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How Desert Storm Changed War; What Obama Can Change To Defeat ISIL

Posted by David Deptula on


Highway of death Operation Desert Storm

Dave Deptula was arguably the key player in air power during the world’s first precision guided war, Desert Storm. He offers the principal lessons learned during that war on its quarter-century anniversary. He takes those lessons and applies them to the current fight against the terrorists, murderers, thugs and rapists who comprise ISIL, which we call Daesh because they don’t like it. Read on to find out what he thinks President Obama can learn from Desert Storm. The Editor.

When the clock hit 0300 on January 17, 2016 in Baghdad, it marked the 25th anniversary of the start of Operation Desert Storm, a turning point in the conduct of modern warfare.

Desert Storm changed major conflict in five principal ways:

  • it set expectations for low casualties–on both sides of the conflict;
  • it presaged precision in the application of force;
  • it introduced the conduct of a joint air campaign that integrated all service air operations under the functional command of an airman;
  • it established desired effects as the proper focus of strategy and of the ensuing planning and conduct of operations;
  • and it relied on airpower for the first time ever as the principal force in the strategy and execution of a war.

Ground forces acting as a blocking force while airpower destroyed enemy forces from above during the 43 days of Desert Storm airpower. Only in the last four days of the conflict were ground forces committed to combat with the goal of evicting Iraq’s occupying forces from Kuwait.

In this respect, Desert Storm saw an inversion in the traditional paradigm of force employment.   As long-time military expert Dr. Ben Lambeth put it: “…the classic roles of airpower and land power have changed places in major combat. Fixed-wing air power has, by now, proven itself to be far more effective than ground combat capabilities in creating the necessary conditions for rapid offensive success.”

Desert Storm’s opening-night attacks signaled a radical departure in the conduct of war.  This was not a linear rollback campaign: It was a strategic campaign using focused attacks against key nodes in a concurrent, simultaneous fashion. More than 150 discrete targets—in addition to regular Iraqi army forces and surface-to-air missile sites—made up the master attack plan for the first 24 hours. The war began with more targets attacked in one day than the total number of targets hit by all of the Eighth Air Force in the years 1942 and 1943 combined. That was more separate targets attacked in less time than ever before in history.

Those who planned and conducted the Desert Storm air campaign applied force not just across the entire breadth and depth of the country geographically, but also across all the key strategic and operational level centers of gravity.  How did it differ from previous conflicts?

Technology advances, in conjunction with an effects-based approach to planning and execution, allowed us to employ in practice for the first time a new concept of operations called “parallel” war—the simultaneous use of force across the entirety of an enemy’s system. The term comes from basic electrical circuit design. In a series circuit of lights, electrons flow from a power source to the light bulbs in sequence through each light before the next is lit—sequential flow. In a parallel circuit, electricity reaches all the lights at the same time—simultaneous flow. Applying the same concepts to the use of force yields the terms serial and parallel war.

Although simultaneous attack has always been a desired feature of offensive warfare, it had never before been attained to the level of parallel war demonstrated in Desert Storm for three reasons: First, because it previously required mass to compensate for a lack of sufficiently accurate weapons; two, because it took a large number of the available aircraft to suppress enemy air defenses, reducing those available for system attacks; and three, because traditional planners focused on sheer destruction rather than on desired effects to achieve control over an opponent.

The first two challenges required technological solutions that simply had not matured until the late 1980s.  Those two solutions were stealth and precision.

To provide insight into the importance of those two developments, during the first 24 hours of Desert Storm, stealth, precision and effects-based planning allowed the use of just 36 stealthy aircraft armed with precision-guided munitions against more separate targets than the entire non-stealthy/non-precision air and missile force launched from the entire complement of six aircraft carriers and all other ships in the theater combined. That stealthy F-117 force flew fewer than 2 percent of the campaign’s combat sorties, yet struck more than 40 percent of all Iraqi fixed targets.

The combat leverage that stealth made possible in the Gulf War can be further seen in the case of the first non-stealthy attack on one target with three aimpoints on Shaiba airfield in the Basrah area of southeast Iraq. It took four Navy A-6s dropping bombs, four Saudi Tornado bomb droppers: five Marine Corps A-6Bs for jamming acquisition radars, four Air Force F-4Gs taking out one type of surface-to-air missile system, 17 Navy F/A-18s taking out another SAM system, four additional F/A-18s as escort, and three drones to force the enemy radars to radiate. That made for a total of 41 aircraft, with just eight of them dropping bombs on three aimpoints connected with just one target.

