After his disastrous and fruitless eight-year war with Iran, in the late 1980s President Saddam Hussein decided to distract public attention away from the economic and political failings of his regime by embarking on a new foreign adventure. He planned to reclaim Iraq’s lost province – oil-rich Kuwait. The catalyst for his invasion was a spurious row over oil production, but it served its purpose. The tension was rapidly cranked up to breaking point.
Saddam’s military build-up was swift. On 15 July 1990 a Republican Guard division of 10,000 men and 300 tanks moved just north of Kuwait. Four days later three divisions of 35,000 men deployed 16km from the border. By 27 July these forces had swelled to an overwhelming eight divisions numbering 100,000 troops. Many observers mistook this build-up for bellicose posturing, dismissing the idea that, after the exhausting decade-long conflict with Iran, Saddam would embark on yet another war so soon. They were quickly proved wrong.
Saddam’s Medina and Hammurabi Divisions, two powerful Republican Guard Corps armoured units, invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. The following day the Tawakalna Republican Guard Division moved to secure Kuwait’s border with Saudi Arabia, sealing off the country from the outside world. Approximately 140,000 Iraqi soldiers and 1,800 tanks poured into Kuwait. In the face of such military muscle there was no hope of the Kuwaitis defending themselves.
The Kuwaiti Army, not fully mobilized to its standing strength of just 16,000 men, was swiftly overwhelmed. Prior to the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait’s armoured holdings included 70 old British Vickers Mk1 tanks, 40 Centurions, 165 Chieftains and 6 Yugoslav M-84s. Some 224 examples of the latter, Soviet T-72s built under licence, were still on order and had they been delivered Saddam might have thought twice.
Only around the Emir’s palace in Kuwait City itself was there any extensive resistance, lasting about two hours. The small Kuwaiti Air Force briefly attacked the Iraqi armoured columns swarming over the country but its base was quickly overrun. The Iraqis seized 4 Kuwaiti Mirage jet fighters, 12 Hawk trainers, 5 A-4 Skyhawks, 4 C-130s, 2 DC-9s, 2 Gulfstream 111s and 43 helicopters. Kuwait found itself under Saddam’s control within the space of just twelve hours. The Arab states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and the rest of the international community were aghast. The invasion of Kuwait seemed a precursor to a much wider war.
Saddam appointed Ali Hassan al-Majid as the de facto governor of Kuwait and Alaa Hussein Ali as the prime minister of the puppet provisional government of Free Kuwait. The former was known as ‘Chemical Ali’ after his extensive use of chemical weapons against Iraq’s Kurds in the late 1980s, which culminated in the infamous attack on Halabja. His appointment caused great alarm amongst coalition intelligence circles for it seemed to confirm Saddam’s intention to use chemical weapons to defend Kuwait. Although al-Majid was recalled to Baghdad in November 1990, it was not before the troops under his command had systematically looted Kuwait of everything they could lay their hands on, and had driven out large numbers of the population.
On 28 August 1990 Kuwait was formally annexed and transformed into the Kuwait Governorate, Iraq’s 19th province. Alaa Hussein Ali disingenuously remarked, ‘Kuwait is now ours, but we might have refrained from taking such a decision if US troops were not massed in the region with the threat of invading us.’ Kuwait had been part of Basra province during the days of the ottoman Empire, and Saddam felt it only right that he take it back. The Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council declared: ‘The free provisional Kuwaiti government has decided to appeal to kinsfolk in Iraq, led by the knight of Arabs and the leader of their march, President Field Marshal Saddam Hussein, to agree that their sons should return to their large family, that Kuwait should return to the great Iraq – the mother homeland – and to achieve complete merger unity between Kuwait and Iraq.’
In the wake of the invasion, western and Arab states were quick to deploy forces to defend Saudi Arabia. Since the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, Saudi pre-eminence had increased, for while it lacked significant military manpower, it played a significant role in the organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as the leading producer. Despite being a feudal society divided by Islamic dogmatism and liberalization, Saudi Arabia’s security remained (and remains) a priority for the West as it has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. Kuwait was vital as a buffer zone between Saudi Arabia and its volatile neighbours to the north and east.
