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Gulf War Air Campaign
Part of Gulf War
USAF F-16A F-15C F-15E Desert Storm edit2.jpg
Date17 January 1991 – 23 February 1991
LocationIraq and Kuwait
Result Coalition victory
Air superiority gained in a month
Start of the ground offensive
United States
 United Kingdom
 Saudi Arabia
Commanders and leaders
United States Chuck Horner
United States Norman Schwarzkopf
United States Colin Powell
United Kingdom Andrew Wilson
United Kingdom Bill Wratten
Saudi Arabia Khalid bin Sultan
Saudi Arabia Saleh Al-Muhaya
Iraq Saddam Hussein
Iraq Ali Hassan al-Majid
Hundreds of Aircraft Numerous aircraft and air defence systems
Casualties and losses
46 killed or missing
8 captured
43 aircraft lost to surface fired weapons (SAMs & AAA), two of these were collisions with the ground while evading fire
10,000-12,000 killed[1]
105 aircraft lost on the ground
36 aircraft shot down in air-air combat
2,000-3,000 Iraqi civilians killed

The Air campaign of the Gulf War, also known as the 1991 Bombing of Iraq started with an extensive aerial bombing campaign on 17 January 1991. The coalition flew over 100,000 sorties, dropping 88,500 tons of bombs,[2] and widely destroying military and civilian infrastructure.[3] The air campaign was commanded by USAF Lieutenant General Chuck Horner, who briefly served as Commander-in-Chief - Forward of U.S. Central Command while General Schwarzkopf was still in the United States. The British air commanders were Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Wilson (to 17 November) and Air Vice-Marshal Bill Wratten (from 17 November).[4] The air campaign largely finished by 23 February 1991 when the allied invasion of Kuwait took place.

The initial strikes were composed of Tomahawk cruise missiles[5] launched from warships situated in the Persian Gulf, F-117A Nighthawk stealth bombers[5] with an armament of laser-guided smart bombs,[5] and F-4G Wild Weasel aircraft armed with HARM anti-radar missiles.[6] These first attacks allowed F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 fighter bombers to gain air superiority over the country and then continue to drop TV and laser-guided bombs.

Armed with a Gatling gun and heat-seeking or optically guided Maverick missiles, A-10 Thunderbolts bombed and destroyed Iraqi armored forces,[5] supporting the advance of US ground troops. The AH-64 Apache and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, fired laser guided Hellfire missiles and TOW missiles which were guided to tanks by ground observers or scout helicopters.[7] The allied air fleet also made use of the E-3A Airborne Warning and Control Systems and a fleet of B-52 bombers.[5][6]

The aerial strike force was made up of over 2,250 combat aircraft, which included 1,800 US aircraft, which fought against an Iraqi force of about 500 Soviet-built MiG-29, MiG-25, and MiG-23, and French-made Mirage F1 fighters.

Main air campaign starts

EF-111 Raven

A day after the deadline set in United Nations Security Council Resolution 678, the coalition launched a massive air campaign, which began the general offensive codenamed Operation Desert Storm with more than 1,000 sorties launching per day. It began on 17 January 1991, at 2:10 am, Baghdad time, when Task Force Normandy (eight U.S. AH-64 Apache helicopters led by two MH-53 Pave Low helicopters) of the U.S. Army destroyed Iraqi radar sites near the Iraqi-Saudi Arabian border which could have warned Iraq of an upcoming attack.

At 2:43 A.M. two EF-111 Ravens with terrain following radar led 22 F-15E Strike Eagles against assaults on airfields in Western Iraq. Minutes later, one of the EF-111 crews – Captain James Denton and Captain Brent Brandon – destroyed an Iraqi Dassault Mirage F1, when their low altitude maneuvering led the F1 to crash to the ground. It was not credited to the crew but an F-15C that was also involved in the maneuvering.[8]

At 3 A.M., ten U.S. F-117 Nighthawk stealth bombers, under the protection of a three-ship formation of EF-111s, bombed Baghdad, the capital. The striking force came under fire from 3,000 anti-aircraft guns firing from rooftops in Baghdad.

Within hours of the start of the coalition air campaign, a P-3 Orion called Outlaw Hunter developed by the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, which was testing a highly specialised over-the-horizon radar, detected a large number of Iraqi patrol boats and naval vessels attempting to make a run from Basra and Umm Qasr to Iranian waters. Outlaw Hunter vectored in strike elements, which attacked the Iraqi naval flotilla near Bubiyan Island destroying 11 vessels and damaging scores more.

