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Springer Journal: Desert Storm -- A Decade Later

Posted January 15, 2001

— Ten years ago this week, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot at Seymour-Johnson AFB was attending high school. A Corporal in the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg was in the 4th grade. George Bush was president.

It was also ten years ago this week that United States and the coalition air forces went "downtown Baghdad." They were responding to Saddam Hussein and his August 2, 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait-and the concomitant threat to the entire region. Desert Shield had become Desert Storm.

After the initial strikes in the early morning hours of January 17, 1991, it took only six weeks to achieve the coalition's limited objective of getting Hussein and his army out of Kuwait, and to restore independence to that gulf state. But it took a lot of planning and a major buildup of U.S. forces (over a half a million of them) and equipment.

There were several reasons for such a swift and decisive victory. First, Saddam Hussein made a strategic blunder by permitting the United States enough time to deftly form and nurture a coalition of over 30 nations. He also gave the coalition six months to position the forces and plan a devastating attack.

Second, a brilliant air campaign employing stealth and precision guided munitions, was supported vigorously by the theater Commander-in Chief (CINC), a soldier, General Norman Schwarzkopf. And, third, the highly rated Iraqi armed forces proved to be less than formidable.

After the first few hours, the Iraqi Air Force was a non-factor. As command and control centers were destroyed, Saddam was isolated from his troops in the field. The army, even the highly regarded Republican Guards, was unable to sustain itself without communications and directives from Baghdad. Of course, they were being pummeled by the coalition air and ground forces. Their lack of resources, training, discipline and independence from Baghdad exacerbated an already bad situation from their perspective.

As an airman, I note with pride that airpower was clearly decisive in permitting a quick victory with very few casualties. The air attacks, supplemented by cruise missiles fired from ships, destroyed a major portion of Saddam's ability to wage war against the coalition. His air force was destroyed on the ground or sought shelter in neighboring Iran. His command and control nodes were destroyed early on. His ground radar and surface to air missile sites were seriously eroded. However, his SCUD missiles remained elusive and never really were "taken out."

General Schwarzkopf deserves praise for his effective use of airpower and cruise missiles prior to a ground attack. There should be no doubt that this action severely crippled the Iraqi forces. It also insured that hundreds, and probably thousands, of ground troops did not become casualties in the desert. This is an important lesson for future conflicts.

As a consequence of Desert Storm, the American public expects conflicts to be ended quickly, with no or minimal casualties, and in a decisive manner. And that is good. That is what America's armed forces want also. The recent conflict in Kosovo suggests that could be the norm. That may be wishful thinking however.

It may be fair to ask whether or not we could be as successful in a Desert Storm-like conflict in 2001 as we were in 1991. I suspect the answer is yes. But there are significant differences in our capabilities today.

We had about 2,000,000 American men and women on active duty in 1991. We deployed over 500,000 of them to the Gulf area of operations. Today we have only 1,400,000 active duty members. It would be difficult, considering all of our other worldwide commitments, to dispatch 500,000 to a conflict some 8,000 miles around the globe.

In 1990, the United States Navy had about 575 ships of which 15 were aircraft carriers. Today they have about 315 ships and only 12 are aircraft carriers. The USAF had an inventory of over 8500 aircraft in 1990. That number had dropped to about 6200 in 2000. The active duty population of all services was cut by one-third over this decade.

Those numbers are very significant. The Air Force, for example, committed a higher percentage of their active duty forces to the brief air war over Kosovo than they had committed either to Desert Storm or Vietnam. Having fewer aircraft and aircrews presents a critical problem.

It is quite true that more of our fighters are equipped to employ precision-guided munitions vs. the "dumb bombs" of decades past. This means fewer aircraft and fewer weapons need be assigned to each target. However, fewer aircraft available also diminishes the opportunity to apply an around-the-clock operation where "mass" is a significant factor. So the advantage of precision-guided munitions is somewhat muted by the lack of "mass."

America has one other addition to its arsenal that was not available in 1991-the B-2 stealth bomber. The B-2's long range is coupled with precision-guided munitions that can be launched from safe distances away from the target. It used to be that when planning combat sorties, the planner would have to determine how many aircraft to send against each target. With the B-2's stealth, payload and precision they now ask how many targets should each B-2 bomber strike!

Ten years after Desert Storm the biggest disappointment is that Saddam Hussein is still in power in Iraq. He remains a constant threat to his neighbors, and to the region and world as he continues to develop weapons of mass destruction. He has defied the United Nations and the coalition by refusing to cooperate with the U.N. weapons inspectors. He violates the U.N. sanctions against illicit marketing of oil beyond a prescribed limit. And he continues to exploit international tension to cover domestic issues at home.

America has spent billions of dollars supporting some 20,000 American servicemen and women in the region. Yet in spite of that commitment, our nation's leadership there has been diminished over the decade. The coalition so ably assembled in 1990-1991 by President Bush and his team has weakened considerably. Several nations have soured on the U.N.-imposed sanctions and are pursuing their own economic interests there.

Iraq and Saddam Hussein will continue to be a major source of concern for those who seek a peaceful world. Ironically, ten years after Desert Storm, this will be a challenge for another President Bush and his national security team. This is the seventh in a series of monthly columns written by retired U.S. Air ForceLt. Gen. Robert D. Springer. Springer is the president of NovaLogic Systems Inc., of Calabasas, Calif., which provides integrated PC software solutions to the defense community and others in the areas of simulation, mission editing, distributive mission training and planning, terrain database modeling and visualization. Gen. Springer is also a public speaker, lecturer and media consultant, including for WRAL-TV5.

In addition to his motivational speeches, he talks on ethics, leadership, national defense and foreign policy issues. He is the military consultant for the CBS affiliate, WRAL-TV5, in Raleigh, N.C. He has also appeared on the PBS McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, C-SPAN, Fox News, National Public Radio, ABC Radio and other


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