Operation Desert Storm : A War Story
“General Quarters! General Quarters! All hands man your battle stations!” This time, it was for real. It wasn’t a surprise. I’d been lying awake in my bunk in the midnight hours, waiting for it. The “Mother of all Battles” was about to begin, and we were going to start it.
Waiting for the war to begin, I was unable to sleep, so I was re-reading some letters from my wife as well as one my father sent me several months earlier. I’d called my parents from Japan when we first received word we would be deploying to the Arabian Gulf (in early August 1990). It was a short conversation; I couldn’t say much because our movement was still classified. I just said that we were “shipping out,” watch the news, and that I loved them. By my choice of words, my dad knew exactly what I meant. I suspect he said the same thing to his parents when he shipped out to Korea, and heard the same thing from his father when he shipped out to the Solomon Islands during WWII. I suspected I now had some idea what my father and grandfather were thinking when they went off to war, and my dad’s letter confirmed that he understood completely; it was a very special letter.
A Strike Fighter Squadron 81 (VFA-81) F/A-18C Hornet aircraft flies over the sea during Operation Desert Shield. The aircraft is carrying an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile on each wing tip. VFA-81 is based aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-60). (Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921–2008)
As I made my way forward through the dark red-lit passageway to my battle station, a word processor in the staff intelligence office, my state of mind was calm and fatalistic. It was a strange feeling; I didn’t want to be going to war, but I certainly didn’t want to be anywhere else than right where I was. This would be one for the history books, no matter how it turned out.
I arrived in the office and looked at the TV monitor with the tactical display, and marveled at the incredible blob of blue aircraft symbols approaching the Iraqi border. No one had ever seen anything like it. I took a sharp breath, thinking, “Well, here it goes.”
We knew special operations forces were already attacking Iraqi early warning radar sites, and Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles were already launching from nearby Navy warships. Within a few minutes, the blue blob of hundreds of U.S. and Allied aircraft and cruise missiles would cross the border and begin striking Iraqi targets. We wouldn’t be able to see it on the monitor, but Iraqi surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery would be rising to meet our aircraft. Since it was the middle of the night, we didn’t expect much opposition from the Iraqi air force. Only one thing was for sure, a lot of people were going to die in the next hour.
I was neither excited about going to war, nor was I particularly afraid. One thing about being the Iraqi “subject matter expert” on the intelligence staff was that I had the most realistic knowledge of anyone on just how much danger we were really in, or weren’t. Vice Admiral Arthur decided he preferred to fight from at-sea, so a week before the start of the war, the Blue Ridge got underway from Bahrain and began operating in the north-central Arabian Gulf. Some of us suspected the real reason for his decision was to unplug the phones since CENTCOM had become increasingly meddlesome as more and more colonels arrived at the headquarters in Riyadh as the war approached. But getting underway did make us safer in my view. By no longer acting as a fixed target welded to the pier in Mina Salman, we eliminated the threat from Iraqi ballistic missiles and commando/terrorist attacks, and we made it much more difficult for the Iraqi air force to find us. The Iraqi Mirage F-1s would have to fight their way past several Aegis cruisers, and fighters from three carrier air wings, to get to us. Unlike the Stark attack in 1987, we would be ready and waiting for them. Iraqi missile boats would have to fight their way through a similar gauntlet of warships and fighter-bombers. The aircraft flying into Iraq, and U.S. ships and Marines operating closer to the Iraqi and Kuwait coastlines, would face serious threats. About the only way the Iraqis could hurt the NAVCENT flagship would be if we were unlucky enough to hit one of the drifting mines. While this was definitely possible, the odds were against it.
Nevertheless, as the expression goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Did Saddam Hussein have any surprises up his sleeve? We assumed that all the threats of “making the sand burn under our feet” were just a bunch of propaganda bluster, but it stuck in the back of our minds nonetheless. The big unknown concerned if and when Saddam would resort to using weapons of mass destruction.
In January 1991, Saddam did have chemical weapons and had recently used them, and Iraq did have biological weapons capability, an ongoing nuclear weapons program, and was manufacturing ballistic missiles with the range to hit Israel, Riyadh, and Bahrain. The chemical weapons threat was the most likely. Iraq had used chemical artillery shells, rockets, and bombs to defeat Iranian human wave attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, killing many thousands of Iranian soldiers. Iraq had even dropped chemical bombs on Kurd villages inside Iraq, indiscriminately gassing several thousand Kurdish men, women and children to a horrible, choking death. There was no doubt Saddam retained numerous chemical weapons and the proven means to deliver them. Did he still have the will to use them?
There was less certainty about Saddam’s biological weapons capability. We believed Iraq definitely had developed biologic agents that could be used as weapons, but developing a means to deliver them accurately and reliably, without being a greater danger to the Iraqis themselves, was a tough challenge. Nevertheless, the briefing I prepared for the admiral earlier in Desert Shield on anthrax had been a real eye-opener for everyone, including me. I had always viewed biological weapons as just a somewhat nastier form of chemical warfare. The reality is that it is a quantum leap more dangerous in terms of lethality, area of coverage, and persistence. When I was finished with the brief, everyone was pretty much speechless. Since there wasn’t much of anything we could do about it, except don our standard chemical defense gear (in which no one had much faith even for standard chemical warfare), we basically decided to ignore it.
We also knew the Iraqis had a nuclear weapons program, and in fact the Israelis had bombed the Osirik reactor in 1981 in a successful attempt to set the program back a decade. The national intelligence estimates early in Desert Shield discounted that the Iraqis had developed any nuclear weapons, although they were certainly working on it. As the likelihood of going to war increased, some reports from national agencies became more alarmist, and just before the war we received a report that maybe the Iraqis might have already produced one or two nuclear bombs. Since there wasn’t much we could do about it if they had, the attitude among senior officers at NAVCENT when I briefed this bit of news can pretty much be summed up by, “Well, I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
The level of apprehension increased as the mass of blue symbols crossed into Iraqi airspace. The display was not like a video game; there was no way to tell what was really going on. In some ways it was like watching water boil, as the symbols moved nearly imperceptibly. It was impossible to keep track of individual aircraft, and as successive waves of aircraft and cruise missiles went in, it became hard to tell if all the aircraft going in were coming out. It looked like they were, but voice reports were lagging well behind the slow-motion action on the tactical display. Hopes began to go up though. If our new tactics weren’t working, then we probably would have been losing enough aircraft to be noticeable. Finally, reports began to come in. The AAA was intense, but our aircraft were above it. Iraqi surface-to-air missiles were going “stupid,” their guidance disrupted by our jamming, electronic countermeasures, and high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM) launched against the Iraqi acquisition and guidance radars. Strike leaders from the first wave began reporting mission success.
There was one loss on the first wave. The first U.S. aircraft shot down during Desert Storm was a Navy F/A-18 strike-fighter, piloted by Lieutenant Commander Scott Speicher, flying from Saratoga (CV-60). The initial reports indicated the jet was hit by some kind of missile at higher altitude (above the AAA envelope) and exploded in a ball of fire. There was no sign that the pilot survived the explosion or that he successfully ejected, but in the darkness and confusion this was not necessarily conclusive. In the days following, there was discussion on the staff about why Lieutenant Commander Speicher was the only jet to be hit by a missile, when the new tactics appeared to work against all the other Iraqi surface-to-air missiles. There were reports that at least one Iraqi MIG-25 Foxbat managed to get airborne the first night and was in the vicinity of Speicher’s jet, leading to speculation the Foxbat had collided with Speicher in the darkness, or had hit Speicher with an air-to-air missile, which if true would make Speicher the only U.S. pilot to be downed by Iraqi air-to-air fire. Lieutenant Commander Speicher was the only U.S. pilot to remain unaccounted for at the end of the war. There was no evidence at the time that he’d been captured by the Iraqis, although inconclusive claims that he was surfaced years later. To this day, he is listed as Missing in Action, his body never found. (2021 comment: Speicher’s remains were finally found in the Iraqi desert and on 2 August 2009 the Navy stated the identification was conclusive. Although still officially listed as being downed by a surface-to-air missile, the evidence that he was actually shot down by a Mig-25 Foxbat flown by Lieutenant Zuhair Daewood, is rather convincing. There is some evidence two other U.S. (not Navy) aircraft might have been downed by Iraqi aircraft later in the war).
