Defense Media Network

Gulf War: The Air War

On the night of January 17-18, 1991, a veritable tidal wave came plunging down on Iraq and on Iraqi forces in Kuwait as 300 strike aircraft from the Western coalition swarmed down on strategic targets. Maj. Gregory A. Feest, flying an F-117 Nighthawk, dropped the first bomb of the war on an interceptor operations center in Baghdad, wreaking havoc in Saddam Hussein’s air defense system. But even before the stealth fighters, Iraqi air sites near the border were challenged by helicopters.

Desert Storm

F-117 stealth fighter aircraft of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing stand on the flight line with canopies raised following their return from Saudi Arabia where they took part in Operation Desert Storm. The F-117s were the first American aircraft to hit targets in Baghdad. DoD photo.

Task Force Normandy was made up of MH-53J Pave Lows from the Air Force’s 20th Helicopter Squadron and AH-64 Apaches from the Army’s 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division, Fort Campbell, Ky. The plan was to attack each of two radar sites at a pivotal location known in American parlance as Objective Oklahoma with two Pave Lows and four Apaches. The Pave Lows used terrain-following radar and GPS (global positioning system) to guide the Apaches over the border and to a pre-planned firing point. Close to the targets, the Pave Lows slowed and dropped fluorescent light sticks onto the desert. The Army helicopters used those points of light to set their own navigation systems, then draw to within visual range, the Pave Lows moved back and opened fire with 30mm cannons and Hellfire missiles. The result was a devastating blow to key Iraqi defense positions, 22 minutes before the 3:00 a.m. H-hour.

Stealth Attack

By then, the 12-plane first wave of F-117s was already 50 miles beyond Oklahoma. These F-117s reached Baghdad while Saddam’s radars were still up and running and without being detected. Maj. Jerry Leatherman was in one of the F-117s. Leatherman’s job, like that of another F-117 pilot ahead of him, was to bomb the Baghdad International Telephone Exchange, known to the F-117 pilots as the AT&T building because its real Arabic name was unwieldy. Leatherman followed the night eastward at 480 knots. He skirted the capital to attack from the north. He saw city lights, neon signs, the snake-like Tigris River winding through the city. Sixty SAM sites and 3000 antiaircraft guns encircled Baghdad on this night.  Almost all of them were shooting now. Only later would Leatherman learn that, panicked, they were shooting “blind” and not at him. At exactly 3:00 a.m., the F-117 in front of Leatherman’s hit the AT&T Building with a GBU-27 bomb. On Leatherman’s scope, the target abruptly glowed, hotter than adjacent office towers and the nearby, tulip-shaped Iraqi Martyrs Monument. Leatherman pickled one minute later, splitting the crosshairs on his display and blowing out the upper four floors of the building. Leatherman peeled away to the west, for the safety of the desert, and turned for home, switching on heavy metal music from Def Leppard on his Walkman. Behind him, Capt. Marcel Kerdavid swooped down through a sky alive with fire and pickled a GBU-27 through the Al Khark communications tower, to blow the 370-foot spire apart at its mid-point. “My biggest fear was that I would survive,” remembered Major Mike Mahar, pilot of an F-117 in the second wave assaulting Baghdad. ‘They’re all dead,’ I told myself. ‘All the guys who went in ahead of me have been shot down. If I live through tonight, I’ll be the only F-117 pilot who survived. Everybody will ask why’”

Desert Storm

F-16C Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft are refueled by KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft. DoD photo by TSgt. Perry Heimer.

“Twenty minutes away from Saddam Hussein’s presidential retreat at Abu Ghurayb, I saw what looked like red-orange explosions from bombs filling the landscape ahead. But we didn’t have any aircraft up there. I know, now, I was looking at muzzle flashes from antiaircraft guns.” The sky around Mahar seemed to be full of fire. Flak detonated above and below him, buffeting the F-117. “No one had ever seen such a nocturnal display of pyrotechnics,” he remembers. “With no spatial reference, it was impossible to tell how far some of it was from my airplane. But it seemed very close.”

In fact, none of Mahar’s wingmen were dead, wounded, or even scratched. As it would turn out, the F-117’s first-generation, radar-evading stealth properties enabled it to fly 1,271 combat sorties in the 42-day Persian Gulf war without a single loss. From the beginning of the war until its end, the F-117 ruled the skies over Baghdad.

Shortly before 3:00 a.m., an E-3 Sentry AWACS spotted MiG-29s flying low about 50 miles inside the Iraqi border. Four F-15C Eagles from the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., slipped across the border to intercept. One of the Iraqi MiGs responded by gaining a radar lock-on on Capt. John B. “J. B.” Kelk’s Eagle. With alarms sounding and visual warnings jarring him, Kelk fired a missile and scored the war’s first aerial victory at 3:10 a.m. near Mudaysis in southern Iraq.

Air Action

Desert Shield

Bitburg based F-15 Eagles flew straight to Saudi Arabia fully armed for war. DoD photo by TSgt. Fernando Serna.

