In 1991 the Persian Gulf was the site of a new kind of conflict: Operation Desert Storm. With the latest warfighting technology at their disposal, a US led coalition dismantled the world’s 4th largest army within a matter of days.
This stunning victory was achieved with just a few hundred losses. But how did they do it? In this video, IWM curator Megan Joyce takes an in-depth look at Operation Desert Storm, one of history's most one-sided conflicts.
Operation Desert Storm
Voice over: "In 1991 the Persian Gulf was the site of a new kind of war. With the latest warfighting technology at their disposal, a US led coalition dismantled the world’s 4th largest army within a matter of days. A feat that, if recent wars are anything to go by, was harder than it looks. So how did they do it? Well, before we find out, we need to thank this video’s sponsor, World of Warships.
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In late 1990, the world was changing. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and all eyes were on a possible collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. But 2,000 miles away a very different conflict was brewing in the Middle East between Kuwait and its much larger neighbour – Saddam Hussein’s Iraq."
Megan Joyce: "Confrontation between Iraq and Kuwait intensified. Iraq was dependent on oil production and in huge debt to Kuwait following an 8-year war with Iran. Saddam claimed that oil prices were being kept superficially low, harming Iraq's economy and that Kuwait had stolen oil from an oil field near their border.
The exact reasons for Saddam's invasion are still debated to this day. But it's worth remembering in the 1990s the Cold War period was coming to an end. With the Soviet Union decline, Saddam was worried that America would emerge as the dominant power in the region."
Voice over: "On the 2nd of August 1990, Iraqi forces began their invasion of Kuwait. Within two days they had overrun the country. Some Kuwaitis resisted the occupation, while hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to neighbouring states. The attack came as a complete shock to the international community but was quickly condemned, with the UN security council passing a series of resolutions demanding an Iraqi withdrawal and enacting economic sanctions. With thousands of Iraqi troops now facing its border, Saudi Arabia requested military assistance from around the world. They had good reasons to be fearful."
Megan Joyce: "The Iraqi Army was thought to be the fourth largest in the world and was supported by a comprehensive air defence network. Even more concerning were Iraq's chemical and biological weapons which were first used in the final years of the Iran-Iraq War. They could also be deployed by Scud missile which had a range of over 600 km and was arguably the most dangerous piece of Saddam's arsenal."
Voice over: "In November 1990 the UN passed another resolution, no. 678. This gave Saddam until January 15th to withdraw his troops. If he failed, a multinational coalition was authorised to use “all means necessary” to liberate Kuwait. Over the following months that force from over 35 different nations began to take shape in Operation Desert Shield. They would be led by an American - General, Norman Schwarzkopf."
Megan Joyce: "General Norman Schwarzkopf was a giant of a man, but he faced a mammoth task. Not only did thousands of service personnel, armoured vehicles, tanks, and aircraft need moving into the theatre of operation, Desert Shield also required the movement of equipment, ammunition, food, and other supplies to sustain this large-scale operation. This was a huge logistical challenge for Schwarzkopf and all of the men and women involved."
Voice over: "By January 15th, coalition forces in the Gulf numbered almost a million personnel. That night the deadline passed without an Iraqi withdrawal. Operation Desert Storm was was about to begin.
The coalition's first objective was to win control of the skies. Iraq had a strong air defence network with over 500 SAM sites and tens of thousands of anti-aircraft guns. They were accompanied by early warning RADARs ready to scramble the 500 or so jets of the Iraqi Air Force. For the coalition it was imperative that they knocked them out and fast. At 2:38 am on the 17th January, the air campaign began. The scale of the assault on that first night was incredible.
First, coalition attack helicopters destroyed Iraqi radars, cutting a 20-mile gap through which strike aircraft could flow. F-4 Wild Weasel units hit Iraqi air defences alongside A-6 intruders and F-18s, while F-111s, F-15s and A-10 Warthogs struck military targets and Radar sites throughout Iraq. At the same time, F-117 nighthawks orbited Baghdad undetected, destroying command and control installations with assistance from tomahawk missiles launched from US ships in The Gulf. Further away, B-52s fired cruise missiles at power stations, while U-2s, AWACs and refuelling tankers circled the area overhead."
