Why was the Operation Desert Storm (ODS) air campaign a watershed? It was commonly referred to as “dazzling” and “unprecedented” in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. The picture is more complex today. Two decades of elapsed time has improved assessments of ODS and the role of air power in the conflict. There were predictions that because of the lopsided effectiveness of U.S. air power in ODS, the U.S. would not be faced with another opportunity to employ such decisive air power. This idea has been scrapped following Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Any assessment of the ODS air campaign will have to cut through the not altogether uncommon tendency of radical victories to produce unwarranted myths, to either cover-up unpleasant realities underneath the success, or enhance the images of certain leaders behind the success.
The ODS air campaign was widely heralded as a watershed, certainly by Warden and those who worked with him and supported his efforts to revise U.S. Air Force doctrine, but others were not so convinced. U.S. Air Force Col John Warden III was smart, controversial, outspoken, but among numerous alleged faults, he was not considered joint enough for the military in the early 1990s. While Warden and his supporters declared that air power was decisive to the outcome of ODS, others disagreed. “While air power was, indeed, critical to the final outcome and pivotal to the success of the Allied forces, it was not decisive.”
The ODS air campaign was a watershed for its sheer impressiveness. U.S. and Coalition air attacks made it nearly impossible for the Iraqis to mount any serious defense and dealt a devastating blow to the psychological state of the Iraqi leadership. The effectiveness of the ODS air campaign dwarfed previous experience. A single F-117A with two laser-guided bombs was as destructive as 108 World War II-era B-17s with 648 bombs; the F-117A could strike any target and replaced the traditional heavy bomber as the strategic weapon of choice. It was a watershed for the amount of air ordnance deployed in a short amount of time for negligible loss to U.S. and Coalition forces. It included the first widespread use of precision-guided munitions. It could be considered one of the first information age conflicts due to the widespread use of satellites and digital command and control systems.
The ODS air campaign was a watershed for the U.S. Air Force. By merging technological advances and new tactical concepts, the U.S. Air Force believed (at least in some circles) that dominant air power was once again possible. Warden believed air power had reached a level of precision such that it could either cause “strategic paralysis” in the enemy high command, and so render his forces completely vulnerable, or even topple a regime. Thus it was possible for air power to be completely decisive independent of ground or naval contributions. Warden has been portrayed as taking the U.S. Air Force out of the darkness of Cold War doctrine. Away from the culture of fighter jocks, and as a vocal student of military history and art, Warden delved into the writings of Liddell Hart and J.F.C. Fuller. The ODS air campaign was a watershed in air doctrine. The experience propelled the U.S. Air Force from the air-land battle focus developed out of the NATO central region, to a broader conception of strategic air power in post-Cold War contingencies around the world.
The ODS air campaign was a watershed due to the complete change in approach to air campaign planning. At least early on, there was no focus on destroying enemy units. The ODS air campaign planners aimed to destroy Iraq’s complete command structure and thus force Saddam to fall from power. Col Warden advocated the concept of directly and economically striking enemy centers of gravity, which he characterized as five rings, and which overtly deemphasized the importance of ground military forces. For Warden, the five rings were a graphical representation of focusing on the psychological plane, and the enemy’s ability to command and control, instead of wasting efforts against military hardware at the front lines. To some this idea was revolutionary--a watershed--but to others it was ‘pouring old wine into new bottles.’ Early in the war planning it looked like ODS would prove to be a watershed, due largely to Warden’s lofty claims for air power acting alone, but as things developed, events never reached the levels he seemed to be certain they would. In the decade following ODS, it became more and more likely that Warden and his planners had mischaracterized the enemy’s will to resist. Instead of looking at the enemy as a rational, mechanistic system, the enemy might better be seen as a complex of irrational organic forces.
The ODS air campaign was a watershed for the dramatic way in which the air “flank attack” so completely enabled a decisive ground attack. It is debatable whether this was unique in military history, but it represented a watershed because of the way in which it defied conventional wisdom at the time for what was possible and likely for modern mechanized militaries. The ODS air campaign planners sought to create “strategic paralysis” in the Iraqi high command so that the ground offensive could reach maximum effect against Iraqi forces in Kuwait in the shortest period of time.
With the ODS air campaign air power increased dramatically in capability but still fell short of supplanting a traditional balanced approach to warfare using all available elements of national power. The theory of strategic air power--winning wars predominantly or even solely through air power--can be compelling at times, but it so far has proven to be incomplete. In several ways it can be said that air power ‘won’ the 1991 Gulf War but this is more a short-hand to a much more complex picture. Air power enabled the 100 hour ground war with devastating effectiveness. Then again, the war seemed to have many of the pre-requisites for an air war. As things have turned out, with Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001 to the present, certain war circumstances can prove durably resistant to the decisive application of air power.
