The Approaching Storm

  • Published
  • By Michael Whetston
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

Starting next week and continuing through February, Malmstrom is recognizing the 30th Anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM or the Persian Gulf War (I).  DESERT STORM marks the first conflict in history to make comprehensive use of stealth and space systems support capabilities against a modern, integrated air defense. While we often recognize key historical dates surrounding U.S. and Air Force heritage, it is rare that we get to observe an entire conflict in one campaign.

On August 2, 1990, 100,000 Iraqi troops invaded oil-rich Kuwait. At the time, Iraq’s Army was the fourth largest in the world. Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, claimed Kuwait as Iraq’s 19th province. The next day, President George H.W. Bush would announce that the U.S. was sending Navy ships to the Persian Gulf. Four days after the invasion, the United Nations authorized economic sanctions against Iraq and President Bush authorized the deployment of U.S. military forces to defend Saudi Arabia in what would be known as Operation DESERT SHIELD.  Air Force C-141 and C-5 transports delivered the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division as the initial ground force. By mid-September, UK and French allies began deploying troops to Saudi Arabia.

The DESERT SHIELD airlift was so immense, it eclipsed the Berlin Airlift as the greatest air deployment in history.  From August 7 – November 8 it carried defensive forces into theater and from November 9 – January 1991 delivered counteroffensive forces. The numbers were impressive—7 thousand miles, 20,500 strategic airlift missions, 534,000 personnel and 542,000 tons of cargo.

Of note to those following the development of the U.S. Space Force, The Persian Gulf war represented the first major employment of space support capabilities. Coalition air, ground, and naval forces were greatly aided and made more combat lethal due to employment of space technology. In addition to using more than 60 military satellites, the forces used commercial and civil sector systems as well. Space-based satellites supported weather operations, early warning of SCUD launches, global communications, and navigation in the combat-debut of the Global Positioning System. Many historians call Desert Storm “the first space war” due to extensive use of space-based capabilities in military operations. Space is no longer a benign environment. It is a warfighting domain that is increasingly competitive, congested, and contested.

The U.S. Congress would authorize the use of military force on January 12, 1991. DESERT SHIELD became DESRT STORM at 1:00 a.m. on January 17, 1991 when three Air Force MH-53J Pave Low special operations helicopters led nine Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters on the first strike mission. Within hours the 2,700 aircraft from 14 nations which comprised the Central Command Air Forces overwhelmed Iraqi air defenses. In the initial phase of the air campaign, the Air Force used an arsenal of more than 30 aircraft types flying more than 69,000 sorties to propel the Air Force to gain and maintain control of the air domain. In what was the longest combat mission, seven B-52Gs flew non-stop from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., to strike Iraqi power stations and communication facilities using Air Launched Cruise Missiles. The round trip was 35 hours and covered 14,000 miles.

The first week of the air campaign was focused on attaining air supremacy and striking Iraqi command and control facilities. U.S. forces brought new weapons to the fight, including stealth aircraft, global positioning system devices, and precision guided technologies – these proved essential in neutralizing Iraq’s more than 700 combat aircraft, sophisticated air defense, and anti-aircraft artillery pieces. Subsequent weeks were devoted to reducing enemy combat power and interdicting supplies setting the conditions for the success of the ground campaign February 24-28. Ultimately, coalition aircraft flew 118,661 sorties in the 44-day air campaign, of which the Air Force flew about 60 percent. The direct contributions of a strategic air campaign, supported by the employment of revolutionary technology by Total Force Airmen, Guardians and the Coalition, enabled battlefield success. The Air Force’s post-Vietnam investments in emerging technologies was critical to the successful air campaign in Iraq.

Malmstrom played a role in the success of the air campaign as well.  How does an ICBM base do that?  Well, in addition to the usual individual augmentee deployments, Malmstrom was home to the 301st Air Refueling Wing. By August 30, less than a month into Operation DESERT SHIELD, the wing provided three KC-135R stratotankers to the 1702nd Air Refueling Squadron (Provisional), part of the 1702nd Air Refueling Wing (provisional), 7th Air Division. The wing was headquartered at Seeb International Airport in Muscat, Oman.

President Bush announced that Kuwait had been liberated on February 27, 1991, and that offensive operations would cease on February 28, 1991 at 4:00 a.m. Operation DESERT STORM unofficially ended on March 1, 1991 with the cease-fire plan negotiated in Safwan, Iraq, and would officially end with the signing of armistice by the coalition forces and the Iraqi army on April 11, 1991. It would take another seven months for all the Iraqi-started Kuwaiti oil field fires to be extinguished.

“People reference Desert Storm as the first space war,” said General John W. “Jay” Raymond, in a 2017 Popular Mechanics story. “It really was the first time that we took strategic space information and integrated it into a theater of operations…Going through a desert, at night, without roads and maps – it was all enabled by GPS.”