Desert Storm – Airwar


The Iraqis’ hardened shelters offered their aircraft no protection against coalition ordnance. Here a US Navy F-14 Tomcat flies over a smashed concrete shelter on an Iraqi air base. It could be argued that coalition air power won the war. Laser-guided bombs were so accurate that coalition aircraft could put two bombs into the same crater.


These concrete hardened aircraft shelters at Ahmed Al Jaber were penetrated by bunker-busting bombs. This photograph was taken by an F-14 Tomcat using the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS). In total the coalition air forces flew 109,876 sorties; the US air and naval forces expended 6,520 tons of precision-guided munitions alone.

nce the coalition air forces began to build up in Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield, the bulk of the Iraqi Air Force’s combat aircraft were withdrawn from their southern bases to sites well north of Baghdad. This meant that only surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) defended the southern bases. In preparation for the liberation of Kuwait General Schwarzkopf planned to target forty-four Iraqi airfields, some sixteen of them primary airfields and the remainder dispersal fields.

Saddam’s pre-Desert Storm confidence was founded largely on his faith in the survivability of his air force; after all, it had resolutely withstood eight years of war with Iran. Indeed, the Iraqi Air Force’s (IrAF) vast infrastructure was primarily designed to protect against pre-emptive attack, with its absolutely huge airfields and concrete hardened aircraft shelters (HAS).

While Saddam was able to deploy massive ground forces, he also had a sizeable and modern air and air defence system. At the time debate raged about the exact composition of the Iraqi Air Force. Even the British intelligence community did not have a comprehensive ORBAT despite the focus and implications of the Iran–Iraq War. RAF Tornado pilot Flight Lieutenant John Peters recalled, ‘The worst case intelligence assessments were that the Iraqis had over 700 combat aircraft, excluding helicopters.’ Their most potent aircraft were almost 50 MiG-29s, 70 F-1s, 30 MiG-25s and, according to Peters, ‘whole swarms’ of MiG-23s, Su-22s and Su-25s. On paper the IrAF looked formidable but, despite its material strength, its pilots were judged to be poor, serviceability was low and it was ineffective in the close air support (CAS) role. It was also notable that IrAF training levels between August 1990 and January 1991 were almost non-existent.

To coalition intelligence the clear weakness in the Iraqi military structure was the complete lack of air support. General Schwarzkopf also highlighted Iraq’s ‘feeble logistics’ and the ‘centralized system of command and control in which important decisions, even in the heat of the battle, could only be taken by Saddam personally’. Furthermore, the IrAF was fielding at least fifteen types of fixed-wing combat aircraft and sixteen types of helicopter. Ten of its MiG-29s were two-seaters with no radar, severely limiting their combat value. Nor did the IrAF have any all-weather capability: during the Iran–Iraq War it had been restricted even by low cloud and rain.

By 1991 the IrAF had up to 750 fighters and ground-attack aircraft in its formidable inventory. On top of this, the Iraqi Army Air Corps (IAAC) fielded about 150 combat helicopters. Similarly Iraq’s Air Defence Command was armed with 7,000 surface-to-air missiles and 6,000 anti-aircraft artillery pieces directed by a national radar network. The Republican Guard had its own system to defend key sites such as Baghdad, with 60 SAM batteries and 3,000 AAA guns.

In reality, though, probably fewer than ninety of the IrAF’s 113 French-supplied F-1s and only half of its fifty Russian MiG-29s were operable, while about 100 of its 200 MiG-21 /F-7s remained. When the Desert Storm air war came to a close in early March 1991, Iraq had as few as a hundred fighters left from its once mighty order of battle.

In total, the IrAF had some fifty-four bases, consisting of twenty-four main operating bases and another thirty dispersal fields. Some of these were colossal: up to twice the size of Heathrow airport. They were protected by a reasonably well-integrated air defence system and scattered across them were 594 hardened aircraft shelters.

Since its creation, arms deliveries to the IrAF had been substantial; for example, in the 1960s they were three times as great as in the previous decade. Up until 1955 the Iraqi forces were under British military auspices, but even after that date the IrAF continued to receive British aircraft such as the Vampire and Venom (the US also provided a handful of Sabres). The ousting of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 saw Baghdad turn to Moscow, and in November 1958 the IrAF began to take delivery of its first Soviet aircraft, which included MiG-17s, Yak-11s and Il-28s. The following year the RAF withdrew from Habbaniyah and the USSR provided Iraq with MiG-17Ds, Tu-16s and An-12s. The Soviet Union’s vast armament factories were to deluge Baghdad with aircraft over the next two decades.

