Carrier Operations in Desert Storm
On 17 January 1991, DESERT STORM began with a coordinated attack which included Tomahawk land attack missiles (TLAMs) launched from cruisers, destroyers and battleships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. The joint air campaign was successful beyond the most optimistic expectations. As full partners in that campaign, Navy and Marine Corps aviators flew from carriers and amphibious ships in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, and from bases ashore, from the day hostilities began until the cease-fire was ordered. Navy aircraft struck targets up to 700 miles distant, with Red Sea sorties averaging 3.7 hours in length, and Persian Gulf sorties averaging 2.5 hours. As was also the case for their ground-based Air Force counterparts, many flights lasted as long as five hours, and virtually every flight required airborne refueling at both ends of the journey.
The four carrier battle groups operating in the Persian Gulf, together with the two additional battle groups in the Red Sea, complemented the striking power of land-based coalition air forces in Saudi Arabia and other coalition Gulf states, and the USAF units in eastern Turkey. This effectively surrounded Iraq with strike capability and demonstrated the mobility, flexibility and firepower which naval forces bring to the battlefield.
Critical to the success of all aviation missions was the role of electronic countermeasures, "jamming" or "defense suppression" aircraft. Navy EA-6B Prowlers determined threat location then jammed and destroyed enemy radars. Navy defense suppression aircraft supported all U.S. and coalition forces-- in fact, availability of the EA-6Bs was a go/no-go criterion for many strike missions. If Navy defense suppression wasn't available, the missions didn't fly.
Navy and Marine Corps pilots, aircrews and support personnel joined in the most powerful and successful air assault in the history of modern warfare. From "H-hour" on 17 January when the air campaign began, until the end of offensive combat operations 43 days later, Navy and Marine aviators destroyed key targets and helped ensure the United States military and its coalition partners owned the skies over Iraq and Kuwait.
Operating from six aircraft carriers, two large amphibious assault ships (LHAs), various other amphibious ships, plus ground bases and makeshift airstrips ashore, Navy and Marine fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft were an integral part of the coalition air campaign. Of more than 94,000 sorties flown by U..S. aircraft during the war, Navy and Marine aircraft flew close to 30,000. Sea-service pilots flew around 35 percent of the sorties, which was in dlrect proportion to their numbers in the U.S. air inventory.
More than 1,000 Navy and Marine Corps aircraft joined the U.S. Air Force, Army and coalition partners to knock out the Iraqi military machine. The air campaign was conducted in four phases. Phase I was to gain air superiority by destroying Iraq's strategic capabilities. That phase was accomplished within the first seven days. Phase II required the suppression of air defenses in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations. During Phase III, the coalition airmen continued to service Phase I and II targets as needed, but also shifted emphasis to the field army in Kuwait. Finally, Phase IV entailed air support of ground operations.
After blinding the enemy's early warning systems with Navy EA-6B Prowlers and destroying critical radar sites with high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM) fired from Navy tactical aircraft and Air Force F-4 Wild Weasels, allied aircraft poured into Iraq and began bombing command and control centers, Scud missile launchers and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons facilities. The Navy/Marine Corps team launched more than 80% of the HARM missiles that paved the way for the coalition attack.
During those early hours of the war, Navy and Marine pilots contributed to the destruction of Iraq's air and naval forces, anti-air defenses, ballistic missile launchers, communications networks, electrical power and more. They joined their joint and allied partners in inflicting heavy military losses with precision bombing from high-tech aerial weaponry, while at the same time minimizing civilian casualties.
On "D-day," four Navy Hornets from VFA-81, embarked in Saratoga, were on a bombing mission targeted against an Iraqi airfield when they detected two Iraqi MiG-21s seven miles away. They switched their F/A18 strike-fighters from bombing profile to air-to-air, and downed both aircraft using Sidewinder missiles. They then continued their mission and scored direct hits on the enemy airfield. That encounter produced the Navy's only air-to-air kills, while taking the versatile Hornet through its dual-roled paces. All told, coalition aircraft scored 35 air-to-air fixed wing kills.
The Iraqi air force quickly went underground or flew to safe haven in neighboring Iran. Navy pilots from John F. Kennedy, flying a daytime mission over southwestern Iraq early in the offensive, said that a group of MiGs stayed 40 or 50 miles away, falling back and refusing to engage each time the U.S. planes advanced. It was a pattern repeated throughout the war. Each time Navy crews energized the powerful, long-range AWG-9 radar in the F-14, Iraqi pilots turned away. In the course of the war, more than 234 Iraqi aircraft were taken out of the fight: 90 were destroyed in combat operations, 122 flew to Iran, 16 were captured by ground forces and six were noncombat losses.
E-2C Hawkeyes operated around-theclock in concert with coalition AWACs to keep track of Iraq's air force and provide air traffic control. Navy and Marine aircraft flew continuous combat air patrols to protect sealift ships and airfields, provide reconnaissance and on-call anti-surface strike capability.
U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy airborne tankers played a crucial role. Without airborne tankers, coalition warplanes wouldn't have been able to hit targets deep in Iraq. The large, land-based Air Force KC-10 and KC-131 tankers carried the bulk of the load. Coordination of the airborne tanking effort was superb.
DESERT STORM marked the first combat use of some of the Navy's newest aircraft including the F-14A+, the F/A-18C and the F/A-18D night-attack aircraft. The multi-mission F/A-18 Hornets of the Navy flew 4,435 sorties, while the Marines flew 5,047.sorties in the durable fighter-attack aircraft. Navy pilots flew 4,071 sorties in their battle-proven, all-weather A-6 Intruders, and Marine pilots flew 854 sorties in their Intruders.
Because a wide variety of ordnance was used to match speciflc weapons to specific targets, Navy/Marine tactical aviation units put the logistics system to the test. Not counting missiles, allied air forces dropped over 88,500 tons of ordnance on the battlefield. The heavy demand for repair parts was satisfied by the supply system as well. Navy squadrons maintained 85 to 95 percent of their aircraft at a fully mission-capable status throughout DESERT SHIELD/STORM.
On the last full day of war, Navy aviators of the six carrier battle groups flew 600 combat missions, reducing the remaining combat capability of Saddam Hussein's forces as the Iraqis fled from Kuwait. Over the course of the war, Navy pilots, crews and aviation support personnel helped give the United States and her coalition partners early and undisputed ownership of the airspace over Iraq and Kuwait. Launching up to 140 sorties a day from a single flight deck, the carriers and their battle groups contributed significantly to coalition air dominance and effectively eliminated Iraq's naval capability. The performance of the nearly 30,000 Navy men and nearly 500 aircraft aboard the carriers was unparalleled, and their mission statistics were impressive. At the end, Navy sorties, both fixed and rotary wing, totaled nearly 20,000.
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