAMs and AAA. All this meant that these bases were formidable targets and virtually impossible to close for an extended period even with advanced weapons and large numbers of aircraft.

But despite these significant Iraqi advantages, the overall balance in the air was heavily weighted in favour of the Allies. Partly this was a function of numbers. At the start of the crisis the Iraqi Air Force possessed over six hundred fixed-wing combat aircraft, augmented by a further one hundred and sixty armed helicopters under Army control.(Figures drawn from the International Institute for Strategic Studies 'Military Balance 1990/1991) In contrast, by 15 January the Allies had over 2,400 aircraft based either within the theatre of operations or close enough to be capable of projecting power into it. These latter included not only the carrier-based air power from six US Navy carrier battlegroups, but also US air forces based in Turkey and US B-52 bombers based in Diego Garcia Florio in Spain (and subsequently from Fairford in the United Kingdom).

If the Allied numerical superiority over the Iraqi air forces was very great, their technological superiority in terms both of platforms and weapons was even more marked. At the outbreak of hostilities, the technological level of Iraqi order of battle was variable. Although the Iraqis possessed advanced aircraft, perhaps half of their Air Force's front line consisted of variants of obsolescent MiG and Sukhoi designs.

(According to the IISS Military Balance 1990/1991 the Iraqi Air Force order of battle in Autumn 1989 consisted of two squadrons of bombers equipped with eight Tu-22s, four Tu-16s and four Chinese H-6Ds; Twenty two squadrons of fighter ground attack aircraft (equipped with ninety MiG-23BNs, sixty four Mirage F-1s, thirty Su-7s, seventy Su-20s, sixteen Su-24s and sixty Su-25s) and seventeen squadrons of air defence fighters (equipped with twenty five MiG-25s, forty J-7s, one hundred and fifty MiG-21s, thirty Mirage F-1s and thirty MiG-29s).

In contrast, many of the combat aircraft and weapons of the Allied air forces were at the cutting edge of technology and a generation in advance of those of the Iraqis. Virtually every type of current-generation United States and British combat aircraft was deployed in the Gulf. The Allied superiority in air-delivered weapons was no less marked than its superiority in platforms. The Allies deployed a wide range of 'smart' weapons: TV-, infra-red, radar- and laser-guided bombs and missiles, as well of course as conventional cruise missiles. The Allied air armoury also included a number of special conventional weapons. Some were designed to penetrate deep concrete bunkers, while others were designed for minefield clearance. For example, the 15,000lb BLU 82 blast bomb - affectionately known as the 'Blues Brothers' and painted to resemble a Budweiser beer can - was used for minefield clearance. The Gator bomb - filled with bomblets - was another fairly massive minefield-clearing weapon, while the 550lb fuel-air mix bomb was a third.

Moreover, to make the most of their formidable combat air power, the Allies had also deployed a wide range of combat-support air forces, notably air-to-air refuelling tankers, reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft and electronic warfare aircraft. These so called 'force-multipliers' added substantially to the technological lead already enjoyed by the Allied air forces, and they were crucial in helping the Allies to develop to the full their combat air potential.

But perhaps of greatest importance was the difference in training, doctrine and organisation between the opposing air forces. The Iraqi Air Force was built essentially on the Soviet model' organising on a regional basis and with an ethos which discouraged individual aircrew initiative, it had an undistinguished history. During the Iran/Iraq War, despite the virtual absence of effective opposition the Iraqi Air Force remained primarily on the defensive. It tended to operate in 'penny packets' and because of poor airmanship and lack of target intelligence it proved to be generally ineffective.

Although some successful attacks were launched against oil and shipping targets, the majority of Iraqi Air Force operations took the form of close-in, single-pass hit-and-run missions using small numbers of aircraft. At no time were more than six aircraft used and follow on attacks were very rare. All this meant that the Iraqi Air Force had little impact on the course of operations in that war.

By the time of the invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi Air Force appeared to have changed little from the days of the Iran/Iraq War. Iraqi Air Force leaders apparently believed that the Iraqi Army's surface-to-air defence capabilities were as lethal to friend as they were to foe. As a result, the Iraqi Air Force had put little effort into developing the joint doctrines so critical to modern land/air warfare, a situation made worse by the lack of initiative and innovation bestowed on the Force by its rigid and stereotyped Soviet-style training regime. Moreover, compared with their opposite numbers in the Allied Air Forces, Iraqi aircrew flew far less, followed relatively undemanding training profiles and - as a result - possessed far less tactical skill.

The net effect of all this gave the Allies a potentially decisive edge upon which they sought to capitalise through their campaign plan. For the Allies, air power had to be the principal force element, the primary means of achieving success with the least possible casualties. Air power had to be used to win the battle for air superiority; it had to be used to destroy the Iraqi nation's ability to sustain the war; it had to be used to cripple the Iraqi Army as a cohesive fighting force; and it had to be used to spearhead the physical liberation of Kuwait. For the Allies, the Gulf War had to be primarily an air power war.