In the early 1980s the fear was that fundamentalist Shia Iran could easily overwhelm the combined Sunni Arab states of the GCC. Ironically the Saudis and Kuwaitis ‘loaned’ Saddam Hussein in excess of $50 billion for his war effort against Iran during the 1980s, and Saudi volunteers fought in the Iraqi armed forces. Now Saddam was threatening Saudi Arabia’s security and sending oil prices spiralling.
On 7 August 1990, in response to the invasion five days earlier, the United States Air Force’s (USAF) 1st Tactical Fighter Wing deployed with forty-eight F-15 jets from Langley Air Force Base (AFB) in Virginia to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. Poised to fly defensive missions within hours of arriving, they commenced combat air patrols along the Iraqi frontier three days later. The enemy stayed out of the way until on 11 November 1990 an Iraqi MiG-25 brazenly crossed the Saudi border, but flew back before any action was taken. As hostilities had not officially commenced, it was felt prudent not to shoot it down.
On 11 September 1990 US President H.W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress:
In the early morning hours of 2 August, following negotiations and promises by Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein not to use force, a powerful Iraqi army invaded its trusting and much weaker neighbour, Kuwait. Within three days 120,000 Iraqi troops with 850 tanks had poured into Kuwait and moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia. It was then that I decided to act to check that aggression.
At this moment, our brave servicemen and women stand watch in that distant desert and on distant seas, side by side with the forces of more than twenty other nations….
Our objectives in the Persian Gulf are clear, our goals defined and familiar: Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait completely, immediately and without condition. Kuwait’s legitimate government must be restored. The security and stability of the Persian Gulf must be assured. And American citizens abroad must be protected. These goals are not ours alone. They have been endorsed by the United Nations Security Council five times in as many weeks. Most countries share our concern for principle. And many have a stake in the stability of the Persian Gulf. This is not, as Saddam Hussein would have it, the United States against Iraq; it is Iraq against the world.
President Bush then instigated Operation Desert Shield, a massive multi-national effort to defend Saudi Arabia. Major General Houston’s US 82nd and Major General James H.B. Peay III’s 101st Airborne Divisions arrived in August 1990. The US 24th Infantry (Mechanized) Division, in the shape of its 1st and 2nd Brigades under Major General Barry McCaffrey, was the first heavy formation to deploy to the Gulf in September 1990. It was followed by Brigadier General John Tilelli’s US 1st Cavalry Division the following month and Major General Thomas Rhame’s US 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) in December. All these units had come from America and, with the exception of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, were equipped with the M1 or IPM1 Abrams tank armed with a 105mm gun.
Due to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the negligible threat posed by the USSR, Washington was also able to redeploy Major General Ronald Griffith’s 1st Armored and Major General Paul Funk’s 3rd Armored Divisions from Germany to bolster Desert Shield. These units were equipped with the newer improved M1A1 tank with a Rheinmetall 120mm M256 gun.
By late January 1991 there were well over half a million US personnel from all services in theatre. The number of US ground forces committed to Desert Shield and the subsequent operations (Desert Storm and Desert Sabre) under General H. Norman Schwarzkopf to liberate Kuwait was staggering: approximately 260,000 troops equipped with about 2,000 M1A1 tanks and 2,200 M2 and M3 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, supported by 500 artillery pieces plus 190 Apache and 150 Cobra attack helicopters. There were also 90,000 Marines with 200–300 M60 tanks, 250 light armoured vehicles, 430 amphibious assault vehicles and 160 aircraft.
Britain committed 35,000 men under Lieutenant General Sir Peter de la Billière, including the 1st British Armoured Division under operation Granby. This comprised the 7th Armoured Brigade (the ‘Desert Rats’), with two regiments of FV4030 Challenger Mk 3s, and the 4th Armoured Brigade plus another regiment, totalling 160 tanks commanded by Major General Rupert Smith. The division’s three mechanized infantry battalions were each equipped with forty-five new FV510 Warrior mechanized combat vehicles. The two reconnaissance units were equipped with a range of vehicles based on the Scorpion.