It was the beginning of an air-to-air combat saga that would be unprecedented in the history books. A Navy FA-18 Hornet lost that first night may have been the only American aircraft lost in air-to-air action (to an Iraqi MiG-25).

In contrast, the coalition shot down 44 Iraqi warplanes, some of them attempting to flee to asylum inside Iraq’s recent former enemy, Iran. A total of 37 were brought down by Air Force F-15Cs, all but one of them in Kelk’s fighter wing, and the Eagles sustained no losses. While an airlift of unprecedented size continued to bring supplies and arms to the bases built up by the coalition, Operation Desert Storm unleashed new strikes by sea-launched cruse missiles, some of which came from the aging battleship USS Missouri (BB-63), carrier-based warplanes from no fewer than five carrier battle groups flanking the Arabian peninsula on both sides, and long-range bombers.

During Operation Desert Storm, B-52G Stratofortresses served in provisional bomb wings and mounted combat missions from Diego Garcia; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Moron, Spain, and Fairford, England. B-52Gs flew 1,624 missions, dropped over 72,000 weapons, and delivered over 25,700 tons of munitions on area targets in the KTO (Kuwait Theater of Operations) and on airfields, industrial targets, troop concentrations, and storage areas in Iraq. Persian Gulf war B-52Gs had a mission capable rate of over 81 percent, or 2 percent higher than the peacetime rate. B-52Gs dropped 29 percent of all U.S. bombs and 38 percent of all Air Force bombs during the war.

Desert Storm

The old B-52s played a large part in the conflict, firing cruise missiles and unloading almost a third of all bombs in the war. DoD photo.

It was revealed a year after the Gulf War that seven B-52Gs fired 35 AGM-86C conventional air launched cruise missiles (CALCMs) against eight targets in northern Iraq, including hydroelectric and geothermal power plants near Mosul, and the telephone exchange in Basara. The classified code name for the program was Senior Surprise, although the crews called them “Secret Squirrels.”

Seven aircraft from the 596th Bombardment Squadron, 2nd Bombardment Wing flew the longest combat mission in history that first night of the Persian Gulf conflict. The round-trip mission from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., lasted over 34 hours and launched 35 AGM-86C CALCMs against eight targets near Mosul, in northern Iraq. A further four missiles on four different aircraft had problems and were not launched. Launched during a ten-minute period from about 100 miles south of the Iraqi-Saudi border near the town of Ar Ar, they struck power stations near Mosel and communications facilities (including one near Basara), some of which were beyond the reach of manned aircraft prior to the start of missions from Turkey. The missiles’ use of the global positioning system aided their flight over the often featureless Iraqi terrain enabling 31 of them to hit their targets. The engine on one missile failed to start after launch, two probably missed their targets, and one was never accounted for (and was possibly shot down), yielding an 85-to 91-percent success rate. Speculation about why so many aircraft were used to launch so few missiles centers on the theory that the abort of a single aircraft would have less impact if it had fewer missiles. Further, the mission used up most of the available AGM-86Cs.

Desert Shield

The Marines brought their own organic air power with them, in the shape of Harriers flying from amphibious warfare ships and ashore, as well as F/A-18s and A-6E Intruders, flying 18,000 sorties during the air campaign. DoD photo by PH1 (AC) Scott Allen.

Ongoing Campaign

Once the fighting was underway, it became apparent that there would be no ground war immediately. But in the air, the attackers employed tricks they had learned playing the high-end game in the final years of the Cold War. A decade after the Goldwater-Nichols Law forced American service branches to cooperate, Desert Storm became the first joint war. There were glitches (because of incompatible information networks, each Navy carrier had to send an airplane to Riyadh to pick up the Air Tasking Order each day), but jointness was a “force multiplier” that made every bomb and missile deadlier.

The new technologies, including radar-evading stealth and miniaturized precision targeting, were icing on this cake. It would be impossible to understand the success of Desert Storm without grasping the Desert Shield buildup ­– and especially the Desert Shield airlift that came first. When Saddam swept over Kuwait, the United States had no forces in the region. Six months later, 525,000 Americans were in the Gulf. Their numbers included the equivalent of nine infantry and armor divisions and a Marine division plus a brigade. They had 1,300 main battle tanks, seven carrier battle groups, a dozen fighter wings, and a supply line for arms and ammunition that stretched halfway around the world.

The airlift mounted by U.S. Air Force’s Military Airlift Command carried people, weapons, and equipment of all five U.S. service branches from 120 locations to the deserts of the Middle East. Together with the sealift that followed, it made possible the most spectacular buildup of military force in history.

MAC’s Gen. H. T. Johnson cobbled together an air bridge that hauled people and equipment on exhausting,  38-hour missions (the round-trip from a U.S. base, to a European location, followed by the round-trip “downrange” to the Saudi deserts). Johnson threw nearly all of his 265 C-141B Starlifters and 85 C-5 Galaxys into the effort and activated elements of the CRAF (Civil Reserve Air Fleet). The size of the effort was stupefying: C-141B or C-5 landed at Dhahran every seven minutes, around the clock. The tonnage of the 1948 Berlin airlift was exceeded in the first 22 days. 220,000 troops and their equipment were moved by October.

