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Gulf War 20th: Naval Lessons of the Gulf War

For the Navy, the Gulf War was an introduction to the post-Cold War world. It was the first major joint air operation since Vietnam, and it involved extensive tactical ground attack for the first time since Vietnam. It was also the debut of the non-nuclear version of the Tomahawk land attack missile.  The Gulf War also included littoral operations, such as mine countermeasures and an attack against small Iraqi missile attack boats, which are likely to be featured in future Third World conflicts. Each of these experiences generated important lessons and changes in hardware and tactics.

Prior to the outbreak of war, but continuing during and after it, was an embargo directed against Iraqi sea traffic. Iraqi shipping could approach the Gulf anywhere over a very wide arc, and even with coalition partners few frigates and destroyers were available to enforce it. Saddam, moreover, was well aware that errors in enforcing the embargo might prove so embarrassing that it would have to be suspended. For example, he loaded baby food above contraband onboard a ship crewed in part by Iraqi women. Saddam’s hope was that they could film burly American Marines roughing them up onboard a wholly innocent ship. In, fact the Marines knew exactly what the ship was carrying, and the attempt failed. That was much more than happenstance.

What made the embargo possible was a sophisticated ship-tracking system devised originally to support missile attacks against the Cold War Soviet fleet. It employed shore-based data fusion centers, communicating by satellite with computers aboard deployed ships. The computers were necessary in order to display the massive information collected and collated ashore, and only satellites could carry enough information to maintain a timely picture of shipping identities and movements. None of this was a great surprise.

What was surprising, at least in retrospect, was that a system which had passed its acceptance test only in June 1990 was operational in quantity, and not just aboard U.S. warships, that September.  The key was that the system depended mainly on computer software, not specialized hardware. Software is very easy to copy. This particular software ran on a standard commercial computer, many hundreds of which were in Navy warehouses. It did have to be connected to a satellite modem, but that, too, was a standard item. None of the system had to be integrated with anything else onboard a ship, so it was very easy to install – which the U.S. Navy did, not only onboard its own ships, but also on board coalition ships helping to enforce the embargo. The difference from earlier military systems, which could never be made in great numbers, and which took years to field, was dramatic. In effect, the embargo experience validated a more general move from specialized military command systems to the current practice of hosting specialized software on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. The ship-tracking system was called JOTS (Joint Operational Tactical System), and its success may have been the most important lesson of the war.

Operation Desert Storm

Battle damage to a VA-35 A-6E Intruder off the USS Saratoga. A-6s flew more than 4,700 sorties during the war, with four lost in combat. DoD photo.

At the outset of Gulf War planning, the Navy proposed that, as in Vietnam, it be allotted separate attack sectors in Iraq. Its logic was simple: Land and carrier operations are very different. For example, it is relatively easy to demand precise timing of aircraft launched from a land base. A carrier depends on factors such as the wind, which may preclude the same sort of precision. Gen. Horner, the Air Component commander, rejected the Navy’s proposal. He was far more interested in integrating all air operations over Iraq, whatever their origin. Given such integration, for example, aircraft could fly apparently random patterns, converging only at their targets. It would be nearly impossible for an Iraqi air defense commander to concentrate his resources to defend those targets. This type of attack required very detailed planning and coordination. Not only did flight paths have to be set in advance, in great detail, but also radio frequencies and call signs (so as to preclude radio interference).

The Air Force had planned this sort of operation for years, and it had the computers needed to set it up. Once the basic plan had been set, individual units were given their detailed orders. That was easy enough on land. However, the carriers lacked both the communications channel to receive their orders and the computers to break them down into requirements for individual aircraft; the Navy had never planned to fight this way.  During the Gulf War, the printed copies of the plans had to be delivered onboard carriers by aircraft flying from Riyadh, where the plans were developed.

The Navy’s postwar response was to fit all the carriers, and many other ships, with higher-capacity satellite links, using different satellites. The carriers were also fitted with computers suitable for receiving and processing Air Force-style integrated air plans.