18 January 1991. Central Arabian Gulf, Underway on USS Blue Ridge. “Moment of Truth.”
The third night of the Desert Storm air campaign was fast approaching. The Naval Forces Central Command intelligence officer, Commander Wayne Perras, bounded out of his office heading for the door. All he said was, “Sam!” and motioned for me to follow immediately. We rushed into the command center on the flagship, where Vice Admiral Arthur was directing an urgent rescue operation.
One of our aircraft, an A-6 Intruder medium attack bomber, had been shot down the night before on a mining mission near the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. We had just received a transmission and position from one of the aircrew’s survival radios suggesting they might be alive. The admiral had already ordered the launch of a rescue helicopter. Any delay meant the helicopter could not reach the position before nightfall and the rescue would have to be aborted. Now Admiral Arthur wanted to know if we could safely get the helo in and out of the area. Commander Perras turned to me.
As the current intelligence officer, it was my responsibility to know current Iraqi forces activity, locations, and capabilities. If I said yes, and I was wrong, the rescue helo would get shot down. If I said no, and I was wrong, an aircrew would be captured by the Iraqis.
Naturally, the position of the downed aircrew was not in an easy yes or no area. I had to make a snap judgment, without time to go back and study my order-of-battle charts, on the capability of the Iraqi antiaircraft guns near the area to successfully engage the rescue helicopter. It was the ultimate closed book pop quiz. I knew where the SAM sites and guns were, and the capability of the Iraqi ground forces in the area, because of the painstaking and meticulous plotting of thousands of Iraqi movements done by the two enlisted intelligence specialists (IS) who worked for me. I had memorized their work, but there was not time for me to re-check each of their plots. I had to trust them, as Commander Perras was trusting me, as Admiral Arthur was trusting him.
In my judgment, it was not impossible for the helo to get in and out since the area was below Iraqi surface-to-air missile site coverage, but the probability of success was very low due to heavy small-caliber ground fire in the area. Too much good luck was required. My answer was, “No, sir.”
To my surprise, no one asked me to explain further, they simply trusted me. The admiral ordered the recall of the rescue helo. (Actually, while CDR Perras and I were standing by to talk to VADM Arthur, he had just already recalled the helo on account it would be too dark, but my assessment passed via CDR Perras reaffirmed the decision).
In the hours after the event though, I agonized over my response. I poured over the charts, double and triple checking the plots in that area. There were no errors in my IS’s work, and I had remembered it correctly. But once again I questioned whether I really wanted this kind of responsibility. Perhaps it would be better to be somewhere else, where I didn’t have to wonder if I had just condemned two aircrew to capture and torture by the Iraqis.
Once again, I reached the same conclusion I had off of Lebanon. No, there is no place else I would rather have been.
If I hadn’t been there, someone else would have had to make that tough call. But I was there, so it might as well be me. And I believed I could do it as well as it could be done. That was why I had signed up. That was why I had stayed in.
Nevertheless, my conscience was uneasy until the end of the war and we got our POW’s back. The aircrew from that A-6 were not among them. The Iraqis had found their survival radio and were possibly trying to lure us into an ambush. The aircrew had already both been dead.
(2021 Comment. This was the VA-155 minelaying mission launched from Ranger (CVA-61) on the evening of 17 January. An A-6E flown by LT William Costen and Bombardier/Navigator LT Charles Turner was shot down while coming off target. During the day on 18 January there were indications that both had ejected, however neither apparently survived as the Iraqis recovered their bodies and turned the remains over to the U.S. in March 1991 after the war).
Flight deck crewmen aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-60) watch as an EA-6B Intruder aircraft is launched during Operation Desert Shield. An Attack Squadron 35 (VA-35) A-6E Intruder aircraft is at right. (Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921–2008)
Late January 1991. Central Arabian Gulf, Underway on USS Blue Ridge: “Oops.”
My, “Oh, s***!” was drowned out by the cheer from the crowd looking at the weapons system video that showed a spectacular explosion on an Iraqi tanker due to a bomb from a Navy A-6 Intruder attack jet. The pilot and bombardier/navigator in the A-6 could be heard on the tape whooping it up as well. The bomb was a bullseye right at the base of the tanker’s superstructure. However, this incident is a case study in the effect of “the fog of war” and “first reports are always wrong.”
The initial report that came into the command center was quite alarming. The report from a U.S. Navy aircraft said that an empty “small” Iraqi tanker had been sighted transiting underway south along the Kuwait coast, with a “fire control” radar of some kind installed on the superstructure, and most ominously, in company with (or possibly towing) a missile boat. The report was already garbled. The implication was that the tanker was a threat since it was heading for U.S. forces, possibly serving as a shield to hide the missile boat, possibly with hidden surface-to-air missiles on board to ambush U.S. aircraft, and the tanker could be used as a weapon itself by trying to ram a U.S. ship. I thought the report sounded dubious, but I wasn’t on the scene, and the scenario was not out of the realm of possibility. Presumably, Admiral Arthur had given the OK to attack the tanker to Rear Admiral March on Midway (CV-41), commander of the carriers in the Arabian Gulf.
Based on numerous experiences, I’d always found it prudent to take aircrew recognitions with a grain of salt. I always fully understood that looking at a photo after the event was a very different thing than trying to correctly identify a target while flying at a very high rate of speed, frequently in poor light or even while being shot at. In this case, however, I was looking at the exact same cockpit display at the exact same speed that the aircrew had been and it took me a fraction of a second to see that the attack was a mistake.
When the “oohs” and “ahs” subsided, I reported to my boss that the tanker was Iraqi, but that everything else about the report was wrong. The tanker was the Amuriyah. She wasn’t a “small
tanker, nor was she empty. Amuriyah was a 150,000 deadweight ton (i.e., a “supertanker”) al Qaddasiyah-class tanker, and she was clearly riding low, full of oil. Nor was she underway. The anchor chain, with tension on, was clearly visible, even in real time, nor was there any bow wave. In fact, she was anchored in the exact same spot that she had been in for over two months near the Iraqis’ Mina al Bakr offshore oil transshipment terminal, over 30 miles from the position reported in the original sighting. The “fire control” radar was the standard commercial surface search and navigation radar of a type ubiquitous on merchant ships throughout the world. The small boat tied up to the stern of Amuriyah was not a missile boat, but was one of the small Winchester-class hover craft that the Iraqis routinely used for logistics resupply to the oil terminals and tankers anchored in the northern Gulf.
We‘d just blown up a huge tanker because of one of the most bogus operational reports I’ve ever seen, before or since. Word went around the staff a couple days later that this incident had provoked one of General Schwarzkopf’s famously angry telephone calls in which he fulminated to Vice Admiral Arthur, “What the f*** are your out-of-control Navy fly-boys doing blowing up g**d*** tankers?!!” Or words to that effect. In this case, I don’t think General Schwarzkopf was necessarily wrong. The good news was that Amuriyah’s huge cargo of oil was burning up, polluting Iranian skies, rather than making a giant slick in the Gulf.
