Defense Media Network

Gulf War: The Land War

The land forces components of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were spun into initial action within hours of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Serving as the bedrock for a coalition force structure that would fight the first major military campaign of the post-Cold War era, the U.S. land force component transitioned from an urgent defensive response to an overwhelming offensive juggernaut in less than six months.

Taking the Defensive

Operation Desert Shield


Some of the U.S. success in rapidly responding to the crisis in what would become the Kuwait Theater of Operations (KTO) stemmed from a revised U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) regional defense concept outline plan and a series of CENTCOM “Internal Look” exercises that had been conducted during the month prior to Iraq’s invasion. Based in part on this planning foundation, U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and CENTCOM Commander-in-Chief (CINCCENT) General Norman Schwarzkopf were immediately dispatched to Saudi Arabia where they met with King Fahd on August 6. By this time, Iraq had placed six divisions on the ground in Kuwait where they possessed the option of continuing their attack south into Saudi Arabia.

The August 6 meeting resulted in an invitation for U.S. forces to assist in the defense of Saudi Arabia with CENTCOM deployments beginning the next day. Among the first forces to arrive on August 8 were two squadrons of U.S. Air Force air superiority fighters and elements of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, Division Ready Brigade. The arrivals took place on the same day that Saddam Hussein announced Kuwait’s annexation by Iraq.

Based on an August 10 vote by the Arab League, the first coalition forces, a contingent of troops from Egypt, arrived in Saudi Arabia on August 11. U.S. land forces also continued to arrive over the next few days and weeks with the first elements of a 16,800-man Marine Air Ground Task Force arriving on August 14.

The size and capabilities of these expanding forces focused the initial strategy identified by CENTCOM planners on the deterrence of further Iraqi aggression and the defense of Saudi Arabia and other friendly regional states. However, with the failure of U.N. sanctions and the steady increase of coalition force strength, coalition strategists began to focus on the possibility of the offensive air, land, and sea operations that would be necessary to eject Iraq from Kuwait.

Operation Desert Storm

A Chapparal SAM vehicle. Coalition ground forces were prepared for an air threat that never materialized. DoD photo.

This would eventually evolve to focus on several “key theater military objectives.” As identified in Operations Order 91-001, these objectives included the attack of Iraqi political-military leadership and command and control; gaining and maintaining air superiority; severing Iraqi supply lines; destroying known chemical, biological, and nuclear production, storage, and delivery capabilities; destroying Iraqi Republican Guard Forces in the KTO; and the liberation of Kuwait City.

While some of these key objectives called for an aerial solution, others mandated the use of the expanding array of coalition land force units and equipment.

Equipment Technologies

As the most important test of American arms in a quarter of a century, Desert Storm coincided with the dawn of a new technological era on the battlefield.

At one end of the technology spectrum, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm saw the final combat participation by the Iowa-class battleships USS Wisconsin and USS Missouri. The ships were seen by many as floating Cold War icons, with World War II ending on the same wooden decks that were now being used to deliver lethal ordnance onto Iraqi positions in occupied Kuwait.

On the other hand, the new era was characterized by the broad introduction of combat technologies that included Global Positioning Systems, precision guided munitions, enhanced survivability measures, and stealth technologies. Land force applications of the emerging battlefield technologies ranged from the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank to the AH-64A Apache helicopter.

Operation Desert Shield

An AH-64A Apache takes off during Operation Desert Shield. Their Hellfire missiles and survivability dominated the battlefield. DoD photo.

The Apaches, for example, made their first mark prior to the start of official land force offensive actions.

In the early hours of January 17, 1991, two groups of Apache helicopters flew north over hostile lines. Guided in part by a U.S. Air Force special operations MH-53J Pave Low helicopter, the Apaches took firing positions in front of two Iraqi air defense radar-warning complexes.

At 0238, the first shot of Operation Desert Storm was fired from the Hellfire missile launcher on the first Apache. Over the next few minutes, the two groups of Army attack helicopters opened a 40 kilometer-wide corridor in air defense warning capabilities and signaled the start of the wars air bombardment campaign – a 40 day aerial assault frequently described in near Biblical proportions.

The Abrams main battle tank also saw significant attention in the months, weeks, and days prior to the start of the ground campaign. With the original arrival of defensive forces from the 82nd Airborne Division supported by the questionable firepower provided by obsolete M551 Sheridan armored reconnaissance vehicles from the division’s 3-73 Armored Battalion (since disbanded), coalition planners were anxious to begin supplementing those armored assets with the modern Abrams tanks.

However, many of the deploying U.S. land forces were equipped with the “basic” M1 with 105 mm main gun. To guarantee battlefield overmatch against Iraq’s top-of-the-line T-72 tanks, coalition planners focused on the need to field the M1A1 with 120 mm main gun and on-board chemical defense capabilities. Their concern led to the upgrade and fielding of more than 1,000 120 mm Abrams tanks prior to the start of the land war.