This result seems, in retrospect, somewhat ironic. The Iraqis never challenged coalition dominance of their airspace, so the elaborate coordination the Air Force planning system made possible was never really needed. Moreover, coordination imposed a lengthy planning cycle on the air assault, which precluded attacks on pop-up targets such as Iraqi aircraft, which were moved around Iraqi cities in a 24-hour cycle. So perhaps a truer lesson of the air war was that too many aircraft excessively complicate air planning. Perhaps all of those Air Force and coalition aircraft really weren’t needed. Many of them hit strategic targets, the destruction of which seems to have had little or no impact on the Iraqis. In that case, the truest lesson of the air war would be that a much smaller number, such as that onboard the six Navy carriers in the area, would have sufficed.

Operation Desert Shield

A sailor on the bow of the frigate USS Robert G. Bradley watches for mines as the ship patrols the Gulf. DoD photo by PH1 (AC) Scott M. Allen.

The air war also carried some practical lessons. One was offensive. Before the war, the Navy had concentrated on providing its F/A-18 Hornet attack aircraft with bomb fire control systems so good that they could regularly place bombs within a 30-foot circle. On that basis it drastically limited purchases of smart bombs. The theory was that a bomber could not return to a carrier with a full bomb load aboard; it would have to jettison any unused bombs into the sea. That meant one thing for cheap “dumb” bombs, and quite another for a pricey laser-guided weapon. During the war, it became clear that even the accuracy afforded by the computer fire control system could not suffice. For example, when attacking bridges, it was vital to hit the precise point on the roadway over a supporting member of the bridge structure. Otherwise the roadway might well be holed, but the bridge would not fall. It took a laser designator to do this job.  With the war over, the Navy began buying laser-guided bombs in much greater quantities, and it is now modifying GPS-guided bombs with terminal seekers for even better accuracy. In so doing, it is accepting that aircraft will carry many fewer bombs, few enough so that they can land back on their carriers with their loads.

On the defensive side, it was even clearer than in Vietnam that fighters had to identify their targets before shooting.In a coalition war, “blue-on-blue” (i.e., friendly on friendly) attacks might have devastating political consequences. During the Gulf War, the solution was to give controllers onboard AWACS aircraft a veto over nearly all air-to-air engagements. They required that a fighter have two independent means of verifying target identity. Naval fighters, which generally relied on orders from their carrier- or E-2-borne controllers, lacked both onboard IFF interrogators and alternative identifiers (they did have stabilized telescopes). In the aftermath of the war, there was much greater interest in fitting naval fighters with IFF interrogators and with other identification electronics. There was also a much greater overall interest in IFF.

Tomahawk proved extremely successful. Before the war began, the strike planners had so little faith in it that they had not even included it in their plans. By the end of the war,  Tomahawk was an essential element of the U.S. arsenal. However, the war revealed some important limitations. Foremost among them was the missile’s reliance on terrain mapping. Tomahawk verified its course by radar altimeter. The altimeter was quite secure. However, reliance on it meant that Tomahawk could not be used until a target area had been comprehensively mapped from space. For example, the then-Defense Mapping Agency spent the six months between the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the opening of hostilities in 24-hour days producing the necessary digital maps of Iraq. Without that work, Tomahawks could not have been used at all. The key to making Tomahawk usable in future Third World conflicts was not further mapping from space, but rather modifying the missile so that it could navigate on the basis of GPS data, which was available everywhere. That was done in the Block III version of the missile, which was first used in Bosnia a few years later. Given GPS guidance, Tomahawk could be used in snap attacks, such as those against targets in Afghanistan and in the Sudan in 1998.

Operation Desert Storm

Dutch navy frigates deploying to the Gulf were fitted with Goalkeeper close in weapons systems (CIWS) when possible to defend against the anti-ship missile threat. DoD photo.

The war revealed another shortcoming. Unlike a ballistic missile, Tomahawk requires a full flight plan in order to attack a target. Flight planning can be a lengthy process. In 1991, forward commanders lacked any ability to develop their own flight plans. Instead, they were furnished with a computer disk containing many plans. They could review what they had, and they could adjust the missile’s final target, but they could not modify the basic flight paths. As a consequence, few routes into some key target areas, such as districts of Baghdad, were available. On one unfortunate day, a stream of Tomahawks flew exactly the same path. The Iraqis could not react quickly enough to hit the first few missiles, but they certainly shot down several of the others. The postwar solution, made possible by much more powerful computers, was an Afloat Planning System, by means of which missile flight plans could be developed in a forward area. It helped that missile flights were no longer restricted by the need to fly over particular mapped areas, thanks to the adoption of GPS instead of the earlier terrain-matching guidance technique.