Megan Joyce: "Hundreds of aircraft took to the skies on the first night including British RAF Tornado GR1s, such as this one behind me. Tornado pilots face the difficult task of grounding the Iraqi Air Force as quickly as possible. They would do this using JP 233 submunition dispensers which both created enemy runways and dropped anti-personnel mines to hinder repairs. This was one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs of the campaign, as pilots were required to fly at low levels across the full length of Iraqi airfields to drop their payloads. In the first 5 days of the campaign, five Tornados were brought down by the Iraqis and 10 crewmen were either killed or captured.
This aircraft was named Foxy Killer. It flew the highest number of RAF Tornado bombing missions during the war. However, it would have looked rather different in its desert pink colour scheme which is how the aircraft would have been painted at the time. Thanks to the Coalition air campaign, Iraqi airfields were left incapacitated or deserted. The RAF Tornados had helped the coalition to win air superiority very quickly."
Voice over: "The Iraqi air force barely came out to fight and over the following 42 days, coalition aircraft would fly over 100,000 sorties in one of the largest aerial bombardments in history. In response, Iraqi forces began setting fire to oil wells, hoping to disrupt the coalition bombing campaign and destroy Kuwaiti oil production. The more than 600 oil fires would cause an environmental disaster. Saddam also began launching Scud missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia. He hoped to bring the Israelis into conflict and split the coalition. But though the missiles did cause widespread damage, Israel stayed out thanks to heavy US lobbying. Meanwhile, coalition special forces entered Iraq to hunt for Scud missile launchers, their success is still a matter of debate.
In late January, Iraqi forces attacked into Saudi Arabia and occupied the small city of Khafji. Two days later they were expelled by coalition forces, leveraging their huge air support. Meanwhile at sea, the Iraqi navy attempted to escape to Iran, but was largely destroyed as a fighting force in what became known as the Bubiyan turkey shoot. The coalition was beginning to take full control."
Megan Joyce: "This F-111 Aardvark flew 19 combat missions with the 77 Tactical Fighter Squadron of the United States Air Force. As the coalition took control of the skies the F-111s were redirected to hit Saddam's ground forces and over 1,500 Iraqi vehicles were destroyed by F-111s, further eliminating Iraqi offensive military capability. These aircraft were crewed by a pilot and a weapon system officer or a 'wizzo' who operated the weapons and radar in the aircraft. James Russell O'Brien or 'Rusty' was one of these weapon system officers. He supervised and coordinated F-111F combat operations which played a crucial role to supporting air supremacy for the coalition."
Voice over: "All eyes were now on a coalition ground invasion, with G-day set to fall on the 24th of February 1991.
Iraqi forces in the theatre had been seriously degraded by the coalition air campaign and numbered around 300,000 men. They favoured a soviet style defence in depth. A line of weakened infantry divisions held a series of minefields, trenches and bunkers along the border. Behind them another line of armoured and mechanised infantry divisions were ready to counterattack any breakthrough. Amongst them were elite Republican guard divisions, the best equipped and trained of the Iraqi forces. Alongside the liberation of Kuwait, their destruction was the key allied objective. To do that, Schwartzkopf planned a grand flanking manoeuvre.
On G-day, Arab forces on the coast and US Marines further inland would attack across the main minefield defences towards Kuwait City. Meanwhile, 18th Airborne Corps on the far left would attack deep into Iraq to secure the flank and block any Iraqi retreat. G+1 would see the main attack, from the armoured first of 7th Corps, while Arab forces secured their right flank. On G+2, 7th Corps were to turn right and destroy the republican guard while Arab forces, led by Kuwaiti units, would complete the liberation of their capital. When the attack began on the 24th February, coalition forces could not believe their luck."
Megan Joyce: "Iraqi morale crumbled under the weight of coalition firepower. The success of the air campaign in destroying key areas of national infrastructure meant that supplies wouldn't arrive for Iraqi forces and their communications were cut. Iraqi forces sustained huge casualties and this impacted on morale. Iraqi troops either surrendered or fled using any vehicle they could find."