Operation Desert Storm

M551 Sheridans would have been badly outgunned had the Iraqis continued into Saudi Arabia. DoD photo by Sgt. Prentiss Tramble.

Other new ground force weapons also participated early in the aerial attack phase of Desert Storm as on January 18, when a Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) firing unit from the U.S. Army’s 1-27 Field Artillery launched history’s first long range precision tactical missile strike against an Iraqi SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) site located 30 kilometers inside Kuwait.

The countdown to “G-day” (official start of “ground” operations) also saw other field artillery units join in the fray through the conduct of numerous “counterbattery raids” by both cannon and rocket ground weapon systems.  As they would continue to do throughout the conflict, coalition planners used the application of combat firepower to “shape the battlefield” to present the optimum combat environment for U.S. forces and their allies.

These firepower raids conducted by coalition land force were also supplemented by a range of additional operations performed by special operations forces (SOF). Special operations ranged from feints and actions designed to deceive the enemy regarding the true nature of coalition war plans to combat raids to destroy and deny Iraqi use of a particular asset. Among SOF elements conducting these missions were members of the Army’s 1st Battalion/75th Ranger Regiment, who deployed to Saudi Arabia on February 12, 1991 and subsequently conducted raids and provided a quick reaction force in support of coalition forces.

Staged for Action

While the raids and attacks conducted prior to G-day forced early activation of ground force prisoner of war operations (the U.S. Marine Corps, for example, reportedly began accepting enemy prisoners of war into their lines as early as January 17), the pre-G-day air campaign phase also provided planners with a last chance to organize and position land force elements for the long-awaited ground campaign. Moreover, some land forces used this period to begin the movement of the more than 65,000 combat and support vehicles required for the violent “left hook” envelopment that would be key to the coalition land victory.

After months of gathering, training, and waiting, the coalition ground force staging process had crafted a battlefield arrayed with five major formation groupings.

The western-most grouping on ODS battle maps was based around the XVIII Airborne Corps and included the 82nd Airborne Division, 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division, 24th Mechanized Division, 6th French Armored Division, and both 12th and 18th Aviation Brigades.

Operation Desert Storm

Follow on forces of the Army, Marines, and coalition gradually built up to a massive force. DoD photo.

To their right, the U.S. VIII Corps grouping included the 1st Infantry Division, 1st Armored Division, 3rd Armored Division, 1st Cavalry Division, (Initially used as theater reserve, 1st Cavalry Division conducted a critical G-day feint into a huge dry ravine between Iraq and Kuwait where Iraqi defenders mistakenly expected the main attack to occur, 1st British Armored Division, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and the 11th Aviation Brigade.)

The center battlefield grouping was crafted around Joint Forces Command – North (JFC-N) and included the 3rd Egyptian Mechanized Division, the 4th Egyptian Armored Division, the 9th Syrian Armored Division, an Egyptian Ranger Regiment, a Syrian Commando Regiment, the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) 20th Mechanized Brigade, the 4th RSLF Armored Brigade, and the Kuwaiti Shaheed and Al-Tahrir Brigades.

To the right of JFC-N was a grouping created around the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (1 MEF), which included the 1st Marine Division, 2nd Marine Division, and the attached 1st Brigade, known as “Tiger Brigade,” from the U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored Division.

Joint Forces Command-East (JFC-E) made up the right flank of the coalition ground campaign. Units assigned to this grouping were broken into three separate task force formations: Task Force Omar included the RSLF 10th Infantry Brigade along with Motorized Infantry Battalions from both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman; Task Force Othman included the RSLF 8th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, the Kuwaiti Al-Fatah Brigade, and an Infantry Company from Bahrain; Task Force Abu Bakr included the Saudi Arabian National Guard 2nd Motorized Infantry Brigade along with a Mechanized Battalion provided by Qatar.

Offensive Actions

Operation Desert Storm

Dispersed trucks of the 364th Supply Company. Logisticians were among the unsung heroes of Desert Storm. DoD photo.

With G-day officially beginning on February 24, 1991, the ground campaign represented the combined efforts of land, air, and sea elements to cut Iraqi lines of communications in southeastern Iraq, to liberate Kuwait, and to destroy units of the Iraqi leader’s “elite” Republican Guard located in the KTO. The operational concept involved a massive coordinated attack along parallel routes into Kuwait and Iraq with an enormous left flanking attack through the Iraqi desert that not only avoided prepared enemy strong points but also trapped large elements of the Iraqi Army, presenting them with the options of surrender or annihilation.

As noted above, coalition forces involved in the “left hook” envelopment operation had actually been moving 24 hours a day for more than three weeks prior to G-day. The movement process saw the westernmost grouping, led by the XVIIIth Airborne Corps, move approximately 250 miles. To their right, VIII Corps units moved more than 150 miles. All in all, the movement of personnel and equipment during this period reportedly exceeded that moved by General Patton’s Third Army during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.

