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Gulf War 20th: Some Lessons Learned from the Land War

In terms of lessons learned, the land war operations associated with Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm represent one of the most thoroughly studied military actions in history.

At the strategic level, ODS marked the first major international conflict of the post-Cold War era. As such, positive lessons stemmed in no small part from the enormous changes that were taking place in Eastern Europe and the collapsing Soviet Union. The changes allowed the development of a new American strategy, one focused more on regional threats than bi-polar global conflicts.

The initial pursuit of that new strategy focused on development of a powerful coalition force that extended its ties far beyond regional borders. The unmistakable success of the coalition process has led to changes in strategic thinking around the world. In fact, one of the latest examples of that new philosophy can be found in a growing 21st century interest in creating regional response forces in Europe and elsewhere.

More recent conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo have only served to reinforce that regional and coalition focus. In fact, regional conflicts are now considered so likely by senior U.S. military planners that the U.S. Army has created entirely new Brigade Combat Team forces and is preparing to equip those elements with new “medium weight” classes of combat vehicle systems.

Operation Desert Shield

A civilian worker spraying the finishing touches of desert camouflage on the Abrams. The importance of civilian contractors’ efforts should not be underestimated. DoD photo.

At the tactical level, many of these critical lessons were actually recorded and reported at the start of land combat operations.

A case in point can be found in a newsletter dated August 1990 (No. 90-7). The “Special Edition” newsletter was prepared and released by the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL), U.S. Army Combined Arms Training Activity (CATA), Fort Leavenworth, Kan.  Titled “Winning in the Desert,” the document was being printed for distribution within days of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

The first publication was based on the concept that “the principles and fundamentals of combat do not change in the desert.”

By necessity, the first “lessons learned” product tended to focus on broad generalities – from “You can’t drink too much water” to “Don’t play with snakes” – but served to pave the way for the extensive “harvesting” of lessons that would continue for months and years.

Within a month, for example, CALL had released Winning in the Desert II (Number 90-8, Special Edition, September 1990), which began to supplement many of the operational and regional generalities with specifics on “The Iraqi Threat” and including vehicle bumper markings for some Republican Guard elements.

The immediacy of lesson assessment continued throughout both Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Moreover, the rapid dissemination of these lessons took on added importance for the Army and all armed service participants as the cessation of hostilities happened to coincide with finalization of the FY92 defense budget by defense and Congressional representatives.

This budgetary consideration was highlighted by Army representatives in a March 13, 1991 document titled “Army Weapons Systems-Performance in Southwest Asia.” Citing as its purpose the relaying of “initial, emerging feedback on the performance of key Army systems in Southwest Asia,” the authors of the six-page paper go on to acknowledge that “As the Army and Congress work together to finalize the fiscal year 1992 budget, and future budgets, it is important to consider how well our systems actually performed in the most realistic, comprehensive operational test conducted to date – Operation Desert Storm.”

It is the immediacy of the report gathering that provides this initial post-war offering with such a wealth of valuable lessons regarding critical land warfare and land warfare support systems like the Abrams tank, Bradley fighting vehicle, multiple launch rocket system, Hellfire missile system, army tactical missile system, Copperhead artillery projectile, Patriot missile system, helicopter aircraft survivability equipment (ASE), AH-64 Apache, UH-60 Blackhawk, CH-47 Chinook, OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, and the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS).

Operation Desert Storm

AH-64A Apache advanced attack helicopters of the 101st Airborne Division stand ready at a forward operating base during Operation Desert Storm. Three OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters are behind the Apaches. DoD photo.

The Abrams tank, for example, was praised in the emerging Congressional feedback for its reliability, survivability, and lethality.

In terms of reliability, the report points to operational readiness rates that “exceeded the Army’s 90 percent standard” for both VII Corps and XVIII Airborne Corps after 100 hours of offensive operations. “Especially noteworthy was a night move by the 3rd Armored Division covering 200 kilometers (120 miles). None of the more than 3,000 tanks in the division broke down.”

Emerging survivability lessons from the heavily armored M1A1s focused on the findings that “Seven separate M1A1 crews reported being hit by T72 tank rounds. These M1A1s sustained no damage, attesting to the effectiveness of our heavy armor.”

On the flip side, however, the T72s served as unwilling teachers for combat lessons focused on lethality and battlefield performance.

“Other crews reported that the M1A1 thermal sight allowed them to acquire Iraqi T72s through the smoke from oil well fires and other obscurants,” the report reads. “The T72s did not have the same advantage. This situation gave the Abrams a significant edge in survivability, engagement range and night maneuver. Additionally, tank crews report that the M829A1 tank round was extremely effective against the T72.”

