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Airpower in Operation Desert Storm

USAF FACT SHEET 91-03 Special Edition - May 1991

The conflict in the Persian Gulf began on Aug. 2, 1990, after talks between representatives from Iraq and Kuwait did not resolve grievances over oil pricing. On that date, Iraq's president -- Saddam Hussein -- sent his armies to invade Kuwait. The small, defenseless country was no match against Iraq. The Iraqi troops crushed Kuwait and brutalized its people.

Operation Desert Shield Ordered

On the day of Kuwait's invasion, President George Bush immediately placed a U.S. economic embargo against Iraq. The United Nations Security Council quickly followed suit. On Aug. 7, after Saddam Hussein refused to remove his troops from Kuwait, President Bush ordered Operation Desert Shield to begin. The goal: liberate Kuwait and force the aggressors back to Iraq.

Headquarters U.S. Central Command would direct the coalition of allied forces against Saddam Hussein. Under the command of Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, CENTCOM immediately set preplanned preparations in motion. CENTCOM's function: to coordinate U.S. force deployment to the Persian Gulf region to help defend Saudi Arabia and provide security to other Arab states.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, the allied coalition's supreme air commander, began coordinating all air actions related to the buildup, and within days, established Headquarters Central Command Air Forces (Forward) in Saudi Arabia. From this headquarters the air actions that would bring an end to the war were put into operation.

Five fighter squadrons, a contingent of AWACS, and part of the 82nd Airborne Division moved into the theater within five days. In total, 25 fighter squadrons flew non-stop to the theater. Within 35 days the Air Force deployed a fighter force that equaled Iraq's fighter capability in numbers.

In late August, President Bush signed an order authorized members of the armed forces reserves to be called up for active duty. Throughout the campaign, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard members flew and maintained aircraft for strategic and tactical airlift, fighter and reconnaissance operations, as well as tanker support.

Operation Desert Storm Begins

Airpower Launched

Efforts by the U.N. Security Council to find a peaceful resolution with Iraq proved futile. On the morning of Jan. 15, an 11th-hour appeal by the council for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait drew silence -- at 12 noon the deadline for peace had passed.

The next day -- Jan. 16 -- Operation Dersert Storm began as allied forces answered Iraq's silence. Coalition aircraft "surgically" bombed key Iraqi military targets such as heavily-fortified command and communications centers, missile launch sites, radar facilities, and airports and runways. Iraqi ground forces were under heavy day-and-night air attack from that day on.

Great care was taken to focus on military targets. Within 10 days of offensive operations, air sorties reached the 10,000 mark. The coalition's intensive airpower had crippled or destroyed Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons development programs, its air defenses, its offensive air and ballistic missile capability, and its internal state control mechanisms.

Kuwait Liberated

By Feb. 25, spearheaded by the U.S. Air Force, airpower's rain of explosives had forced thousands upon thousands of Iraqi soldiers to abandon their stockpiles of equipment, weapons and ammunition and surrender -- airpower had done its job. Two days later -- Feb. 27 -- the Iraqi military was scattered and defeated -- Kuwait was liberated!

Conflict Officially Over

Although hostilities ceased with Iraq's defeat, it was not until April 11, when Suddam Hussein agreed to the terms of the U. N. Security Council Resolution No. 678, that the conflict was declared officially over.

Support of Combat Forces


During Operation Desert Shield/Storm, more than 55,000 Air Force personnel deployed to the theater. They in turn were supported by thousands of their compatriots throughout the Air Force who kept supplies, food, equipment, communications, information, plans, and medical support coming to them throughout the conflict.

Civil Engineering and Community Services

Air Force civil engineers erected more than 5,000 tents, built buildings totaling more than 300,000 square feet, and laid more than 1,600,000 square feet of concrete and asphalt during Operation Desert Shield/Storm. Meanwhile, the Air Force's community services men and women also supported Desert Shield/Storm by serving more than 20 million meals.

Medical Support

The Air Force deployed 15 air transportable hospitals with a 750-bed capacity and one 1,250-bed contingency hospital to the theater in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm. Four Air Force contingency hospitals in Europe with 3,250 beds, and 20 casualty reception hospitals in the United States with 12,178 beds, also were readied to save lives. In addition, more than 5,200 medical personnel deployed to the theater and to Europe to support these efforts. Patient visits in the theater amounted to almost 48,000 during Desert Shield/Storm.