(2021 Comment. Exactly where in the chain the report became so garbled is hard to say. I relate it as I received it, which is why I was not expecting to see Amuriyah on the weapon systems video. However, VADM Arthur gave approval to strike the tanker after Battle Force Zulu (CTF-154) commander RADM Dan March requested permission to strike the tanker. According to Marv Pokrant’s (NAVCENT CNA Rep) book, RADM March reported that a Midway A-6E had identified the tanker as an al-Qaddasiyah class tanker (as was Amuriyah) and that the tanker was providing raid count and other Intelligence to the Iraqi air defense network. (This would have been news to me at the time as I was well aware that Iraqis on the nearby Mina al-Bakr oil transshipment terminal were doing exactly that kind of Intelligence reporting, but I had seen nothing of the kind regarding any of the five Iraqi supertankers in the Northern Arabian Gulf). VADM Arthur agreed with RADM March that such Intel reporting from Amuriyah made it a valid military target.
In fact, so far as anyone in NAVCENT knew, Amuriyah and the other four supertankers were valid military targets as they were on the original Air Tasking Order (ATO) target list, at the insistence of CENTCOM commander General Schwarzkopf. What no one in NAVCENT knew was that on 17 January, General Schwarzkopf changed his mind and ordered the supertankers removed from the target list and sent a message at “priority” precedence. Due to the communications logjam, any messages sent below “flash” or “op immediate” precedence were doomed to oblivion, and sure enough, General Schwarzkopf’s message was not received aboard the NAVCENT flagship until 28 January. Also, when Amuriyah was hit, the Winchester hovercraft took refuge under the Mina al-Bakr platform; other Midway A-6s flushed it out and sank it. The Winchesters were carried in the Iraqi naval order of battle, so there was no question it was a valid target).
But it got worse. Several days after we hit Amuriyah, (which subsequently broke apart and sank) I received a FIST (Fleet Imagery Support Terminal) image of the Kuwaiti oil loading piers at Mina al Ahmadi, “bonus” coverage from some higher priority CENTCOM land target no doubt. The picture showed that the four fully-loaded Iraqi supertankers that had been at the piers since November were still there, but they were riding high. The Iraqis had done exactly what we feared they might; they had dumped the cargos of all four supertankers into the Gulf. Not only that, but they had opened the valves at both Mina al Ahmadi and Mina al Bakr and were pumping oil directly into the Gulf from shore. The Iraqis were dumping oil into the Gulf for at least 48 hours before we even knew.
At the next first light, one of our Navy aircraft reported that the oil slick was already over thirty miles long and almost ten miles wide (and although we didn’t know then, it was over three feet thick). Not only was it an environmental catastrophe of enormous magnitude, but we knew from our analysis of drift currents that the slick would move south, threatening Saudi desalinization plants which supplied the vital water for our forces on the ground still scrambling to get ready for our counteroffensive into Kuwait.
It didn’t take long for another apoplectic secure call from General Schwarzkopf to come in to Vice Admiral Arthur. This one was discussed at length among the staff, but can be briefly summarized as, “Why the f*** wasn’t I told this could happen, and why the f*** did it take us so long to find out?”
In this case, he was quite wrong. He had absolutely no idea that this was even a possibility because his staff hadn‘t told him. Since November we had sent repeated messages and phone calls to CENTCOM requesting imagery collection emphasis on the five Iraqi supertankers (including Amuriyah) in the Gulf because we were extremely concerned that they would do exactly what they wound up doing. CENTCOM was totally uninterested and unconcerned. What little collection coverage we got before the event was because we were able to convince our embarked CIA team of the importance and consequences, and they were able to convince their headquarters that this was an issue of some national priority.
One of the Iraqi supertankers was in the northern Gulf at the start of the war, but the other four (including al Fao and Amuriyah) had returned to Iraq in August through October and had been allowed to pass through the Coalition Maritime Interception Operation because they were empty. We first became concerned in October when the Iraqis moved two of the supertankers to the Kuwaiti facility, anchored Amuriyah off Mina al Bakr, and then later moved two more of the supertankers to Kuwait.
At first we thought it might have been a simple case that the Iraqis just needed someplace to “park” the giant ships, but that didn’t explain why they filled all of them with more crude oil. With the UN embargo in full force, they certainly weren’t going to go anywhere with that oil any time before the crises were resolved. We reached the conclusion that the Iraqis had positioned the loaded supertankers so that they could be used as a defense against a U.S. amphibious assault into Kuwait by dumping the cargo as a barrier and perhaps setting fire to it. Other possibilities, none of them good, involved using the ships for environmental terrorism, to foul desalinization plants, or even as “fire ships” to ram U.S. ships. The yawn from CENTCOM could be heard all the way to the Arabian Gulf. After the event, CENTCOM suddenly got very interested.
As early as November, we at NAVCENT had assessed that Hussein had a plan to dump large amounts of oil into the Arabian Gulf for whatever reason. Given the substantial effort that went into the Iraqis‘ planning and execution of the destruction of hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells, I still think it reasonable to believe that Saddam intended to deliberately spill oil in the Gulf as part of that larger plan regardless of what we did. Nevertheless, a close review of the timeline will show that we blew up one of his supertankers first, and it is not out of the question that he may have dumped the oil either in retaliation or as a premature “use it or lose it” response. (2021 Comment. Some accounts well after the war claimed that, although we didn’t know it at the time, we hit Amuriyah as she was just starting to dump her cargo of oil into the Gulf. This was based on reported observation that she was sitting in an oil slick when hit. Based on the timeline, this is plausible. However, USN aircraft also hit the nearby Mina al Bakr oil transshipment terminal on the opening night of the war (it was on the ATO) and the oil spill around Amuriyah could have originated at Mina al Bakr as well. Also, despite what we understood on the staff at the time regarding General Schwarzkopf’s second call, he apparently was mostly upset about and wanted to know why the Kuwaiti Sea Island oil transshipment terminal (SIOT) was on fire, which had also been taken off the ATO target list. As it turned out, USN aircraft bombed what was reported as the Spasilac minelayer (but actually a Sawahil self-propelled barge), a valid target, near the SIOT, which is what caused the fire on SIOT).
By the time of the start of the ground war in late February, much of the oil spill had drifted away and the worst potential effects on military operations had been mitigated. The same could not be said for the sea and bird life, but then the Arabian Gulf had been a polluted environmental disaster even well before the war.
(2021 comment. Accounts after the war have claimed the General Schwarzkopf was aware of the potential of the supertankers to dump oil in the Gulf, which is why he changed his mind and took them off the ATO target list on 17 September. If so, his interest never filtered down to the CENTCOM Intelligence Collection Managers as far as anyone at NAVCENT could tell).
A Mark 7 16-inch/50 caliber gun is fired aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) as night shelling of Iraqi targets takes place along the northern Kuwaiti coast during Operation Desert Storm. (Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921–2008)
Late January 1991. Central Arabian Gulf, Underway on USS Blue Ridge. “Sands of Mina al Ahmadi.”
(2021 Comment: I have been told by sources close to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell that the amphibious operation in Desert Storm was intended as a deception from beginning to end and that the last-minute shift to “real” planning was never sanctioned by Washington. Nevertheless, there were periods on the flagship that we knew the plan was a deception, and a subsequent period when we were informed it was for real).
The reason there was no amphibious landing by U.S. Marines into Kuwait was because we would have had to literally destroy Kuwait to save it. The planned landing beach in Kuwait was lined by high-rise apartment buildings in the southern suburbs of Kuwait City, which would have been pulverized by battleship gunfire in order to adequately suppress Iraqi defenses to enable success of the landing. The best beach in Kuwait was even worse; it was right in the middle of Kuwait’s giant Mina al Ahmadi oil refinery.
In the end, just the threat of an amphibious assault served to tie down many Iraqi divisions guarding against an attack that never came. However, in the preparations for the coalition counterattack into Kuwait, an amphibious assault was not always intended as a “deception plan.” The planning was quite real.