The Gulf War proved that submarines could deliver Tomahawk land-attack missiles effectively. At the time, that seemed little more than a stunt; surface ships could carry more missiles, and they could more easily be reloaded. However, submarines are now often the preferred Tomahawk shooters. Surface ships must operate in mutually supportive groups, whereas submarines operate alone. At a time when personnel are scarce, solo operations greatly reduce the number of men per missile. Also, because a submarine is covert, she can be sent to an area in which a crisis is brewing without either exacerbating the crisis or revealing U.S. intent to attack shore targets. These are extremely valuable advantages.

Then there was the littoral aspect of the war. Iraq had a substantial mine inventory, and from the beginning it was clear that the naval command in the Gulf would have to deal with it. The usual technique is mine hunting: Specialized craft literally search the bottom, foot by foot, examining any suspicious object. Objects classified as mines are destroyed one by one. The process is extremely tedious. Worse, the mine hunters are expensive, so they are not numerous. Thus mine clearance is slow, and only one area can be cleared at a time. That was a particular problem, since mine clearance was a prerequisite for any amphibious assault. Amphibious attack generally relies on surprise. Typically several beaches can be struck. If the potential victim of the attack cannot be certain of which beach will be attacked, he has to spread defending forces over all of them. Indeed, by adopting air-cushion landing craft (LCACs) the Marines had considerably complicated the enemy’s task of identifying likely assault beaches. Any such confusion, however, would quickly be resolved if mine countermeasures craft spent a few weeks clearing the approaches to the chosen beach.

USS Bunker Hill

A Tomahawk heads toward an Iraqi target after being launched by the cruiser USS Bunker Hill during Operation Desert Storm. DoD photo by Rob Clare.

The Navy tried an alternative: mine reconnaissance. After all, Saddam Hussein was laying his mines, prior to the outbreak of war, in clear view, and he was making no real attempt to preclude observation. It did not seem too difficult to determine which areas had been mined. Coalition warships would simply avoid those places. The lengthy mine hunting phase could be avoided until after an initial assault was made. In fact, the two U.S. warships that were mined, USS Princeton and USS Tripoli, were in places thought to be clear. Something was very wrong. Was the entire reconnaissance concept to blame? Once the ships had been mined, it became much more urgent to clear the northern end of the Gulf by more conventional means.

The postwar conclusion was that the concept had not been disproven. The problem was more subtle. Iraq had two specialized minelayers, ex-Soviet T-43 class sweeper/minelayers.  It had been assumed that they alone would lay the minefields, so that by tracking them the fields could also be tracked. While the T-43s roamed the northern part of the Gulf, numerous Iraqi and ex-Kuwaiti small craft were also at sea. It was assumed that all of them were carrying loot back to Iraq. Many of them were, but many others were acting as improvised minelayers – laying the fields which, among other things, accounted for the two U.S. warships.  That should not have been a complete surprise. For example, during the Iran-Iraq War the Iranians used numerous dhows to lay mines. Neither was a case of deception;  the conventional minelayers simply lacked the capacity to dispense enough mines quickly enough.

If minelayers could not be identified, was mine reconnaissance still possible? The U.S. conclusion was that underwater vehicles might be able to spot mines. That would not be mine-hunting, because a high rate of false positive identifications might be acceptable.  The point would not be to deal with mines one by one, but rather to avoid a potentially mined area altogether. Reconnaissance of this type would have to be covert, because it would often be carried out before hostilities opened. Moreover, overt reconnaissance might identify U.S. intentions quite as clearly as mine clearance. The solution currently being developed is an unmanned underwater vehicle, which a submarine can launch and retrieve. The vehicle carries mine detection sonars, and it has an endurance of several days.

USS Wisconsin

Low tech: USS Wisconsin providing fire support for U.S. Marine and coalition forces against targets in Kuwait. DoD photo.

Reconnaissance cannot entirely displace more traditional means of mine clearance. Once a force has landed, a wider area must be cleared for resupply. Clearance is needed to make resupply safe, and then to reopen an area to commerce. The technology of mine hunting is well developed; the great current question is the extent to which helicopters can take over from surface craft.

Note that neither reconnaissance nor mine-hunting applies to the land mines that an enemy has strewn at or above the low-water mark.  They can be laid very quickly, and they are available in vast numbers. The current U.S. solutions are physical destruction, either by explosives or by a new type of laser-directed machine cannon carried onboard a helicopter.