The value of thermal sights was reinforced by emerging comments regarding the performance of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle: “[Bradley] crews reported that the infrared sights were very effective, even during sand storms. Other crews reported that the 25mm Bushmaster cannon was more lethal than they expected…”

With the identification and quantification of additional combat lessons, the Army developed a post-war upgrade to a large portion of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle Fleet.  Known as the “ODS Upgrade Package,” the field retrofit program addressed six specific vehicle modifications identified during the lessons learned process. The upgrade, first fielded in FY96, includes an eyesafe laser rangefinder (which is also incorporated in the M2A3 [Improved Bradley Acquisition System] (IBAS), a combat identification system, GPS/POSNAV, driver’s vision enhancer, missile countermeasure device, and restowage of onboard equipment.

In concluding the short congressional summary, the Army authors noted that “[O]ur systems performed well in combat.  These reports are not only gratifying, but they also validate Army research, development and acquisition programs over the past years. This is not to say that everything performed perfectly or that we are entirely satisfied with what we have. In fact, the operation showed that in some areas there is much room for improvement. For example, we noted needs for improvement in: Identification friend or foe (IFF) to reduce casualties inflicted from friendly fire; Heavy equipment transport; Night vision for aviators in featureless terrain; Helicopter communications during nap-of-the-earth flight; Anti-jam capability for tactical satellite communications; [and] Improving the lethality of light forces.”

Operation Desert Shield

The threat of chemical and biological warfare was taken very seriously throughout the campaign. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Lee Corkran.

Many of these preliminary combat lessons were highlighted again four months later when then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney delivered his “Interim Report to Congress.”  Delivered in mid-July 1991, Conduct of the Persian Gulf War notes that: “…During the war, we learned a lot of specific lessons about systems that work and some that need work, about command relations, and about areas of warfare where we need improvement. We found we did not have enough Heavy Equipment Transporters or off-road mobility for logistics support vehicles. Helicopters and other equipment were maintained only with extra care in the harsh desert environment… We were ill-prepared at the start for defense against biological weapons, even though Saddam possessed them. And tragically, despite our best efforts, there were here, as in any war, civilian casualties and losses to fire from friendly forces. These and many other specific accomplishments, shortcomings and lessons are discussed in greater depth in the body of this report…”

The issue of heavy equipment transporters (HET) represents one of the greatest equipment shortfalls highlighted by Desert Storm/Desert Shield. Specifically, U.S. planners had to tap an amazing array of coalition sources to assemble the requisite number of heavy equipment tractor and trailer systems needed to support combat operations.

As of February 4, 1991, the cornerstone of the Desert Storm heavy transport fleet consisted of 456 M911 tractors with a like number of M747 trailers. However, since this total fell far short of the required total, the Army was forced to resort to a variety of sources to satisfy the shortfall. For example, 48 additional transport tractors were purchased from Mack Truck. These tractors were used to pull 24 Kalyn trailers and 24 Landoll trailers. To this,  Italy added 60 Iveco/Fiat heavy equipment transport and trailer systems with a large number of Tatra vehicles also added to the fleet from both Czechoslovakian and (East) German sources. Another 134 tractor and trailer combinations were leased from multiple sources while the remaining tractor and trailer combinations required to satisfy the 1,295 vehicle total were provided by host nation support and other coalition forces.

Yet in spite of the effort that went into assembling this international transport armada, few if any of the vehicles assembled in the HETS model mix met the 70 ton requirement mandated by the M1 series main battle tank. Fortunately, this particular lesson learned was translated to a materiel solution when the Army began fielding its new HETS, composed of the M1070 tractor and M1000 trailer, starting in 1993.

Along with a need to haul heavy armor forward over large desert expanses, Secretary Cheney’s report introduction alludes to the fact that Desert Shield/Desert Storm pointed out weaknesses in the U.S. land logistics support fleet. The good news is that the highlighting of these weaknesses was partly attributable to the performance of several new vehicle systems that showed what off-road mobility could and should be.

M977 HEMTT

High mobility trucks were vital in supplying fast-moving forces. DoD photo.

The U.S. took a mixed fleet of 5-tons to the Persian Gulf, with newer systems like the M939A2 spotlighting the mobility and performance limitations of their aged cousins.  Post-war years have seen even greater advances in this portion of the U.S. tactical wheeled vehicle fleet as both 2-1/2-ton and 5-ton members of the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) have entered operational use.

Desert Shield/Desert Storm operations by the (then) newly-fielded Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT) also received rave reviews for mobility performances in off-road areas throughout the KTO. However, the off-road excellence also helped to exacerbate mobility restrictions in a U.S. fleet of “line haul” tractors and trailers that were originally designed and procured for an on-highway operational profile.