Planning for an amphibious assault began almost as soon as the Iraqi invasion itself. As the staff current intelligence officer, I was called upon to provide intelligence support throughout the different planning phases, and nothing I had learned in intelligence school prepared me for supporting an opposed amphibious assault into an oil refinery.
Planning initially focused on the possibility of having to extract U.S. personnel from the American embassy in Kuwait City, which was surrounded, but not occupied initially, by Iraqi forces. As each day and week went by, more and more Iraqi troops poured into Kuwait, vastly outnumbering initial U.S. amphibious forces in the Arabian Gulf. It quickly became apparent that an attempt to forcibly extract the U.S. diplomats from the embassy compound would be costly and unlikely to succeed. Eventually, after a “siege” lasting several months, the Iraqis permitted the U.S. diplomats to be withdrawn via Iraq.
From the very beginning, an opposed amphibious assault into Iraq or Kuwait was viewed as a very high-risk and high-casualty operation. The Iraqis quickly showed their respect for the threat from U.S. Marines by immediately digging in and heavily fortifying the beaches with interlocking and layered defensive positions. The Iraqis clearly demonstrated their intent to extract a high price. In addition, none of the potential landing beaches were particularly good to begin with, generally with too shallow a gradient, which made them ideal for defensive mining and required long run-ins by landing craft and long runs by exposed personnel; such a landing would have had a lot in common with Tarawa in WWII.
The most southerly acceptable beach was near Ras al Qulayah, Kuwait, but it was only about a dozen miles behind Iraqi lines along the Kuwait-Saudi border, which made it hardly worth the high risk. The next beach to the north was split in two parts by the Mina al Ahmadi oil transshipment terminal and bordered the huge Kuwait oil refinery, the single most important facility to the Kuwaiti economy after the oil fields themselves.
The next beach to the north from the refinery was in a heavily urbanized area, lined with multi-story residential buildings that provided ideal cover for defending forces. Further to the north, the beaches on the north side of Kuwait Bay and on Bubiyan Island were subject to very wide tidal variations. These beaches were at best extremely shallow, and at worst consisted of miles of mud flats, all leading to bottlenecks that would greatly constrain the ability of the Marines to maneuver once they were ashore; the potential for the Marines to get trapped was high.
Furthest to the north were the beaches on the al Faw Peninsula in Iraq proper, which had characteristics similar to the Bubiyan and Kuwait Bay beaches. Although landing on the al Faw would have been the most audacious approach, worthy of MacArthur at Inchon, moving off the al Faw inland to Iraq would have been extremely difficult, especially in the winter months when the al Faw turned into a swamp. The Iranians had tried it during the Iran-Iraq War, crossing the Shatt al-Arab waterway in a brilliantly executed surprise amphibious assault, only to become bogged down in months of horrific close quarters combat in muck like that of Flanders Fields and the Somme in WWI.
The least bad option appeared to be the beach at the Kuwaiti refinery; it was far enough behind Iraqi lines so that enough would be gained to make the risk worthwhile, but not so far that it might result in “a bridge too far.” Nevertheless, it quickly became apparent that conducting combat operations in a refinery was not covered in any doctrine, nor could it be considered recommended; there were many things in a refinery capable of blowing up even without bullets and shells whizzing around.
Besides numerous oil and refined product tanks, oil and fuel lines, cracking towers, and other explosive or flammable infrastructure, the biggest problem was the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) facility right in the middle of the refinery, very near the beach. An immense amount of analytic effort went into trying to determine the answer to the question, “What happens if that thing blows up during the landing?”
No one really seemed to know the answer, and it certainly wasn’t in any intelligence publications or databases. I eventually was able to get an answer from some oil industry experts via our CIA liaison team, but it took a couple months. The answer was that if the biggest LNG storage tank went up, it would explode with the force of somewhere between a two and six megaton nuclear bomb, which would basically destroy the entire refinery, along with Kuwait’s economic future, not to mention the entire landing force. (2021 Comment: I still don’t think anyone really knows for sure other than that it would have been a really gigantic explosion).
The next question became, should we preemptively destroy the LNG facility before the landing, or risk having the Iraqis blow it as a defensive measure during the landing, or risk having it blow up by chance during the crossfire? It didn’t take long for enthusiasm for an amphibious assault to quickly wane on the NAVCENT staff.
But the plot thickened as the Iraqis moved the four fully-loaded supertankers to the oil loading terminals just off the refinery, which bisected the beach. This provoked even more difficult questions. What were the Iraqis up to? Although it was possible the Iraqis just needed someplace to moor the large tankers, why were they fully loaded? They weren’t going to be able to export oil anytime soon with UN sanctions and the naval “blockade” in full operation.
We reached the conclusion that the Iraqis intended to use the tankers to discharge oil into the water as a defensive measure just prior to an amphibious assault. This led to even more questions. How big an oil slick would it cause? How thick? What would be the effect of the oil slick on amphibious landing craft trying to motor through it? Would it clog intakes and engines and immobilize the craft? What would be the effect of the fumes from the slick on Marines in the landing craft? Would the fumes be debilitating or even toxic? Would the effect of the fumes be temporary or represent a permanent health risk? Would standard chemical-biological-radiological (CBR) gear be needed, or even work, in the fumes? What would happen if the Iraqis set fire to the oil slick during the landing? Needless to say, I hadn’t learned any of this in school.
But, it got even better. I received human intelligence reports that the Iraqis were installing “electro-shock“ weapons on the beach intended to electrocute Marines attempting to land. How did that work? Was it even feasible? Would the sea act as a giant ground or short-circuit? How much power would need to be put into the water to generate the desired effect? Did the Iraqis have the ability to generate that much power? As with the LNG questions, no one in any intelligence agency really knew for sure, although it appeared to be technically possible to electrify knee-deep water in a localized area.
Then came an overhead photo that showed some sort of discoloration near some storage buildings in the port area of the refinery, leading to speculation that the Iraqis were making a big “ANFO“ bomb (basically a big version of a “fertilizer” bomb like that later used in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh) that would be powerful enough to destroy the entire port area during the landing, or even set off the LNG plant.
Although I began to suspect the electroshock and ANFO-bomb reports were bogus, they didn’t even come close to being the most outrageous; that distinction belonged to the reports of Iraqis bayoneting Kuwaiti babies in incubators (supposedly the German “Huns” had done the same thing to Belgian babies in Allied propaganda at the start of WWI), although the most outlandish report had to be the one about an “underwater” landing strip in Lake Tharthar that the Iraqis could raise and lower. It didn’t take long before I reached the conclusion that most human intelligence reporting was pure junk, but trying to “disprove” such reports took a lot of time and was frequently impossible.
I don’t know precisely when the planning for an amphibious assault transitioned to “deception” planning, but by late November it was pretty apparent. My first real indication was when my boss gave me a stack of intelligence messages and told me, “Don’t ask questions, but what would be the intelligence ‘damage’ if these messages were to fall into Iraqi hands?”
I provided my assessment, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that if the Iraqis got a hold of those particular messages, it would reinforce their belief that the U.S. intended to conduct an amphibious assault. Reinforcing something that the enemy already believes is the most effective technique of operational deception.
Soon after, I was “read in” on the deception plan. As a result, I watched all the high-profile media reporting we were allowing on amphibious rehearsals in the United Arab Emirates, and later along the north coast of Saudi Arabia (exercise Imminent Thunder), with a unique perspective; we were blatantly telegraphing our intent to conduct an amphibious assault, and the international press was the means to make sure the Iraqis got the message.
