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.

Gamble In The Desert: The First Thirty Days Of Operation Desert Shield

Part One: August 2nd-August 6th

In August 1990, Operation Desert Shield began. The effort culminated five months later with the beginning of Operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait. Today, few people are aware of how much risk was involved in the initial days of the operation to defend Saudi Arabia from a potential Iraqi invasion.

On August 2nd,1990 Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. Less a week after the attack, US troops and aircraft began arriving at bases in Saudi Arabia, and naval forces were steaming towards the Persian Gulf area. Their objective was to prevent Saudi Arabia from suffering the same fate as its northern neighbor. The operation was code-named Desert Shield and five months later would convert into Operation Desert Storm.

However, for the first thirty days of Desert Shield the situation was fluid. Battle hardened Iraqi forces sat on the Kuwait/Saudi border, poised south like a dagger aimed at the Saudi oil fields. The intentions of Saddam Hussein were unknown, but considering how rapidly his forces had devoured Kuwait, the very real possibility existed that Saudi Arabia was next on his list. If Iraqi forces did continue the offensive beyond Kuwait at some point in early to mid-August,  all that stood in their way were the inferior military forces of Saudi Arabia, and a thin line of US paratroopers and marines supported by an expanding contingent of airpower.

Even before the first Iraqi tanks entered Kuwait, US military leaders were contemplating potential military responses to the growing crisis should the need arise. The Persian Gulf region presented a myriad of obstacles. The excessive heat and dry conditions of the desert would affect soldiers and equipment alike. The US had no permanent bases in the region and its forces in theater at the time were limited to a handful of AWACS aircraft, airborne tankers and three warships on station in the Persian Gulf. The Gulf States, although westernized, had long sought to appease the Islamic fundamentalists in their nations by resisting requests by the United States to establish a permanent military presence in their land. Even more troubling was the reality that no defense treaties or plans of cooperation were in place between the US and the Gulf States. The US military had never trained to fight alongside the forces of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the other Gulf states the way it had trained to operate with its NATO allies.

As Kuwait fought for its life and eventually fell, President Bush was growing ever more concerned about the intentions of Saddam Hussein. The conquest of Kuwait was a disaster in itself. If Saddam sent his tanks into Saudi Arabia next and gained control of the oil fields there, it would be an unmitigated catastrophe for the world. The fall of Saudi Arabia was not in the interests of the United States. Iraq would be sitting on over a quarter of the world’s oil reserves.   In Riyadh, King Fahd cast an anxious eye to the north. He understood the dynamics and gravity of the situation. If Iraq invaded the Kingdom, the House of Saud would be unseated. Fahd recognized the US as a resolute ally of his country. He had once remarked that “After Allah, we can count only on the United States.”

America’s response to the invasion of Kuwait proved that Fahd’s faith was not misplaced.  Bush and his cabinet had been reviewing options and charting a course of action for the United States since the crisis broke. Diplomatic efforts thus far were doing little to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait. Militarily, the situation was even worse. Iraq had over 100,000 soldiers on the Kuwait/Saudi border including elite Republican Guard divisions armed with high tech weapons and manned by capable soldiers led by well-trained officers. These forces were more than a match for the Saudi military.

As Bush considered military intervention in the early days of August, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) General H. Norman Schwarzkopf was summoned to Washington to brief the commander-in-chief and his advisers. CENTCOM’s area of responsibility was the Middle East. It was established in 1983 as an offspring of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force. The purpose of CENTCOM was to deploy combat ready forces to the region encompassing Southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf. As it stood, CENTCOM had no fighting units directly under its command. It took units from other major commands, as per previously laid out contingency plans, packaged and deployed them as necessary.

CENTCOM had just ended its annual command post exercise code named Internal Look. The exercise scenario for 1990 had been based on the premise of an Arab nation invading its Arab neighbor and prompting a US response. Internal Look proved to be prophetic, and enabled Schwarzkopf to present a realistic, up to date plan to the President.

If the United States was going to defend Saudi Arabia, the operation would be fundamentally precarious. The first ground troops to arrive would be light airborne and marine forces, highly mobile, yet equipped with limited anti-tank capabilities. Heavy maneuver forces such as mechanized infantry and armored divisions were what would be needed to halt an Iraqi attack. Under the deployment plans at the time, the cargo ships carrying the first heavy elements would not arrive in Saudi until late August. And when they arrived, secure ports were needed to offload the equipment. Most of the ports capable of accepting them were on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, and not very far from the Kuwait border. If fighting began, Iraqi forces could control all of the Saudi ports on the Persian Gulf before the first ship carrying US armor cleared the Strait of Hormuz.

Ideally, the arrival of US forces in Saudi Arabia, albeit light forces, would deter Iraq from invading the Kingdom.  However, there was no guarantee that the initial show of force would be enough to give Saddam reason to pause. Time was on Saddam’s side. If Iraqi forces crossed the border before enough US forces were in the region to successfully defend Saudi Arabia, the fight might be short and the casualties high.

Bush felt the risk had to be taken. An offer of military assistance was extended to the Saudis on August 6th. King Fahd wasted no time in accepting it. He formally invited US forces into the Kingdom for ‘defensive reasons’. Operation Desert Shield was officially underway.

First To Go. Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division were the vanguard of Operation Desert Shield, the first US combat troops to arrive.