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  • Published
  • By Air Force Historical Support Division
On the morning of August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded nearby Kuwait. In less than four hours, Iraqi forces occupied the capital, Kuwait City, and Saddam Hussein soon annexed the country as the nineteenth province of Iraq. In response, the U.S government initiated Operation Desert Shield on August 6 to deter and contain potential attacks against neighboring countries. By August 21, the United States had based fighter, attack, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, airlift, and tanker aircraft in the Gulf region.

At the end of November, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 678 authorizing member states, cooperating with the government of Kuwait, to use "all necessary means" to enforce a prior resolution that demanded that Iraq withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait. On January 12, 1991, Congress authorized the use of U.S. armed forces against Iraq, pursuant to Resolution 678. When the UN's January 15 deadline for withdrawal passed, President George H. W. Bush signed a national security directive authorizing U.S. military action.

At 3:00 a.m. local time on January 17, 1991, Coalition aircraft set forth on the largest air campaign since the conflict in Southeast Asia. Over time, the attacks drove Saddam Hussein and his leadership to shelter, reducing their control over events, and heavily damaged critical military support networks such as command and control, communications and intelligence capabilities, integrated air defenses, and power generation. On February 28, following six weeks of air attacks and only one hundred hours after beginning the ground campaign, President Bush declared a cessation of operations and announced that Kuwait had been liberated.

The air campaign marked the initial phase of the war, and for the Air Force, air superiority was the goal. A group of HQ USAF planners, dubbed the Checkmate planning group, developed concepts later incorporated into Operation Desert Storm's air campaign. The planners advocated viewing the enemy as a system, rather than groups or specific military units, and sought to physically paralyze that system with an air campaign against five "rings" or essential centers of gravity:  leadership, organic essentials, infrastructure, population, and fielded military forces. Disrupting the command and control (C2) of enemy forces and convincing enemy commanders that they could not achieve their goals at a reasonable cost were key elements of the strategy. The planners also sought to achieve effects by convincing the enemy to take desired actions, as opposed to victory through a strategy of annihilation or attrition.

Helpfully, U.S. forces brought new weapons to the fight, including stealth aircraft, global positioning devices, and precision-guided technologies. Perhaps more importantly, however, the one-hundred-hour war had important implications for the future of the Air Force. The experience of deployments garnered from the conflict helped underpin the efforts that led to the development of the modern Air Expeditionary Force (AEF).

Dr. Deborah Kidwell, Historian, AFHSO.

See the AFHSO publication by  Perry D. Jamieson: Lucrative Targets: the U.S. Air Force in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations.

Read the unpublished study by William T. Y'Blood, AFHSO Historian: Operation Desert Shield: the Deployment of USAF Forces.

Read the report by the 9th Reconnaissance Wing Historian: Coy F. Cross II:  The Dragon Lady Meets the Challenge:  the U-2 in Desert Storm.

Read the 37th Fighter Wing Office of History special study: Nighthawks Over Iraq: A Chronology of the F-117A Stealth Fighter in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Air Force Historical Studies Office, Joint Base Anacostia Bolling, DC.