Gulf War 25 years on

It is now twenty five years since the First Gulf War. I remember being woken by my radio alarm clock on the first morning of the air campaign. There was a roaring sound which I thought was static on my analogue radio. Actually it was the planes taking off on bombing raids: the harsh sound of low bypass ratio military turbofans.

Now twenty five years later we can see that the world changed yet remained very much the same. At the time though it looked like the dawn of a new age: the beginning of the hubris which led to the “New American Century” which rapidly died along with so many people in the same deserts little over a decade later.

At the time though the victory of the First Gulf War looked like a stunning revelation. The West had become used to the regular military defeats. The USA had not won a significant war since 1945. Korea had shown their last great successful battle at Inchon in 1950 and even then the war ended in stalemate. In contrast In Vietnam despite overwhelming technological superiority they had managed to win almost every battle and comprehensively lose the war.

The situation was little better in Europe: France had been chased out of Indochina a decade before the Americans tried following the utter humiliation of the pitched battle of Dien Bien Phu. Thereafter it had lost Algeria. The British had ceded assorted bits of its empire before winning the Falklands though even that was a fading glory by 1991. As with the Gulf War the key was a limited defined military and political objective.

The Gulf War restored the west’s faith in its military prowess, confirmed that technology could win wars with relatively light western casualties and supposedly signalled that wars of choice and interventions in other states could be justified and successful. The Gulf War was claimed to show the west that a new age of arguably neo colonial wars might be possible and even morally good: it washed away the humiliation of 50 years of mainly military failure and in the process set the scene for Afghanistan, the Second Gulf War, Libya etc.

In short exactly the wrong lessons were learned by the politicians. Even more than being a textbook military victory the First Gulf War was a textbook political victory. That the wrong lessons were learned has led to political misery for western leaders but more importantly death and destruction for the people’s of many different countries and also for large numbers of the west’s own soldiers.

Although the military successes are possibly secondary to the political ones they are the ones most usually focused on.

The coalition (mainly under the Americans) had vast technological advantages. They had the weapons which were meant to hold back the Red Army on the plains of Germany. Ranged against them were the previous generation of weapons of the Soviet Union.

The initial air campaign was wholly one sided. This was actually predictable. The Iraqi air force had repeatedly had problems during the Iran Iraq War with the American F14 Tomcat, a huge carrier based US Navy fighter developed to defend against Russian bombers. It carried a massively long range radar and Phoenix missiles capable of shooting down planes 100 miles away. The F14 required enormous amounts of maintenance, something the Iranians had trouble with after the revolution and the American arms embargo but despite that an F14 merely switching on its radar tended to result in Iraqi jets simply flying away.

Ironically to avoid friendly fire the F14s were not allowed to use the Phoenix missiles and it fell to the slightly smaller US Air Force F15s to deal with the Iraqi fighters. This again was a plane a generation superior to its opponents. Already in the 1980s undeclared war between Israel and Syria the F15 had proved itself capable of destroying the previous generation Russian aircraft.

In a similar fashion to when faced with the F14’s radar most Iraqi fighters fled, some destroyed on the ground but most flying to the old enemy Iran to avoid destruction. Thus air supremacy to an even greater extent than was achieved in Vietnam (and much greater than Korea where Russian pilots in planes the match of the American aircraft had driven the American B29 bombers from the skies). The Americans were helped by the RAF Tornados in this endeavour with the RAF using special anti runway bombs that rendered most Iraqi airbases useless even if there had been planes to fly from them.

Holding complete air supremacy had not in previous wars guaranteed an easy fight: the Allies in 1944 held the skies over France yet had a hard fight against the Wehrmacht whilst all the bombs and rockets in Vietnam did not prevent American defeat.

Where the Gulf War was different was in the bizarre tactics employed by the Iraqi army. Having taken Kuwait they might have tried to push on into Saudi Arabia and hence, unsettle the American build up. Alternatively they might have prepared to fight in Kuwait city. Instead they created defences in the deserts of Kuwait. There was one raid into a border Saudi town but in general the Iraqi army sat in the desert and awaited the coming onslaught.

That onslaught was overwhelming. Whilst the stealth fighters and cruise missiles destroyed Bagdad’s military infrastructure the smaller ground attack aircraft of the coalition targeted tanks, guns, troop concentrations etc. Meanwhile higher above the huge B52s carpet bombed the Iraqi trenches.