There is value in reassessing the ODS air campaign. So-called air power enthusiasts--of which Warden was certainly one--hold dear to the belief that offensive strategic air power, and especially bombing, can guarantee a complete and unambiguous victory. It is no longer possible to say this was achieved in the 1991 Gulf War. Some of the limitations that developed in Warden’s thinking and approach to air warfare stemmed from the fact that he was essentially a Jominian in his conception of war. (This is particularly relevant because of the ongoing debates within the U.S. military as to the merits of effects-based operations.) Warden assigned very fixed values to certain target sets and was therefore probably seduced into thinking that scientific calculations could direct the application of overwhelming firepower at decisive points. As things were this was the war to show-case such mechanistic thinking, and it appeared to work following the almost complete collapse of the Iraqi military in short order. The theory didn’t seem to hold up for other kinds of warfare. Warden’s five rings are exceedingly rigid concepts, and it isn’t clear how they would apply with any usefulness to a non-state or irregular enemy. The five rings seemed to suggest that an enemy could be analyzed and understood systemically without actually having any sophisticated (or actual) knowledge of the people, culture--the elements of “soft” intelligence. This might have misdirected the U.S. military in thinking a systemic analysis of an enemy, almost in theory alone, could replace actually gathering more detailed human intelligence, with the resulting missteps in Operation Iraqi Freedom up until 2007.
ODS also debuted a U.S. military fully steeped in operational art. The term op art became popular within U.S. Army circles following the pullout from Vietnam, while the service was searching for a renewed identity following the frustrations of that war. Characteristics that defined the term during that period included: large-scale attacks throughout a theater of operations and across the depth of enemy formations; exploitation of simultaneous attacks to challenge the enemy across all war fighting functions at the same time to create a sudden rupture of enemy defenses, and overwhelming effects; a focus on the connecting level between tactics (that the Army considered solid following Vietnam) and strategy (including thorny questions of how and when to apply military force).
For almost as long as operational art has been around there has been the nagging issues of whether it really is a level of war at all, or whether its study so far has actually hindered the successful strategic application of force. Some have argued that the operational level of war is convenient for a professional military that wants to focus on fighting. “Military historians are quick to point out that the idea of an operational level of war is appealing to officers and planners because it allows them to concentrate on the mechanics of military operations and to escape the strategic issues that govern warfare. As planners devise exquisite operational concepts, they sometimes lose sight of how their operations can produce strategic consequences that can impede or undermine the attainment of larger political objectives. All war is about politics, but the operational level of war ignores that reality and instead treats large-scale military operations as simply military operations without political importance.” Did victory in ODS pave the way for the U.S. military to charge ahead full-bore with conventional operations even when events in the 1990s suggested that that was perhaps misguided?
ODS seems to demonstrate, in retrospect, the problems that flow from an over-focus on operational art. Does a focus on operational art actually create a disconnect between tactics and strategy (however contradictory that appears) and foster an undue influence on politics by military commanders who have demands as to the application of military force? The demands here would start with Powell’s doctrine.
Again, in retrospect, ODS seems to be the defeat masked in victory--in that Saddam emerged without having lost in a traditional sense. There are many historical examples of operational victories that masked strategic mistakes--Pearl Harbor, the German Battle for Moscow--does ODS belong in the same list? In looking at ODS one cannot overlook the extent to which the U.S. military faced an opponent that 1) did not believe it would have to fight the U.S. over Kuwait and 2) was a ‘willing opponent’ in acting in a way that played directly into the hands of Schwarzkopf.
Overwhelming victories tend to flatter the victor to the point that the wrong lessons are learned, and the right lessons are missed due to shallow self-analysis following the end of hostilities.
1. Earl H. Tilford, Jr., The Revolution In Military Affairs: Prospects and Cautions (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, June 1995), 9.
2. Ronald H. Cole, “Review of the Desert Storm Air War,” Air Power History 53, no. 2 (Summer 2006), 42.
3. Andrew Brookes, “Review: John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power,” RUSI Journal 152, no. 5 (October 2007), 92.
4. Chris Finn, “Review: Strategic Air Power in Desert Storm by John Andreas Olsen,” Air & Space Power Journal 18, no. 4 (Winter 2004), 111-12.
5. Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, The General’s War (New York: Back Bay Books; Little, Brown and Company, 1995), 474.
6. Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 232.
7. Tilford, 8.
8. Gray, 237.
9. James J. Wirtz, “Review: Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare by Robert M. Citino,” Journal of Cold War Studies 9, no. 2 (Spring 2007), 151.
- “You have to consider deterrence in the twin contexts of the full theory of strategy and the moving historical landscape. Strategy has many dimensions, and because deterrence is strategic behavior any and all of those dimensions can smooth the way, or impede the path, to deterrence success. Any dimension—people, culture, information and intelligence, time, and so forth—can provide details that unravel an intended episode of deterrence. Because deterrence worked yesterday, it does not follow that it will work tomorrow, and one may be hard pressed to prove that deterrence did work yesterday.” --- Colin S. Gray, “Deterrence in the 21st Century,” Comparative Strategy 19, no. 3 (July-September 2000): 259.