Saturday 20 March 2021

Desert Storm (6) - The Air War

This was essentially the first war played out in realtime on our TVs.  There is tons of excellent stuff on the air campaign to be found easily on t' www (see footnotes), so after a few openers I'm not going to do more than hit a few headlines that I consider interesting, either from the perspective of high-level conclusions, or personal reminiscence.

Many of us will recall all manner of really memorable aspects, generally with the force of vivid graphical portrayal: 'Shock and Awe' impacts being captured live by CNN; Tomahawk cruise missiles spotted by Baghdad correspondents "flying up the street and turning left at the traffic lights"; grainy b&w film coverage of impressive detonations and other incidents, often with individual human beings clearly discernible; captured Coalition aircrew paraded for the cameras bruised and bleeding.  Prime-time newsworthy, or what?

The air campaign was of course the first significant element of the whole Coalition response to Saddam's seizure of Kuwait the previous summer, being the quickest and most intimidating to deploy.  A non-shooting aerial campaign had been building steadily over the months and by January 1991 was already at an epic scale before a single shot had been fired.  This was for several purposes:

  • show of force, and of intent;
  • defensive cover for Saudi Arabia, and a general deterrent against who-knew-what (as already noted several times, Saddam was capable of springing surprises);
  • training for what was to come: the US, UK, French, Canadian and Italian elements were already fully NATO-indoctrinated of course - a massively sigificant factor - and the Saudi airforce, fairly much a US/UK construct (with a lot of US/UK expat pilots, too) was easily knocked into the same shape.  Even so, the sheer scale of the anticipated air war meant that no ring-rustiness could be tolerated;
  • maskirovka for what was to come: Iraqi air defence radar had been totally saturated with traffic for many weeks before the Go button was pressed;
  • recconnaisance for what was to come: to some extent obtained directly overhead of Kuwait and Iraq, but also a huge amount of material (not least, AA radar locations and frequencies) safely gathered obliquely from within friendly airspace by various highly effective high-tech means.   

It was always pretty obvious that the Coalition was going to lead with its incomparable air assets.  Achieving and exploiting total air superiority was a central tenet of Allied doctrine from WW2 onwards, and of course central to AirLand Battle, the NATO doctrine of the time.  The sheer number of Coalition aircraft deployed (wiki says more than 2,780 fixed-wing; and many of the vast fleet of helos were armed to the teeth), from in-theatre including aircraft carriers and of course US bombers and recce aircraft flying from much further afield, was astounding.  If we add in cruise missiles - which also clutter the skies - that's a bunch of aggressive airframes aloft.

They (we) weren't unopposed - at least, not at the outset - for Saddam had a sizeable airforce of his own and substantial anti aircraft resources; and they (we) weren't without casualties (wiki says 75 Coalition aircraft lost & 46 aircrew killed, though a large % was down to blue-on-blue incidents and outright accidents - always a big risk when the air was so densely packed with friendly aircraft).  Ironically, dumb AA artillery around targets like Baghdad city, firing almost randomly en masse, can be an even bigger problem than carefully suppressed AA missiles for large-scale airborne flotillas.  As you'll read & watch from the accounts given in the footnotes and elsewhere, huge early emphasis was - of course - put on defeating Iraq's anti aircraft assets (note particularly the mass use of sacrificial drones); after which matters became a great deal simpler. 

So, some random notes.

1. Iraqi Airforce Flees    One of the surprises I've mentioned before: almost immediately the shooting started, the Iraqi airforce attempted to de-camp - to Iran! (as did some of his naval resources.)  A number of his aircraft made it, after which a Coalition aerial blockade was mounted.  This totally unexpected strategy had us really on the hop for a couple of days:  this bloke is clearly thinking ahead, and has more options than we necessarily anticipate.  What's next?

2. Live on CNN    Last time, we looked at the media aspects of Desert Storm.  CNN and others had the Middle East well staked out - an entirely private-enterprise initiative - and let me tell you, we had it all streaming into every HQ.  (I might add, we also had a few facilities not available to domestic TV viewers.)  This, alongside technology like the real-time Scud Alerts I've mentioned before, gave us the bizarre facility of knowing what was sheduled to happen after buttons had been pressed, ours and theirs, then leaning over to the big monitors to watch it actually happen.  That can't regularly have been available to wartime commanders since they were last mounted on horseback on a prominent hill overlooking the battlefield with their own telescopes.  

Repeating myself yet again, this also must have presented dreadful temptations, particularly for George Bush Snr, to meddle minute-by-minute.  Glory be, he didn't.

