Friday, May 24, 2024

Operation Desert Storm – an Analysis


“Conventional warfare” is a relative term: what counts as conventional warfare depends on the time the war was fought, and frequently depends on the weapons or tactics used. Still, lessons learned in previous conflicts are applicable to subsequent wars: The Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae used phalanx formations which have not withstood the test of time, but they also used delay tactics, feign retreats, and use of geography to constrain the enemy, all of which are timeless. So, while the phalanx eventually became obsolete, the other aspects were fundamental in all future military operations.

Thousands of years after Thermopylae came the trench warfare of WWI, followed by the mechanized warfare of WWII, with its blitzkriegs and tanks. The Gulf War was primarily a technological war, with weaponry so advanced that those used in previous wars appeared to be as anachronistic as the phalanx formation. Thus the Gulf War became the “conventional” war of the day.

This paper examines the operational components of the Gulf War and the interpretation of that war by American military analysts as well as by near-peer competitors.

Goals of the Gulf War

The Gulf War had both strategic goals and strategic constraints. The goals were to remove the Iraqi invasion force from Kuwait, and to degrade the military to prevent it from attacking Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other nearby countries. The constraint was to not degrade the military so far that it wouldn’t be a credible deterrence to Iranian invasion.

To accomplish this, combined air and ground operations were employed. The air operation was designed to destroy Iraqi air power, weaken its ground forces, and prepare the way for the ground invasion.

The precursor to Operation Desert Storm was, of course, Operation Desert Shield. Desert Shield allowed the George H. W. Bush administration to assemble the Coalition forces, and to position those forces for what would come next, should Saddam not withdraw from Kuwait. It gave time for the economic sanctions placed upon Iraq to have an effect. Finally, it allowed Coalition forces to train in a desert environment.

Demolished vehicles line Highway 80, also known as the "Highway of Death", the route fleeing Iraqi forces took as they retreated from Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Joe Coleman, 18 April 1991.

Operation Desert Storm was divided into four phases1. Phase I was to be a strategic air campaign designed to disrupt Iraq’s command and control over their forces, and to destroy NBC weapons research and production facilities. Phase II was to establish air supremacy over Kuwait. The goal of Phase III was to isolate Iraqi forces in Kuwait from reinforcement and resupply. Finally, Phase IV was to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

The first three phases were air campaigns and will be treated as a whole.

The Air Operation

The air operation lasted from 17 January 1991 to 23 February 1991, during which Coalition forces performed over 100,000 sorties and dropped 85,000 tons of bombs.

The air campaign began with the destruction of enemy radar sites near the Saudi-Iraqi border by American Apache and Pave Low helicopters. If left intact, those sites would warn Iraq of upcoming attacks. Following this, the weapons of choice were Tomahawk cruise missiles launched by ships positioned in the Persian Gulf, stealth bombers dropping “smart” bombs, and F/A-18 Hornets carrying anti-radar missiles. These latter homed-in on radar antennas, destroying them. This completed the destruction of Iraq’s radar system, thereby degrading their air capability. It further blinded Iraq from observing and responding to Coalition activities. Bombing continued using television-guided and laser-guided missiles.

At the time, Iraq’s air force was the sixth largest in the world. This changed due to three factors: first, aerial combat in which 36 Iraqi aircraft were downed; second, destruction of 254 aircraft while on the ground (either in standard or underground hangers); and finally, relocation of military assets into Iran.

It was originally thought that this movement of aircraft was a result of pilot desertion, but it was later proven that this was Saddam’s attempt at preserving Iraqi air power. This was confirmed from documents captured during the occupation of Iraq following the 2003 invasion2. The US did not capture all the documents, however – some fell into the hands of Iran or Iranian-backed groups; these documents included the names of Iraqi pilots from the Iraq-Iran War, and those pilots were targeted for execution3.

Commercial aircraft were moved into Iran as well. Iraq’s deal with Iran for sheltering aircraft covered only civilian and transport aircraft, so it came as a surprise that Iraqi military aircraft were crossing into Iranian airspace.

When questioned over this, Iranian officials promised to keep Saddam’s aircraft until the conclusion of the Gulf War. Many of the aircraft would be incorporated into the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Aviation Division and would never be returned4.

