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Gulf War: The War at Sea

Most observers think of the Gulf War as a land and air campaign; surely the naval aspect was secondary. In fact it was primary: Without the seapower, the war could not have been fought at all. For the United States, seapower is, above all, about access to the world beyond our shores. In an age of air transportation, it is too easy to forget that most heavy goods still travel by sea, because that is by far the easiest way to move them. It still only pays to move very valuable lightweight cargo – such as people – by air. It would, for example, be unimaginable to try to move an air base, with its airplanes and its resources, along a highway or through the air. Yet an aircraft carrier is exactly that, a moving air base.

Operation Desert Storm

Ships of Task Force 155 during Operation Desert Storm, including the carriers Saratoga, America, and John F. Kennedy. DoD photo.

It is also extremely important to note that a U.S. warship is U.S. territory, generally not subject to any other country’s authority in the way that a base on foreign soil is. Given such mobile territory, the U.S. government can decide what it wants to do in a crisis situation, without having to gain local support. In many cases a foreign government wants our support but risks domestic or local opposition if it requests it. By moving ships into place we can solve that government’s problem.

Finally, seaborne mobility still exceeds land mobility. A seaborne force can threaten an enemy with a wide variety of attacks, and those ashore may find it very difficult to build up defenses at each threatened place. Conversely, once defenses have been erected ashore, they are difficult to withdraw and reposition. In a larger sense, the sea is both potential barrier and potential highway. The force facing Iraq had long sea flanks in both the Gulf and the Red Sea, both of which it could use – and both of which the Iraqis could use as venues of attack.

Overall, U.S. seapower guarantees access to war zones overseas and tries to deny such access to an enemy. U.S. naval forces demonstrated all of these virtues during the Gulf War.

First came access, which meant much more than simply moving a mountain of materiel to the Gulf. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, he warned the other regional governments, such as that of Saudi Arabia, that to accept U.S. aid would be to oppose Arab unity. At least in theory, Saudi Arabia was quite vulnerable to such arguments. The legitimacy of the Saudi government is tied to its role as guardian of the most sacred sites in Islam. To allow hundreds of thousands of disbelievers into the country might well be construed as treasonable. Indeed, Saudi extremists such as Osama bin Laden have made exactly that argument since the Gulf War. There was, then, a very real question as to whether the Saudis would ask for U.S. assistance, even though they felt quite threatened by Saddam’s army just across the border in Kuwait.

Operation Desert Shield

Crewmembers in protective masks and anti-flash gear during a nuclear-biological-chemical drill. DoD photo.

Naval forces solved this problem. When U.S. carriers moved into the Gulf, they offered a degree of protection to Saudi Arabia, whether or not the Saudis had asked for it. They removed any veto Saddam may have imagined that he could exercise. The Saudis quickly asked that U.S. forces be deployed into their territory. Even then, for some months the carriers and accompanying missile-armed surface ships provided both much of the air defense of Saudi Arabia as well as the main striking force against a renewed Iraqi thrust. The carriers’ aircraft were soon outnumbered by those flown directly into Saudi Arabia, but the latter arrived without their ground radars and command and control, or the spares and munitions and maintenance equipment which were needed to make them truly effective. That heavy material came mainly by sea. Thus, without the carriers, it would have taken several months to erect an adequate integrated air defense. Without spare parts, the land-based aircraft  could not have mounted more than a very few sorties per airplane. The carriers offered instant capability because they provided not only the airplanes but also everything the airplanes needed; that is why it matters that heavy objects (like ships) can move easily when they are supported by the sea. Without the naval presence in the Gulf, it would have been easy for Iraqi aircraft to have blocked the build-up through the ports of the Gulf. Seapower covered  the build-up in Saudi Arabia.

Operation Desert Storm

Underway replenishment of the USS Ranger and the French destroyer Latouche-Treville. DoD photo.