3.  Recconnaissance     We were deploying for the first time in earnest a tremendous new airborne technology: moving target indication radar (MTI).  There's a limit as to what I can say about this (albeit loads of stuff you can find online, some good & some less so) but it will crop up again in this blog series.  Anyhow, I think you will readily guess that the ability to track individual vehicles / vessels, in real-time, as a dot of light (whenever it moved) on a dark screen with a map overlaying it, could be kinda valuable ... and even more so when it was ten dots moving in formation!   The sort of cover that radar had long given us as regards aircraft, but now for surface movements too.

4.  Russia and AirLand Battle    The Russians were deeply interested spectators at this military extravaganza (as they had been with the Falklands a decade earlier), with enough regional assets to obtain a fairly good ringside view.  This is still 1991, so the Cold War is barely over.  They knew a lot about the theory of NATO's AirLand Battle (in fact they had a slightly differently-oriented version of their own) but their overall position was one of scepticism that it could be made to work, based on the extraordinary complexity of managing the sheer weight of air movements in a (relatively) confined space.

To their utter horror, it worked near-perfectly.  More than 100,000 sorties ...





dearieme said...

All this high tech must have been an enormous advance on what was available a few years earlier when Slick Willie's war against the Serbs included an accidental attack on the Chinese embassy.

Nick Drew said...

What?? Serbia was 1999

Ist Gulf was 1991 !!!

andrew said...

What did the russians do to get over their utter horror?

dearieme said...

Oops. Let me try again.

All this high tech must have been utterly destroyed a few years later when Slick Willie's war against the Serbs included an accidental attack on the Chinese embassy.

jim said...

Very impressive, an overwhelming force to beat an annoying bug. Very skilful and well organised. But as was said at the time 'any fool can get to Baghdad, what to do when you get there is the thing'. That was where the whole plan fell apart.

Might have been smarter to have shipped refrigerators, lamb kebabs, gen sets and TV sets into that benighted hole. As it was, a great big vacuum was created. A huge advantage expensively won was chucked away - the rest is history.

E-K said...

Jim - I think you're talking GB Jnr and not Snr. A different war.

Nick Drew said...

Everybody is automatically assuming it's Gulf 2 / Bush Jnr!

I'm talking 1991, OK ?! 30th anniversary !

(... kids these days sense of history ... mutter mutter ...)

Nick Drew said...

Your homework is to go back and read the whole series!

Test on Thursday morning.

BlokeInBrum said...

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Anonymous said...

What heppened to the planes when they got to Iran?

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this Mr D. A fascinating series of articles to date.

Bill Quango MP said...

The Iraqis had a good mix aircraft. Almost 100 Special extended range french designed Mirage
30 or so of the very latest, ( export version) mig 29 which had given Nato a shock on its appearance in the soviet airforce.
But the majority were the Mig21. A good, but ancient aircraft by 1991. Against Iran it had a 1-1 kill/loss ratio. In NATO that would have meant it would have been a training aircraft only.

There is a theory that the reason the Iraqi airforce was mostly ordered to stay on their airfields was the airforce was not trusted by the regime.
Apparently, with good reason.

E-K said...

Nick - I remember it well. Paula (a right sort at the time - still is) had volunteered as a carer for wounded heroes ... and I had just taken up a role as a most UN-heroic train guard.

E-K said...

PHE telling us masks and social distancing for several years yet - at least !

This is so that the world can catch up with us on vaccinations.

This is looking permanent.

Can anyone here justify this.

jim said...

Apologies for not reading and understanding the question....

This whole Covid thing is a drag. If we look to history people got fed up staying in during the Black Death - a bit more serious and obvious. Understandably a lot of restrictions are ignored. For most people covid is not that serious and not that obvious but the politicians dare not let go for fear of the 'granny count' and of course keeping the ports and trade open.

Then the very word 'lockdown' is an ugly thing and something of a liability - when do you undo 'lockdown' - when the baddies have been shot and taken away? Shades of TLAs and squared jawed types ordering all kinds of fantasy.

Once you get into something being denied then someone has to give permission to take off the denial. Inevitably a whole chain of command for issues that were previously never given a second thought. No one wants the blame if the numbers start shooting up again.

Then we have the horrible thought - what if it never goes away or takes a decade? Probably the politicos will have to have a powwow at some point and say 'sod it' and live with the 'granny count'. Can't see that happening for a month or two yet. Who would jump first and who would see advantage in saying no. We might discover our governments are a worse problem than the disease and we can't get rid of either. Illegal dinner parties anyone....

Jan said...

"We might discover our governments are a worse problem than the disease and we can't get rid of either"


Trouble in Bristol last night didn't surprise me really. If you keep people locked up/down for a year there are bound to be some looking for a fight. They're going to have to let us out soon surely.

Sorry the thread seems to have veered off-piste Nick. I find your posts about your time in the army really interesting being an army brat myself. Some of the forces mentality must have rubbed off on me.

E-K said...

My fault, Jan. I didn't mean to distract from another great post on the liberation of Kuwait.