Twenty-five years ago this month, the U.S. launched Operation Desert Storm, designed to drive Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army out of Kuwait and back into Iraq.

The overwhelming military might of the U.S. and its allies, paired with the development of technology that is now commonplace, led to one of the quickest and most effective military operations in modern history.

On August 2, 1990, the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. On January 17, 1991, the Pentagon launched a military offensive. By February 28, the majority of the fighting was over.

"Saddam Hussein probably chose the worst time in history to attack Kuwait," said Kenneth Bray, the associate director of intelligence for Air Combat Command. As a captain, Bray flew U2/TR-1 missions during Desert Storm.

"The wall had come down," he said. "We had no enemy of any significant nature in the world, and he took us on. Not a smart move on his part. We brought every toy we had to fight him, what we today call overmatch."

"The news [media] made Saddam sound six feet tall," Bray continued. "We did our best to imagine how we would use what Saddam had; but we soon found out how he used what he had, and it made him more like six inches tall and we absolutely obliterated him. He chose the wrong time to fight the wrong person."

The international military operations collectively became known as the Gulf War, or the First Gulf War. The U.S. operation to protect Saudi Arabia was called Desert Shield. But it was the name for the shock-and-awe offensive that would catch on: Desert Storm.

The effort to push Iraqi forces back to their own territory represented the largest international military effort since World War II and the biggest U.S. operation since Vietnam. It also marked a turning point in air power, the legacy of which is still affecting the Air Force to this day.

Air Force Times sat down with several service leaders to discuss the conflict, what lessons the service took away from it and how air operations have evolved in the decades since.

The war itself

The Pentagon reports from 1991 estimate that 1,200 U.S. aircraft participated in Desert Storm, flying 69,406 sorties across a nearly 40-day period that saw strikes against Iraqi military infrastructure, defenses and missile launch sites. Roughly 60,830 airmen from all components of the service participated in the operation.

The U.S. lost 28 fixed-wing aircraft and 23 helicopters during the war, and 23 helicopters, though none in air-to-air engagements, according to information from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

In return, the U.S. destroyed 39 Iraqi aircraft in air-to-air combat and damaged more than 375 Iraqi hardened-aircraft shelters.

Twenty airmen were killed during engagements, and six more died due to noncombat related issues, the Air Force said.

Air mobility

But the Air Force's mission began long before the first bomb was dropped.

Maj. Gen. Rowayne "Wayne" Schatz Jr., vice commander of Air Mobility Command, noted the service moved an estimated 472,000 people and 465,000 tons of cargo to the Persian Gulf in eight months.

"At the time, it was the largest airlift. It surpassed the Berlin airlift [in the 1940s] fairly quickly," he said.

One lesson AMC learned from Desert Storm was to be smarter in how it transports cargo, replacing rather than the "industrial" system of shipping more equipment than was needed overseas, Schatz said. 

"We moved a lot. We didn't have IT systems that allowed us to track individual items like we do today; so we moved, for example, whole warehouses to the Gulf," he said. "And we spent a year moving stock — some never used — back."

Now the service is "much more efficient," Schatz said.

"Our mission planners take into account how much fuel we need to use and will use," he said. "We consolidate loads, we make multiple stops. … Instead of flying from the U.S. to the [Central Command] area of ops like we did in Desert Storm, we'll put them on a ship, send them into [Europe] and hop them over to, say, Afghanistan. And that's faster and much less expensive than flying them in from the states. We're more agile, less expensive, and we put things where they're needed when they're needed."

Technology that has evolved since Desert Storm has also enabled air mobility to become much more advanced.

Night operations, once thought incredibly difficult to pull off, are now common place, Schatz said.

"We only had a small force that was trained up on operating night vision goggles, primarily in the special operations community," he said. "Today, everybody in a C-17 is night-vision qualified, same with a C-130. Our aircraft now also is equipped with lighting for night ops."

The planes themselves are getting better, too.

"The C-141, a great airplane, but back then it needed a long [7,000-] to 10,000-foot paved runway to operate on," Schatz said. "Today, the C-17 can carry more equipment, can land in a 3,500-foot dirt strip. That gives us more capability. It can operate inside the theater. We didn't have some of those capabilities or advances during Desert Shield and Desert Storm."