Voice over: "On the right, coalition forces moved through the Iraqi minefields with ease, while on the left the only delays came from rains and sandstorms. In fact, the attack moved so quickly that Schwarzkof was forced to bring the main attack forward to that day. When it came 7th Corps faced somewhat tougher resistance. But utilising overwhelming artillery and MLRS fire support, they ploughed through the Iraqi trenches, with the sheer volume of Iraqi prisoners, the only thing to slow them down.
On G+1, Iraqi forces launched their first major counterattack against the US Marines near Al Burqan oilfield. But this was thrown back with the help of helicopters and aircraft. On the left, 18th Corps set up roadblocks on highway 8, trapping Iraqi forces, while 7th Corps was moving towards a key supply base at Al Busayyah. The stage was now set for a titanic clash with the republican guard.
On G+2 British forces entered the fight for the first time. Hooking right, they took on entrenched Iraqi forces from the flank and took a huge number of prisoners. However, alongside spirited Iraqi resistance, British forces also faced damaging incidents of friendly fire."
Megan Joyce: "This was a high-tech war and advances in technology put coalition soldiers at risk. In February 1991, British troops suffered their single biggest casualty in the Gulf War when US aircraft mistook their Warrior vehicles for Iraqi T-55s. Nine soldiers lost their lives. Similar incidents occurred throughout the campaign and often owed to low visibility from heavy rains, darkness, and sandstorms. By the end of the conflict more British soldiers would have lost their lives from friendly fire than enemy forces."
Voice over: "By this time Iraqi forces were beginning to collapse. To cover their withdrawal, units of the Republican Guard dug in to face 7th Corps and buy them time. In the late afternoon, the coalition attacked three divisions abreast. The fighting soon developed into a huge tank battle that raged on into the early hours of the next day. With far superior gunnery and devastating fire support from Apache attack helicopters, 7th Corps smashed through the Republican Guard positions."
Megan Joyce: "This BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle was captured from Iraqi forces in 1991. Whilst initially seen as a revolutionary vehicle, during the Gulf War it proved highly vulnerable to Coalition vehicles such as the US M1A1 Abrams and the British Challenger tank. Iraqi tanks, the most advanced being the T-72s, lacked effective night vision equipment and were far outrange by coalition tanks. In fact, one British Challenger 1 destroyed an Iraqi T-55 at a range of around 3 miles, achieving the longest range tank-to-tank kill in military history."
Voice over: "On G+ 3 the Iraqis attempted more piecemeal counterattacks, but American cluster munitions and A-10 Warthogs brought these to a quick standstill. US Marines captured Kuwait City international airport as Kuwaiti units entered the outskirts of their capital city. All the while, 18th Corps was pushing up Highway 8 to close the trap. With Iraqi defeat all but assured, the question was how much of the Republican Guard would survive?"
Megan Joyce: "In the wake of the coalition advances Iraqi troops were seen leaving Kuwait City. Hundreds of vehicles were effectively trapped in a traffic jam and were vulnerable to air attack. Coalition forces attacked those retreating vehicles using laser guided bombs. Footage of the burnt out vehicles that littered the road were shared on national television and this so-called 'highway of death' became one of the most recognisable images of the war. But it also sparked a debate around the decision to attack and whether this represented a disproportionate use of force. Coalition leaders were extremely keen to maintain the moral high ground and days later, President Bush declared a ceasefire."
Voice over: "The remnants of surviving Iraqi divisions escaped towards Baghdad. With the rest destroyed or captured. This result had been achieved in just 100 hours and with staggeringly few coalition losses, just 392 dead. In contrast, Iraqi battle deaths are estimated between 20,000 and 35,000. While over 3,000 civilians were killed in coalition air strikes. It was a victory born of superior technology and training."
Megan Joyce: "Desert Storm was so successful because much of the capability of the coalition forces had been built up during the Cold War. It's also worth remembering that while Saddam had a huge army. Coalition forces were armed with some of the world's most technologically advanced weapons, making Desert Storm one of the most one-sided battles in history."
Voice over: "Kuwait was now free and the United States had staked its place as the world's sole superpower. It would take until November to put out the oil fires set by Iraqi forces. Saddam Hussein survived the first Gulf War, but under Operation Southern Watch no fly zones were enforced over parts of Iraq until 2003 and the second Gulf War. Operation Desert Storm was extremely short, but the consequences of the first Gulf War are still with us today."