Saturday, January 15, 2011

Desert Storm

On Jan 16, 1991 the air campaign began. In less than two months, coalition forces would drop 60,000 tons of ordnance on Iraqi forces. At that rate, coalition forces were on par with the monthly totals for WWII or Vietnam.

The use of aircraft to drop bombs goes back to World War I when pilots tried to drop hand-grenades on ground troops hunkered down in trenches. For almost as long, pilots and planners pursued the goal of precision bombing.

During the Battle of Hamburg (Operation Gomorrah), it took 700 aircraft 8 days and 7 nights to drop just 9,000 tons. The US Army Air Corps conducted daytime operations while the Royal Air Force conducted night time operations. The campaign was an extend carpet bombing operations as no precision guided munitions existed. The ensuing firestorm resulting from burning asphalt turning Hamburg into an inferno made the operation far more destructive than the numbers would indicate.

Allied bombers had to fly directly over the target risking losses from both anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) as well as Luftwaffe fighters. It took multiple passes with multiple aircraft just to take out larger targets such as factories. The bomb sights of the day could not compensate for wind, drift or poor visibility.

Daylight precision bombing became the holy grail for air planners. Twenty years after the end of World War II, USAF and USN jet aircraft still had to overfly their targets. In addition to the AAA and figthers of the Vietcong, American bomber pilots had to also contended with surface to air missiles. Laser-guided bombs were used towards the end of the Vietnam war but had little effect on the war.

Desert Storm saw the first use of precision guided munitions. Videos of bombs flying through windows of buildings and going down the smoke stack of factories thrilled CNN audiences. Bombs could actually now take out only those targets that were supposed to be taken out, collateral damage seemed like something of the past.

Desert Storm also showed the devastating effects of airpower. You can't launch your aircraft if they are destroyed on the tarmace before they ever get the chance to launch. You can't build tank armor strong enough to withstand a 500lbs high explosive (HE) bomb coming through the turret.

The best guard dog a downed aviator or surrounded ground-pounder could have was an A-10 on station. The A-10 went from being just flying tank killer, to a protector of all coalition ground forces. If a tank couldn't withstand a hit from the 30MM gun or Maverick missile, what hope did other Iraqi vehicles have? There were stories of Iraqi soldiers surrendering just as soon as they heard the sound of the Hog's engines. They knew the A-10 could loiter for a very long time and encountering a Hog meant certain death.

Desert Storm worked too well. Kuwait was liberated, the Iraqi forces were sent packing and American troops were heroes. It also caused American military planners to believe airpower alone could win wars.

What many Americans don't know is while US forces were kicking the snot out of Saddam Hussein and his elite Republic Guards, bases were being closed in Europe. Many soldiers returning after Desert Storm found their posts closed and their families back in the States. Without those bases, the military didn't need as many people. A reduction-in-force (RIF) or involuntary separation was instituted. The criteria targeted, either deliberately or accidently, those who had just finished learning how to fight a war.

Twelve years later, the US would be back fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Airpower would be called upon again to protect ground forces and to eliminate Iraqi air threat before it even left the ground. The Iraqi air force had not forgotten the lessons from Desert Storm and buried many of their jest rather than tangle with a new generation of coalition fighter pilots.

The airpower that is used today looks nothing like what sent a Sunni despot packing twenty years ago today. Stand-off precision bombing is now common practice using GPS to precisely guide bombs to their target. Munitions today can range anywhere from 2000lbs bunker busting bombs to smaller 250lbs bombs. The precision of delivering bombs now has become so precise 250lbs are all that is required to take out most targets.

During Desert Storm, drones were only seem in movies. Now drones have gone from small observation-only platforms to lethal hunter/killers that can remain on station for many hours.

Twenty years ago, airpower ascended as the means to fight a modern war. The aircraft may have changed but the effectiveness remains.

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