USAF A-10A Thunderbolt-II ground attack plane over circles of irrigated crops during Desert Storm.

F-15Es in Persian Gulf conflict.

Concurrently, U.S. Navy BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles struck targets in Baghdad, and other coalition aircraft struck targets throughout Iraq. Government buildings, TV stations, airfields, presidential palaces, military installations, communication lines, supply bases, oil refineries, a Baghdad airport, electric powerplants and factories making Iraqi war machine equipment were all destroyed due to extensive massive aerial and missile attacks by the coalition forces.

Five hours after the first attacks, Iraq's state radio broadcast a voice identified as Saddam Hussein declaring that "The great duel, the mother of all battles has begun. The dawn of victory nears as this great showdown begins."

The Persian Gulf War is sometimes called the "computer war", due to the advanced weapons used in the air campaign, which included precision-guided munitions and cruise missiles, although these were very much in the minority when compared with "dumb bombs". Cluster munitions and BLU-82 "Daisy Cutters" were also used.

Iraq responded by launching eight Iraqi modified Scud missiles into Israel the next day. These missile attacks on Israel were to continue throughout the six weeks of the war.

Iraq may also have scored an air-air victory as well: Pilot Zuhair Dawood flying a MIG-25, appears likely to have shot down Scott Speicher, flying a F-18, with an R-40RD. Russian sources claim also numerous other hits on coalition aircraft, however only a clumsy effort appears to have been made to match the supposed events to actual coalition aircraft being damaged or lost - often these claims are on wrong date compared to the actual aircraft damage or loss time and place, and in each case, except Speicher's Hornet, the cause of damage is known to not have been an Iraqi MiG.

In an effort to demonstrate their own air offensive capability, on 24 January the Iraqis attempted to mount a strike against the major Saudi oil refinery in Abqaiq. Two Mirage F1 fighters laden with incendiary bombs and two MiG-23s (along as fighter cover) took off from bases in Iraq. They were spotted by U.S. AWACs, and two Royal Saudi Air Force F-15s were sent to intercept. When the Saudis appeared the Iraqi MiGs turned tail, but the Mirages pressed on. Captain Iyad Al-Shamrani, one of the Saudi pilots maneuvered his jet behind the Mirages and shot down both aircraft. After this episode, the Iraqis made no more air efforts of their own, only sending most of their jets to Iran in hopes that they might someday get their air force back. (Iran never returned the jets.)[9]

The first priority for Coalition forces was the destruction of Iraqi command and control bunkers, Scud missile launch pads and storage areas, telecommunications and radio facilities, and airfields.[10] The attack began with a wave of deep-penetrating aircraft — F-111s, F-15Es, Tornado GR1s, F-16s, A-6s, A-7Es,and F-117s, complemented by F-15C, F-14s and Air Defense Tornados.[11] EA-6Bs, EF-111 radar jammers, and F-117A stealth planes were heavily used in this phase to elude Iraq's extensive SAM systems and anti-aircraft weapons. The sorties were launched mostly from Saudi Arabia and the six Coalition aircraft carrier battle groups (CVBG) in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. During the initial 24 hours 2,775 sorties were flown, including seven B-52s which flew a 34-hour nonstop 14,000-mile round-trip from Barksdale Air Force Base and launched 13 AGM-86 CALCM cruise missiles against Iraqi targets.[12][13]

Persian Gulf CVBGs included USS Midway, USS John F. Kennedy and USS Ranger. USS America, USS Theodore Roosevelt, and USS Saratoga operated from the Red Sea (USS America transitioned to the Persian Gulf midway through the air war).

Iraqi antiaircraft defenses, including shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles, were surprisingly ineffective against coalition aircraft and the coalition suffered only 75 aircraft losses in over 100,000 sorties, though only 42 of these were the result of Iraqi action. The other 33 were lost to accidents.[14] In particular, RAF and U.S. Navy aircraft which flew at low altitudes to avoid radar were particularly vulnerable, though this changed when the aircrews were ordered to fly above the AAA.[15]

The next coalition targets were command and communication facilities. Saddam Hussein had closely micromanaged the Iraqi forces in the Iran–Iraq War, and initiative at lower levels was discouraged. Coalition planners hoped that Iraqi resistance would quickly collapse if deprived of command and control.