The Gulf War was the last hurrah for the U.S. battleships and, by extension, for classical over-the-beach fire support. Both the decline of the battleships and the manifest problems of mine countermeasures helped spur the Marines to a very different way of attacking shore targets. In the past, they planned a mass assault to seize a beachhead on which their supplies could be massed to prepare for a push inland. Since an enemy would probably try to defend that beach, they had to prepare for a classic assault, supported by heavy gunfire.  Without such gunfire, assault might be impossible – if it had to be en masse. The Marines are therefore shifting towards infiltration tactics. Small units will come ashore, and hopefully few if any will fall victim to any concentrated enemy mine defense. They will make their way inland, supplied from small dumps of material. The Gulf War showed clearly that GPS can help ground units find their way without landmarks, and GPS is clearly the key to the small units’ ability to find the dumps. No concentrated beachhead is needed; the small units concentrate only when they reach their inland objective. The Marines call this concept STOM – Ship to Objective Maneuver.

There is a hitch. To keep the assault units small, they must be stripped of as much weight as possible. The Marines’ organic artillery accounts for much of the weight a unit must carry with it. The proposed solution is to move the artillery offshore, onto a new destroyer, the DD 21 (Zumwalt class). It is not a replacement for the concentrated firepower of the past; it has nothing like the impact of a battleship, nor is it supposed to. Rather, it is intended to provide small Marine units advancing overland with the sort of fire support their own organic artillery now provides. Other hardware supporting the new tactical concept is the MV-22 Osprey, which is much faster than current Marine helicopters, hence which can reach more widely distributed units further inland.

Operation Desert Storm

An Iraqi Silkworm missile. Only two were fired, one being shot down by HMS Gloucester and the other falling harmlessly into the sea, but the threat remained a serious one throughout the conflict. DoD photo.

In addition to mines, the Iraqis had coast-defense missiles (Chinese “Silkworms”) and mobile fast attack craft, some of them captured from Kuwait. They tried to use both.  Towards the end of the war, two “Silkworms” were fired at the battleship Missouri, which was bombarding shore targets. One fell into the water; the British destroyer Gloucester shot down the other. This type of danger had long been foreseen; many countries have bought coast-defense missiles. As in the Iraqi case, they are generally mobile, hence difficult to find and neutralize before ships come into range. In the Iraqi case, the missile had been tracked before it was destroyed, and a UAV was sent back to find its launcher.  Once that had been done, the battleship was able to demolish it with heavy fire. The larger lesson is that any amphibious ship needs its own self-defense system. The “Silkworm” was among the clumsiest of modern anti-ship missiles, and even so it came fairly close to the battleship. The “Silkworm” incident helps explain why the new San Antonio class LPDs are being fitted with a fairly sophisticated self-defense system and, for that matter, why other comparable amphibious ships are receiving air defense systems.

Then there were the fast attack boats. They proved quite vulnerable to helicopter attack. It turned out that the U.S. Navy lacked any organic capability to deal with them,  however.  It had to place Army helicopters aboard destroyers and frigates. When the small Iraqi fleet sortied, U.S. Navy helicopters detected the attack boats, but they were destroyed by British naval helicopters and by U.S. Army helicopters. Prior to the war, the Navy had modified a few helicopters to fire the Norwegian Penguin missile, but it was quite massive – and quite expensive.  It was too much to deal with a small attack boat.  In the aftermath of the war, the standard Navy LAMPS shipboard helicopter was modified to launch an inexpensive anti-fast attack craft missile, a version of the standard Army Hellfire which had apparently been quite effective in the Gulf.

Iraq represented only some of the threats which the Navy must overcome in a future littoral operation. For example, the Iraqis had no submarines, and they never mounted a credible threat against either the shipping bringing materiel to the Gulf or to the ports into which that materiel poured. Thus there are no anti-submarine lessons of the war. As for the ports, the Iraqi Scud missile offensive certainly shows that ports can be vulnerable to missile attack and thus that naval anti-missile defense ought to feature in future small littoral wars comparable to that in the Gulf. Without it there would not have been the sea-borne access which made the land campaign possible in the first place.

This article was first published in Desert Shield/Desert Storm: The 10th Anniversary of the Gulf War.

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Norman Friedman is an internationally known strategist and naval historian. He is the author of...