There are few occasions in history where an army is given exactly the scenario to which its organization, training and doctrine coalesce against an opponent that uses the template of organization and training that it has been designed to defeat. Operation Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait by the United States and its coalition from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army and Republican Guard was such a war. The operation was built up in the popular media to the extent that it created a false image of the cost of war and belief that wars can be won “one the cheap” because of superior technology and organization. That belief was shattered during the Iraq insurgency which began in earnest following the occupation of Iraq following the defeat of Saddam in 2003 by a significantly smaller US force than was used to liberate Kuwait twelve years before.
The superior performance of the Army in the Gulf War did not turn out to be the template of how future wars would be fought. In the following years the US military has become embroiled in conflicts where opponents use inexpensive and often crude off the shelf technology to counter conventional US superiority in firepower and organization.
During the First Gulf War the Army was aided in that the doctrine that it developed to fight a war in Europe against the Warsaw Pact, the Airland Battle was “perhaps best suited to armored warfare in the open desert.”[i] Of course during Desert Storm this was exactly the setting that the Army would be called on to fight. Unlike Vietnam where the Army attempted to fight an unconventional war with conventional tactics the Army had the chance to fight exactly the battle that it had trained for, against an enemy trained in the tactics and using the equipment of its former Soviet adversary.
The Army enjoyed the advantages of having “reached a high level of training and technological proficiency”[ii] against the Soviet threat. The fact that the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact had melted down unexpectedly in 1989 and 1990 and removed any conventional threat in Europe which allowed the Army to concentrate massive amount of forces including the VII Corps from Germany to the Middle East was nothing short of incredible. Additionally the Army had the advantages of superior weaponry and the fortuitous timing of the war before the effects of the post-Cold War drawdown were realized.
For the Army the “1980s were a golden age of military thought and debate,”[iii] and the Airland Battle concept “was greeted with enthusiasm throughout the Army.” Terms such as initiative, agility, synchronization and depth….soon became part of every officer’s vernacular.”[iv] Colonel Harry Summers who had written a critical history of the Vietnam War noted that FM 100-5, the Army’s primary manual of operations, was the “operational blueprint for Operation Desert Storm.”[v] That blueprint had a well trained and disciplined force schooled in the conduct of the Airland Battle concept enunciated in FM-100-5. David Halberstam noted that Operation Desert Storm was fought by a “professional army-a very professional army.”[vi] Seldom in the history of warfare was any army trained and equipped to fight the exact battle for which it found itself.
The foundation of doctrine, training, technology and organization laid in the 1980s was solid. The Army was not only effective in the Gulf War, it was overwhelming. This is not to say that the Army did not encounter problems. It did, some which against a better trained and equipped force might have negatively impacts its operations. However the problems encountered did not keep it from dominating the battlefield.
The US rapidly deployed a blocking force of paratroops and Marines following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait at the end of August. While few in number they served as a deterrent that Saddam did not test. There was great concern that had Saddam pushed into Saudi Arabia when forces were small and lightly equipped that he might have succeeded in capturing the northeaster Saudi oil fields and production facilities. The military leadership continually reinforced these forces first to a substantial defensive force and then with the addition of more forces a significant offensive force. Thus when the decision was made to liberate Kuwait under the United Nations resolution the forces were there and ready.
When the war began advances in Joint warfare and C3 was evident in the effectiveness of the operations.[vii] Particular successes included the movement of VII and XVIII Airborne Corps into the desert to outflank the Iraqis in Kuwait[viii] and every actual engagement between Iraqi and American forces. Of note was the performance of Major General Barry McCafferey’s 24th Mechanized Division,[ix] and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at 73 Easting against the Republican Guard’s Talwahkana Division.[x] Likewise the action of 2nd Brigade 1st Armored Division against the Guard’s Adnan Division at Madinah Ridge[xi] displayed the effectiveness and lethality of the Airland Battle and joint warfare concepts developed in the 1980s.