Post-war years have seen further quantum improvements in the battlefield logistics arena with the fielding of the Army’s Palletized Load System (PLS).

Likewise, the tragedy of friendly fire casualties continues to be addressed through evolving programs like the vehicle-based Battlefield Combat Identification System (BCIS) and Combat Identification for the Dismounted Soldier (CIDDS).

Another capabilities shortfall surfacing in the DoD report involved a lack of U.S. defense capabilities against biological weapons. A clear example of a rapid post-conflict materiel solution to this deficiency can be seen in the development and fielding of the M31 series Biological Integrated Detection System (BIDS).  Although U.S. forces reportedly received rushed fielding of limited biological detection capabilities during the conflict, it was not until fielding of the multi-component BIDS that the U.S. military could truly claim to possess the world’s first capability for monitoring, sampling, detecting, and presumptively identifying battlefield biological warfare (BW) agents.

As a post-conflict development program, BIDS was developed by the U.S. military with participation by several agencies including the U.S. Army’s Chemical and Biological Defense Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. For the most part the basic system features off-the-shelf technology of a type found in many microbiology or research laboratories. The subsystems were integrated in an S-788/G lightweight multipurpose shelter and carried on the rear of an M1097 series High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV).

By the middle of 1994, the Army had identified and converted a “motorized smoke” unit to begin training as its first BIDS-equipped biological defense company.

Along with biological defense needs, ODS also presented the Army with a mandate to accelerate their fielding of a previously-planned Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Reconnaissance System (NBCRS). The M93 was the six-wheeled lightly armored vehicle serving as a rolling laboratory that samples and analyzes air, water, and ground samples for signs of weapons of mass destruction.

M-93 Fox

A M-93 Fox Nuclear-Biological-Chemical (NBC) reconnaissance system deployed for Operation Desert Storm. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. J. R. Ruark.

The original U.S. Army XM93 NBCRS design was based on the Thyssen Henschel TPz1 “Fox” NBC Armored Vehicle first fielded with the (West) German Army in the mid-1980s. In March 1990, a team from General Dynamics Land Systems Division (GDLS) and Thyssen Henschel received the U.S. contract for the Fox System Improvement Program (SIP). Among other things, the contract called for the production and support of 48 interim configuration Fox vehicles to be completed by October 1993.

However, less than six months after that contract award and three years short of the scheduled vehicle deliveries, U.S. Army elements were tasked for Operation Desert Shield without a viable NBCRS capability. In response to the obvious shortfall, 60 “Americanized” NBCRS systems were “gifted” by Germany to the U.S. Armed Forces.

The “Americanized” vehicles were modified in Germany to include an integrated U.S. communications and weapon system, smoke grenade launchers, engineering and other changes. The completed vehicles were then delivered to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, while U.S. Army troops trained to perform NBCRS functions at the German Army NBC School in Sonthofen, Germany.

Although performing well in ODS, the 60 “Americanized” Fox vehicles did not satisfy the Army’s February 1991 NBCRS Required Operational Capability (ROC) requirements.  As a result, in addition to working in concert with Thyssen Henschel to produce the 48 basic vehicles designated as “limited production urgent fielding,” GDLS also produced 10 vehicles modified to meet ROC requirements. Those vehicles, designated XM93E1, entered operational testing in the spring of 1994.  An additional five “basic systems” which the Army had purchased under an earlier foreign materiel evaluation program brought the U.S. “Fox” fleet total to 123 vehicles.

Based on the results of the post-war operational testing in 1994, the U.S. Army type classified the XM93E1 as the M93A1 on June 26, 1995, and approved existing Fox systems for upgrade and fielding.

Secretary Cheney’s July 1991 DoD report to Congress also addressed several lessons learned as a result of ground operations by U.S. Marine Corps elements.  Although acknowledging in the introduction that “We were not nearly good enough at clearing land and sea mines, especially shallow water mines,” and that “This might have imposed significant additional costs had large scale amphibious operations been required,” the report praised the “versatility” of Marine Corps land systems including the Light Armored Vehicle.

At the same time that the DoD assessment was being delivered to Congress, Marine Corps service representatives were releasing their own equipment assessments stemming from lessons learned during the ground war experiences of 1 Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).

Operation Desert Storm

Marines from Company D, 2nd Tank Battalion, drive their M-60A1 main battle tank over a sand berm on Hill 231 while rehearsing their role as part of Task Force Breach Alpha during Operation Desert Storm. The tank is fitted with reactive armor and an M-9 bulldozer kit. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. M.D. Masters.