Command and Control

Desert Storm employed a wide variety of new space and intelligence assets to ease mission planning, command and control of the air war, provide real-time identification of ground targets for shooters, and assure the coalition gained and maintained the initiative. Both space and intelligence platforms were force multipliers in Desert Storm.

Space Support

Defense Meteorological Support

The Defense Meteorological Support Program accurately predicted weather and was critical in Desert Storm since during that period the area experienced the worst weather in 14 years.

Global Positioning System

Although the constellation of satellites is still under development, U.S. forces had Global Positioning System navigation available in three dimensions for 20 hours each day, and in two dimensions 24 hours a day in Desert Shield/Storm. Despite featureless terrain, GPS allowed accurate navigation to targets.

Defense Satellite Communications System

The Defense Satellite Communications System provided secure voice and data communications for more than 100 ground terminals for Desert Shield/Storm commanders.

Intelligence Systems

Mission Support System

Mission Support System provided integrated mission planning support for Air Force pilots. While it took a couple of days to plan a mission in Vietnam, in Desert Storm it was possible to prepare a pilot for a mission in four hours. Charts, maps, threats and other vital data were integrated through this system into every squadron involved. Through its reliability, it became a command and control asset for planners in CENTCOM. In addition, many units found innovative and creative ways to better use this asset.

Tactical Digital Facsimile

Tactical digital facsimile was critical to crews and commanders. It provided the capability to send high resolution pictures and other data. It prove to be a secure, reliable and versatile force multiplier which relayed near real-time data, vital to combat success. Much maligned before the war, the investment was well worth the money. Tactical digital facsimile was today's telephone to the modern battlefield commander.

Airborne Warning and Control System

From Jan. 16 until the Feb. 27 cease-fire, four U.S. Air Force AWACS aircraft were continuously airborne controlling more than 3,000 coalition sorties each day. As a tribute to their effectiveness, despite having to control aircraft flown by pilots from numerous air forces speaking several languages, not one case of air-to-air fratricide was reported.

Joint-STARS E-8

Although still in development, two Joint-STARS' (USAF-Grumman Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System) test aircraft flew 54 combat sorties and supported all mission taskings with a system availability rate of more than 80 percent. One of the two aircraft was in the air every day, tracking every vehicle that moved on the ground. Joint-STARS identified and targeted Scud missiles and launchers, convoys, trucks, tanks, surface-to-air missile sites and artillery pieces for coalition aircraft.

The Airlift

Strategic Airlift

The strategic airlift to the Persian Gulf was the largest since World War II. By the cease-fire, Air Force airlifters had moved 482,000 passengers and 513,000 tons of cargo. Viewed in ton miles, the airlift of Operation Desert Shield/Storm was equivalent to repeating the Berlin Airlift -- a 56-week operation -- every six weeks.

C-5 and C-141 Aircraft

Air Force C-5 and C-141 aircraft moved 72 percent of air cargo and one-third of the people, while commercial aircraft moved the rest. Ninety percent of Air Force C-5s were used in Desert Shield/Storm, as were 80 percent of C-141s. The rest were flying high-priority missions elsewhere around the world.

Civil Reserve Air Fleet

The Persian Gulf crisis saw the first activation of CRAF, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, since its inception 38 years ago. The commercial aicraft are a major arm of the Department of Defense airlift capability, nearly doubling U.S. long-range airlift in emergencies. CRAF provided 95 passenger and 63 cargo aircraft for Operatio Desert Shield/Storm, moving military passengers and cargo to the combat zones.

Theater Airlift

C-130 Aircraft

More than 145 C-130 aircraft were deployed in support of Desert Shield/Storm. These aircraft moved units to forward bases once they arrived in the theater. From Aug. 10 to the cease-fire, Air Force C-130s flew 46,500 sorties and moved more than 209,000 people and 300,000 tons of supplies within the theater. They provided logistical support, medical evacuation of the wounded, and battlefield mobility once the fighting started. During the "100-hour" ground campaign, C-130s flew more than 500 sorties a day.