The expansion of the IrAF from 1961 to 1970 was driven in part by the need to counter the Kurdish guerrillas fighting for autonomy in the north of the country. The IrAF successfully deployed Jet Provosts and Il-28s against the Kurds. In 1964 the IrAF ordered British Hunters and Jet Provosts, but Baghdad began to drift back into the Soviet sphere as it sought fighters and trainers on a scale and on credit terms Britain could never match. After the 1972 Soviet–Iraqi Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation Moscow provided the backbone of the IrAF, including MiG-21s, MiG-23s, Su-7s, Su-20s, Tu-22s and Il-28s. The IrAF’s need for more aircraft and ordnance was fuelled by a renewal of the Kurdish insurgency in the mid-1970s and the USSR provided further MiG-23s as well as MiG-27s.

During the mid-1980s the IrAF also received a steady stream of equipment from other countries, including Argentinian Pucaras, Brazilian Tucanos, Chinese F-7s, French Mirage F-1s and Italian AB-212 and A-109 helicopters. Russia also furnished Baghdad with MiG-23/25/29 fighter aircraft and Mi-24 helicopter gunships. Deliveries of highly sophisticated aircraft and missiles enabled Iraq to expand the strategic scope of its war against Iran.

Iraq’s chemical weapons were a cause for concern, particularly when activity at various air bases during the latter half of 1990 may have included the positioning of chemical weapons in ordnance bunkers ready for deployment. Luckily a planned Tu-16 chemical bombing raid never came to fruition.

Baghdad’s use of chemical weapons against Iran and its own Kurds has been well documented. Notably, during the Iran–Iraq War the IrAF provided the only means of delivery beyond artillery range. It conducted missions using 250 and 500-gauge bombs filled with chemical agents dropped from Soviet-supplied Su-17 and MiG-23 jets. The IrAF’s complicity in Baghdad’s Weapons of Mass Destruction programmes was inescapable.

In the meantime Saddam and his commanders had virtually no intelligence on their opponents’ air forces, except perhaps the overwhelming numbers facing them. However, the IrAF did have one intelligence coup. On 11 November 1990 a Saudi Air Force F-15 defected to Sudan. America and Saudi Arabia demanded the immediate return of the aircraft, but it remained in Sudan for several days. During that time Iraqi intelligence may have had the opportunity to examine the F-15 and it is believed that they interrogated the pilot. The IrAF could have gained valuable information on Saudi tactical frequencies, electronic warning, electronic counter-measures and communications.

The Coalition’s combined air forces launched Desert Storm in mid-January 1991, targeting Saddam’s command and control sites, Scud missile installations and lines of communication around the clock. On the face of it the coalition air forces had their work cut out. Whilst Iraq’s air defences were considerable, Flight Lieutenant Peters and his RAF colleagues were also conscious of the threat from small arms. Peters observed, ‘Since it takes very little wit to fire a gun into the air, Saddam Hussein’s threat of creating “lead walls” – curtains of fire for us happy chappies to fly into – had to be taken seriously.’ Nevertheless, the vital air superiority over Kuwait and Iraq was achieved within just twenty-four hours of the first air attacks. The Iraqi Air Force was shot out of the sky, destroyed on the ground or fled. It lost almost 50 per cent of its holdings: 141 aircraft were claimed destroyed on the ground and a further 35 in air-to-air engagements, whilst 122 fled to Iran, never to be returned. The national air defence system was quickly and efficiently smashed to pieces.

Over a six-week period the coalition air forces also focused on the Republican Guard’s tanks and other armoured vehicles. Approximately 35,000 sorties were launched against Iraqi ground forces, of which 5,600 were directed at the Guard, dug in over a 4,000 square mile area. Initial estimates of Iraqi losses to air strikes were about 40 Republican Guard tanks, whilst the army lost 52 tanks, 55 artillery pieces and 178 trucks. According to CENTCOM, Iraqi execution battalions patrolled the front-line units, shooting deserters or anyone listening to coalition media.

The tempo of the coalition air campaign against Saddam was quite astonishing. No fewer than 109,500 combat sorties were flown, mostly by the Americans, dropping 88,500 tons of munitions. The Americans also committed to action sixty-two venerable B-52 bombers; these veterans of the Vietnam War flew 1,600 sorties and accounted for 30 per cent of the tonnage dropped.

General Schwarzkopf wanted a 50 per cent degradation of Iraqi fighting capabilities by the air campaign before committing himself to the ground war. Assuming that the estimates of the Iraqi forces in the KTO were correct, they more than achieved this. Just before the ground offensive the Coalition claimed the destruction of up to 1,300 Iraqi tanks, 800 armoured personnel carriers and 1,100 artillery pieces. Instead of withdrawing, Saddam announced he would fight the ‘Mother of battles’. The scene was set for the inevitable ground war.

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