Desert Shield

The buildup of forces for Desert Storm would have been impossible without the C-5 Galaxy. DoD photo.

A typical airlift job was, for example, to haul equipment for the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, Calif. A crew would fly the first leg – for example, from Pendleton to Torrejon. There, another crew in a revolving pool would pick up both the mission and the aircraft, and continue downrange. Routine problems which might delay a departure – cleaning an aircraft, for instance – had to be set aside in the all-compelling effort to keep the aircraft moving, constantly moving. The eastbound stage, they called 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.

There were triumphs and there were horror stories. One C-5 Galaxy pilot struggled with ground personnel who tried to load too much cargo, command posts confused about his destination, and a 3-hour quest for an empty bed at the end of a 30-hour work day. 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), and a pilot’s altimeter on the blink. Shortcuts had to be taken in maintaining aircraft, and especially in cleaning them – one C-141 was needed so badly, it was pulled out of the paint shop and flown to Saudi Arabia in natural metal, colorless – to keep troops and materiel moving.

Strategic airlifters (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. Airlifters moved 4.65 billion ton-miles, as compared with 697.5 million during the 65-week Berlin airlift. To those who participated,  there was another way to say what they had done – a bumper sticker, worth saving for the grandchildren, worn by some as a badge of honor: I FLEW THE EASTBOUND STAGE.

Desert Shield

Air Force C-5 and C-141 aircraft, plus C-130s and KC-10s, carried over half a million passengers and as many tons of cargo. DoD photo.

Saddam Hussein, with the world’s fourth largest land army, with Scud ballistic missiles, with nascent chemical and biological weapons, ultimately was not up to the test of confronting a mature American volunteer force supported by Coalition forces. The lapse of six months between Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990 and the start of the war in January had enabled Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. field commander, to assemble a massive air and ground armada which included half a million American troops.

Lt. Gen. (later Gen.) Charles “Chuck” Horner, who commanded the air campaign from a Riyadh headquarters called the Black Hole, had had six months to exploit the well-established airfield infrastructure in the region and to build up a force which comprised nearly a thousand aircraft.  All of this paid off as the fighting began but, even then, not everything went perfectly. As January faded into February, still with no ground war underway, Horner and his aerial armada were seriously distracted by a hunt for Iraqi Scud missile launch sites. “The great Scud hunt,” as it turned out, had little impact and Iraq continued to launch small numbers of the ballistic missiles, with conventional warheads, with impunity.

Britain’s Royal Air Force learned that using runway-denial weapons-developed in a NATO-Warsaw Pact contest – was a good way to get shot down.

Desert Shield

On their way into the theater, Navy Tomcats brushed up on dissimilar air combat training with Royal Air Force Phantoms. DoD photo.

RAF Tornado squadrons had to keep constantly revising their tactics as they attempted to do their part in keeping Saddam’s air defense quiet. Typical was the loss of a Tornado to a surface-to-air missile on February 14. Flight Lt. Rupert Clark was reacting to the hit when a second SAM went off nearby. It was catastrophic – instant loss of both engines, as well as trashing of the entire cockpit and flight instruments. Clark ejected and was captured. His navigator, Flight Lt. Steven Hicks, was killed.

Prisoners of war in the Baghdad Biltmore found that Saddam’s troops had little regard for international standards of behavior. All were beaten. Some were treated as propaganda tools. While dozens of friendlies were being held prisoner, the coalition rounded up thousands of Iraqis,  including some who surrendered to a remotely- piloted vehicle and others who were herded into captivity by Apache helicopters.

Ground War

Operation Desert Shield

A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15C takes off on a mission. Saudi aircraft comprised the largest contingent after the U.S. DoD photo by TSgt. Hans Deffner.

The ground war began at 4:00 a.m., February 24, when the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions (in the east of Saudi Arabia, closer than other friendlies to Kuwait City) launched attacks through Iraqi border barriers of minefields, barbed wire, oil-filled trenches, and artillery fire. In a daring helicopter assault, 2,000 men of the 101st Airborne Division seized As Salman airfield 50 miles inside Iraq. The next day, Army troops began maneuvering into the “left hook” that trapped large numbers of Iraqis between two major forces.

Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, had pointed to an Iraqi concentration during a press conference. “I’m going to cut it off,” he said, “and then I’m going to kill it.” With the help of air power, he did.

The war ended on the last day of February with warplanes roving the “highway of death” between Kuwait City and Basra, picking off Iraqis at will.  Among the statistics from the war: 184 Americans lost in combat. By declining to march on Baghdad, Washington and its allies created a legacy.  A decade later, friendly warplanes are still patrolling the skies of Iraq.

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...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-41342">
    Heartland Patriot

    There were TWO C-141s that flew with no paint…I worked on both of them.

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    Robert F. Dorr

    I published something about the natural-metal Starlifters in my book “Desert Shield” (1991). The book is now out of print but I have a few copies here.