The Bad Lessons of Desert Storm

25 years ago, Western military thinkers saw air forces practically win a war on its own. Too bad most wars aren't that simple.

echnology is not a cheat code. US planes over Kuwait. Photo: USAF

It is obvious to most that war and warfare are harsh and cruel teachers. What is less obvious is that they also teach bad lessons to otherwise smart men. They trick people with illusions and tricks, and many governments and armies fall prey to those illusions.

This was the case with the First Gulf War, as we have come to know it, or Operation Desert Storm: the campaign to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. What the public saw was quick decisive war, which delivered all the promises that mattered most, was the product of superior western technology.

All of that is undeniably true. It was a short decisive war, and technology was important. The problem was that a partial version of the truth was used to create a convenient story, one which even some in the Israeli Defence Forces came to believe. So strong was that belief, that by 2006 and the Second Lebanon War, serious men thought technology and air power would deliver success, because that was what they chose to learn from 1991.

Israelis are sceptics and critics by nature. Most do not believe easily. Evidence is important. The IDFs ability to learn lessons from 1948, 1967, 1973, and all the other wars before and since is probably un-matched anywhere else in the world. Have they always learned the right lessons? No. Not always. Have they learned them better than others? Yes, mostly.

מטווח ברווזים; טנק עיראקי לאחר הפצצת כוחות הקואליציה. צילום: צבא ארה"ב
Like shooting fish in a barrel. A tank destroyed by coalition air forces. Photo: US Army

Most armies are not as incompetent as Saddam's

Magical thinking also characterized the other side in the Gulf War: Saddam Hussein’s consistently faulty instinct told him that the world would not react to his invasion of Kuwait. When he found out he was wrong, he took an army that had only fought against fanatical but un-skilled Iranians and tried to fight against a mostly American and British force optimised to fight an existential battle against the Soviet Union. Worse than that—and that’s pretty bad—he fought in way that gave his opponent every possible advantage.

Compared to all other terrain, the desert offers an army the least chance of concealment from the air. Saddam Hussein parked his Army in the desert and let Allied air power, and some artillery, kill it. A hundred-hour ground operation then essentially drove over it. The hundred-hour ground war showed just how incompetent the Iraqi Army really was, especially actions like the Battle of 73 Easting where a US Armoured unit destroyed well over 100 Iraqi tanks and IFVs for the cost of just one dead.

If you really believed that all future enemies of the west were going to be as catastrophically stupid as Saddam Hussein, and his army so incompetently lead, then the future looked very rosy indeed. Did the Allied armies know it would be that easy? No, they didn’t. They expected a very tough fight, which is why they bombed the Iraqi Army and its entire defence force for just over a month.

That was beginning of the myth. While the US Air Force, Navy and the Royal Air Force had all developed their air arms to work against Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the laydown of the entire Iraqi armed forces presented them with a play-ground of unparalleled opportunity. That is not to say the task was easy, but Iraqi air defence proved less than competent and their air force proved even less so, with 36 planes shot down in the air, 105 lost on the ground and 137 seeking to vacation in Iran for the duration of the war. This allowed air power to then systematically destroy whatever targets it could detect.

Given the lighting success of the ground war, the obvious conclusion was that air power had enabled all else, if not actually won the war. Oddly almost every serious observer knew this. The British recognised the necessity of air power in ground campaigns as early as 1915; Allenby used air power to great effect throughout the Palestine Campaign. In fact, no sensible WWII commander ever spoke out against air power.

Korea taught much the same lessons. Vietnam was perhaps an anomaly, but only because of hubris and bad analysis. However, what the Vietnam experience did do was prove the success of laser and optically guided weapons, thus leading to the successful development of almost all the successful weapons used in 1991, and spurring the development of stealth technology and cruise missiles, as the testing ground that helped the West understand more about how we might have to fight the Third World War.

The downside of all this was that the Gulf War was so successful that it enabled everyone to learn whatever lesson they wanted or to see whatever they wanted to see. But behind the public utterings of the media military experts, the men with the real data had a very different picture. While a lot had gone well, some had not. The Patriot missile system simply failed to perform as advertised, much to the anger of the Israelis, and the obvious concern of many others. The success of F-117A Stealth fighter was apparently clear-cut. Less publicly discussed was how much success could be taken from fighting such a low-grade enemy. Come the Kosovo Air Campaign, the lesson came home when an F-117 was shot down.

Also noted by the informed community, and as had been previously noted in Vietnam, laser guided bombs did not work well if the pilot can’t see the target. Indeed, there was some evidence that Saddam’s setting fire to the Iraqi oil fields was to some extent based on this belief. A GPS guided weapon was clearly desirable, and by 1997 “JDAM” had come into existence. The most damming lesson of all was how much could really be learned from fighting an enemy as un-skilled and badly lead as the Iraqis? Against Iraq, almost anything would have worked.

