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Twenty Years After: Desert Storm's Air War

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

In Europe, Soviet theater ballistic missiles -- with conventional, chemical or nuclear warheads -- would have hammered NATO ports, command sites and staging areas. The SCUD missiles Iraqis fired at Saudi cities demonstrated this dangerous could-have-been.

The SCUD barrage was Saddam's attempt to launch deep attacks on coalition rear areas and sow terror in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Chemical or nuclear weapons on SCUDs could have cut allied supply lines, killed thousands of civilians and forced ground troops to disperse.

In Desert Storm, American Patriot anti-aircraft missiles employed as anti-ballistic missiles provided the frailest of defenses. Fortunately, Saddam's SCUDs were inaccurate and lacked warheads with weapons of mass destruction. A senior Indian defense official would later observe that the lesson he learned from Desert Storm was, "Don't fight the United States unless you have nuclear weapons."

That lesson has current relevance, as Iran's radical Islamist regime pursues nuclear weapons.

Iraq was no Soviet Union. Yet Saddam pined for superpower status. In a speech made in February 1990, he noted that the Cold War was over and U.S. power unchecked. Then he added, "The big does not become big nor does the great earn such a description unless he is in the arena of comparison or fighting with someone else on a different level."

In retrospect, it appears Saddam intended to fill the void left by a fading Soviet Union, though he may have moved too quickly. As the Soviets quit Europe, the U.S. began to reduce its forces. On Jan. 17, 1991, however, America had more than enough Cold War-era wonder weapons to isolate then decimate his hapless army.

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