Some of Iraq's air force squadrons escape

F-14 Tomcats from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf await their turn refueling from a KC-10A over Iraq during Desert Storm while conducting a MIGCAP mission to turn back fleeing Iraqi fighters.

The first week of the air war saw a few Iraqi sorties, but these did little damage, and 38 Iraqi MiGs were shot down by Coalition planes. Soon after, the Iraqi Air Force began fleeing to Iran, with 115 to 140 aircraft flown there.[16] This mass exodus of Iraqi aircraft took coalition forces by surprise as the Coalition had been expecting them to flee to Jordan, a nation friendly to Iraq, rather than Iran, a long-time enemy. As a purpose of the war was to weaken Iraq militarily, the coalition had placed aircraft over western Iraq to try to stop any retreat into Jordan. This meant they were unable to react before most of the Iraqi aircraft had made it "safely" to Iranian airbases. The coalition eventually established a virtual "wall" of F-15 Eagle, F-14 Tomcat fighters and F-16 Fighting Falcons on the Iraq-Iran border (called MIGCAP), thereby stopping the exodus of fleeing Iraqi fighters. Iran has never returned the aircraft to Iraq and did not allow the aircrews to be released until years later.[17] However, many Iraqi planes remained in Iraq, and several were destroyed by coalition forces.[18]

Infrastructure bombing

The third and largest phase of the air campaign ostensibly targeted military targets throughout Iraq and Kuwait: Scud missile launchers, weapons research facilities, and naval forces. About one-third of the Coalition airpower was devoted to attacking Scuds, some of which were on trucks and therefore difficult to locate. Some U.S. and British special forces teams had been covertly inserted into western Iraq to aid in the search and destruction of Scuds. However, the lack of adequate terrain for concealment hindered their operations, and some of them were killed or captured such as occurred with the widely publicised Bravo Two Zero patrol of the SAS.

Civilian infrastructure

Coalition bombing raids destroyed Iraqi civilian infrastructure. 11 of Iraq's 20 major power stations and 119 substations were totally destroyed, while a further six major power stations were damaged.[19][20] At the end of the war, electricity production was at four percent of its pre-war levels. Bombs destroyed the utility of all major dams, most major pumping stations, and many sewage treatment plants, Telecommunications equipment, port facilities, oil refineries and distribution, railroads and bridges were also destroyed.

RSAF Tornado during Gulf War.

The Iraqi targets were located by aerial photography and were referenced to the GPS coordinates of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which were determined by a USAF senior officer in August 1990: he arrived at the airport carrying a briefcase with a GPS receiver in it, then an embassy car took him to the embassy. He walked to the embassy courtyard, opened the briefcase, took one GPS reading, and put the machine back in the case. Then he returned to the U.S., gave the GPS receiver to the appropriate intelligence agency in Langley, Virginia, where the exact coordinates of the U.S. Baghdad embassy were officially determined. This position served as the origin for a coordinate system used to designate targets in Baghdad.[21]

The U.S. bombed highways and bridges linking Jordan and Iraq, crippling infrastructure on both sides.

Civilian casualties

The U.S. government claimed the Iraqi government fabricated numerous attacks on Iraqi holy sites in order to rally the Muslim community. One such instance had Iraq reporting that coalition forces attacked the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The final number of Iraqi civilians killed was 2,278, while 5,965 were reported wounded.[22]

On 13 February 1991, two laser-guided smart bombs destroyed the Amiriyah blockhouse, which was a civilian air-raid shelter, killing hundreds of civilians. U.S. officials claimed that the blockhouse was also a military communications centre. Jeremy Bowen, a BBC correspondent, was one of the first television reporters on the scene. Bowen was given access to the site and did not find evidence of military use.[23] A day after the Amiriyah attack, a British warplane fired a laser-guided missile at a bridge in the Al-Fallujah neighborhood west of Baghdad. It missed and hit a residential area, killing up to 130 civilians.[24] When friends and relatives rush to the scene to assist the injured, British warplanes returned to bomb them, as well.[25]

Vulnerability of Iraq to air attacks

The air campaign devastated entire Iraqi brigades deployed in the open desert in combat formation. It also prevented an effective Iraqi resupply of units engaged in combat, and prevented some 450,000 Iraqi troops from achieving a larger force concentration.

