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Operation Desert Strike

Despite warnings from the United States, Iraq moved 40,000 troops into northern Iraq, which threatened the Kurdish population. In response, the president ordered a strike on military targets posing a threat to coalition aircraft in the no-fly-zone.

On August 31, 1996, elements of the Iraqi Army attacked and captured the PUK-held town of Irbil in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq. This renewed Iraqi aggression, led by a Republican Guard mechanized division with the support of regular army troops, alarmed the United States and coalition forces in the region. Rhetoric from Baghdad threatened GCC partners if they assisted the United States in retaliation, while Iraqi air defense forces launched surface to air missiles against USAF fighter aircraft patrolling the northern and southern "no-fly" zones. In response to the seizure of Irbil, USCENTCOM assessed an increased threat to America's interests and moved quickly to bolster its ability to protect those vital national interests on the Arabian peninsula. In close consultation with the National Command Authority, the Command began to develop appropriate military responses to deter further aggression.

The August attack was a significant escalation of an ongoing struggle between PUK and KDP Kurdish factions for control of the autonomous region. Long oppressed by the Iraqi Ba'ath regime, a million Kurds fled to safe havens in Turkey following Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War. The Kurds' plight led to United Nations resolutions and intensive international calls for humanitarian assistance. The United Nations established distribution centers to provide food, medicine, and humanitarian supplies, even as the Iraqi regime continued to oppress and disenfranchise its northern citizens. American efforts to mediate a political settlement between the Kurdish factions reflect a commitment to Iraqi territorial integrity and continuance as a viable state. Iraq's military intervention violated United Nations Security Council Resolution 688, which prohibits Iraqi repression of disenfranchised Kurds in the north and Marsh Arabs in the south. By mobilizing and deploying heavy forces, the Iraqi government demonstrated both the capability and the intent to use force to advance its own agenda. Choosing to do so just as the UN was prepared to implement UNSCR 986 confirmed Hussein's priorities: control, repression, and readiness to use force.

Saddam's actions confirmed a consistent pattern of callous disregard for suffering of the Iraqi people, and a new willingness to use overwhelming conventional forces to continue their oppression. This willingness increased the threat of aggression against allied forces enforcing United Nations resolutions and international relief workers delivering humanitarian supplies.

To prevent enhancement of offensive capabilities in the south and prepare for potential follow-on operations, the NCA directed an immediate military response. In consultation with its coalition partners, the Command evaluated alternative responses from among those available in the region. Against a requirement to send a clear signal of international condemnation for the latest violation of UN resolutions, the Command planned and executed Operation DESERT STRIKE.

On 03 September 1996, a coordinated cruise missile attack was launched against the Iraqi air defense infrastructure, including surface-to-air missile sites and command and control nodes in southern Iraq. Laboon (DDG 58) and Shiloh (CG 67), on station in the Gulf as part of NAVCENT's Task Force 50, fired 14 of the 27 cruise missiles while Air Force B-52s, escorted by F-14s from Carl Vinson (CVN 70), from Barksdale AFB [Air Force Base] LA staged out of Guam on a 34-hour mission and fired 13 conventional air-launched cruise missiles (CALCMs) in the early morning hours of September 4th.

During this mission, the B-52 and CALCM weapon systems demonstrated their capability for rapid en-route retargeting, providing the joint force with additional target coverage and strike flexibility that would have otherwise been unavailable. Two Air Combat Command B-52s flew 14,000 miles -- 34 hours non-stop -- to launch 13 conventional air-launched cruise missiles against targets in Iraq. This longest bombing mission in history demonstrated national resolve and cemented US air superiority in the no-fly zones, by putting weapons on targets. The tanker portion of the operation was absolutely critical. Fourteen tankers -- KC-10s and KC-135s -- supplied 760,000 pounds of fuel for the deploying bombers, and 15 tankers offloaded 1,360,000 pounds of gas for the airstrike. Two bombers and 29 tankers' air refueling made Global Engagement possible. A KC-10 out of Guam lost an engine prior to completing the pre-strike refueling, so another KC-10 offloaded extra fuel and then diverted into U-Taphao. Another KC-10 at Diego Garcia performed a pre-strike refueling on extremely short notice, offloading the extra gas the bombers needed and recovering with minimum fuel into Diego. As soon as they landed, the crew was tapped to do the post-strike refueling. In just one hour, the crew took off again and performed the post-strike refueling.

The following day, a second strike of 17 Tomahawks from destroyers Russell (DDG 59), Hewitt (DD 966), Laboon and nuclear-powered attack submarine Jefferson City (SSN 759) was conducted. Enterprise (CVN 65) departed the Adriatic Sea on order of the National Command Authorities and conducted a high-speed transit through the Suez Canal, arriving in the theater two days later.

These precision weapons minimized the risk of collateral damage and aircrew exposure to the threat posed by Iraqi air defenses. The missiles hit their designated targets, sending a clear signal of American resolve and deterring further Iraqi adventurism. That signal and follow-on deployments of F-117 and F-16C/J aircraft, a heavy brigade task force, and a second aircraft carrier to the region backed up diplomatic efforts to deter further aggression.

Two United States and United Kingdom demarches expanded the southern no-fly zone from the 32nd parallel north to the 33rd parallel, and promised a disproportionate response if Iraqi air defense sites were repaired. The expanded no-fly zone reaches the outskirts of southern Baghdad and forced relocation of all tactical aircraft to more northern basing, thus reducing the air threat to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and to Operation SOUTHERN WATCH aircraft. In the following weeks, the bulk of Iraq's forces stood down and withdrew to garrison.

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