Much the same could be said for U.S. Marines onboard ships in the Gulf. Like the carriers, these  amphibious units offered instant, albeit limited, combat capability. Unlike the carrier-based aircraft, they had little further significance, since Marines were soon flown into Saudi Arabia, to match up with materiel from prepositioning ships. For about a decade the U.S. Marines had maintained a Maritime Prepositioning Squadron at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, against just such an emergency: a land attack somewhere in Southwest Asia. The prepositioning ships carried equipment sufficient to arm a Marine brigade for 30 days of combat. The troops themselves flew in by air. The only other U.S. quick-reaction force was the pair of Army airborne divisions, whose role was to seize and hold airfields to be used by troops flying in. This time they held the airfields into which the Marines, and later many more army troops, flew. Thus the Marines equipped from the sea provided much of the initial defense of Saudi Arabia against any renewed Iraqi thrust.

At the same time, U.S. and coalition seapower denied Saddam access to the resources he needed to maintain his own forces. The United Nations imposed an embargo, which was enforced by an international force of  frigates in the Arabian Sea. They blocked arms shipments. Until that moment, Saddam had spent very little on spare  parts; famously, he followed a policy of maintenance by Federal Express. Like all embargoes, this one could not be leak-proof, but it was effective. Blocking Saddam’s spares had important wartime consequences. For example, on the first night of the  war, coalition aircraft and missiles destroyed the Iraqi air defense centers. After that, the coalition nervously awaited their reconstruction – which never came. It was precluded by the lack of spares – due to the embargo. One irony of the embargo was that the ship-tracking system which made it possible had been developed for the very different Cold War purpose of tracking the Soviet fleet. It had only completed its tests in June 1990, on the eve of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Operation Desert Storm

USS Missouri. Desert Storm was the swan song of the old battleships. DoD photo.

The embargo had another important virtue. It allowed the growing coalition to do something about Saddam Hussein before it had sufficient forces in place to eject him from Kuwait. Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990; the war did not begin for another six months.  Had the coalition done nothing at all during that interval, it would have been under enormous pressure never to fight, to be content with negotiation which would have left Saddam in possession of some or all of his prize. By providing a means of pressuring Saddam, the embargo gave the developing coalition time to build forces – and the consensus for military action. Too, the embargo was a kind of halfway house, a test of whether international pressure actually could eject Saddam from Kuwait. Its lesson was that force was needed. Without the embargo, the military assault would have been widely denounced as excessive.

Once the holding force was in position, a buildup began. About 90 percent of  the mountain of materiel came by sea, because it is still much easier to move heavy weights that way rather than by air. Shipping was unopposed, but not because Saddam lacked friends along the routes the ships took.  In particular, Libyan dictator Muammar Qadaffi backed Saddam – and he had six old Soviet-built submarines. In the past, Qadaffi had sometimes been quite belligerent. U.S. naval forces had attacked his navy when he had proclaimed parts of the Mediterranean his territorial waters. He had ordered a Scud ballistic missile fired at a NATO navigational (Loran) station in Sicily. Most ominously, in 1984 a Libyan Ro-Ro merchant ship had laid a string of mines in the Red Sea, specifically to embarrass the Saudi government by attacking pilgrims en route to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. U.S. naval forces, particularly submarines, were assigned to watch the Libyans to ensure free passage of the Mediterranean for shipping en route to Saudi ports.

Operation Desert Storm

U.S. and coalition warships in Manama, Bahrain just after Desert Storm. The command ship USS Blue Ridge is at right, with the frigates USS Hawes and what appears to be HMS Boxer astern of her at left. DoD photo.

It helped enormously that Egypt, through whose  Suez Canal the ships had to pass en route to the Gulf, was a coalition partner. Egypt borders on Libya, and Qadaffi had often denounced the Egyptians’ friendship with the United States. It is probably not too much to say that the Egyptians relied partly on deployable U.S. seapower, particularly carriers, to help them in the event that Qaddafi made any move. The long history of U.S. seapower in the Mediterranean helped ensure that, when the route through that sea was crucial, it was available. The alternative, to route ships around Africa, would have required much longer voyages. Since ships would have taken much longer to get to the Gulf area, many more would have been needed to deliver material at the same rate. Shipping was quite tight in any case, and the added strain might have been unsupportable. Some NATO navies, such as the Germans, deployed mine countermeasures craft to the Mediterranean end of the Suez Canal to deal with a possible (and plausible) Libyan mine threat to the canal.

