Examining the American military in the Gulf

Persian Gulf War

During the last eighteen months of the Cold War, the United States and members of a United Nations coalition were engaged in a large-scale war. The United States deployed over 500,000 soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel – the largest such deployment since the Vietnam War, but the war it found itself in was not of global scale, but regional; and the enemy was not the U.S.S.R. But Iraq, who, in the summer of 1990, possessed the fourth largest military in the world. On August 2, 1990, the combined armed forces of Iraq, under the direct leadership of Saddem Hussein – some 140,000 soldiers – invaded the neighboring oil rich kingdom of Kuwait. Many Western countries feared the Iraqi dictator would push his forces further south into the kingdom of Saudi Arabia with its vast oil riches that supplies. On August 3, 1990, President George Bush and his administration were prepared to respond to this invasion through economic, diplomatic, and military measures. Iraq’s invasion meant that Hussein would control 20% of the worlds oil supply. This was found to be unacceptable, especially if he could take his armies into Saudi Arabia and capture the capital within three days.

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President Bush was resolved early in this crisis to defend Saudi Arabia and thwart any further advances by the Iraqi armed forces. U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander in chief of Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Central Asia, said “two tiers of responses were possible….the first…could be single retaliatory strikes…carried out by U.S. naval aircraft based on carriers in the region. Possible targets included the Iraqi Army in Kuwait…targets in Iraq itself….Such attacks could not be sustained very long and probably would not accomplish much….Tier Two…was the execution of Operations Plan 90-1002 for the defense of the Saudi Peninsula. That would take months and involve 100,000 to 200,000 military personnel from all the services” (Woodward, 228). Tier Two would include the deployment four divisions from the Army and Marine Corps – including heavy armor units – three aircraft carriers – each with seventy-five attack and support planes – plus air force transports, bombers, all support personnel from all services. Traditionally, the U.S. would have first opted with the Tier One choice: limited number of hardware and personnel deployed for a short-sustained mission that the U.S. gambled the other side would blink and retreat. But analysis of the Iraqi culture and military showed that they had a formidable opponent in Kuwait who threatens U.S. interests. Two days after the invasion, the U.S. opted with the Tier Two choice: defend Saudi Arabia. Full deployment would take seventeen weeks. Secretary of Defense Dick Chaney explored the idea with Powell and Schwarzkopf about the size of force needed to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. This was the third option on the table now. Schwarzkopf stated that “it would take 8 to 12 months to put in place the U.S. force needed to kick Saddam out of Kuwait” (Ibid, 248). The Iraqi army at the time of the invasion was impressive with 900,000 men consisting of sixty-three divisions, “including the eight elite Republican Guard forces….[the] arsenal included…Soviet T-72 tanks, South African 155-mm heavy artillery…multiple rocket launchers…anti-ship missiles…fighters…and fighter-bombers….[Iraq’s] weaknesses…primarily feeble logistics and a centralized system of command and control in which important decisions…could be made only by Saddam personally” (Schwarzkopf, 300).

With the Saudi Royal Family’s permission, elements of the United States armed forces were deployed to that Kingdom on August 7, 1990. En route were two naval carrier battle groups, units of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and elements of the Air Force’s tactical wings. Schwarzkopf noted that the “President had already been warned that deploying troops was not an instant solution….the…crisis only three days old, three months seemed almost an eternity….I wanted to make absolutely certain…how powerful an enemy we would face” (Ibid, 301). On August 8, 1990, President Bush addressed the nation to state his policy toward Iraq: “First, we seek the immediate, unconditional and complete withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Second, Kuwait’s legitimate government must be restored to replace the puppet regime. And third, my administration…is committed to the security and stability of the Persian Gulf. And fourth, I am determined to protect the lives of American citizens abroad” (Summers, 173). While the military deployment orders were issued, economic embargoes were erected against Iraq to isolate and stranglehold the rogue country from conducting commerce.

