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Gulf War 20th: Air Power Lessons from the Gulf War

In a basement room in the Pentagon, near the famous purple water fountain that has been a building landmark for Air Staff members for generations, an Air Force major is working on a study of forced entry.

“To be honest,” the major says, “I don’t know how much attention this is getting outside this building, out there in the real Air Force.”

Forced entry is the service’s term for gaining access to airfields in a region that lacks a friendly host government. The term may refer to using political bargaining with the wavering leadership of a borderline nation. Or it may refer to launching a parachute assault to seize terrain. Either way, forced entry means securing the use of airfields where they aren’t readily available – and the term has fallen out of vogue since Operation Desert Storm.

Like air base operability, which refers to getting an airfield back into use after it has been bombed or dusted with chemicals, the concept is one that wasn’t needed in the Persian Gulf War. There, a splendid infrastructure of airfields was readily available for use by the western coalition throughout the Arabian peninsula and surrounding region. There, friendly airfields were never challenged or attacked.

Operation Desert Storm

Desert Storm proved that jointness worked, as did coalitions. DoD photo.

The lessons learned during the Gulf conflict are at the core of American doctrine, tactics, and military planning today, but the impact of that war is also a two-edged sword. The war taught Americans little or nothing about forced entry, airfield operability, fighting in a biological or chemical environment, and a dozen other disciplines that may be needed the next time Americans go to war. Fortunately, military thinkers are at work in these areas, but the mindset from the Gulf War may make their job more difficult. The United States may once again be preparing to fight the last war.

Fortunately, Operation Desert Storm taught many invaluable lessons and these are being implemented today, often by the people who were there in the desert.

It is no accident that most of the lessons are positive. The high-tech, all-volunteer force that began deploying to the Middle East in 1990 – about one-third larger than the U. S. military of today – was probably the most formidable fighting force the world has ever known. In the decade since, times have changed, retention of skilled people has become a far more serious challenge, and the armed forces are in danger of becoming a hollow likeness of what they once were. But, to quote a U. S. Navy A-7E Corsair II pilot who fought in Desert Storm: “The force we had assembled at that time was simply something that no smart adversary would want to mess with.“

Much of it undoubtedly seems obvious now, but here are the key lessons:

1. Jointness is the way to fight. The term refers to cooperation among U. S. military service branches, and it has been evolving since the Goldwater-Nichols Law of 1986, which tasked members of the service branches to work together, and imposed penalties for not doing so.

2. Technology matters. Operation Desert Storm was a resounding vindication for the years of investment in radar-evading stealth technology, which enabled the F-117 “Black Jet“ to reign supreme in the night skies over Baghdad. The desert war also proved the importance of dominating the electromagnetic spectrum, with everything from intelligence-gathering platforms like the U-2 aircraft to the F-4G Advanced Wild Weasel designed to engage and attack enemy missile sites.

3. Airpower can prevail. It may be a bitter pill for some who fight on the ground or at sea, but while the Persian Gulf War proved that everyone is needed, it also validated the dominant role of air power in winning wars. In the war against Iraq, airpower had five weeks to pulverize the foe before troops moved in on the ground. In a war over Kosovo nine years later, airpower did the job without ground forces.

F-4G Wild Weasel

Though F-16CJs can fulfill part of its role, the retired F-4G Wild Weasel has not yet found a replacement. DoD photo.

4. The public matters. In an age of cable television (and, since the war, the Internet), the United States cannot go to war without public support. This means that future wars must take advantage of jointness, technology, and airpower to reduce casualties. Operation Desert Storm showed that the public will accept sending its young men and women into battle, but only when it knows that casualties will be low.

Although Operation Desert Storm was a model of jointness, it also revealed cracks in the system. Navy carriers at sea did not have a compatible, secure system of communication that would enable them to receive the daily Air Tasking Order from Riyadh: The order had to be picked up by a carrier-based plane and physically carried to the ship. The Army and Marine Corps had serious problems of communication and interoperability, and the Air Force was not always on the mark in responding to the needs of ground troops.