Communications, sensors and navigation

As an A-10 pilot who received the Air Force Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions in theater, Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson saw the Gulf War up close and personal. And as the current director of Operational Capability Requirements for Air Force strategic planning, he's had a front-row seat to see how the service has changed in 25 years.

Desert Storm was the first major conflict where large amounts of computer technology were implemented, and it changed the way the war was fought.

It was the first time, Johnson said, that space had played a vital role in a conflict, with satellites providing capabilities to airmen and other troops.

"The ability of space to enable so much of what we do, navigation and timing through GPS, missile warning," Johnson said. "When we had Scud [missile] attacks going on, we had very accurate predictions where the Scuds were going to land."

It was also the first conflict where airmen could count on fairly reliable satellite communications, he added.

"Those are things about command and control of air power that we hadn't experienced before," Johnson said.

Lt. Col. Scott Hoffman, the deputy chief for the operations division at ACC, noted that communication and signaling have continued to improve.

"We have technology like Link 16 for aircraft to communicate better, quicker, and technologies that allow us to do it similarly with [Joint Terminal Attack Controllers]," he said. "Info can be passed faster, reducing kill-chain time, and we can talk back to headquarters quicker to make decisions quicker."

It also allowed military leaders to more easily track their own forces, said Jeffrey Williams, who worked as a colonel on planning and lessons learned for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Desert Storm.

"Back then, we [already started] track[ing] where the units were moving," he said. "For the Army, and for forces on the ground, when we came into meetings for the Joint Staff, we could see the trace of where they were the night before or few short days. And that was my most exciting thing to see as a staff officer during that time."

The new technology of GPS also enabled AMC to put supplies right where they were needed.

"We didn't have [precision airdrop] capability during Desert Storm," Schatz said. "Now, we're able to [use] GPS-guided parachutes, we're able to put airdrops within a forward operating base … with the C-130 and C-17. In Desert Shield, Desert Storm, we didn't have GPS. Now we have internal guidance systems that can take us into any airfield we need to go to."

Aircraft and stealth

The conflict also saw the debut of the E-8 JSTARS — Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System — a combined surveillance and command-and-control platform.

The aircraft provided "the ability, day or night, regardless of the weather, from long range, to detect significant enemy movement," Johnson said.

"I was in the air operations center one night when the Iraqis tried to move on the village of Khafji," a Saudi Arabian village on the border with Kuwait.

"JSTARS caught that move," Johnson said. "And I was privileged to be able to see [then] Lt. Gen. [Charles] Horner, the JFACC, the air component commander, literally shift an entire theater or air power in response to that. We'd never been able to do that real time like we did in Desert Storm."

But the JSTARS weren't the only new planes that went into combat. The Air Force's top-secret stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk, led some of the main bombing missions deep into Iraqi territory.

"That was the debut of combat for the F-117," Johnson said. "That was the first time we had made the bet with people's lives that stealth would work. And obviously it did. It worked incredibly well."

In the 25 years since the conflict, stealth is applied in a very different way than it was in Desert Storm.

"We have to remember the role stealth plays then versus the role stealth plays today," the general said. "When we began with the F-117, stealth technology was really, really hard and still fairly nascent. Now, that stealth technology is just an element of the design of an airplane rather than the core of the airplane's capability."

Nighthawks had a well-defined mission: delivering their onboard compliment of two 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs against fixed targets.

In 2015, however, the Air Force has been able to integrate stealth technology into its front-line fighters, the F-22 and F-35, giving the craft "a variety of weapons, a variety of tactics, a variety of capabilities," Johnson said.

"We look at an F-22 and it's not just about stealth, it's about what we call fifth gen," he said. "It's about the signatures, it's about the sensors, it's about the radar cross sections, it's about the maneuverability, and putting that all together."

Remotely piloted aircraft

Of course unmanned aircraft have also made a major impact on air power since Desert Storm. Many of the major platforms, such as the MQ-1 Predator, didn't see use until the late '90s and the conflict in Serbia and Bosnia.