Ships deliver their material to ports. Modern merchant ships carry their goods in containers, which are unloaded by massive special facilities at pierside. In all of the Gulf area, only three modern ports were available: Al-Jubayl and Ad-Dammam in Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Had the Iraqis managed to shut them down, the buildup would have stalled. The Navy did have means of unloading modern merchant ships without port facilities, but that would have been extremely slow. The campaigning season in the Gulf was short. Without the ports, it would probably have been impossible to build up fast enough to mount the ground war during the few available months early in 1991. Nothing could have been done until the fall. Given such a delay, the coalition might well have collapsed. Although the Iraqis lacked the naval force to attack the shipping pouring materiel through these ports, they did, at least potentially, have the ability to knock out the ports. No other target would have offered anything with as much leverage. The potential threat to the ports came from Saddam’s air power and from any special forces he might possess. The carriers, the missile ships in the Gulf, and then the ground-based fighters in Saudi Arabia, countered Iraqi air power. Naval harbor defense units mounted patrols to ensure that the Iraqis did not mount midget submarine or special-forces attacks on the ports. U.S. Coast Guard harbor security units were also used.  The Gulf powers’ naval forces also patrolled against hostile small craft or suspicious-looking commercial ships.

Operation Desert Storm

A pack of VF-74 and VF-103 Tomcats aboard USS Saratoga. Tomcat pilots were often frustrated by Iraqi pilots who fled after detecting the F-14s’ radar emissions. DoD photo.

Saudi Arabia, the base from which the coalition army (and its ground-based aircraft) attacked, is flanked by the Red Sea and the Gulf. Across the Gulf lay Iran, whose intentions were by no means clear. Iran had recently fought a long bloody war against Iraq, and thus might applaud Iraqi defeat. On the other hand, the Iranian  government was clearly anti-Western; indeed, the Western powers had tilted in Iraq’s favor during the Iran-Iraq War. Thus the Iranians might also applaud (or assist in) Western humiliation by Iraq. Both Iran and Iraq had (and have) ambitions to dominate the Gulf. It might be imagined that, from an Iranian point of view, the ideal outcome would have been to see the coalition smash Iraq, only to be humiliated and driven from the Gulf in its turn, perhaps after having been badly bloodied in the fight against Iraq. Iran had a substantial air arm, and throughout the war it represented a potential threat.

For that matter, the Gulf was a potential avenue of access for Iraqi strike aircraft, which might try to avoid overflying the heavily defended frontier between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Because the Iraqi air force did not choose to contest initial coalition air attacks, it was not destroyed in the air. Through much of the war, its aircraft sat in their protected hangarettes, an “air force in being” against which the coalition had to maintain considerable defenses. It might be suspected that the Iraqi air force was sitting out the war because it was not competent to challenge the coalition; but that was not certain. Actually destroying the hangarettes ate up air efforts badly needed against more urgent targets.

Operation Desert Storm

VA-72 Corsairs and VA-75 A-6E Intruders off the USS John F. Kennedy are refueled by an Air Force tanker en route to targets in Iraq and Kuwait. DoD photo.

The U.S. carrier force in the Gulf guarded against both forms of flanking air attack. Late in the war its mission seemed particularly urgent. Once the hangarettes came under air attack, many Iraqi aircraft suddenly fled to Iran. Saddam advertised the mass flight as an effort to save his air arm. If that were accepted, then the air arm could well be ordered to return to attack the coalition force. It now seems that the mass flight was just that, an attempt by individual Iraqis to save themselves from the relentless bombardment, but that was by no means obvious at the time. Carrier-based fighters had to be deployed to deal with this potential threat.