The Ground Operation

Following the destruction of Iraq’s radar and communication facilities, their command-and-control ability was thereby lost. This included Iraq’s logistic capabilities, leaving their ground forces in and around Kuwait unsupported. The ground operation began on 24 February 1991 when Marines began heading towards Kuwait City. Within the first 24 hours of the ground operation, 10,000 Iraqi troops surrendered (by end of operation, a total of 50,000 prisoners were taken). The large number of surrenders were caused by the incessant bombing operations of the Coalition forces, the inability of Iraqi ground troops to communicate with their commanders, and the shear lack of logistical support.

The opening hours of the land operation would also see the creation of a forward operating base (FOB Cobra) deep within Iraq territory. FOB Cobra would serve as a staging base for the tank war that followed.

Approximately 1,900 tanks, mostly M1A1 Abrams were brought in to battle Soviet-built T-72s, manned by Republican Guard members. Coalition forces destroyed over 3,300 of these tanks through air and ground attacks in what were some of the largest tank battles in American history. At least 100 tanks were destroyed by AH-64 “tank-killer” helicopters, which challenged the prevailing belief that the best weapon against a tank was another tank.

Iraq withdrew from Kuwait almost immediately, but not before setting fire to 700 Kuwaiti oil wells, some of which they surrounded by mines.

All Coalition military operations were halted 100 hours after the start, but under four conditions: all Iraqi military operations must stop, including Scud missile attacks; all Coalition military prisoners and Kuwaiti civilian hostages must be immediately released; Iraq would comply with all relevant UN resolutions; and the Iraqi army must assist in locating and removing all land and sea mines.

On 27 February Saddam surrendered, and on 3 March 1991 Iraq signed the official cease fire agreement.

Consequences – Interpretation by American Analysts

Taken together, the air and land operations achieved the war’s strategic goals: it removed the Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait, it degraded Iraq’s military so that it could no longer attack Saudi Arabia and Israel, but it didn’t degrade them to the point where they were unable to defend themselves against Iran.

Operation Desert Storm has been described as an “effects-based operation” (EBO) in that the purpose was to neutralize the enemy without necessarily destroying their forces. While this is true at face value, EBO was reformulated as a “software approach to warfare” when it was systemized by the United States Joint Forces Command (JFCOM). This introduced considerable baggage: computer-modeling software, operational net assessment, and system-of-system analysis.

The EBO doctrine was criticized by Lt. General Paul Van Riper and General James Mattis5 because operational control moved from commanders to staff; it entailed centralized decision-making along with consequent micromanagement; and that the doctrine gave the illusion of complete knowledge of the enemy’s present and future states. Finally, it overemphasized the importance of air power and minimized the usefulness of ground forces.

The EBO interpretation of the Gulf War was rejected, as was the entire concept of effects-based operations.

The “naïve” formulation of EBO was retained, however, and is now called “effects-based approach to operations” (EBAO) in Air Force doctrine6. EBAO is no longer a strategy but instead a “way of thinking.” While annihilation and attrition are still viable options, “the ultimate aim in war is not just to overthrow the enemy’s military power but to compel them to do one’s will.”7

Interpretation by Near-Peer Competitors

The success of Operation Desert Storm was noted by our near-peer competitors. Both China and Russia realized that it was impossible for them to compete against America in conventional conflicts, so they began considering alternative means of warfare.

Russia pursued what Kilcullen called “liminal warfare”8 which involves covert actions operating below the threshold which a military response would be warranted… until it was too late. It is a refined version of gray zone warfare. A good example of this strategy was the Russian take-over of Crimea9: Russians created and supported sympathetic unions and political parties; Cossacks and Serbian paramilitary groups were imported, which appeared to destabilize the region. Russia responded with “relief columns” in response to this “humanitarian crisis,” but the true goal was to support pro-Russian forces already inside the country. By the time the true purpose of Russia’s “relief” became clear, a military response from NATO was not possible because there apparently was no military invasion.

For China, the new warfare was called “unrestricted warfare” (UW) which consists of cultural, economic and political moves as forms of warfare10, either applied individually or in combination. UW is founded on the belief that “everything that can benefit mankind can also harm him.”11 Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, the authors of Unrestricted Warfare, the text that gave us the name UW, state that “the best way to achieve victory is to control, not to kill.”12 The similarity of goals with the Air Force’s conception of EBAO is striking.

