Gamble in the Desert: The First 30 Days of Operation Desert Storm Part III 18 August-25 August

OPERATION DESERT SHIELD

*Author’s note- When I started this blog in 2012 my first two entries were the Gamble in the Desert series. The series was pushed off to the side and forgotten as other topics came to the forefront. So, in the spirit of finishing series that have been left incomplete I am continuing Gamble in the Desert. For reference I will post links to the first two entries at the end of this one*

The invasion of Kuwait presented the United States with the immediate need for a sizeable force to be deployed to the Arabian Peninsula immediately. When Operation Desert Shield commenced there was no up to date template, scenario or OPLAN for unit commanders and their staffs to draw from. Plans for the deployment and employment of initial units were put together or improvised on the fly, in many cases while those very units were in the air and on their way to Saudi Arabia. With this in mind, it needs to be noted that the opening phase of Desert Shield was not a ‘no plan’ contingency. The beginnings of the ‘big picture’ plan were available, as well as several older contingency plans. This helped, however, it was far less than planners were accustomed to working with in an exercise, let alone a real world crisis.

This situation was not limited solely to the first Army and USAF units to deploy. All of the services were facing the same predicament. The end result was a series of unique problems which required unique, improvised solutions in the shortest amount of time possible. It was not orderly or by the book, however, the job was getting done.

The US Air Force was essentially caught between two chairs as August progressed. Along with its primary role of deploying combat aircraft to the region, the Air Force was also responsible for providing the airlift capability to move the first wave of airborne and airmobile Army troops and their equipment to Saudi Arabia. By C+11 (August 18, 1990) 95 percent of the operable C-5 Galaxies, and 90 percent of the operable C-141 Starlifters were flying the air bridge between CONUS and Saudi Arabia. This effort was augmented by civilian airliners that were part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. On C+10 stage one of the CRAF program was initiated.

In mid-August, after a large portion of the 82nd Airborne Division had arrived, the focus of airlift priorities was shifted.  C3I (Command, Control Communications & Intelligence) systems and other types of assets were needed to support the fighter and bomber force gathering in the Middle East. At this point, airpower was providing the bulk of the combat power in Saudi Arabia and needed to be supported properly. While this was happening, the flow of combat aircraft into the theater dropped off to a more moderate pace from C+11 until C+16 but would pick up again later in the month.

For CENTCOM, its needs evolved as time went on. In August of 1990 tits deployment plans maximized the flow of combat units. The first ground units to move were the 82nd Airborne and the air-transportable Marine Expeditionary Brigades which linked up with prepositioned equipment in Saudi Arabia. Next on the list were the 101st Airborne Division and 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized).  The 24th was a heavy maneuver unit that carried a lot of tanks and armored fighting vehicles. The bulk of its equipment needed to be transported by sea. The 101st, though an airborne division in name, was in reality an air mobile division. It’s primary method of troop transportation was the helicopter. The majority of the division’s helicopters would be moved by sea as well.

The embarkation ports for the 24th Mech and 101st were Savannah and Jacksonville respectively. Two fast sealift ships, the USNS Altair and USNS Capella had arrived at Savannah on C+5 and began loading equipment immediately. Capella was loaded within forty-eight hours and departed on C+7 bound for Saudi Arabia. The first ship carrying the 101st Airborne’s equipment left Jacksonville on C+12. During the five-day period in between and thereafter these dates, transport ships converged on southeastern US port cities to take on equipment. Shipping was not as readily available as aircraft though. The ready reserve ships expected to be available by C+11 were delayed by a week and there were mechanical problems with other vessels. It was a two-week journey by sea from the US to Saudi Arabia and in the case of some ships the amount of time was lengthened by these issues.

On C+15 President George H.W. Bush authorized the first call up of Reserve Component personnel for active duty. This first activation of reservist was mostly for support units to aid in logistical operations underway in the US and Saudi Arabia. 48,000 reservists made up the initial activation but that number would increase steadily as time went on.

A flurry of diplomatic activity was going on during this time period too. The United States was rapidly building a diverse coalition of nations opposed to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Pledges of military assistance were coming from traditional allies such as Great Britain and France, as well as from Arab nations like Egypt and even Syria. The danger of Saddam Hussein gaining control of Saudi Arabia was apparent to nearly every nation in the world and those that could provide assistance in one form or another did just that. The United Nations was not idle or playing a secondary role either. On C+18 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 665 authorizing a naval blockade to enforce the embargo against Iraq. The world was uniting against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, with the exception of a handful of nations. The invasion of Kuwait, the detention of foreigners, and the prospect of Iraq controlling a large portion of the world’s oil had galvanized the world community to action. Decisively, the tide was turning against Iraq on the diplomatic front.