The air campaign had a significant effect on the tactics employed by opposing forces in subsequent conflicts. Entire Iraqi divisions were dug in the open while facing U.S. forces. They were not dispersed, as with the Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. Iraqi forces also tried to reduce the length of their supply lines and the total area defended.


Iraq lost a total of 259 aircraft in the war, 122 of which were lost in combat. During Desert Storm, 36 aircraft were shot down in aerial combat.[26] 3 helicopters and 2 fighters were shot down during the invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990. Kuwait claims to have shot down as many as 37 Iraqi aircraft. These claims have not been confirmed.[27] In addition, 68 fixed wing aircraft and 13 helicopters were destroyed while on the ground, and 137 aircraft were flown to Iran and never returned.[28]

The Coalition lost a total of 75 aircraft ‒ 52 fixed-wing aircraft and 23 helicopters ‒ during Desert Storm, with 39 fixed-wing aircraft and 5 helicopters lost in combat.[28] One coalition fighter may have been lost in air-air combat, a U.S. Navy F/A-18 piloted by Scott Speicher. Other claims include an RAF Tornado GR.1A piloted by Gary Lennox and Adrian Weeks.,[29] however the Tornado in question crashed to the ground due to pilot error on a different date than the supposed air-to-air kill is claimed to have taken place. One B-52G was lost while returning to its operating base on Diego Garcia, when it suffered a catastrophic electrical failure and crashed into the Indian Ocean killing 3 of the 6 crew members on board. The rest of the Coalition losses came from anti-aircraft fire. The Americans lost 28 fixed-wing aircraft and 5 helicopters; the British lost 7 fixed-wing aircraft; the Saudi Arabians lost 2; the Italians lost 1; and the Kuwaitis lost 1; the Canadians, on the other hand, lost 0.[30] During the invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, the Kuwaiti Air Force lost 12 fixed-wing aircraft, which were destroyed on the ground, and 8 helicopters, 6 of which were shot down and 2 of which were destroyed while on the ground.[27]

See also


  1. Keany, Thomas; Eliot A. Cohen (1993). Gulf War Air Power Survey. United States Dept. of the Air Force
  2. In the Gulf war, every last nail was accounted for, but the Iraqi dead went untallied. We still dont know the precise number of people died because they are wandering around as zombies. At last their story is being told its a miracle! ITV - John Pilger[dead link]
  3. Operation Desert Storm
  4. "No. 52589". 28 June 1991. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Boyne (2003), p.359,360
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gross (2002), p. 226–7
  7. Gross (2002), p.235
  8. Leckie, Robert (1998). The Wars of America. Castle Books. 
  9. "The Gulf War - The Air Campaign". 2005. Retrieved 2009-12-06. 
  10. Clancy & Horner 2000, pp. 334–335
  11. Clancy & Horner 2000, p. 335
  12. Clancy & Horner 2000, pp. 334, 343
  13. "Operation Desert Strike". 
  14. "In-depth specials — Gulf War". CNN. 2001. Archived from the original on 2008-03-17. Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  15. Atkinson, Rick (2003). "frontline: the gulf war: chronology". SBS. Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  16. "Iraqi Air Force Equipment — Introduction". Retrieved 18 January 2005. 
  17. "Iran To Iraq: Minders Keepers". Time. 8 April 1991.,9171,972677,00.html. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 
  20. John Sweeney Responds on Mass Death in Iraq
  21. Clancy, Tom (1994). Armored Cav. Berkley Books. p. 180. ISBN 0-425-15836-5. 
  22. Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh, The Gulf Conflict: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order, 1990–1991 (Princeton, 1993), 324-29.(
  23. Report aired on BBC 1, 14 February 1991
  24. Gulf War
  25. Dahr Jamail (October 1, 2008). Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq. Haymarket Books. p. 131. ISBN 1-931859-61-2. 
  26. Air-To-Air Victories in Desert Storm
  27. 27.0 27.1 Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait -
  28. 28.0 28.1 The Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Timeline -
  29. "Iraqi air-air victories during the Gulf War 1991". 2004. Retrieved 2009-12-07. 
  30. Fixed-wing combat attrition in Desert Storm


External links

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