France contributed 14,000 men, as part of Opération Daguet, under Lieutenant General Michel Roquejoffre, who commanded the French Rapid Reaction Force. The French force comprised Foreign Legion, Marine infantry, helicopter and armoured car units. The main formation was the 6th Light Armoured Division, with forty AMX-10C AFVs under Brigadier General Mouscardes. It should be noted that French divisions are smaller than their NATO counterparts and are typically reinforced brigades. However, the 6th Division was augmented with reinforcements that included the 4th Dragoon Regiment, a tank unit equipped with forty-four AMX-30B2 tanks, from the French 10th Armoured Division. Although the AMX-30B2 model was old and due to be replaced by the Leclerc, it was more than able to deal with most Iraqi tanks.
The Kuwaiti Army in exile consisted of three or four brigades, totalling 10–15,000 men, equipped with over sixty Chieftain and M-84 tanks. The principal armoured unit was the 38th Kuwaiti Armoured Brigade, dubbed the ‘Al Shadid’ or Martyrs. It had lost twenty-two of its eighty Chieftains during the Iraqi invasion. The 35th Kuwaiti Mechanized Brigade was equipped with M113 tracked APCs.
Saudi contributed two main forces: the regular Saudi Arabian Armed Forces (SAAF) and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). By 1991 the SAAF totalled 67,500 men, the army or Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) fielding 40,000 of them, organized into two armoured, four mechanized (including the 10th Armoured, and the 8th, 10th, 11th and 20th Mechanized Brigades), one infantry and one airborne brigade, equipped with 550 tanks (including 300 French AMX-30s and 250 American M60s) and 1,840 combat vehicles, APCs and armoured cars. SANG totalled 55,000 men with 35,000 active troops and 20,000 tribal levies, equipped with 1,100 American V-150 Commando APCs.
The largest Arab contingent, comprising some 47,000 troops, came from Egypt. It consisted of the 3rd Mechanized Division (with about 200 M60s, 300 M113 APCs and M109 self-propelled guns) and the 4th Armoured Division (with about 250 M60s and 250 M113s and M109s). Syria committed 19,000 men, consisting of one airborne brigade and the 9th Armoured Division (with 250 T-62 and T-72 tanks plus BMP IFVs). In return for its support Syria received $1 billion from Saudi Arabia. Both Egypt and Syria stated that their troops were only to be deployed to defend Saudi Arabia, though this attitude was to change. Qatar also provided an armoured battalion equipped with about twenty-four French-supplied AMX-30 tanks. In total the Coalition gathered half a million men from thirty-one countries armed with 3,400 tanks and 1,600 pieces of artillery, while the allied air forces included 1,736 combat aircraft and 750 support aircraft.
General Schwarzkopf was an experienced pair of hands. Commissioned in 1956, he had served as an adviser and then as a battalion commander during the Vietnam War and was highly decorated for his exploits. He was a divisional commander during the invasion of Grenada in 1983. Five years later Schwarzkopf assumed command of US Central Command or CENTCOM based in Tampa, Florida, with responsibility for military operations in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Supporting him were Lieutenant General John Yeosock, commanding the US Army forces deployed for Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Vice Admiral Stan Arthur, commanding the US Navy forces in the Gulf, Lieutenant General Chuck Horner, commanding the US Air Force in the Gulf, and Lieutenant General Walt Boomer, commanding the US Marines in the Gulf.
Despite the massed array of military hardware and repeated calls by the United Nations for Iraq to withdraw, Saddam Hussein refused to leave Kuwait. In the face of such obstinacy, the Coalition prepared its plans for a ground war, but first, under the guise of Operation Desert Storm, coalition fighter-bombers were to hunt down every piece of Iraqi military equipment they could find. What followed was a largely uncontested air war – some likened it to a turkey shoot.