The Jan. 17, 1991, air attacks on Iraq that launched Operation Desert Storm two decades ago gave the world a spectacular look at the high-tech weaponry the United States had developed to thwart a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
The initial air strikes on Baghdad riveted a global television audience. On that first night of the air offensive, reporters with cameras poking from Baghdad hotel windows provided real-time video of Iraqi anti-aircraft guns firing streams of tracer rounds into a blue-black sky randomly lit by the bursts of American precision munitions hitting targets on the city's perimeter.
Those cameras, however, only caught a tiny slice of the broad combat action raging across Iraq and Kuwait. Cruise missiles fired by warships blasted Iraqi defense complexes and command posts. A variety of aircraft, from B-52s to attack helicopters, delivered missiles, smart bombs and dumb bombs (stockpiled for use should the Cold War turn hot), striking airfields, radars, troop concentrations and ammo dumps.
The air assault was the preparatory phase of a combined air and ground campaign designed to destroy the Iraqi mechanized army occupying Kuwait. Colin Powell, at the time chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made that clear when he said: "Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it." In that process, the U.S. and coalition forces intended to severely damage Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war on his neighbors. Toppling Saddam, however, was not an approved coalition goal.
Anticipating the air offensive, the Iraqi Army in Kuwait and southern Iraq took shelter in fortified trenches and bunkers. In NATO's Cold War nightmare scenario, mobile Soviet tank armies would attack through Central Europe toward the Rhine River. However, NATO intended to stop the armored thrust by pursuing a version of the "cut off and kill" strategy. NATO would cut Soviet command and intelligence links, and destroy their reserve echelons with deep attacks, while a steel rain of bomblets, smart munitions and air-delivered minefields hobbled the advancing tanks. The weapons used in Southwest Asia were built for this campaign.
Conventional war in Europe always risked escalation to nuclear war. Thanks to a 1981 Israeli attack on his nuclear facilities, Saddam did not have a nuke. Without the nuclear sword of Damocles, the U.S.-led air attacks had time to attrit and shatter Iraqi defenses and pave the way for the ground attack in late February.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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