But if the Iraqi army came south into Saudi Arabia, diplomacy and UN resolutions could not stop them. All that stood between Iraq and regional hegemony was the buildup of US military power in the Saudi desert and if had hostilities kicked off between 18 and 25 August the end result would still have been very much in doubt.

Part One

Part Two

The Legacy Of Desert Shield Part II

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The 90s were a time of adjustment for the US military. Following the tense stability of the Cold War years, the branches had to contend with a high ops tempo at a time when the force was shrinking in both size and capabilities. In simple terms, the military was forced to do more with less. And with the Cold War now over, the military was being asked to perform more missions with a smaller force.

Also during the 90s, America’s presence in the Middle was expanding. Much of this was due to the continued saber rattling of Saddam Hussein. However, there was growing indications of other potential problems on the horizon. The rise of Osama Bin Laden was attracting the attention of US intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Iran, after a dormant period in the late 80s and early 90s, was beginning to make noise.

As the decade went on, the US military’s infrastructure in the Middle East expanded. In 1995, the US Navy recommissioned the 5th Fleet to handle operations in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Its headquarters was based in Bahrain. With the presence of a large number of US Navy warships in the region now a regular event, the creation of a numbered fleet and the building of support facilities was reasonable. The 5th Fleet has proven its value numerous times in the last twenty years.

From 1991 through 2001, the US conducted a number of reprisal strikes against Iraq. The reasons for the strikes were varied. They include Iraq’s failures to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, continuous violations of the No-Fly Zones, and even an attempted assassination of former President George H.W. Bush. The operations generally were made up exclusively of cruise missile attacks and airstrikes. One exception was Operation Vigilant Warrior in 1994. In early October of that year, Iraq began to mass forces in close proximity to the Kuwait border, the US responded by sending troops to the area. A brigade from the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division and elements of the 1st MEF deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, met up with prepositioned equipment and deployed to the Kuwait/Iraq border. The effort was successful in deterring Iraq from moving forward with an operation against Kuwait. By the end of October, Iraqi forces had withdrawn from the border area and the crisis was defused.

Iraq was not the only threat to US military forces in the region. Terrorism was always a major concern. As the decade went on, the potential for terrorist attacks increased. Radicalism was spreading and fueling anti-American rhetoric and feeling across the region. It was only a matter of time until terrorists struck. In June 1996, it finally happened. Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, a USAF barracks, was bombed. Twenty US airmen were killed and over three hundred injured. Hezbollah was responsible for the attack. The attack led to increased security measures across the region and led US and Coalition forces to relocate to Prince Sultan Air Base, a secure and remote Royal Saudi Air Force base seventy miles south of Riyadh. PSAB, as the base is generally known to US airmen, became the centerpiece of US and allied air forces in the Middle East. Its importance rose in the subsequent years.

In October of 2000, terrorists struck again. This time the target was a US Navy warship docked in Aden, Yemen. A small craft loaded with explosives approached the port side of the USS Cole as it underwent refueling. The craft exploded, causing extensive damage to the ship and killing 17 US Sailors. This attack was carried out by Al Qaeda and served as a precursor to the more devastating attacks that were coming in September of 2001.

In the first decade of the 21st Century, US installations and forces in the Middle East were invaluable pieces of American foreign policy and war fighting efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part 3 of this series will talk about this.

The Legacy Of Desert Shield Part I

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Twenty five years ago today, the United States launched Operation Desert Shield. The purpose of the operation was audaciously simple: defend Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi invasion. On August 2nd, 1990, Iraq invaded and quickly overran Kuwait. The speed of the Iraqi offensive alarmed Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, as well as Washington. Almost overnight, Kuwait was occupied and a large Iraqi force sat on the conquered nation’s southern border with Saudi Arabia. All that stood between the Iraqi army and oil fields of Saudi Arabia was the poorly trained Saudi army. It would not last long in a fight if the Iraqis came south. The notion of Iraq controlling Kuwait and Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves was unacceptable to the US. Offers of assistance were made to the nervous Saudis, and after a lightning round of negotiations in Riyadh, King Fahd opened the doors of the Kingdom to US military forces.