Operation Desert Shield was initiated. America’s first deployment of troops were lightly-armed and vulnerable to Iraqi forces if they decided to sweep into Saudi Arabia and it would “be weeks before the first American armored and mechanized forces…would finally arrive in-country….the majority of the American military in the Gulf were on the strategic, operational, and tactical defense” (Summers, 181). By early October most of the elements of the deter-and-defend mission were in place in and around Saudi Arabia – some 200,000 U.S. military personnel. The next line of thinking was the strategic offensive of the campaign: to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. During the build-up of U.N. coalition forces known as Operation Desert Shield, Iraq decided to reinforce and consolidate his forces. Schwarzkopf realized by mid-September of 1990 that “Iraq was abandoning the idea of invading Saudi Arabia and assuming a defensive posture” (Schwarzkopf, 346). Clearly, Hussein “did not wish for a war….He knew that Iraq could not defeat the United States, but he hoped that the prospect of tough fight would deter U.S. officials….Hussein believed that the United States did not have the stomach for a long, bloody war” (Speakman, 20). Hussein correctly believed that any war from the U.S.-led coalition would begin with an extensive bombing campaign. To counter such heavy-weapons action, Iraq “fortified its air defense in both Kuwait and Iraq. With a very dense and overlapping system of early-warning radars, antiaircraft missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, other aircraft guns and flak, and interceptor jet fighters….the Iraqis could hope to deter or absorb U.S. air strikes, minimizing damage to its forces….In Kuwait, the Iraqis laid thousands of mines….dug trenches, built tank traps, created concrete bunkers, and large sand berms” (Ibid, 20-21). Frontline foot soldiers were installed, thousands of tanks, personnel carriers and other mechanized units were placed in a second-tier defense position, with the elite Republican Guard in the rear “waiting for the opportunity to launch a punishing counterattack if coalition forces stalled” (Ibid, 21).

The United States drafted a four-phase offensive plan in the autumn of 1990: “Phase one would be an air attack on Iraqi command, control and communications….Phase Two would be a massive, continuous air bombardment of Iraqi supply and munitions basics, transport facilities and roads….Phase Three would be an air attack on the entrenched Iraqi ground forces….the fourth phase consisted of a Marine amphibious landing on the Kuwaiti coast and an Army frontal attack directly into the Iraqi defensive positions” (Summers, 195). General Powell accepted the first three phases and wanted a better ground campaign. On November 8, 1990, Bush approved a war during the winter of 1991 with Iraq. On January 16, 1991, the U.S.-led coalition began its air campaign against Iraqi forces in Kuwait and Iraq. It would be a short time before Iraq would face the combined air, naval and ground forces of the U.S. And its allies. On February 24, 1991, a force of 620,000 soldiers, Marines, and airmen from nearly forty nations launched the most massive attack across a 400-kilometer front against an Iraqi force. The revised ground assault strategy included a Marine amphibious assault group off the coast of Kuwait. The Iraqis heavily fortified this coast, tying up thousands of soldiers and supplies. This was a rouse: The Marines’ mission were a decoy while Army units deployed 150 kilometers into Iraq into an undefended region in a flanking maneuver to cut off the Iraqi ability to re-supply frontline troops with supplies and reinforcements, while the bulk of the ground forces swept into Iraq. The ground war was completed in one hundred hours with Iraqi soldiers, whose morale was crushed from the constant bombardment and poor conditions, mostly surrendered without a fight, and Iraq was expelled from Kuwait. Hussein’s only real strategy was to threaten the Western coalition without actual engagement. He “had always planned to take his country to the bring of wary – but not beyond…The U.S. strategy played to its own high-technology strength, which Iraq had no way to counter…. Most Arabs appeared awed by the initial attack and Iraq’s seeming inability to retaliate” (Rubin, 237). With Iraqi’s command and control infrastructure devastated during the air campaign, there was no way Hussein could directly coordinate any effective strategy and tactics At this point, his only strategy was to retaliate and plays a spoils war, launching SCUD missiles into Israel and Saudi Arabia; to set afire hundreds of oil wells in Kuwait as the Iraqi military retreated: he was on the run, scared, and ineffectual as a military commander to counter the threaten on and within his borders.

The final outcome was Iraq accepted the U.N. resolutions, portions of its elite Republican Guard remained intact, “American causalities totaled 148 killed and 467 wounded, many of them from friendly fire. Perhaps 200,000 Iraqi soldiers and several hundred civilians died” (Rubin, 247). President Bush allowed Saddam Hussein in power of Iraq. Hussein lost all of his gains and one half of his army but he still retained the ability to function and to punish with vengeance the humiliating loss: the idea of an Arab superpower diminished with a defeated army and various economic sanctions imposed on him, creating his inability to quickly rearm any time soon.


Rubin, Barry. Cauldron of Turmoil: America in the Middle East. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992.

Speakman, Jay. The Persian Gulf War: Weapons of War. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 2001.

Summers, Harry G., Jr. On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War. New York: Dell Publishing, 1992.

Schwarzkopf, Norman. It Doesn’t Take A Hero. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

Woodward, Bob. The Commanders. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

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