The people who didn‘t get the message were the Marine and Navy planners aboard the Amphibious Task Force and in the two Marine Expeditionary Brigades that would conduct any actual amphibious assault. No one told them they were the deception plan. They thought they were going to be fighting and dying on the beaches of Kuwait, and they became increasingly and understandably annoyed and angry when none of their requests for increased intelligence collection of the beach areas were approved by CENTCOM. Although there were a small number of us at NAVCENT who knew the details of the deception plan, it appeared that just about everyone at CENTCOM did, and they weren‘t about to divert any scarce intelligence collection assets to support an amphibious assault that they knew wasn‘t really going to happen. This put those of us on the NAVCENT staff in the awkward and uncomfortable position of trying to explain to irate planners in the Amphibious Task Force why they weren‘t getting squat for help from us or CENTCOM without revealing details of the highly compartmented deception plan.
Although we went through the motions throughout December of planning an amphibious assault, we focused most of our energy on other problems, especially when we started encountering the first drifting mines. The real surprise came in early January when we were told that the commander of Marine Forces Central Command (MARCENT), Lieutenant General Boomer, had made a last minute revision to his plan; he moved his planned main thrust into Kuwait further to the west, and determined that for it to work, he would need a real simultaneous supporting amphibious assault to occur somewhere around the Kuwaiti oil refinery or just south of Kuwait City.
My reaction to this news, to use my boss’ frequent written shorthand expression, was, “YGTBSM!!” (You’ve got to be sh**ing me!!) We’d been deliberately advertising our intent to land on the Kuwaiti coast so as to draw the maximum numbers of Iraqi troops to the beaches, so that General Schwarzkopf‘s famous “Hail Mary!” flanking plan had a better chance of success, and now we were being ordered to plan to land right in the teeth of the defenses the Iraqis had been so obligingly setting up? This struck me as folly on the scale of the Peleliu landing. It also set off a mad scramble to resume serious planning.
NAVCENT set up a group called the “Naval Offensive Campaign Working Group,” to plan the now “real” landing, and I was assigned to provide the intelligence support. This group included a number of officers who had augmented the staff just before Blue Ridge got underway a few days before the start of the Air Campaign. Most of the group were truly extraordinary officers; two that I remember by name were Commander Phil Balisle and Captain Gordon Holder, both of whom went on to be three-star admirals. Despite this high-priced talent, there were some bizarre moments.
In one case, I remember an excruciatingly protracted discussion bogged down in minutia right after the start of the air war. The question concerned how soon we would have to start minesweeping operations in order to clear enough water space for the safe passage and operations by the amphibious ships and naval gunfire support ships. Our working assumption was that the ground campaign would start about one month after the start off the air campaign, which had just started. The minesweeping experts estimated it would take six weeks of sweeping to achieve the desired level of mine clearance. This estimate caused extensive discussion of the metrics for determining the level of confidence that all the mines in an area had been swept.
The minesweeper experts had the metrics, but they were completely incomprehensible to anyone outside the minehunting priesthood, and even they couldn’t explain it so anyone else could understand. Does cleared to a 90 percent confidence level mean there is a 10 percent chance that a ship operating in that area will hit a mine? (It doesn’t). How does the measure of risk increase the longer the ship operates in that area? The answers were gobbledygook.
After everyone’s head began to pound, with no clear resolution, the discussion then shifted to meteorological/climatology conditions, trying to answer the question, “In a typical January/February in the Arabian Gulf, how many days of the month would the seas be too rough to conduct minesweeping operations?” Bad weather days would have to be added to the six-week minesweeping time estimate. This also led to interminable discussion over how accurate the climatology estimates were.
As the most junior person in the room, and not an “operator,” I sat mentally scratching my head. I was a history major not a math major, but as I made the mental calculations I quickly reached the conclusion that the whole discussion was pointless, thinking that, “Even if the weather were perfect, four weeks minus six weeks meant that we were already two weeks too late getting started, any weather delay would only make us even more late.”
Once this dawned on the group, the discussion then shifted to, “What percentage of Iraqi threat systems needed to be destroyed in order to determine that the amphibious operating area would be safe enough for the ships to operate in?” This was especially critical since most of the minesweepers were Allied and not U.S., and the British in particular wanted assurance that the risk to their ships had been mitigated to an acceptable level.
A crewman aboard a minesweeper takes a bearing with a telescopic alidade. Four U.S. Navy minesweepers were deployed to the gulf in support of Operation Desert Shield. (Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921-2008)
At this point, I was directed by the working group leader to go research and put together a briefing for the next day that would describe the percentage of attrition on Iraqi threat systems so far and project when we would achieve 50 percent attrition. Having determined in my own mind that every day was now of the essence, I balked, “Sir, I can give you that brief right now, and you’re not going to like it.”
I then rattled off by memory the handful of Mirage F-1s that had been shot down to date, and then listed all the Exocet-armed Mirage F-1s and Super Frelon helicopters, Silkworm-armed B-6D Badger bombers, shore-based Silkworm antiship missile batteries, and missile boats that had not even been targeted yet, let alone destroyed a week into the air campaign. I explained that none of these threat systems were being targeted during the “strategic” phase of the air campaign.
The working group, which consisted mostly of surface line officers, was stunned into silence, and then they comprehended why the aviators in our Strike Warfare Cell had been apoplectic about the Air Force’s “Air Tasking Order” for weeks. As long as these threats remained in port or on the ground, they would not be struck.
I continued, “Attrition of the primary threat systems is less than 5 percent. At the present rate of attrition, it will be sometime next year before we reach 50 percent.”
At first, the working group wanted to disbelieve these numbers. They couldn’t believe the Air Force targeting strategy could be so insane. Every day‘s delay in destroying Iraqi threat systems would add to the delay in conducting minesweeping operations making it impossible to conduct an amphibious operation until well after the start of the ground campaign (at which point it would become moot), unless the Navy was prepared to accept a significantly higher level of risk to our ships. At first I was told to rework my numbers, but I stood my ground. The threats were simply not being addressed by the Air Force targeting strategy.
The working group then decided to deal with the threat dilemma by ignoring the issue and focusing instead on the details of the primary landing beach at Mina al-Ahmadi. They didn’t like what I had to say about that, since by this time I had rounded up answers to most of the difficult esoteric questions raised several months earlier. The working group reached the conclusion that we would have to bomb and blow up the LNG plant before the landing in order to prevent the Iraqis from doing so during the landing.
During the first briefing to Vice Admiral Arthur, the concept of deliberately setting off a multi-megaton explosion in the middle of the refinery that was the lifeblood of the Kuwaiti economy didn’t go over well. The highlight (or lowlight) of the brief came when Captain Holder accused the N3 (ops officer), Captain “Bucky“ Johnson, of administering a “face-shot” with some blistering criticism in front of the admiral.
We were sent back to the drawing board as Admiral Arthur decided that blowing up the refinery would not be an acceptable solution. By this time, we’d also received word that General Boomer had changed his plan again, and now an amphibious landing was absolutely critical. Meanwhile, no mines had been swept yet.
The working group then shifted focus to the next best beach further north. This plan required the battleships Missouri (BB-63) and Wisconsin (BB-64) to level the southern suburbs of Kuwait City, which by this time were heavily entrenched and fortified by the Iraqis in a densely populated urban area. There was also considerable risk that the greatly outnumbered Marine landing force might get trapped, because it might take longer to link up with the main Marine ground assault that would be coming across the Saudi border to the south and west. Nobody from the admiral on down liked this plan either, but we worked it out in considerable detail in concert with the planners afloat in the amphibious task force.
About three weeks (2021 Comment: 2 February) before the start of the ground offensive, General Schwarzkopf and Lieutenant General Boomer helicoptered out to Blue Ridge. General Schwarzkopf said practically nothing as General Boomer briefed his plan, and then we briefed our supporting plan. I recall that General Boomer seemed to suddenly waffle a bit about the “criticality” of the supporting amphibious planning. Then General Schwarzkopf threw everyone out of the room except Admiral Arthur, General Boomer, and Brigadier General Sheehan (who had been sent by Headquarters Marine Corps a month earlier, presumably to make sure NAVCENT didn’t do anything stupid with our assigned Marines).