Beginning almost immediately after the meeting, the United States started moving forces to Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries. The first US combat units arrived in Saudi Arabia within 24 hours of the orders being issued. The first wave consisted of elements of the 2nd Brigade/82nd Airborne Division, and the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing from Langley AFB. A small force that would not be able to do much to stop a determined Iraqi drive on the oil fields and eastern ports of Saudi Arabia. A lot of help was coming behind this initial force, though. As the weeks progressed, large numbers of US and allied troops, aircraft and warships converged on the Middle East. It was the fastest and deployment in US history. Within two months, the US had deployed a force large and powerful enough to ensure a successful defense of Saudi Arabia.

By mid-October, the strategic goal of the US was moving from defending Saudi Arabia to the potential liberation of Kuwait. Yet the force that had been built up was not going be enough to retake Kuwait by itself. More combat power would be needed for the offensive option to be credible. The US moved to double the combat power it had available in the region. By January, two US Army corps, two thirds of the Marine Corps, dozens of fighter squadrons and seven carrier battlegroups were deployed and prepared for war.

The rest, as they say, is history. Operation Desert Storm commenced on January 17, 1991, hours after the UN deadline for Iraqi forces to leave Kuwait had passed. By the end of February, Iraq had been decisively defeated on the battlefield and Kuwait liberated. But Saddam, though weakened, remained in power. It became apparent rather quickly that a long term US military presence in the region was going to be necessary to ensure the stability of the Middle East and the security of US allies there as well. When the fighting ended, US military planners were already examining the lessons learned from Desert Shield and speculating how they could be applied in the future.

One lesson towers above the rest in both military importance and significance to US foreign policy in the past twenty five years: A permanent US forward presence is essential for regional stability and security. The US military presence in the Middle East since 1990-91 has served to influence the political and military policies of nations across the world in both positive and negative ways. It has certainly played a key part in everything from the rise of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda to the downfall of Saddam Hussein. For that reason alone, it is worth looking very closely at how the US military presence in the Middle East evolved after Desert Storm.

Desert Shield was launched from a standing start. The fact of the matter is that when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States was caught with its pants down. There were no permanent bases in the region. Fortunately, there was an infrastructure in place to accommodate a US buildup if it were ever necessary. Saudi airbases had been designed and built to accept a large number of US combat aircraft in the event of a crisis. However, the amount of US military power in the Persian Gulf region on 2 August, 1990 was minimal. The US military footprint in the area had historically been very small to that point. Had Iraq decided to double down on its Kuwait gains, the lack of US forces in the area could have been disastrous for the Saudis, and ultimately for the West.

After Desert Storm, for the rest of the 90s the US maintained a large forward presence in and around the Persian Gulf area. From Prince Sultan Air base in Saudi Arabia, US warplanes flew patrols in support of Operation Southern Watch. Airbase facilities in Kuwait were upgraded and opened for American use and the NATO airbase at Incirlik, Turkey was optimized for aircraft flying Operation Northern Watch patrols. A carrier battlegroup was almost always in the vicinity. Prepositioned material for two US Army heavy brigades arrived in the region. One set was placed in Saudi Arabia, the other in Kuwait.

The increased US presence in the region was welcomed by its regional allies. The number of troops was far less than it had been in 1990 and 1991, but still large enough to help ensure the security of the Gulf States. However, from Saudi Arabia to Yemen, the seeds of hate were already being sewn beneath the surface. Having American forces in their nations forced regional leaders to walk a fine line to placate the more extremist elements of their societies.  The fact that US forces continued to use Saudi Arabia for operations enraged many Muslims. One of those people was Osama Bin Laden, a wealthy Saud who was enraged by the US decision to remain in the Middle East. He used this as a flag to rally the increasing numbers of followers of his extremist beliefs. America’s military presence in the Middle East indirectly contributed to the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa and later the September 11th 2001 attacks in New York and Washington DC.

Part 2 of this piece will be published on Monday. In it, we will take a look at how the increased US military presence in the Persian Gulf was essential for reprisal strikes against Iraq in the 1990s as well as Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in the early years of the 21st Century.

Gamble In The Desert: The First Thirty Days Of Operation Desert Shield Part II August 7-17

 

                                                  Part Two: August 7th-17th

           

CENTCOM began moving its forces on August 7th, marking it as C-Day. Many units based in the Southeastern United States had CENTCOM roles and had been quietly preparing for possible movement overseas since the invasion began. Consequently, the orders to begin moving came as little surprise. By August 8th, the first ground troops of what would ultimately be a 540,000 thousand soldier effort were on their way to Saudi Arabia with orders to be prepared to fight as soon as arriving in the Kingdom.