Before Saddam Hussein became a household name in America, it was commonplace for some in the Pentagon to pooh-pooh the importance of technology. Oh, high-tech was important, all right, but in a military long enamored of bean-counting, numbers were more important in the view of many. Operation Desert Storm struck away all doubt that technology can prevail over numbers.

In some cases, however, lessons were learned and then ignored. There has been no follow-up aircraft with an improved version of the F-117’s stealth capabilities. The Air Force has retired its EF-111A Raven and F-4G Advanced Wild Weasel electronic warfare aircraft – prematurely, in the view of many – and has not replaced them in kind. Today’s EA-6B Prowler and missile-equipped F-16CJ Fighting Falcon, which have some of the capabilities of the retired aircraft, are in some ways less capable than the planes they replaced. The Prowler is too slow to keep up with strike aircraft proceeding to a target and, while the Prowler’s electronic systems are being updated, it is essentially a package of outdated technology.

EF-111 Raven

After retiring the EF-111 Ravens, the U.S. Air Force has had to rely on Navy and Marine Corps EA-6B Prowlers. DoD photo.

During the Persian Gulf War, some warplanes reached their targets navigating via the global positioning system, which relies on satellites in orbit. Since the war, GPS has become vital to every aspect of military operations. Yet today, the military is being criticized for being slow to integrate air and space technologies, and those who appreciate the importance of space-based systems are crying out for a more autonomous space force. A commission headed by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reported in January 2001 that the United States was doing a poor job of handling its space assets, and urged greater independence for the military’s space command.

The difficulties in capitalizing on new technologies are illustrated by the Marine Corps’ problems with the MV-22B Osprey, the tilt-rotor aircraft it wants to use to haul troops from vessels at sea to landing zones deep inland, bypassing treacherous amphibious beach landings. After more than a decade of tests and 4,000 flight hours, the Osprey appears to have vindicated tilt-rotor technology, but the program has suffered two fatal crashes, and has been undermined by a record-keeping scandal within the Corps. Overlooked amid this fuss is the likelihood that tilt-rotor technology works, and the simple truth that any technological revolution exacts a price.

As for the plain truth about airpower, it remains difficult for some in the Pentagon to swallow, even if the truth has been evolving since Brig. Gen. William Mitchell demonstrated the superiority of the bomber over the battleship in 1921. When properly used, together with the boon of technology (and that includes precision-guided weapons), airpower wins wars. The Gulf War required a contribution from everyone, and the sailor aboard a destroyer or the infantryman charging into battle was needed – but by the time the ground fight began, the issue had been decided.

The need for greater integration of air and space assets is well understood but is proceeding too slowly. The need for a 21st-century version of the F-117, as well as a modern “power projection platform” to replace the ancient B-52 Stratofortress bomber, is also well understood but not proceeding at all. If airpower is to retain its prevalent role, newer and better systems need to be fielded sooner than current plans call for.

B-52 Stratofortress

Twenty years after Desert Storm, the old B-52 soldiers on as a power projection platform. DoD photo.

As for the role of the public in armed conflict, like it or not the U. S. armed forces must contend today with a populace weaned on instant information. The public today is not prepared to accept high casualties. That reality has shaped American intervention since the Gulf War, including the fighting over Kosovo, which was done entirely by air and resulted in not a single friendly killed or wounded in action.

But the next war could be different. The next war may require forced entry or air base operability. The next war may not give us a Saddam Hussein, who generously allowed the western coalition six months to build up, exploiting a vast network of airfields that were available from day one. “We may not have airfields next time,” says the major near the purple water fountain – and he is right.

The learning of lessons must always be a selective process. We cannot assume that our next conflict will resemble the Persian Gulf War in any way. We can, however, gain from the positive lessons of that war – so long as we stay focused, also, on other threats and other eventualities looming out there in an uncertain world.

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


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