The closed-door discussion went on for some time. When it was over, the amphibious landing was back to being a deception operation.
(2021 Comment: Although “Desert Saber” was a deception plan, to be effective, it still required U.S. ships to go into what we believed (and was) a heavily mined area. I believe it was VADM Arthur who said, “a feint still requires a feint,” meaning the amphibious forces were still going to have to make it look like there was going to be a real landing for the deception to be effective, and this still required considerable risk).
Sailors gather at the bow of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy(CV-67) as the ship departs for the Persian Gulf in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. (Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921–2008)
Late January 1991. Central Arabian Gulf, Underway on USS Blue Ridge. “Air Campaign Follies.”
I provoked a nasty radio call between Vice Admiral Arthur and Lieutenant General Horner, the Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC), and I did it with malice aforethought. I carefully selected three satellite images that we had received via our FIST (Fleet Imagery Support Terminal) system overnight, put them in a specific order, and gave them to my boss, Commander Perras, to show to Admiral Arthur at an early morning update.
The first image showed bomb damage from a coalition air strike on a rocket motor test stand at an Iraqi research facility. The second image showed bomb damage at a truck assembly facility. The third image showed a dozen Iraqi Mirage F-1 fighters, with Exocet antiship missiles uploaded, at al Jarrah airfield in southeastern Iraq, completely unscathed. In fact, the F-1s hadn’t even been attacked despite sitting in the open for at least three days.
According to Commander Perras, Admiral Arthur went through the overhead when he saw the image of the F-1s, which was the intended effect. Admiral Arthur got on the radio to General Horner and wanted to know how long the Air Force was going to wait to do something about this highly dangerous threat to naval forces, or let our Navy aircraft handle it. General Horner’s response was, “What F-1s out in the open?” The conversation became less civilized after that.
Within a few days of the start of the air campaign, I had become increasingly frustrated with the Air Force’s targeting strategy, which under the new joint warfighting doctrinal concepts just recently coming into effect we were obliged to follow. I wasn’t alone. The aviators in our strike planning cell were positively beside themselves. (LCDR Scott Shuman, an intelligence augmentee from U.S. Pacific Fleet, assumed full-time support for the NAVCENT Strike Cell, while I focused on the mines and amphibious planning.)
It seemed to me that the first order of business was to destroy those systems that represented a serious threat to our own forces. Once those threats had been beaten down, we could bomb “strategic” installations (which would have no short-term effect on the conflict) to our heart’s content and at our leisure. The Air Force’s strategy appeared to be the exact opposite; they wanted to bomb strategic targets first, and clean up the threat systems later. They seemed bound and determined to prove that air power could win the war single-handedly by attacking Iraqi “command and control” and effectively decapitating Iraqi leadership, even if it put Navy and Army forces at greater risk from numerous threat systems that remained potentially dangerous well into the conflict.
The Air Force didn’t want to attack “tactical” targets during the opening “strategic” phase of the air campaign. The problem, from our perspective, was that many of the tactical targets were mobile, “fleeting” targets; if they weren’t attacked and destroyed as soon as they were located, they might go back into hiding and maintain the capability to pop back up by surprise in later phases of the campaign. In our view, the Air Force strategy required the enemy to cooperate and not attack us during the “wrong“ phase of the campaign.
As each day went by, and key threat systems, like Mirage F-1’s, B-6D Badger bombers, Silkworm coastal defense missile batteries, and Osa missile boats were located but not attacked, frustration on the NAVCENT staff mounted. Each day that went by and these threat systems were allowed to survive, the Navy was forced to hold back fighter and attack sorties to defend our ships instead of using them to contribute to the air campaign in Iraq. The sooner we dealt with the threats, the sooner we would be able to move the carriers in closer, which would reduce flight times, reduce the need for airborne refueling, increase bomb tonnage per sortie, and increase sortie generation rate.
Navy officers commented bitterly that the Air Force appeared to have some phobia about blowing up enemy aircraft on the ground. The most cynical observed that in order to become an Ace, the enemy Air Force had to be allowed to get off the ground in order to be shot down.
It took an excruciatingly long time to destroy lingering remnants of the Iraqi air force and navy, but once Admiral Arthur became convinced we had sufficiently mitigated the threats to ships, he directed the carrier America (CV-66) to steam around from the Red Sea to join the carriers Midway, Ranger, and Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Gulf, then directed all four to move further north.
With four carriers in this position, Navy jets only had to fly half the distance to Kuwait as the closest Air Force bases in Saudi Arabia, and were no longer dependent on scarce Air Force tankers, which had been the key limiting factor for Navy sortie generation rates in the early phase of the air campaign when the Navy could have flown more strikes if the Air Force could have supplied enough airborne refueling, which they couldn’t. However, in the last week of the air campaign, Navy sortie generation and bomb tonnage dropped increased dramatically. During this last phase, which consisted of softening up Iraqi ground forces in “kill boxes” in Kuwait in preparation for the Coalition ground offensive, Navy carrier strike aircraft were dropping as much bomb tonnage on Iraqi tanks and troops as the B-52s, and far more than Air Force tactical jets. Navy jets played a key role in the final air attacks that broke the will of the Iraqi army to resist.
(2021 Comment: Due to JFACC (i.e., Air Force) tanking priorities, only two of the three carriers in the Red Sea at a time were allocated the tanking necessary to reach Iraq from the Red Sea. Having denied one carrier the necessary tanking, and because USN aircraft in a fleet defense role were not initially counted in the ATO, the USAF then would use the “strike sortie per offensive aircraft in theater” to “prove” the USAF sortie generation was much more effective than the USN. In another example of these “follies,” the USAF would bomb targets that had just been hit by USN TLAMs before the next overhead imagery pass making it very difficult to tell whether the damaged had been caused by the TLAM or the subsequent USAF bomb. There was a distinct impression that the USAF was annoyed by all the positive press the TLAMS were getting, especially since the JFACC Commander didn’t want to include TLAMs in the ATO to begin with.
26 January 1991. Central Arabian Gulf, Underway on USS Blue Ridge. “Runaway Air Force.”
It was the most unexpected and bizarre thing I could recall since the Jonestown massacre. The Iraqi air force was fleeing to Iran, their mortal enemy!
At first I didn’t believe the reports. It wouldn’t have been the first, or last, completely bogus operational report I’d heard during the war, plus, it made absolutely no sense. If true, there was no way the Iranians were ever going to give the planes back, so I couldn’t see what Saddam (or whoever made the decision) thought they would gain. I could see perhaps a couple jets defecting, or a couple flying into Iranian airspace in a desperate attempt to avoid being shot down. But the whole air force?
Nevertheless, as reports continued to come in, it became obvious that numerous Iraqi jets, commercial and military, were making the dash to Iran, virtually all of them successfully. By the time U.S. fighters could get a shot at them, they were already crossing into Iranian airspace. Over the next two days, almost every Iraqi aircraft that could still fly fled to Iran. (2021 Comment: And smaller groups and singles would make the dash over the next two weeks.)
To this point, the Iraqi air force had not exactly covered itself in glory. Within the first couple days, it became clear that the Iraqi air force was a far cry from the air force that had bombed Iranian power plants as far as the Caspian Sea, and hit Iranian oil storage and shuttle tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. In the first several days of the war, only a handful of Iraqi fighters made it airborne. All but the Foxbat that might have engaged Lieutenant Commander Speicher’s F/A-18 on the first night were promptly shot down, almost all by U.S. Air Force fighters. Navy fighters only bagged two older MIG-21s and a helicopter in air-to-air action. There was suspicion among Navy pilots that the Air Force controllers aboard the E-3A AWACS, who were controlling all aircraft under the new joint rules, were favoring Air Force fighters for intercepts of Iraqi aircraft. This may have been true, but the reality is that hardly any Iraqi aircraft chose to get off the ground (at least to fight).