The first unit movement of Desert Shield began with  F-15s from the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing based at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia and elements of the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division from Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.  The F-15s traveled across the Atlantic, refueling in the air multiple times and began landing at Dhahran Air Base on August 8th (C+1). 2/82nd Airborne was not far behind, also arriving at Dhahran and immediately establishing defensive perimeters around airbase and nearby port for the arrival of follow on forces.

The first soldiers on the ground recognized how exposed they were. If Iraqi tanks crossed the border and came south, the fight would be short. The F-15 pilots greatest concern for the first two days in the Kingdom was ordnance. Their fighters only had enough air-to-air missiles for one engagement. Two at the most. The paratroopers of the 82nd had an even greater dilemma. Iraq’s units in Kuwait at the time were armor heavy. The 82nd was, in essence, a light infantry unit. Consequently, it had very little anti-tank weaponry. Until a sizable number of ground forces arrived in theater, CENTCOM commanders were keenly aware that air power alone was going to have to deter Iraq.

F-15C of the 1st TFW at Dhahran Air Base, Saudi Arabia

By C+2 the first squadron of F-15s to arrive in Saudi Arabia was ready to conduct combat operations despite the shortcomings with ordnance.  Within a week of C Day there were five USAF fighter squadrons in Saudi Arabia with even more on the way. After the arrival of the first five squadrons there was a delay before more could be sent. Airlift assets were shifted to ensure the movement of the rest of the 82nd Airborne to the desert. The fighters could self-deploy, however, airlifters were needed to transport the squadron support personnel, munitions and supplies. Without these crucial elements, the fighters themselves were essentially useless. In the absence of additional fighters, twenty B-52Gs arrived on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

In the first week of Desert Shield Military Airlift Command (predecessor of current Air Mobility Command) apportioned its entire fleet to the effort. CENTCOM had a lot of units to move and immediately put them to work. On August 11th (C+4) the Civil Reserve Air Fleet was issued orders to prepare for authorization.  A limited number of civilian airliners and cargo planes had already been volunteered by their companies and were augmenting the MAC airlifters.

Aircraft were not the only form of transportation. America’s sealift capability was mobilizing, with the assets closest to the region moving on C Day. On the island of Diego Garcia, Maritime Prepositioning Ships carrying the equipment of a full Marine Expeditionary Brigade and enough supplies to sustain it for 30 days had slipped their moorings and were steaming west towards the Persian Gulf. The Marines of the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade would marry up with the equipment were preparing to fly to Saudi Arabia. Similar in concept to the MPS vessels, the Afloat Prepositioned Ships carried weapons, supplies and fuel for Army and Air Force units also left their anchorages at Diego. They proved their worth. The first MPS ship arrived at Dhahran on the 14th of August (C+7) and the first APS vessel made port on the 17th (C+10).

Ground forces were what would be needed to stop Iraq’s forces if they invaded Saudi Arabia. Airpower and naval power would slow them down, however, troops were needed on the ground. As the 82nd Airborne Division deployed, behind it was a queue of forces preparing for their turns to move to Saudi Arabia. The 24th Mechanized Infantry Division was the most critical element. It was an armor heavy division, essential for defending against Saddam’s own tank heavy forces. On August 9th (C+2) it’s lead elements were moving from Fort Stewart to its embarkation port of Savannah, Georgia where fast sealift ships were gathering to move the division’s heavy equipment to Saudi Arabia. The vanguard of the 101st Airborne Division had begun moving two days earlier. In spite of the rapid movement, both divisions would fully arrive in theater until late August or early September.

With it becoming apparent that the United States was resolutely determined to defend the Saudi kingdom from the threat off to the north, how Saddam reacted was anyone’s guess. The US was forming a wide coalition of nations, diplomatically attempting to isolate Iraq and force it to withdraw peacefully from Kuwait. US and allied naval forces were conducting operations in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, enforcing the embargo set upon Iraq by the UN. Time remained on his side, however, the window of opportunity to invade and conquer Saudi Arabia was beginning to evaporate. Every day the forces arrayed against Saddam Hussein were growing stronger, while his troops in Kuwait sat aimlessly, awaiting orders to either continue south or begin digging in.