Air Refueling

KC-135 and KC-10 Aircraft

During Operation Desert Shield/Storm, the Air Force deployed 256 KC-135s and 46 KC-10 to the Persian Gulf. Air Force tankers refueled every aircraft of every service -- fighter, bomber, airlift, AWACS, or Joint-STARS. Some allied forces also used Air Force tankers to do their mission. More than enough fuel was offloaded to fill the gas tank of every private and commercial and publicly owned automobile in Texas and Oklahoma.

Special Operations

Elements of all Air Force Special Operations Command units deployed to Desert Storm and performed a variety of crucial missions, including infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of Special Operations Forces teams on direct action missions. Missions also included rescue of downed crew members, psychological operations broadcasts, dropping 15,000-pound bombs and supporting counter-terrorist missions.

AC/EC/MC/HC-130 Aircraft and MH-53J Pave Low Helicopters

More than 50 of Special Operations Forces assets were deployed, including helicopters and AC/EC/MC/HC-130s. These assets flew more than 830 missions to support CENTCOM. Crews recovered downed crew members and provided valuable target identification and human intelligence work. MH-53J Pave Low helicopters also acted as pathfinders during the first hours of the war. One AC-130 was lost during the war.

Air Force Combat Aircraft

F-15 Eagle

During Operation Desert Shield/Storm, 120 F-15C/D's deployed to the Persian Gulf and flew more than 5,900 sorties. Every Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft destroyed in air-to-air combat, including five Soviet-made MiG-29 Fulcrums, were downed by F-15C's. No coalition aircraft were lost to Iraqi fighters.

F-15E Strike Eagle

Forty-eight F-15E's were deployed to the Gulf and flew more than 2,200 sorties in support of Desert Shield/Storm. Only two were lost in combat. They were used to hunt Scud missiles and launchers at night, employ laser systems to hit hard targets, and attack armored vehicles, tanks and artillery. Primary targets included command and control centers, armor, electrical facilities, Scuds and road interdiction. F-15E's used the LANTIRN navigation and targeting pods with spectacular results.

A-10 Thunderbolt II

The Air Force sent 144 A-10s to the theater. While flying only 30 percent of the Air Force's total sorties, these aircraft achieved more than half of the confirmed Iraqi equipment losses and fired 90 percent of the precision-guided Maverick missiles launched during Desert Storm. They demonstrated versatility as daytime Scud hunters in Iraq and even recorded two helicopter kills with their 30mm guns. Although A-10s flew more than 8,000 sorties in Desert Storm, only five were lost in combat in a very high-threat environment.

F-117 Stealth Fighter

F-117s flew more than 1,250 sorties, dropped more than 2,000 tons of bombs, and flew more than 6,900 hours during Desert Storm. They were the only aircraft to bomb valuable strategic targets in downtown Baghdad and did so with unprecedented accuracy, limiting collateral damage and civilian casualties. F-117s operated with impunity in the skies over Iraq and not one was touched by enemy air defenses.

B-52 Stratofortress

The role of the conventional bomber was revalidated in Desert Storm. B-52s flew 1,624 missions, dropped 72,000 weapons (totaling more than 25,700 tons) on targets in Kuwait and southern Iraq, and on airfields, industrial targets and storage areas in Iraq. Despite being more than 30 years old, B-52s turned in higher reliability rates in Desert Storm then during operations in Vietnam. In total, they dropped 31 percent of all U.S. bombs and 41 percent of all Air Force bombs dropped during the conflict.


With its Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) and laser designation system, F-111F's attacked chemical, biological and nuclear sites. The aircraft also attacked airfields, bunkers, command, control and communications facilities, and parts of the integrated air defense system with great success. F-111F's flew more than 4,000 sorties in Desert Storm and only one was damaged by enemy air defenses.

EF-111s Raven

The 18 EF-111 Ravens deployed in support of Desert Storm flew more than 900 sorties. Effective jamming by EF-111s negated the Iraqis' ability to track, acquire, and target attacking aircraft.

F-4G Wild Weasel

The 48 F-4G Wild Weasels deployed to the theater in support of Desert Storm flew 2,500 sorties. As a testament to the effectiveness of the F-4G's with their high-speed anti-radar missiles (HARM), the Iraqis did not use their sector operations centers and radars because if a system was on for more than a few seconds, operators risked the return of a HARM missile.