Aviation ordnancemen conduct a final pre-launch check on the ordnance mounted on a Fighter Squadron 154 (VF-154) F-14A Tomcat aircraft aboard the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62). (Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921-2008)
Of note, however, the Joint Force Air Component Commander (Lieutenant General Horner) forbid the U.S. Navy from using our long-rang AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles out of fear we would accidentally shoot down friendly aircraft. Only USAF F-15s were allowed to use a BVR (beyond-visual-range) missile. In my opinion, one of our F-14s was most likely shot down by an F-15. Although the F-14 was officially listed as being downed by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile, there were no SAM batteries in that area. (2021 Comment: I’ve seen no one else reach this conclusion. Although during the later Southern Watch operations the Iraqis got much better at rapidly moving surface-to-air missile sites, during Desert Storm, Iraqi SAM sites remained pretty stationary, especially the SA-2 and SA-3 batteries, and my plots showed no Iraqi SAMs in range of where the F-14 was shot down. Or, I received garbled coordinates on the location of the shootdown, which wasn’t uncommon with messages at the time).
But back to the Iraqi air force… When the Iraqi air “offensive” finally came, it was pathetic, although it started off well for the Iraqis. Two Mirage F-1s, probably armed with Exocet antiship missiles, launched from al Jarrah Airfield (see “Air Campaign Follies”) on 24 January and flew across southern Iraq through the USAF area of responsibility without being intercepted. The two F-1s flew out of Iraq and down the Kuwaiti Coast, on a classic anti-ship strike profile, except closer to the coast, splitting the dividing line between Air Force and Navy Air Defense Zones, resulting in coordination confusion. As Navy fighters and ships lined up to take a shot the instant the F-1s might turn into the Navy zone, the Air Force AWACS controllers worked under the direction of the JFACC to maneuver Saudi F-15s in for the kill, apparently putting politics and public relations first. As the F-1s continued down the coast, they could have turned left at any moment and have immediately been within Exocet range of numerous U.S. Navy ships, many packed with Marines and critical logistics supplies. (2021 Comment: U.S. ships and fighter aircraft were having great difficulty tracking and locating the F-1s as they made their dash, in large part due to the problem of land/sea interface interference with radar. Also, at the time, the AWACS was not prepared to control USN fighters across an Air Defense Zone boundary).
Fortunately, the Iraqis proved to be even more incompetent than we were. Flying relatively slowly, straight, and level, with no attempt at evasive maneuvers, the Iraqi pilots seemed to be begging to be shot down. After what seemed like an interminable time, one of the Saudi F-15s finally got in position and obliged them both. From the Navy perspective, both these F-1s should have been blown up on the ground in the opening days of the war.
Various ships of the Saudi Arabian navy are docked at base during Operation Desert Shield. (Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921-2008)
After this incident, the U.S. Air Force finally started to get serious about destroying Iraqi aircraft on the ground, using a new weapon that the Navy did not have, the I-2000 laser-guided 2,000-pound bomb that could penetrate the Iraqis’ hardened aircraft shelters (HAS). A HAS was a steel reinforced concrete bunker that could both hide and protect Iraqi jets from conventional bomb blast damage, but not from an I-2000. My favorite bomb damage assessment (BDA) report of the war described a successful I-2000 strike on a HAS and was eloquent in its simplicity, “Hole in roof. Blast doors on taxi-way.”
The arrival of most of the Iraqi air force in Iran provoked wild speculation about the intent of both Iraq and Iran. There was serious concern by senior members of the Naval Offensive Campaign Working Group that the Iraqis and Iranians were in cahoots and that Iraqi aircraft would take off from airfields in Iran and strike us from the “east“ flank. I considered this to be highly improbable, but then, so was the Iraqi air force flying to Iran in the first place.
I argued that the most likely explanation was that it was an act of desperation by Saddam Hussein to save his coveted air force from certain destruction. It was readily apparent in the first days of the war that any Iraqi aircraft that dared to fly in combat was going to be shot down, and once the U.S. Air Force finally started to destroy the Iraqi aircraft shelters, Saddam knew that it was just a matter of time before his planes would all be destroyed on the ground. By flying his aircraft to Iran, Saddam was essentially allowing the Iraqi air force to be interned in a neutral country for the duration of the conflict with the hope he could negotiate their return at a later date. Given the hatred between Iran and Iraq, this was a long shot, which is why I assessed it as a desperation move. I considered there to be no chance that the Iranians would allow the Iraqis to fly strikes on U.S. forces from Iranian airfields. The Iranians, still exhausted from the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, were perfectly content to sit this one out and let the Great Satan pound on their arch-enemy, Saddam Hussein. Although the Iranians had no love for us, it was the Iraqis that invaded Iran, launched missiles that terrorized civilian populations in Iranian cities, initiated the use of poison gas, and killed several hundred thousand Iranian soldiers and civilians. That kind of hatred is hard to dissipate in only three years.
Nevertheless, because I could not guarantee with 100 percent certainty that Iraqi aircraft would not launch strikes from Iran, we held back additional fighter aircraft to guard against what I believed to be a very remote possibility, aircraft that could have been better used bombing targets in Iraq and Kuwait in preparation for the impending ground campaign. So in effect, the flight of Iraqi aircraft to Iran served a useful purpose, diverting U.S. Navy aircraft from dropping more bombs on Republican Guard tanks. Had the Iraqi air force been attacked and destroyed at the start of the war, this bizarre event would not have been a problem.
After a time, Admiral Arthur became convinced that the Iraqi aircraft in Iran no longer posed a serious threat, at which point he ordered U.S. carriers to move further north in the Arabian Gulf, dramatically increasing the tonnage of bombs that Navy aircraft could drop on Iraqi ground forces in Kuwait. As it turned out, the Iranians immediately confiscated the Iraqi aircraft and never returned them, and even eventually incorporated some into the Iranian air force.
29-31 January 1991. Central Arabian Gulf, Underway on USS Blue Ridge. “Runaway Navy.”
We called it, “The Battle of Bubiyan Island.” It was more like shooting fish in a barrel. Nevertheless, although most of the Iraqi air force planes that made the attempt to flee to Iran succeeded (over one hundred thirty aircraft), most of the Iraqi navy was destroyed while attempting to do the same. Only three Iraqi ships made it to Iran. One damaged Polnocny LSM (medium landing ship), one damaged Osa I PTG (missile patrol boat), and one damaged Bogomol PG (patrol boat) survived the hail of Sea Skua missiles and bombs from a gauntlet U.S., British, and Canadian jets and helicopters. Many of the Iraqi ships were sunk more than once, attacked so many times by so many aircraft that sinking ships were hit again before they went down, resulting in inflated claims.
The Iraqi navy didn’t cover itself in glory during Desert Storm either. Although the Iraqis captured all but two of Kuwait’s relatively formidable Exocet-armed TNC-45 and FPB-57 missile patrol boats, the Iraqis never succeeded in doing more with them than being able to get them underway.
None of the Iraqi or captured Kuwaiti missile boats ever came out for a fight, instead spending the war shuffling from berth to berth within Iraqi and Kuwaiti ports to make air attack more difficult. With the exception of the minelayers and the smaller patrol boats, the Iraqi navy stayed in port, where the more significant vessels were picked off one-by-one by U.S. Navy airstrikes, until those that remained operational attempted to flee en masse to safety in Iran, only to be massacred on the way. Virtually the entire Kuwaiti navy was actually sunk by the U.S. and British navies during the Battle of Bubiyan Island as the Iraqis tried to sail their “prizes” to Iran.