In one example, the Marine Corps Research Center (MCRC), Quantico, Va., released a July 1991 assessment of Armor/Antiarmor Operations in Southwest Asia (MCRC Research Paper #92-0002). Prepared by MCRC’s Battle Assessment Team’s (BAT) armor/antiarmor team, the analysis focused on the armor/antiarmor and mechanized aspects of MEF operations during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

According to the report’s writers, “The effort focused on interviewing any member of the MEF, regardless of military occupational specialty or service component, who fired an antiarmor weapon (Dragon, TOW, rocket, 25mm gun, tank main gun or assault amphibious vehicle (AAV) weapon station) during either Desert Shield or Desert Storm. It was considered to be just as relevant to collect data from individuals who may have missed the target, or experienced an erratic or malfunctioning weapon, as it was to collect experiences from gunners or crews who claimed to have hit the target.”

Like the Army, the Marine Corps assessment team quickly identified the M1A1 Abrams as the greatest tank on the battlefield. Moreover, the Marine Corps assessment was based on a unique comparison factor since armored units of the MEF’s Ground Combat Element (GCE) were primarily equipped with M60A1 tanks and only received a battalion of M1A1s during the final stages of Operation Desert Shield. Supported by additional M1A1 observations drawn from Tiger Brigade (a brigade of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored Division attached to I MEF), the assessment team concluded, “The M1A1 was undoubtedly the best tank on the battlefield.  Marine and Army (Tiger Brigade) gunners successfully engaged targets at 3,000+ meters and recorded first round hits while shooting on the move. Although the Abrams clearly had a number of advantages in the KTO over every model of Iraqi tank, and for that matter the M60A1, it was the vehicle’s thermal sight and laser-range finder that provided the crew the capability to dominate the battlefield.”

USMC combat experience with the M60A1 also surfaced a number of “disadvantageous” lessons, ranging from its lack of thermal sight to a shortage of reactive armor.

In terms of tank lethality, the assessment team members noted that “In the case of main gun effectiveness both the M1A1 (120mm) and M60A1 (105mm) were effective against any model Iraqi MBT, from any aspect, with both sabot and high explosive ammunition. The only comment worthy of note in this regard was that sabot rounds typically passed completely through the vehicle without causing an instantaneous catastrophic explosion.  Crews reported a delay of from 1 – 4 minutes before the target exploded and burned. Crews were more impressed and confident with the immediate destruction associated with high explosive (HE) rounds and frequently switched accordingly. Engagements took place at an average range of 1,200 meters for the M60A1, and this without a thermal sight. The M1A1 had significantly longer average ranges, but the team collected insufficient data to provide a statistically valid average. Interviews with M1A1 crews generally placed engagements somewhat beyond 2,000 meters and almost always through the thermal sight.”

Operation Desert Shield

A 101st Airborne company deploys to Saudi Arabia. DoD photo.

The 25mm cannon, which had drawn positive comments in the preliminary Army report to Congress, also surfaced among U.S. Marine Corps lessons drawn from experience with their Light Armored Infantry battalions: “The 25mm chain gun proved effective in every engagement against Iraqi armored fighting vehicles, personnel carriers, etc. Short bursts of from 3-7 HE rounds were sufficient to cause immediate burning and catastrophic destruction of the vehicle. The 25mm ammunition in use by the GCC was not able to penetrate Iraqi tanks.  [Army] Tiger Brigade crews reported that penetration and destruction of T-55/69 MBTs was commonplace with the identical 25mm gun mounted on the ‘Bradley’ fighting vehicle. The difference in effectiveness is in the depleted uranium (DU) ordnance fired by Army crews…”

Many similarities between Army and Marine Corps ground war lessons continued through reported experiences with Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs), “Friendly Fire” fratricide and NBC defense.

Then-Secretary Cheney identified five “general lessons” taken from the war in his July 1991 report to Congress. They included the importance of decisive presidential leadership, a revolutionary new generation of high technology weapons, a high quality military, the need for sound planning in an uncertain world, and the fact that “It takes a long time to build the high-quality forces and systems that gave us success.”

But, regardless of the any overarching strategic or tactical hardware issues and programs that might have been defined or refined as a result of ODS experiences, perhaps the single greatest lesson learned during the war involved the importance of the individual.

The U.S. Marine Corps assessment is clearly on the mark in the opening of its Summary/Recommendations section: “Americans, and the American military especially, tend to be enamored with technology and seek hardware solutions to every problem. It is where we put our money and most of our effort. What really worked in SWA [Southwest Asia] was the people, and if we continue to invest in this aspect of the force, and not fall victim to an over reliance on technology and a ‘knee jerk’ search for the technological solution, we will be better off in the long run.”

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

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-448">
    isaac pius eric

    what a wonderful life in naval force and i will like to spend my days there