There were weaknesses and these included various aspects of command and control and fratricide[xii] brought about by the fast pace of operations and the fog of war. Likewise conflicts between General Schwartzkopf and some of his Army commanders, notably Generals Franks[xiii] and Yeosock hindered operations. This occurred most notably in the failure to destroy the Republican Guard prior to the cessation of hostilities. This was partially was due to political considerations and faulty intelligence but was operational decision of Schwartzkopf to halt McCafferty’s 24th Mechanized Division before it could finish off Republican Guard units facing it or letting Franks complete his double encirclement of the Guard or encircle the key southern Iraqi city of Basrah.[xiv]
Despite the successes of Operation Desert Storm the planners failed to anticipate the end state of what would happen when hostilities had ceased. The conditions of the cessation of hostilities were the chief contention of many against the end to the ground war at the 100 hour point. Some argue that the early end of hostilities allowed the victory to be less than it could have been. Some even today argue that the offensive should have gone forward with the goal of overthrowing Saddam, however despite its success the Army was not prepared for an occupation nor would have the coalition supporting the US have survived an invasion and occupation of Iraq. The actual mistakes were not in the stopping of the war, but rather the faulty conditions of the cease fire which enabled Saddam to recover the internal control of Iraq and put down attempts to revolt especially around Basra in the Shia south. Rick Atkinson in his book Crusade notes that there were “errors would be made in establishing conditions of the ceasefire…but stopping the war was no mistake.”[xv]
While the debate about Operation Desert Storm still persists nearly 20 years after the fact the more important lesson was not learned. That lesson was that Operation Desert Storm was not the new face of war, but rather an anomaly. It was a war that was the swan song of the Cold War where the doctrine, technology, organization and trained to and practiced were inflicted on a less well trained and equipped version of the force that they were designed to defeat, forces which were badly deployed and already isolated by airpower even prior to the ground war. Once the ground war started the Iraqi forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq had little chance against the massive US and coalition force arrayed against it short of preemptively using the chemical and biological weapons of which Iraq had an ample supply. It did not employ these weapons for a number of reasons, but without them Iraqi forces exposed in the open desert with no air support and cut off from much of their supply by constant air attacks were easily defeated.
In the past 20 years the United States and the west have only once been able to reprise the type of war displayed during Operation Desert Storm. That was in the initial 2003 invasion of Iraq. While the forces deployed were successful in defeating the Iraqi military and overthrowing Saddam Hussein they were insufficient to secure the country especially after the decision to disestablish all Iraqi police and military forces which might have assisted US forces in securing the country. Perhaps planners forgot that German military police, police and civil servants were employed by the western allies in the period immediately after the war even during the period of “de-Nazification.”
Instead of a litany of Desert Storm like scenarios US forces as well as those of NATO and UN allies have had to deal with terrorism, insurgencies, revolutionary wars, tribal wars of genocide and wars waged by religious extremists. Despite more than a decade in dealing with these types of war, many in the military and political establishment as well as the media and public opinion believed that Desert Storm was the model for future wars. As such after the brief period of euphoria which occurred after the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom the grim reality of war has stared Americans and others in the west in the face. While the military has performed well, it has had to adjust and learn lessons about war that it wanted to avoid during and after Vietnam. Those were the lessons of counterinsurgency, unglamorous and unexciting they were the lessons buried after Vietnam which were ignored until it was nearly too late in Iraq and possibly now too late in Afghanistan. Desert Storm was an anomaly and one does not base the future of war on the swan song of the last war.
[i] Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1993. p.253
[ii] Gordon, Michael R. and Trainor, Bernard E. The Generals’ War, Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Company, Boston and New York 1995. p.467
[iii] Peters, Ralph. Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg , PA p.xi
[iv] Ibid. Atkinson.
[v] Summers Harry G. On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War, Dell Publishing a Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York NY 1992. p.159
[vi] Halberstam, David. War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, New York 2001. p.153. Gordon and Trainor note that the “never in the history of the Republic has a more competent and more professional military been fielded.
[vii] See Summers pp. 243-245. Summers is very complimentary of the advances in the Joint aspects of command and control that impacted the campaign. He notes several points at the strategic and operational levels which are complimentary of individuals including comparing General Colin Powell to General George Marshall. Gordon and Trainor writing a few years later are more critical of the “jointness” of the Americans including valid criticism of the air campaign, fire support coordination, and differences in doctrine between Marines and Army and the way the VII Corps and XVIII Corps operated based on the way that they trained and organized. Pp.471-473
[viii] Atkinson pp.309-310. Atkinson discusses the fact that American commanders involved had seldom maneuvered units of battalion or brigade size prior to this operation.
[ix] The 24th made a great advance to the Euphrates but as Atkinson notes that it had “encountered no enemy resistance at all.” p.406
[x] See Atkinson pp. 441-448
[xi] See Atkinson pp.466-467. In a 40minute fight the M1A1s destroyed 60 T-72s and dozens of APCs at a cost of one American KIA. Atkinson notes that this battle like the action at 73 Easting “was waged with tactical acumen and devastating firepower….”
[xii] Ibid Atkinson pp.315-316. Atkinson notes that there were 28 incidents with 35 killed and 72 wounded.
[xiii] Ibid. pp.405-407. Schwartzkopf felt that Franks was not aggressive enough and that VII Corps was “sluggish” and “ceding the initiative to the Republican Guard.” Schwatzkopf even threatened Yeosock that he would fire Franks.
[xiv] Ibid. Atkinson p.476
[xv] Ibid. p.477
Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1993
Gordon, Michael R. and Trainor, Bernard E. The Generals’ War, Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Company, Boston and New York 1995
Halberstam, David. War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, New York 2001
Ralph. Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg , PA
Summers Harry G. On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War, Dell Publishing a Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York NY 1992.