Keeping track of what was happening to the Iraqi navy during the war was yet another exercise in extraordinary frustration. The “official” U.S. Navy tally of Iraqi losses (over 107 ships and patrol boats) is ludicrous. Counting the captured Kuwaiti vessels, the Iraqis only had two “ships” (one T-43 Minesweeper and the training frigate Ibn Khaldoon (not the same as the “Peace Ship”)), thirteen missile boats, and only about twenty other vessels that merited the term “patrol” boats.
Distinguishing between the different varieties of Iraqi patrol and missile boats was tough. U.S. aviators had a really hard time. Anything that looked like a larger patrol/missile boat was identified and reported as an “Osa” (This included Osa Is, Osa IIs, Bogomols, PB-90s, PB-80s and the captured Kuwaiti FPB-57 and TNC-45s). Anything that wasn’t an “Osa” was identified and reported as a “Zhuk.” (This included actual Zhuks, as well as Bogomols, PB-90s, PB-80s, Swaryys, a wide variety of small Iraqi patrol and yard craft, and commandeered Kuwaiti pleasure boats).
The saga of the Iraqi T-43 Minesweeper (which the Iraqis used as one of their two primary minelayers) is illustrative. On 22 January, U.S. Navy aircraft caught the T-43 out of port in the Khor al Amaya channel between the Kuwaiti island of Bubiyan and the Iraqi al Faw Peninsula. The Navy jets promptly bombed and sank the T-43. A couple days later, Navy jets bombed and sank a second T-43 in the same rough vicinity. I saw this as a problem, since the Iraqis only had one T-43. The “official” CENTCOM order-of-battle said they had two, but like the Osa boats described earlier, the Naval Operational Intelligence center had gone over old reports and proven that one of the two T-43s had actually been sunk by the Iranians during the 1980s. This, however, did not keep the Ranger carrier group from claiming to have sunk a second T-43. (2021 Comment: as Ranger arrived just as Desert Storm started, and given how many messages (especially multi-section messages like orders of battle) never made it through the communications logjam) it is entirely possible Ranger didn’t have this info).
A couple days later, U.S. Navy aircraft reported sinking the Iraqi training frigate in the same general vicinity as the T-43s. Since the training frigate had not moved from the exact same pier position in the port of Khor al Zubayr in over a decade, I found this report implausible. (The training frigate was eventually bombed, in its usual pier position, and badly damaged later in Desert Storm, and was finally bombed and sunk, in its usual pier position, during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003). But I finally obtained a photo of the “second” T-43 taken just before it was “sunk” that solved the mystery. It was a T-43 all right, but it had already been bombed and sunk. The picture, taken at low tide, showed the T-43 resting upright on the mud flats, screws and rudder plainly visible, a burned out hulk from a recent previous attack (the one on the “first” T-43). The attack on the “training frigate” was actually a third attempt to bomb the sunken T-43 even further into the mud.
Several days later, an “S.O.1” patrol boat was reported bombed and sunk in the same location as the T-43 hulk. Since the S.O.1s had been trapped up in Basra since the beginning of the Iran/Iraq war in 1981, I figured they’d bombed the sunken T-43 yet again and were becoming more creative, or more desperate, to avoid reaching the conclusion they were bombing the same ship over and over again. In fact, a T-43 with its superstructure blasted nearly clean off would vaguely resemble the silhouette (but not the size) of an S.O.1. The picture of the T-43 resting in the mud is still hanging in my office. (2021 Comment: I also have a photo hanging in my office, signed by VADM Arthur, of captured Kuwaiti FPB-57 Sabhan blasted and burning but still stubbornly afloat after about three separate air strikes).
Most of the reported “kills” on Iraqi “Zhuks” and “patrol boats” were actually commandeered Kuwaiti speedboats, usually manned by three or four hapless Iraqis. (2021 Comment: some of these boats had shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, so attacking them was not without risk). These boats were notoriously hard to hit by bombs dropped from high-speed jet aircraft. The Iraqis quickly learned to wait until the bombs came off the aircraft, then immediately turn at a right angle to the track of the attacking aircraft (and bombs), which would almost always guarantee a miss. This didn’t keep the U.S. Navy from claiming to have sunk scores of these “patrol boats,” but in reality, many of them got away. Helos armed with guns were much more effective, but very few U.S. helos were armed. The British Lynx-helos, armed with machine guns and Sea Skua missiles, were by far the best platform for this kind of close quarters naval warfare.
A Royal Navy Lynx helicopter takes off from the flight deck of the British frigate HMS Brazen (F 91) during Operation Desert Shield. (Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921-2008)
The campaign against the Iraqi navy led to significant animosity between NAVCENT and the U.S. Air Force Air Component commander, who was in charge of the air campaign, and who made up the rules. In my view, we could have, and should have, wiped out the entire Iraqi (and captured Kuwaiti) missile boat threat on the first night of Desert Storm, but we weren’t allowed to do so by the Air Force.
By the rules of the infamous ATO (Air Tasking Order) process, we were permitted to attack any Iraqi naval vessels that were underway. Unfortunately, the Iraqi navy wouldn’t play by our rules and stayed in port. In order to attack a port, we had to ask the Air Force to put the mission onto the ATO. However, the Air Force viewed ships and missile boats (as well as tanks and jets on the ground) as “tactical” targets, which were not a priority during the initial “strategic” phase of the air campaign. So instead of destroying the Iraqi missile boats in port, Navy aircraft were tasked by the Air Force to provide “Suppresion of Enemy Air Defense” missions for Air Force strikes against Iraqi research and development facilities and truck assembly plants, or to waste flight hours flying aimlessly over western Iraq in the unlikely event an Iraqi mobile ballistic missile launcher stayed put long enough to be attacked. (The Air Force then proceeded to count these Navy missions, that they tasked us to do, as “support” missions (the same category as tankers and cargo aircraft) instead of as strike missions.)
Almost all the Iraqi missile boats that were sunk were attacked by Navy aircraft that for some reason couldn’t get to their primary ATO-tasked target and bombed the missile boats as an “alternate” target on the way back to the carrier. In fact, the largest U.S. Navy strike against Iraqi ships in port was willfully planned as a deliberate “abort” from the primary Air Force-assigned target. The plan called for picking an ATO-assigned target that we thought was of minimal military significance, deliberately loading the wrong ordnance (but the right kind for bombing ships), deliberately flying to the primary target and deliberately declaring we couldn’t find it, and then bombing Iraqi naval vessels in the ports of Umm Qasr and Khor az Zubayr as “divert” alternate targets. This air strike, which was hampered by poor visibility, nevertheless convinced the Iraqi navy to the flee to Iran and the massacre off Bubiyan Island.
It didn’t take long before the Air Force was convinced the Navy was willfully insubordinate and not team players. Likewise, we were convinced the Air Force was willfully ignorant of what we needed to do neutralize the threat to our ships, which would enable us to maximize our contribution to the air campaign.
Coming in Desert Storm Part 2 – February/March 1991
- The Great Scud Hunt
- Mine Warfare
- Over the Top
- Silkworm Shot
- The Highway of Death
- Vision of Hell
Source: Me. Although I wrote these pieces by memory a number of years after the fact, the best pretty comprehensive source for information on the U.S. Navy during Desert Shield/Desert Storm is still the two-volume set of Desert Shield at Sea: What the Navy Really Did and Desert Storm at Sea: What the Navy Really Did both by Marvin Pokrant (the NAVCENT/C7F CNA Rep during both operations): Greenwood Press, 1999. (It wasn’t cheap). Also useful is the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, The United States Navy in Desert Shield, Desert Storm of 15 May 1991 which has the best chronology and other facts and figures. I would note that these are more “PC” than my account. Also, Shield and Storm: The United States Navy in the Persian Gulf War, by Edward J. Marolda and Robert J. Schneller: Naval Historical Center, 1998.
Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox
Operation Desert Storm : A War Story