30 years later, Desert Storm remains a powerful influence on Air, Space Forces

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Today, 30 years after combat ended on Feb. 28, 1991, Desert Storm’s influence on the United States military, and especially the Air Force and Space Force, remain substantial and entrenched. The U.S. and its allies flew more than 116,000 combat air sorties and dropped 88,500 tons of bombs over a six-week period that preceded the ground campaign.(Air Force graphic)
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Even before it began, before the first tactical decision and the first sortie flown, the 1991 conflict that would become known as Desert Storm acquired a notable profile.

Today, 30 years after combat ended on Feb. 28, 1991, Desert Storm’s influence on the United States military, and especially the Air Force and Space Force, remain substantial and entrenched.

F-15E Eagle fighter aircraft of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing
F-15E Eagle fighter aircraft of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., are parked on an air field during Operation Desert Shield.

For any student of history, Desert Storm’s accounting is well known. The U.S. and its allies flew more than 116,000 combat air sorties and dropped 88,500 tons of bombs over a six-week period that preceded the ground campaign. The air bombardment was so successful that the ground campaign was over in 100 hours.

Desert Storm was the first time stealth aircraft were used in a major way. It also featured an extensive use of precision-guided munitions. All of it was effective. The ground campaign began after six weeks of sustained air attacks drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in four days.

F-15E Eagle fighter aircraft of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing
F-15E Eagle fighter aircraft of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing., hold an FIM-92A Stinger portable missile launcher as they pose for a photograph during Operation Desert Shield. (USAF PHOTO BY SSGT F. LEE CORKRAN DA-ST-92-06695)

There are other notable footnotes.

Desert Storm was the first time the Patriot missile system was used in combat to intercept and defeat Scud missiles. It was also the first time the Air Force relied heavily on stealth and space systems to support capabilities against a modern, integrated air defense.

Desert Storm, said Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond, “is the first time that we integrated strategic space capabilities into the theater for operational advantage.”

Desert Storm was also the first war since the adoption in the 1970s of the Total Force policy, which made the services far more dependent than previously on the National Guard and the Reserve.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., notes the “firsts” achieved during Desert Storm and their continuing legacy.

A US Air Force F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter aircraft
A US Air Force F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter aircraft flies over Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., during the joint service experimentation process dubbed Millennium Challenge 2002. The Night Hawk was one of the key aircraft in Operation Desert Storm. (Air Force photograph by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon II)

Yet while that legacy is significant, Brown maintains that another major, and often underappreciated, feature of the campaign is the importance of strong alliances and partners.

Desert Storm, he said, fostered a new set of alliances that have remained mostly steadfast, and mutually beneficial, since the war ended.

“Allies; that’s the one thing that’s been constant since then,” he said. “You build these relationships with allies and partners and that pays huge dividends.” The benefits derived from combined operations, exercises and collaborations over the years continue to demonstrate their importance whether the adversary is ISIS or a peer competitor or a humanitarian effort, Brown said.

It’s true that by the time combat operations began on Jan. 17, 1991 following Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait, 39 countries including the United States, several Arab states, NATO partners and others had formed a cohesive coalition.

HMAS Sydney in the Persian Gulf in 1991.
HMAS Sydney in the Persian Gulf in 1991. (Royal Australian Navy photograph)

It was a potent and effective force. By the time fighting ended 43 days after it began, the force, which included 697,000 service men and women from the United States, overwhelmed Iraqi forces.

Desert Storm also did something else: it rearranged and updated American warfighting strategies in a way that maximized new technologies and spawned new tactics and doctrines. It showed the importance of space and stealth, of using a truly multi-domain strategy and using a “Total Force” doctrine.

Nowhere is that more true than the military use of space.

Desert Storm is recognized as the first true “space war,” one that used GPS, precision-guided weapons and satellite communication. Those technologies and tools were central, and essential, to the success of the effort rather than cobbled on as an accessory.

A Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CF-18 Hornet, 4-Wing, takes off from Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada during the second Tiger Meet of the Americas. The Hornet is carrying two types of Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) pods on the wing tips. The Tiger Meet of the Americas, first ever held in Canada, inaugurated in 2001 in the Western Hemisphere to carry on the Tiger tradition of the long-established European original experience; promoting solidarity and operational understanding between NATO members. The Meet attracted 400 participants and over 20 aircraft, with at least 6 fighter jets painted in distinctive “Tiger” schemes. For a squadron to be invited, only one simple criterion required, the unit must have a Tiger or other big cat on their unit’s insignia or as a mascot.

And unlike previous conflicts, Desert Storm utilized the “Total Force” concept in which the National Guard and Reserve played crucial and expanded roles.

“The seeds of an independent Space Force were absolutely sown during Desert Storm. Up until Desert Storm, most people thought of space as an add-on,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for Strategy, Integration and Requirements.

It’s not an overstatement, historians and analysts say, to trace the roots of the Space Force to Desert Storm.

While promise and potential of capabilities such as “beyond line of sight communication” and “precision navigation and timing” were understood before Desert Storm, that conflict marked the first time those capabilities were widely used.

“It became such that nobody ever again wanted to fight without those things,” Hinote said. “It took a long time but I think you can trace the appreciation inside the Pentagon and inside the Joint Force for space that reaches back to Desert Storm. We wouldn’t have been nearly as effective had it not been for the space assets we had.”

Hinote isn’t alone in that view.

The numbers explain why those assessments are not only offered, but also accepted and acted on.

A British Challenger main battle tank
A British Challenger main battle tank, the squadron leader of D Squadron, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, moves into a base camp along with other Allied armor during Operation Desert Storm. (British Army photograph)

The coalition’s “air armada of nearly a thousand aircraft in the first day of the air campaign attacked more targets than all of the Eighth Air Force aircraft hit in the entire European theater during the years 1942 and 1943,” The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies noted in a recently released report aimed to coincide with Desert Storm’s 30th anniversary.

“For 43 days, coalition air forces were brought to bear against the centers of gravity of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime. It is important to remember Desert Storm, not only for the definitive revelations and demonstrations about airpower, but also because of valuable insights that apply to our current and future wars,” the report said.

The General Accountability Office described Desert Storm as “perhaps the most successful war fought in the 20th century.” That assessment is more than a sterilized remembrance.

“Just as our way of war has been fueled by space capabilities, largely since Desert Storm, we’ve also grown those capabilities over the course of the last three decades,” Raymond said. “We are more reliant on space today than ever before. And unlike at the time of Desert Storm, today, access to space is not a given, and we need to maintain superiority in the domain to protect our nation’s security and our way of life.”

Soldiers examine an Iraqi T-55 main battle tank
Soldiers examine an Iraqi T-55 main battle tank destroyed by the French 6th Light Armored Division during Operation Desert Storm.
President Bush visiting American troops in Saudi Arabia
President Bush visiting American troops in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving Day, 1990. (Courtesy photograph)
Paul D. Wolfowitz, under secretary of defense for policy
Paul D. Wolfowitz, under secretary of defense for policy, right, takes notes while Gen. Colin Powell, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander-in-chief, U.S. Central Command, listen to Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney answer questions from the media. The men are taking part in a press conference held by U.S. and Saudi Arabian officials during Operation Desert Storm.
Oil fires set in Kuwait during the Gulf War
Oil fires set in Kuwait during the Gulf War by Iraqi forces. The oil fires caused were a result of the†scorched earth†policy of Iraqi†military forces retreating from Kuwait. (Army photograph)
Civilians and coalition military forces wave Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian flags
Civilians and coalition military forces wave Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian flags as they celebrate the retreat of Iraqi forces from Kuwait as a result of Operation Desert Storm.
Egyptian troops stand ready for review by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia
Egyptian troops stand ready for review by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia as they take part in an assembly of international coalition forces united against Saddam Hussein during Operational Desert Storm.
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