By necessity, the movement of combat and combat support systems had to be accompanied by the massive relocation of logistic support assets. Although successfully performed by the 22nd Support Command, the enormous relocation process helped to highlight a number of logistics hardware deficiencies for coalition planners.


G-day actions got their violent start at 0400 local time on February 24 when 1 MEF’s 1st Marine Division breached two belts of obstacles and continued their attack toward the airfield at Al-Jaber. Less than two hours later, the 2nd Marine Division repeated the breaching and attack process on 1st Division’s left flank. The Army’s Tiger Brigade, equipped with the highly lethal M1A1 Abrams main battle tank, supported the M60A1-equipped Marines through the destruction of Iraq’s armored reserves located behind the obstacle barriers.

Operation Desert Shield

Helicopters, like the Marine CH-46 shown, proved themselves invaluable in many battlefield roles. DoD photo.

Furthest to the right, JFC-E began moving at 0800 on G-day, quickly securing initial objectives and continuing movement to the north supported in part by 16 inch naval gunfire delivered by a U.S. battleship operating in the Persian Gulf.

XVIII Corps’ G-day movement began with a massive helicopter air assault by the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division. The assault was accompanied by ground movement of the 6th French Light Armored Division (supported by the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division), the 24th Infantry Division, and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. Following its massive ground movement, VIII Corps elements crossed the line of departure, slashing multiple lanes through Iraqi obstacle belts and continuing their northward attack.

In the center, elements of JFC-N attacked and encountered Iraqi “fire trenches,” securing initial objectives and establishing blocking positions to thwart any potential Iraqi armor counterattacks.

February 25 saw continuing coalition attacks on all fronts. To the west of the coalition front, XVIIIth Airborne Corps units continued their supporting attacks to isolate Iraqi forces.

To that corps’ right, VIIIth Corps’ 2nd ACR, along with the U.S. 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions, continued to expand their attacks north. Meanwhile, the 1st British Armored Division attacked and destroyed Iraq’s 12th Armored Division.

In the center, JFC-N’s Egyptian Corps expanded their bridgehead, capturing quantities of Iraqi troops and equipment in the process.

Operation Desert Storm

U.S. Marines roll into Kuwait City airport. DoD photo by TSgt. David McLeod.

1 MEF elements continued the attacks they had started on the 24th. 1st Marine Division consolidated on the newly-seized Al-Jaber airfield and penetrated to within an estimated 10 miles of Kuwait City while 2nd Marine Division elements continued their attacks with resulting capture or destruction of nearly 200 enemy tanks.

Although continuing its successful attacks northward, JFC-E movement began to slow somewhat on the 25th due to huge numbers of surrendering Iraqis who swamped the prisoner of war processing system.

By the early hours of February 26, retreating Iraqi forces – composed of elements of the Kuwait occupation force as well as Iraq’s III Corps – were caught in a gridlock of looted greed stretching along the main highway back to Iraq. Punishing aerial attacks turned the congestion into a massive kill zone.

XVIII Corps’ 24th Mechanized Infantry Division completed a 200-mile desert crossing to reach the Euphrates River Valley. Together with the penetration of VII Corps units deep into Iraq, the combat actions anchored the coalition left flank and completed the encirclement of Iraqi forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq.

JFC-N continued seizing its objectives before elements turned east to seize the Al-Salem airfield.

1 MEF’s 1st Marine Division seized Kuwait International Airport while 2nd Marine Division secured transportation nodes to the west and northwest of Kuwait City. To the east, JFC-E was positioned to lead the liberation drive into Kuwait City itself.

By the end of the land war’s second day, coalition ground forces had captured an estimated 30,000 enemy prisoners of war and destroyed or neutralized 26 out of Iraq’s 42 ground divisions.

Operation Desert Storm

Aftermath. The muzzle of a destroyed Iraqi tank’s cannon frames oil well fires lit by retreating Iraqi forces. DoD photo by JO1 Joe Gawcowicz.

Continuing the advances that began on the night of February 26 that included attacks against three Republican Guard Mechanized Divisions – the Hammurabi, the Medina, and the Tawakalna – VII Corps elements attacked Iraq’s northern flank on February 27 to hold those encircled forces in position.

Meanwhile, JFC-E took position in the southern part of Kuwait City while JFC-N prepared to enter the city from the west.

It was against this background of continuing coalition success that Desert Storm offensive operations were ceased on February 28, just 100 hours after the official start of the ground campaign.

Any discussion of the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf must include one final note. While the land war component of Desert Storm may have looked effortless to some, it did come at a price in American lives.  Casualties may have been light, but they did occur and the sacrifices of those soldiers and their families must never be forgotten.

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


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