The clearest example of UW in action is the Belt and Road Initiative, in which China loans money to a host country to build infrastructure in that host country. These loans included predatory interest rates and backed by unconvertible Chinese currency. The actual construction requires that only Chinese labor be used so no local jobs were created. If the country defaults on the loan, ownership of the new infrastructure goes to China; if the host country does not default, the country must repay the loan to China. Either way the host country becomes a vassal state.

The direct correlation between the results of the Gulf War and unrestricted warfare is explicit: the text Unlimited Warfare has an entire chapter describing the Gulf War and the lessons Americans learned and what we did not learn. The connection between the Gulf War and liminal warfare is not so clear, though the ease at which American M1A1 Abrams tanks destroyed Soviet-made T-72 tanks surely made an impression on the Russians.

Both liminal warfare and unrestricted warfare build upon elements of past techniques. Liminal war is similar to Soviet attempts to undermine Western institutions, and unrestricted warfare – in particular the Belt and Road Initiative – is like the tributary system practiced by the Chinese during their dynastic era. Much as the tactics used by the Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae served as the foundation for future battles, these historical precedents underly Russia’s and China’s new approaches to warfare.


The Gulf War left Saddam Hussein in place – regime change was not part of the UN mandates and it was expected that he would be toppled by internal rebellions. Insurgencies by Kurdish and Shiite groups within Iraq lead to crackdowns by Saddam, and in response, US and British forces established two no-fly zones: one in the north to protect the Kurds and one in the south to protect Shiite Muslims. These no-fly zones would remain in place until the 2003 Iraq War.

Something else that remained in place were the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the US and the UN. Because they were still in effect at the time of the later invasions, those sanctions could not be used to pressure Saddam to leave office.

The Gulf War became the model of conventional warfare due to its success, speed of execution, and relatively small number of Coalition casualties. It was a “textbook” war, but that textbook was studied by Russia and China. In response, they devised their own counterstrategies: liminal warfare and unrestricted warfare, respectively. If these are the future forms of warfare, then what counts as “conventional warfare” must be updated.


  1. Snow & Drew, From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond: War and Politics in the American Experience.
  2. Michael Brill, “Remembering Desert Storm and the Gulf War(s) Odyssey of Iraq’s Air Force, Part 1”
  3. Ibid.
  4. Michael Brill, “Remembering Desert Storm and the Gulf War(s) Odyssey of Iraq’s Air Force, Part 2”
  5. James Mattis, “USJFCOM Commander’s Guidance for Effects-based Operations.”
  6. John T. Correll, “The Assault on EBO.”
  7. U.S. Air Force, AFDP 3-0 Operations and Planning, p. 19.
  8. David Kilcullen, The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West.
  9. Robert Leonhard, Little Green Men: A Primer on Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine 2013-14.
  10. Dean Cheng, “Chinese Lessons from the Gulf War.”
  11. Qiao Liang & Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare.
  12. Ibid.


U.S. Air Force, AFDP 3-0 Operations and Planning, 4 November 2016. Retrieved 23 November 2024 from

Brill, M. “Remembering Desert Storm and the Gulf War(s) Odyssey of Iraq’s Air Force, Part 1” Wilson Center Sources and Methods. 14 January 2021. Retrieved 22 May 2024 from

Brill, M. “Remembering Desert Storm and the Gulf War(s) Odyssey of Iraq’s Air Force, Part 2” Wilson Center Sources and Methods. 15 January 2021. Retrieved 22 May 2024 from

Cheng, D. “Chinese Lessons from the Gulf War.” November 2011. Retrieved 22 May 2024 from

Correll, J. “The Assault on EBO” Air Force Magazine, January 2013. Retrieved 23 May 2024 from

Kilcullen, D. The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West. Oxford University Press, 2020.

Leonhard, R. Little Green Men: A Primer on Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine 2013-14. United States Army Special Operations Command, 2015. Retrieved 21 May 2024 from

Mattis, J. “USJFCOM Commander’s Guidance for Effects-based Operations.” Parameters 38, no. 3 (2008), doi:10.55540/0031-1723.2437. Retrieved 23 May 2024 from

Qiao L. & Wang X. Unrestricted Warfare. PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, Beijing, 1999.

Snow, D. & Drew, D. From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond: War and Politics in the American Experience. Routledge, 2009.

Spalding, R. War Without Rules: China’s Playbook for Global Domination. Sentinel Press, 2022.

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