At the end of February 1991, after a month of intense and purposeful air activity of the shooting kind, Desert Storm moved into the decisive land engagement that Saddam Hussein had already tagged "the mother of all battles". He directed what was probably the fourth largest army in the world at the time, and without doubt the most recently combat-experienced. The Coalition, so carefully assembled by George Bush Snr, fielded ground forces adequate to the challenge, in what promised to be the biggest tank battle since the Kursk salient in 1943. Hotter weather was on its way: there was a serious imperative to get on with the job. You'll find no shortage of accounts of what followed, from border skirmishes and the French advance on the left flank, through the retaking of Kuwait, to the final halt on the road to Damascus, 100 hours of fighting later: but I want to concentrate on a fascinating element of the first phase of the main assault that well illustrates the high quality of the Coalition generalship.
One of many big problems faced by the Coalition was always going to be logistics. The distances and desert going involved; the ultra fuel-hungry nature of the heavy M-1 and Challenger tanks; the allies' determination to use artillery to the full; the huge quantities of drinking water needed in the desert; and the anticipated (indeed, necessary) rapid rate of advance - all spoke to a critical logistics dependency, as is often the case for swiftly advancing armies. How to ensure this was managed successfully?
The answer was an imaginative piece of logistical genius that probably only the Americans are capable of (though below we'll consider a British precedent). Instead of having logistics trying to catch up with the front line, it was decided to have the leading armoured units fight their way towards already-established logistics bases behind enemy lines, deep in the Iraqi desert. This was particularly relevant for the wide left hook on the western flank, where the distances for advancing forces would be greatest. The first of these, Forward Operating Base Cobra some 80 miles into Iraq, was to be established on G-Day itself, 24 February, by the legendary 101st Airborne Division - all made possible, of course, by accurate prior air reconnaisance and a very substantial fleet of attack and transport helicopters.
They deployed in the biggest heliborne assault ever mounted, against a carefully chosen, lightly-defended Iraqi location. Not only was the resulting FOB Cobra a logistics base for following units, it was a jumping-off point for further bases set up even deeper into Iraqi territory over the following three days. The concept was excellent in design, and successful in execution.
Is there any precedent for such a strategy? Well, airborne forces were of course used several times to capture bridgeheads in WW2, not least on D-Day itself and, perhaps with greater similarity in Market Garden later the same year. That latter plan was to establish a fighting base behind enemy lines towards which armoured forces would fight. But even if Market Garden had worked out as planned, there wouldn't have been any pre-arranged supplies waiting for Guards Armoured when (if) they'd arrived at Arnhem.
However, students of the Peninsular War might identify an early C19th parallel. For some time Wellington operated from secure bases in Portugal, with relatively straightforward replenishment by sea. In 1812 he won the critical battle of Salamanca, followed by some messing around before winter set in. As the 1813 campaigning season commenced, he pretty much had the French in reverse gear; but his lines of logistics were inevitably going to be strained significantly if he intended to clear the French from Spain entirely. Which he did. The French, by contrast, enjoyed interior lines of communication, as retreating armies generally do
Always one to think things through ahead of time, Wellington's strategy was masterly. As part of a specific diversion campaign along the north coast of Spain and the French coast on the Bay of Biscay, the Royal Navy captured Santander on the north coast, then opened up Bilbao. For the decisive battle at Vitoria (in the north east of Spain), by using Santander as FOB his overland lines of logistics were 400 miles shorter than had he continued to be supplied from Portugal. (The sea passage from Britain was 400 miles shorter, too.) A prototype FOB Cobra.
He didn't have helicopters, though ...
Footnote: for those whose attention tends to wander, this is Gulf War ONE we are talking about. 1991. Bush Senior. John Major as PM ... OK?