The carriers’ role was not merely defensive. They contributed heavily to the massive air attacks carried out through the war: Overall, naval aircraft contributed about 23 percent of combat sorties, which was roughly their proportion of coalition combat aircraft. Carriers  operated from both Saudi flanks, the Red Sea and the Gulf. By so doing, they considerably complicated the  task of Iraqi air defense, which otherwise might have concentrated on aircraft flying directly over the border from Saudi Arabia. Carrier aircraft also contributed some unique capabilities. The Navy’s EA-6B Prowler was the best jamming airplane in the Gulf, so it often supported Air Force strikes. Similarly, the TARPS (tactical reconnaissance) pods available only to naval aircraft provided the Gulf commanders with their best reconnaissance asset; it had no Air Force equivalent.

In addition to carrier strike aircraft, the Navy contributed large numbers of  Tomahawk missiles, in the  first combat use of this weapon. Tomahawk became famous for its precision; some commentators claimed that it could even stop at traffic lights to turn up the appropriate streets towards its targets. In fact only Tomahawks and stealthy aircraft were permitted to attack targets in Baghdad. The aircraft could only hit targets their pilots could see, so they were barred from strikes when the weather closed in. That left Tomahawks, and they and the airplanes in effect alternated.

Operation Desert Shield

A Marine Harrier from VMA-513 prepares to refuel. Harriers flew from sea and shore. Their amphibious ships gave them great mobility. DoD photo by SSgt. Scott Stewart.

In a wider sense, to the extent that the navy could run freely through the Gulf, it could threaten the seaward flank of Saddam’s position in Kuwait. During the war, the Marines rehearsed a major amphibious landing near Kuwait City (in fact this option had been rejected by Gen. Schwarzkopf, who feared severely damaging the Kuwaiti seafront). Saddam seems to have expected just such an attack, and he emplaced a substantial blocking force. His expectations were presumably strengthened by his belief that coalition troops could never successfully navigate the trackless desert. Any attempt to outflank him had, therefore, to come from the sea. Conversely, the very visible seaborne threat presumably deflected Saddam’s attention from the land flank which coalition forces actually struck. The naval threat was made more credible by an extensive operation to clear the mines Iraqi forces had sown in the northern part of the Gulf, specifically to defend against a landing. In this process the cruiser  USS Princeton and the amphibious carrier USS Tripoli, the latter acting as a mine countermeasures command ship, were damaged.  Even though the Marines never made an assault, Saddam’s defending force could not be reoriented to reinforce the troops facing Coalition forces coming up from Saudi Arabia. Even though the Marines invaded Kuwait over land, some of their air support came from Marine Corps Harriers (AV-8Bs) flying from Marine amphibious ships in the Gulf. These ships’ inherent mobility made it easy for them to keep step with the fast-moving Marine force, whereas Harriers ashore would have needed a succession of advanced air fields to keep up.

Operation Desert Storm

HMS Gloucester, USS Niagara Falls, and USS Fife in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. HMS Gloucester distinguished herself during the conflict by shooting down an Iraqi Silkworm missile that threatened the USS Missouri. DoD photo.

For his part, Saddam also saw the sea as a possible attack route. Before the ground war began, he mounted a powerful assault on a border position in the village of Khafji, which was guarded by U.S. Marines and Saudi troops. The attack was repulsed with heavy losses. We now know that the Iraqis planned a seaward flanking movement, using their small fleet of fast attack craft. U.S. and British naval helicopters spotted and then destroyed these craft, aborting the flanking movement. Because neither the land nor the sea elements of the plan was at all successful, the Iraqi operations were dismissed as quite minor. In fact Saddam apparently saw them as potentially decisive; if he could inflict heavy enough losses at the outset, he could convince the Americans and their partners to bargain their way out of the  war. Naval forces contributed heavily to his failure.

Clearly naval forces in themselves did not win the war; the bulk of combat was done by land-based aircraft and by ground troops based in Saudi Arabia.  However, naval forces were a necessary precondition for the build-up in Saudi Arabia, and they contributed enormously to the fighting. Without U.S. seapower, there would have been no war and no victory.

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


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