F-16 Fighting Falcon

The F-16 Fighting Falcon proved itself to be a versatile aircraft able to attack targets both day and night, in good or bad weather. The Air Force's 249 F-16s deployed to the Gulf flew more than 13,450 sorties -- more than any other aircraft in the war. They attacked Iraqi equipment in Kuwait and southern Iraq, flew missions against Scud missiles and launchers, and destroyed interdiction targets such as military production and support, chemical production facilities, and airfields.

Air Force Role in Desert Storm

Total U.S. Air Force Sorties

From D-day to cease-fire, the U.S. Air Force flew 59 percent of all sorties with 50 percent of the aircraft and had 37 percent of the losses. The overall mission capable rate of Air Force aircraft was 92 percent -- higher than the peacetime rate.

Precision-Guided Munitions

U.S. pilots used precision-guided munitions with deadly effectiveness in Operation Desert Storm. They dropped 7,400 tons. The Air Force was responsible for approximately 90 percent of the total PGMs dropped.


GBU-12 laser-guided bombs were employed by F-111s to destroy more than 200 tanks a night during the last weeks of the war. (GBU-12s weigh 500 pounds).


GBU-15 electro-optical glide bombs were used by F-111s to destroy the oil manifolds to stop oil from flowing into the Persian Gulf after Saddam Hussein's forces opened the valves. (GBU-15s weigh 2,000 pounds).


GBU-24 laser-guided bombs were employed by F-111s and F-15E's to destroy chemical, biological and nuclear storage areas, bridges, aircraft shelters and other strategic targets. (GBU-24s weigh 2,000 pounds).


GBU-27 laser-guided bombs were used by F-117s to hit hard targets such as aircraft shelters, bunkers in Baghdad. (GBU-27s weigh 2,000 pounds).


AGM-65 Maverick missiles were employed by F-16s and A-10s to attack armored targets. Mavericks played a large part in the destruction of Iraq's significant military force. Before Operation Desert Storm, Iraq had more tanks than Great Britain and Germany combined. With the precision capability of America's aircraft, one $70,000 Maverick equated to a $1.5 million T-72 tank, since it only took one missile to destroy each Iraqi tank.

The Iraqi Air Threat

At the beginning of Desert Storm, coalition air forces faced a formidable enemy. Iraq had 750 combat aircraft, 200 support aircraft, Scud surface-to-surface missiles, chemical and biological weapon capability, "state-of-the-art" air defenses, 10 types of surface-to-air missiles, around 9,000 anti-aircraft artillery pieces and thousands of small arms. The Iraqi air force had 24 main operating bases and 30 dispersal fields, many equipped with the latest in hardened aircraft shelters.

U.S. Air-To-Air Kills

Air Force fighters were credited with 36 of the 39 Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters downed during Desert Storm.

Air Force missiles also played a major role in air-to-air kills:

AIM-7 Sparrow

The radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow proved to be the most potent air-to-air weapon. Air Force-launched Sparrows downed 22 Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft and three helicopters.

AIM-9 Sidewinder

The AIM-9 Sidewinder worked as advertised. The heat-seeking Sidewinders launched from Air Force fighters put the bite on eight Iraqi aircraft.

Iraqi Air Force Losses

Iraq lost 90 aircraft to coalition air forces, 39 of them in air-to-air combat; six were lost in accidents; 16 were captured or destroyed by coalition ground forces; 122 were flown to Iran -- a confirmed total loss of 234 aircraft.

In addition to confirmed losses, of Iraq's 594 hardened aircraft shelters, 375 were damaged or destroyed by coalition bombing. It is estimated that 141 aircraft were destroyed in these shelters.

Value of Stealth

Without stealth, a typical strike mission requires 32 planes with bombs, 16 fighter escorts, eight Wild Weasel aircraft to suppress enemy radar, four aircraft to electronically jam enemy radar, and 15 tankers to refuel the group. With stealth technology the same mission can be accomplished with only eight F-117s and two tankers to refuel them. Stealth technology combined with precision guided munitions puts far fewer aircraft at risk and saves lives -- both aircrews and innocent civilians.

Global Reach/Global Power

Operation Desert Shield/Storm served to stress the need for air superiority, modern airlift and rapid power projections; and validated the Air Force's planning framework -- Global Reach/Global Power. Desert Shield/Storm also proved to be a large-scale practical test of the Total Force Policy -- maximizing military capability through the optimum mix of active and reserve forces.

May 1991

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