הצבא הסרבי בכלל לא הושמד; F 117. צילום: צבא ארה"ב
The Serbian Army was far from destroyed – and the super-duper F-117 was downed. Photo: US Army

Beliefs run into reality

There seems little doubt that the supposed success of 1991 spurred a set of beliefs as to how successful an air power might be fought. The first test of these beliefs came against Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo crisis, a crisis which later escalated into a 78-day NATO bombing campaign. The fact that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic capitulated after having only been subject to the air campaign obscured uncomfortable realities which showed just how bad the Iraqis had been, and just how dangerous skilled Serbs, and thus others, could be.

With the exception of shooting down the F-117, the Serbian air defence was not lot better than the Iraqis—the Iraqis actually shot down more aircraft—but where they excelled was camouflage. Some studies now conclude that—despite the claims of the time—actual Serbian losses to Allied air power were as few as about 1,000 Serbian soldiers killed and only some 22 armoured vehicles destroyed in 78 days of bombing. This was because it's easier to hide in tree covered mountains than in the desert. Simply put, had the Allied ground force had to fight their way into Kosovo, they would have found a well prepared, well hidden, and mostly un-damaged Serbian Army. In other words, within less than 10 years of Desert Storm and its supposed lessons, the exact opposite revealed itself to be true.

Sadly, this was mostly over looked. Policy makers do not like listening to hard-nosed analyst citing data and using evidence. They want the mythology. They want stories that people want to hear. They want to be able to say: “We won, goddamit!”

OK, so what? This is America and NATO. What do they know of war? Well firstly, quite a lot. Secondly, everyone in the upper echelons of the IDF needs to be aware of the real lessons of 1991 and more importantly the critical context needed to understand those lessons. David Ben Gurion was in many ways a strategic genius and more than a 100% right when he insisted on a strong and capable Israeli Air Force. He had clearly learned the lessons of WWII, perhaps better than most military men. He knew that without a good air force, everything you want to do is very hard and maybe impossible. But what we know today, and perhaps he did as well, is that any over reliance on air power, especially that which detracts from ground forces, is foolish in the extreme because history has no evidence to support it.

Come 2006 and the need to react to Hezbollah’s cross-border raid, Israeli air power provided a powerful tool, but if you really want to defeat an enemy in a way he can understand, then taking ground is required. You cannot trade air power against land forces and the Second Lebanon War should provide ample proof to any that are inclined to doubt it. Having said that, the IDF did such damage to Hezbollah in 2006 that they have stayed extremely quiet for 10 years. By contrast, Hamas has not.

Military policymakers would do well to learn from self-critical thinkers rather than gadgets. Carl von Clausewitz
Military policymakers would do well to learn from self-critical thinkers rather than technological salesmen. Carl von Clausewitz

How NOT to learn lessons from history

The real lesson of the Gulf War and air power was that people see the evidence they want to see, because men don’t lessons from war in the way many assume. Men don’t want lessons. They want progress. They want improvement. They want innovation. They want better, easier and for lower cost, while looking good for getting it. There is nothing wrong with this. It is very human. The problem comes from the fact that war is also something very human.

As Carl von Clausewitz made clear, war is also an extension or continuation of politics. Politics tells you what to spend your money on and the lessons men learn from war are those they want spend on. The reality is that the 1991 Gulf War taught almost no new lessons about military technology to the men that really understood it. It merely showed it to the public. What it also showed is what war look like when one side is vastly incompetent and ill trained compared to another.

If you wanted to spend money on defence, that was an unacceptable answer. What the serious analysts saw was the weapons, doctrine, training and concepts designed to fight the Soviet Union, but ultimately used against a foe of far lesser ability. In contrast what those with reforming agendas saw was whole new way of fighting that meant putting money into precision weapons, and highly capable stealthy airframes, like the F-22 and F-35, because that is what preparing to fight the Soviet Union had lead them to. No one ever gives up weapons because they think they are “too good!”

Ironically, it was probably Russia and China that made the most objective assessments of the first Gulf War, in that they began to realise just how far behind they lagged in certain key concepts, such as precision weapons and air power’s ability to employ it. Likewise the lessons were not lost on Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban and ISIS who developed ways to reduce the long-term damage caused by these weapons. If you cannot hide from airpower, you will lose the military competition, if not the political one.

25 years on we have actually learned nothing new. Sadly, given in an inability to see that clearly, we will probably have to learn them all over again.

William F. Owen is currently the Editor of the Infinity Journal. He also consults to the armed forces and the defence industry.

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