At roughly the same time, we had 20 F-117s airborne, with all 20 dropping bombs on 38 aimpoints associated with 28 separate targets. So less than half the number of aircraft hit more than twelve times the number of aimpoints.

Stealth and precision allowed the realization of the third and perhaps most important new feature of that conflict: a Concept of Operations (CONOP) aimed at achieving control over the enemy’s essential systems. It was based on an effects-based approach recognizing that undermining an adversary’s freedom to operate as desired is as important as, or even more important than, simply destroying the forces he relies on for conquest.

We built Desert Storm’s air attack strategy by treating Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s regime as a system of systems, and we designed the operation to achieve paralysis and effective control of Saddam’s key strategic center’s of gravity: leadership; key essential systems; infrastructure; information; and fielded military forces. This was fundamentally different from a traditional military strategy of linear, direct ground assault followed by occupation.

In this regard the campaign had five main objectives:

  1. Gain and maintain air supremacy so as to allow unhindered air operations
  2. Isolate and incapacitate Hussein’s regime
  3. Destroy Iraq’s nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare capability
  4. Eliminate Iraq’s offensive military capability
  5. Render the Iraqi Army in Kuwait ineffective, causing its collapse

These were all achieved rapidly and decisively, thus rendering Desert Storm a turning point in the annals of military history.

What made this campaign so successful?

Strong political will.  President George H. W. Bush declared on August 5, 1990,“This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”  He and his military commanders then built a strategy, formed a coalition, deployed the needed forces to execute that strategy, garnered United Nations backing, executed the strategy, and achieved its declared objectives by February 28, 1991—just seven months in all from start to a successful finish.

A comprehensive, coherent campaign plan. It focused on dismantling Iraq’s key centers of gravity—leadership, key essential systems, infrastructure, information, and military forces—so as to paralyze Iraq as a functioning state along with its military regime.

Appointing a joint-force air component commander to run the air campaign. Each aircraft, missile, and air-defense asset was assessed for the combat capability it brought to the campaign plan, irrespective of which service or country where they originated.

Instant Thunder replaced Rolling Thunder. We reversed the errors of Vietnam by replacing the gradualism of that war’s air campaign (Rolling Thunder) with the instant thunder sought and achieved in Desert Storm.

Adopted and applied a true joint approach. We used the right force at the right place at the right time—not by following the traditional land-centric approach of exclusive focus on fielded enemy forces.

In marked contrast, today’s air operations against the Islamic State are subject to a long-drawn-out vetting process, and are ultimately approved or disapproved by a ground commander. Critical Islamic State functions are allowed to continue operating because of concern that striking them may result in unintentional civilian casualties. Leaving them untouched means the Islamic State can perpetuate its terror and atrocities. There is little morality inherent in a campaign approach that limits the use of airpower to avoid the possibility of collateral damage when it ensures the certainty of continued Islamic State crimes against humanity.

Today’s coalition leaders should factor into their casualty-avoidance calculus how many of the Islamic State’s intentional murders of innocents would be avoided by rapidly collapsing the structural elements of the Islamic State that the coalition now allows to operate out of excessive concern of inadvertent civilian deaths.

The Obama administration’s approach to destroying and degrading the Islamic State (ISIL) so far has been gradualist: 17 months so far and a prospect of years yet to come at the present rate. It is an anemic approach averaging only six strike sorties a day over those first 17 months in Syria.  Also, no comprehensive and focused strategy aimed at achieving the stated objectives of degrading and destroying Daesh has been identified. The result has been an approach that is fragmented and suboptimal. Instead of destroying the enemy, Daesh has learned how to adapt to the gradual use of airpower. The enemy has maintained strength, while our allies and citizens steadily lose interest, and our able combatants in all services grow weary from their unending rotations into and out of the fight.

Perhaps it would be wiser to apply the tenets that made Desert Storm such a success to the challenge of the Islamic State. Doing so will require our replacing the current desert drizzle with a thunderstorm—aimed not just at the hands of the Islamic State, but at its head and heart as well.

Former Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, who retired as the first Air Force deputy chief of staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, was the principal attack planner for the Operation Desert Storm air campaign; commander of no-fly-zone operations over Iraq in the late 1990s; director of the air campaign over Afghanistan in 2001; and a joint task force commander twice. He has more than 3,000 flying hours – 400 in combat – including multiple command assignments in the F-15. He is dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies and a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors.

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