Defense Media Network

Gulf War 20th: Desert Shield Airlift Set Records

A look back on the 20th anniversary of Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm

When Iraq’s Saddam Hussein launched an abrupt invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, the United States had no forces nearby. Within six months, 525,000 American troops were on the ground in the Persian Gulf region with all of their equipment. The equivalent of nine infantry and armored divisions and a Marine division plus a brigade were on the scene with 1,300 tanks, five carrier battle groups, fifteen combat wings, and a supply line for arms and ammunition that stretched halfway around the world.

The Military Airlift Command (MAC), predecessor of today’s Air Mobility Command, hauled troops and supplies from 120 locations to the deserts of the Middle East. Together with the sealift that followed, the airlift made possible the most spectacular buildup of military force in history.

None of it was easy.

The first U.S. units to reach Saudi Arabia would be alone, confronting Iraq’s army, the world’s fourth largest.

A C-130E Hercules transport aircraft from the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing, Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., does an assault landing on a desert runway during Operation Desert Shield. DoD photo

The F-15C Eagle-equipped 1st Tactical Fighter Wing from Langley Air Force Base, Va., and the “Ready Brigade” of 2,300 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers from Fort Bragg, N.C., moved to Saudi Arabia on Aug. 7, eighteen hours after the Desert Shield “execute” order. Moving this vanguard called for dozens of C-141B Starlifters and C-5 Galaxies. No one knew whether Iraq would invade Saudi Arabia, too, so the Eagles and the Airborne needed to hit the ground ready to fight.

Gen. H. T. Johnson, MAC commander, created an air bridge that hauled people and equipment on exhausting, 38-hour missions. Johnson used virtually all of his 265 C-141B Starlifters and 85 C-5 Galaxies and activated elements of the CRAF (Civil Reserve Air Fleet). Soon, a C-141B or C-5 was landing at Dhahran Air Base every seven minutes, around the clock. The Desert Shield lift exceeded the tonnage of the eleven-month Berlin Airlift of 1948-49 in its first 22 days. By October 1990, 220,000 troops and their equipment were moved.

The crews of giant transports, many of them reservists and Guard personnel flying on a voluntary basis before being called to active duty on Aug. 29, kept their aerial supply line moving around the clock, sometimes by pushing themselves close to exhaustion. Maintenance people coaxed extra capabilities out of the aircraft. At bases in Europe –Torrejon, Zaragoza, Rhein-Main, Ramstein – transient quarters became so swollen that men and women slept in hallways, bathrooms, or tents. The Torrejon flight line was so choked with aircraft, a pilot had to be given a map to find his plane.

The eastbound stage, they started calling it, evoking memories of stagecoaches, which, moving in the opposite direction, had opened up the American West. Downrange, there was no place to rest, so the crew would have to bring their C-141B or C-5 back to Torrejon before they could sleep.

It was a time of enormous tension. On some crews, nerves were frayed and tempers flared. The challenges were many.

If, for example, you were transporting the F-16C Fighting Falcon-equipped 363rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., to a new home in the Persian Gulf – Al Dafra airfield at Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates – where did you start?

Supplies and equipment are unloaded from a flightline full of C-5A Galaxy transport aircraft of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, Military Airlift Command, during Operation Desert Shield. DoD photo

Did you first move the people who would provide security, or those who would provide food? Did your transports take off first with portable buildings and furniture for creature comfort, or with supplies and ammunition to be taken into battle by the F-16s? An F-16, with air refueling, could be moved to the Gulf quickly – Shaw’s pilots in mid-August did a rerun of the a marathon deployment made earlier by Langley’s F-15Cs – but did you want the fighter to arrive before its support people and equipment could get there?

Johnson relied heavily on Airlift Control Elements (ALCEs), teams of experts who set up shop at both ends of the air bridge to optimize loading techniques, departures, and arrivals. These nerve centers were populated with Air Force logistics officers – pilots – who had trained rigorously in how to achieve mass movements of people and equipment. They labored around the clock to ease the job of moving an army around the planet.

Still, there were horror stories. One C-5 Galaxy pilot struggled with ground personnel who tried to load too much cargo, a command post confused about his destination, and a 3-hour search for an empty bed at the end of a 30-hour workday. Another spent a day of equal length hauling supplies from Torrejon downrange, then returning, while struggling with a nose wheel that wouldn’t come down (until lowered manually), a pilot’s altimeter on the blink, and a latrine in the aircraft that hadn’t been cleaned, feces everywhere.

The statistics: Strategic airlift (C-141Bs and C-5s, plus C-130E/Hs and KC-10As when self-deploying) flew 20,500 missions, carried 534,000 passengers, and hauled 542,000 tons of cargo. (A “mission” was not a sortie, but, rather, the movement of one set of cargo from its origin to destination). Airlifters flew 4.65 billion ton-miles, compared to 697.5 million during the 65-week Berlin airlift. To those who participated, there was another way to proclaim what they had done—a bumper sticker, worth saving for the grandchildren, worn as a badge of honor: I FLEW THE EASTBOUND STAGE.

A crew of the 181st Tactical Airlift Squadron, Texas Air National Guard, load equipment of the 435th Airlift Control Element onto a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft during Operation Desert Shield. DoD photo

Largely overlooked is the story of the intra-theater, or tactical, airlift. C-130E/H Hercules and C-21A Lear Jet transports fanned out like the spokes of a wheel from hubs at Dhahran and Riyadh. They flew 52,300 sorties, carrying 514,600 passengers and 245,200 tons of cargo.

Once Desert Shield gave way to Desert Storm and fighting began on Jan. 17, 1991, C-21A Lear Jets carried follow-up copies of the daily ATO (Air Tasking Order) from the “Black Hole” in Riyadh to USAF fighter units in the field. C-21As also carried the photographic results of reconnaissance sorties to Riyadh from bases such as Sheik Isa, in Bahrain, where RF-4C Phantom IIs were snooping on the Iraqis.

Strategic and tactical airlift remained crucial after the build-up became a war. Following hostilities, the airlift continued during Operation Provide Comfort as MAC supplied U.S. forces dealing with the aftermath of war and with the Kurdish refugee problem in western Iraq. The strategic portion of Provide Comfort included 1,004 missions moving 10,840 passengers and 35,560 tons of cargo between April 7 and June 19, 1991. Intra-theater operations included 497 fixed-wing airdrop missions.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...