The Air Campaign

Consequently, the initial Allied action took the form of an air campaign, and this was itself divided into four distinct phases. Phase 1 - planned to last for seven to ten days - was designed primarily to achieve overall air supremacy and damage Iraqi strategic capabilities. Phase 2 - the suppression of the Iraqi surface-to-air defences within the Kuwait theatre of operations (KTO) - was planned to be brief and lead directly into Phase 3. In this phase the Allies intended to concentrate their attacks against the Iraqi Army in the KTO with the aim of destroying (in just over three weeks) half of its 'battle winning equipment'; ie tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery. The prime aim of the fourth and final phase was to provide direct support for the Allied land force offensive.

As Clausewitz pointed out, 'no plan survives contact with the enemy' and the Gulf War proved no exception to this well-established piece of military wisdom. The weather - the worst ever recorded for the region - obscured many targets from visual and laser-guided attacks and the air effort, diverted into what became known as 'the great Scud chase', was three times that anticipated by the planners. As a result, G Day - the date set for the Allied land forces to attack - slipped from Day 30 to Day 39 of the war. Moreover, as operations developed, the various phases of the campaign began to merge and overlap.

Yet despite these and other inevitable 'frictions of war', the success achieved by the air campaign was unprecedented in the history of warfare. The Allies launched between 2,000-3,000 sorties a day throughout the conflict; on average one Allied bombing sortie took place very minute of every day. By G Day, the Allied Air Forces had mounted nearly 100,000 sorties and achieved outstanding results.

The counter-air element of the campaign had effectively killed the Iraqi Air Force as a fighting force by Day 10 of the conflict. Allied bombing attacks on key command nodes and radars, had in a matter of hours crippled the highly centralised Iraqi surface-to-air defence system. At the same time, Allied offensive counter-air attacks on Iraqi airfields severely dislocated Iraqi air operations. Before the war, the Iraqi Air Force was managing to fly about one hundred sorties per day. By during Days 1 to 3 of the Allied air campaign - when the Iraqi should have 'surged' in response to Allied attacks - it flew only fifty sorties per day and only a handful of these were offensive missions. On Day 7 of the war the Allies shifted their offensive counter-air effort to targeting Iraqi hardened aircraft shelters and by Day 9 the Iraqi Air Force threw in the towel and dispersed its surviving aircraft either to Iran or to the woods and villages around its bases. In the last two weeks of the war it launched hardly a single sortie and Allied aircraft operated over Iraq virtually unchallenged.

The strategic bombing elements of the campaign enjoyed even greater success than the counter-air element. By 'G Day' much of Iraq's strategic installations lay in ruins. Iraq's nuclear research and production had been almost totally destroyed, while chemical and biological warfare facilities had been severely damaged. Half of Iraq's oil-refining capacity had been destroyed, the national electricity grid had been 'broken' and transport feeder routes to Kuwait cut by half. In effect, Iraq's ability to sustain its war machine had been crippled. The great precision of Allied air attacks meant that - despite some tragic instances - Iraqi civilian casualties and collateral damage were very low indeed in relation to the enormous and wide-ranging damage inflicted upon Iraq's strategic and military installations.

Nearer the battlefront, Allied air power had effectively sunk Iraq's Navy and grievously wounded its Army. Physical losses included 1,560 tanks, 1,508 artillery pieces and 1,210 armoured personnel carriers, representing respectively 37%, 49% and 42% of these equipment categories deployed within the KTO. But of equal importance, were the consequential effects of dislocation and demoralisation. Battered day and night from the air, cut off from much of its supplies and with its command and control in shreds, the Iraqi Army had - by G Day - been reduced to a collection of isolated and dispirited units which in many cases were eager to surrender. It was the combination of all these effects that wrecked the Iraqi army as an effective and cohesive fighting force and paved the way for the rapid - and for the Allies relatively bloodless - liberation of Kuwait. The 100-hour so-called Ground War was in reality a highly integrated land-air operation in which the air and land forces operated together as equal partners providing each other with mutual support and mutual opportunities.

When the ceasefire came into effect on 3 March, the Allied Air Forces had flown 110,000 sorties. Some 88,500 tons of bombs had been dropped, of which some 7,400 toms were precision-guided. The effects were quite literally devastating. Nearly 350 of Iraq's combat aircraft (50% of its total) had been either destroyed or driven into exile. Half of Iraq's airfields needed major repairs to their operating surfaces, while a further number were damaged to lesser degrees. Some 64% of Iraq's hardened aircraft shelters had been destroyed or suffered major damage. Iraqi nuclear, biological and chemical weapon production plants and the country's electrical generation capacity had been all but destroyed and a wide range of other strategic facilities had suffered varying degrees of damage.

Within the KTO, Iraqi losses included 43 divisions (69% of those deployed), 3,700 tanks (87%), 2,400 armoured personnel carriers (84%), 2.600 artillery pieces (84%), 14 warships (87%) and 11 auxiliary vessels (40%). Human costs remain difficult to assess, the Iraqis may have suffered 100,000 casualties, with a further 100,000 plus being taken prisoner. Allied combat losses were less than 500.

By any standards it was a decisive victory and it was a victory in which air power played the dominant part. As General McPeak the US Air Force Chief of Staff pointed out, the Gulf War was 'the first time in history that a field army had been defeated by air power'. For that reason alone it will inevitably become an important case study for the future. It was also a war in which the RAF made a particular distinguished contribution.

Text size:
medium|
larger|
largest