The air campaign went on for weeks. When the ground campaign started everyone expected the US Marines to launch an amphibious assault on Kuwait City. Instead the Americans, with help form the British, sent huge columns of tanks in a great arc into Iraq and then across to Kuwait. Once again the technical superiority of the British and American tanks was overwhelming: they could fire from a range vastly exceeding that of their opponents who rarely managed to fire a shot before being destroyed. In addition American helicopters and the large, slow ungainly A10 attack planes flew endlessly overhead dropping bombs, missiles and firing milk bottle sized shells from a massive nose mounted cannon.

All the above was one sided and restored the west’s faith in its technological and military superiority. It seemed almost Boys Own adventure stuff. Far more important though was the political victories carefully and painstakingly accrued by George H Bush before a shot was fired.

Most of the world opposed Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait but Bush still managed to build a highly impressive coalition with nations from every inhibited continent involved in providing troops or supporting the operations including a large contingent of Syrian troops.

This coalition required time and patience to assemble. In this Bush was greatly helped by Russian and Chinese acquiescence and even support to his plans but critical to this and indeed the rest of the support was a tightly defined goal. There was no talk of regime change and no talk of invading Iraq itself except strictly temporarily in order to get to Kuwait. The coalition’s commanders spend almost six months planning what ended up being an air war of little over a month and a land war of less than a week.

This then is the greatest contrast with the subsequent wars most especially the Second Gulf War. In most subsequent wars the objectives have been nothing like as tightly or limitedly defined. Rather nation building or regime change have been the stated objectives yet the amount of time and energy devoted to planning has been less than Bush’s political preparations and Powell and Schwarzkopf’s military preparations.

This lack of preparation has tended to result in initial spectacular victories as impressive as The First Gulf War albeit against armies less competent than the Iraqis in 1991. Thereafter, however, the invading forces have tended to become bogged down in policing / counter insurgency typed operations which have resulted in mounting casualties. Usually the Western forces have managed to remove the political and military leadership but the vacuum thus created along with the large amounts of weaponry no longer in the control of the local military (it having been destroyed) has allowed levels of anarchy.

The invading forces have then either been stuck policing a low level problem as in Kosovo or else fighting major counter insurgency for years as in Afghanistan. In Iraq after all the fighting and deaths the British left (essentially defeated) and the Americans pulled out, although less overtly defeated, leaving a situation in which ISIS has managed to take over vast areas of territory.

Whilst many rightly afterwards praised George H Bush for not attempting regime change the reality is that they had hoped Saddam would fall. There were assorted no fly zones etc. to try to help those rebelling against him. That these failed was in some ways blamed on the Bush regime though with hindsight seeing the disaster his son’s invasion was a decade later, Bush senior was probably profoundly lucky that Saddam stayed in power.

Exactly where this leaves military intervention is interesting. It looks after Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya et al. that we are back to the same situation we were in before 1991 where military adventures are things to be feared by politicians.

In contrast the one leader who has managed more in terms of his objectives is Vladimir Putin in Syria. His recent partial withdrawal looks currently to have been a major success. When he started it looked likely that Assad might fall after 4 years of war. Following the Russian intervention his army was on the offensive until the recent ceasefire.

Again, Putin’s limited goals seem to have been fairly key to his victory: that and a competent ground force to allow him to use planes and missiles without putting his troops in danger. The one Russian plane which was shot down was done so under controversial circumstances by the Turkish air force. An interesting aside is that this was an elderly bomber shot down by an American built F16. Following this the Russians have escorted their planes with their most modern fighters and the Turks have shown little inclination to interfere again. Western technological supremacy is now far from certain or complete.

Putin’s own victory, however, is far from complete in military terms and if the situation turns back against the Syrian army it is possible the Russians will be sucked back into a war which could lose them many more lives.

Thus far, however, the First Gulf war and the Russian intervention in Syria have shown that the key is planning and limited, defined military and political objectives. This has always been central to any wars especially ones of choice. That it has been forgotten so quickly is both tragic and somewhat baffling. No doubt some time soon, however, people will again be demanding that “something must be done”, that some sort of intervention is vital, that it is in our national interest and that it will be different this time.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.

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