Perhaps the number one advantage RPAs have brought to the fight is persistence, Johnson said.

"The endurance of the platform exceeds the ability of the human to sit in an airplane that long and be over a battle space that long," the general said. "So it allows us to get into a piece of battle space and maintain an observation and a staring, unblinking eye that we couldn't do in Desert Storm."

"The persistence over the battlefield with a given sensor was something we had not had before," Johnson continued. "It took us some time to figure that out and figure out the utility that has and the value that has in the battle space. And obviously it's played out extremely well in the counterinsurgency, counterterrorism fight that we've seen."

From shock and awe to a patient strike

Johnson recalls being in the air command center and seeing a map with the planned bombing targets for the first five, 15 and 60 minutes of the push to drive Iraqi forces away from the Kuwaiti border.

"All the strikes that were going to occur at the heart of the Saddam leadership and the speed and the fury with which that was going to occur, and I just remember being struck by the thought that Saddam has absolutely no idea what's coming," he said.

"That tempo and speed in some ways was a reflection of our military leadership whose experience had been in Vietnam and southeast Asia, and there had been some frustration with how that conflict was fought," Johnson said. "My generation of military leadership was adamant that we would fight with a speed and tempo that an adversary just would not be able to keep up with, and we succeeded."

But potential adversaries noted what the U.S. and its allies could do. Groups that can't compete with America technologically — like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group — tried to find ways to negate the United States' advantage and shock-and-awe tactics.

"They minimize their physical signature in the battle space," Johnson said. "They don't drive around in military vehicles; they drive around in pickup trucks. They don't mass formations on the battle space; they hide in the larger population. They don't occupy military garrisons; they park their vehicles next to a school. All of those work against our preferred methodology of moving at speed and tempo, and we've adjusted to that."

The use of RPAs has been a major technological advancement that has allowed the Air Force to counter some of those tactics and be "incredibly patient," the general said.

"If I need to watch them for 24 hours, I can watch for 24 hours. If I need to track somebody for days on end, I can track somebody for days on end, and I can strike at my leisure and my convenience when things are right," Johnson said. "It's radically different than operating at the speed and tempo of a Desert Storm. It doesn't mean that either one is right or wrong. We have to be able to do both in the right place at the right time."

Lessons learned

Aircraft made so many leaps during the Gulf War that Johnson said "the calculus of air power" began to change.

"Until that point, the calculus had always been: 'How many airplanes does it take to destroy a given target?' " he said. "That began to turn in Desert Storm, and by the late '90s it completely shifted, and now it is: 'How many targets can a single airplane destroy?' "

"We completely inverted the calculus with precision navigation and timing, theaterwide command and control, and precision weapons," Johnson said. "We saw the dawn of that in Desert Storm, and now we just accept that that's the way it is. And for the airmen flying today, that's the way they think about warfare."

"We were beginning," he added. "We saw the first glimpse of that in Desert Storm."

The Air Force quickly applied lessons learned in Desert Storm, most of which were integrated into operations in Iraq and Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks, Hoffman said.

"The question, really, is: [Is] the Air Force really learning from these operations? And we are," he said. "From Desert Storm we've learned lessons and continually learn lessons from every war in every context, and it's through continuous learning we find more technologies."

For example, precision guided munitions allowed the Air Force to reduce the number of potential civilian casualties.

"It make us better in fighting a counterinsurgency with more precise weapons so we don't get the next insurgent in line coming up, or we don't get the next accidental enemy, if you will, by hitting the wrong people," Hoffman said. "So it's not a question of what we wish we had then, but a 'thank goodness we are a force that continuously learns and continually advances.' "

Bray said the Air Force will be ready for whatever comes ahead.

"To use Gen. [Hawk] Carlisle's words: 'Do the mission today, do it better than anybody can and prepare for the mission tomorrow,' " he said. "We're trying to make sure we're ready for whatever the military operations may be. We're getting back to the basics on: 'If it's a near peer that wants to take on the U.S., then we'll be ready for the near peer to take on the U.S.' "

Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East, Europe and Pacific for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @Oriana0214.

Phillip Swarts can be reached at, and you can follow him on Twitter at @PFSwarts.

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