The Persian Gulf Theater, Winter 1991
I calculated that it is only by a counterstrike that one can disrupt the enemy’s preparation for a new offensive. To force the enemy to take the offensive earlier than at the time which he had set is more advantageous for us than to sit and wait until he is fully prepared.
—Soviet General Vassili I. Chuikov, remarks regarding the Soviet offensive at Stalingrad, October 1942.
Early on the morning of January 17, 1991, the multinational Coalition arrayed against Saddam Hussein kicked off an air campaign the likes of which the world had never seen. Capitalizing on nearly two decades of unprecedented American techno-military advancement, the execution of such a wide-reaching surgical campaign signaled a revolution in warfare. Conceived by a top secret U.S. Air Force planning cell known as Checkmate and its iconoclastic leader, Colonel John Warden, this air assault made use of a ground-breaking new class of weapons technologies developed in the years after the Vietnam War. Unlike the comparatively crude carpet-bombing campaigns of World War II and Vietnam, this operation, portentously named Instant Thunder, was designed to systematically demolish Saddam’s leadership structure without leveling Iraq’s cities along with it. What made Instant Thunder unique, however, was not just the technology it exploited but the extreme discretion with which it was prosecuted: Rather than try to methodically kill off every arm of the vast Iraqi war machine, Instant Thunder zeroed in on the Iraqi central nervous system: its electrical grid, its telecommunications networks, its radar installations, its command-and-control nodes, leaving Saddam’s vaunted armored divisions to die on the vine. Taken as a whole, Warden’s audacious plan seemed as much an argument to prove the supremacy of airpower as it was an attempt to force Saddam out of Kuwait.
Handpicked to fire the opening salvos of this new war was a four-ship flight of Apache helicopter gunships from the Army’s 101st Airborne. Piercing Iraqi airspace just after 2:00 a.m., they unleashed a volley of Hellfire missiles into a key battery of Iraqi radar dishes poised on the Saudi border, opening the door to flights of electronic jamming aircraft and Stealth fighters. Wave upon wave of American aircraft soon thundered over Baghdad, unleashing their deadly cargo, in some cases near waiting television cameras. And as CNN floated these images around the world, the war began to take on the queer character that has since become fixed in the public imagination, that of spectral bridges, buildings, and tanks being silently obliterated as if by magic on a million television screens, of antiaircraft fire arcing gracefully into the Iraqi sky. Thus the illusion of virtual war was born. After a week of round-the-clock bombing, Saddam was nearly blind, deaf, and dumb as his telecommunications and command networks were decimated.
Nevertheless, Saddam was far from defeated, and the air campaign, while strikingly effective, left plenty to be desired as far as ground commanders were concerned. The practical problem with this new war was that it was focused so intently upon the fat targets in central Iraq that it left much of the Iraqi army dispersed throughout Kuwait totally unmolested. Ten days into the landmark campaign, at which point American Stealth fighters were essentially operating at will over Baghdad, the Iraqi tanks and howitzers across the berm from the Marines were practically untouched. As Colonel Manfred A. Rietsch, a Marine air group com- mander noted, “We weren’t able to concentrate on the areas that affected our Marines. There were certain areas where there was a lot of enemy activity that appeared to be untouched by the JFACC [U.S. Air Force headquarters in Saudi Arabia].”*
General Boomer, the head Marine in the Gulf, was par- ticularly concerned about Saddam’s III Corps, the most dangerous enemy unit in Kuwait. III Corps occupied Kuwait City and was arrayed in depth along the Saudi border with belts of conscript infantry divisions protecting the Corps’s mobile reserve, the 3rd Armored and the 1st and 5th Mechanized Divisions. Although not the vaunted Republican Guard, these were some of Saddam’s best divisions. The elite 3rd Armored, outfitted with Russian T-72 tanks, was far and away the best trained and equipped unit in the Iraqi army and was often lumped in the same category as the Republican Guard by intelligence experts. III Corps was commanded by Major General Salah Aboud Mahmoud, one of Saddam’s most trusted field commanders, who had dis- tinguished himself in the closing campaigns of the Iran- Iraq War. He was that rare Iraqi general who had been promoted by dint of his operational talent rather than his political connections.
Making matters worse, III Corps posed an unnerving artillery threat with Soviet-made howitzers that easily outranged their American counterparts. That artillery tubes were the preferred means for delivering chemical weapons only heightened Boomer’s concern, which at times blossomed into near-paranoia. Indeed, Boomer once spoke to his staff of a dream where he “woke up at two or three o’clock in the morning . . . shaking, soaking wet . . . from a terrible bad dream where two divisions on line are attempting to go through two breaches . . . being bogged down in the minefields and obstacle belts . . . and in the middle of all that somewhere between 1,100 and 1,400 artillery tubes were raining a fiery death and destruction. My Marines are dying.” After repeated appeals to JFACC, Boomer and his
*Indeed, on February 15, fully two weeks after the battle of Khafji, a U-2 overflight of the Tawakalna Division, the southernmost of the Republican Guard divisions, showed it at 74 percent combat effectiveness, well above Air Force estimates.
staff were eventually able to begin shifting more air missions onto targets inside Kuwait.
After nearly two weeks of round-the-clock bombing, Saddam was feeling pinched and was searching for ways to hit back. In a tactic reminiscent of the Iran-Iraq War, where an air “war of the cities” between Tehran and Baghdad had raged, Saddam launched a barrage of Scud missiles toward Tel Aviv, banking on Israel’s tradition of swift retribution to drive a wedge between the Arab and Western members of the Coalition. However, aggressive Washington-led diplomacy headed off any Israeli revenge attacks with, among other things, the promise of commando raids on Saddam’s mobile Scud launchers. This development further dimmed prospects for Marine commanders, as in order to placate the Israelis, critical air missions were diverted to what became known as the the Great Scud Hunt. This campaign was an illustrious failure, and in the end only a handful of missile launchers were ever confirmed as destroyed.
During this same time frame, Major General Mike Myatt, commander of the First Marine Division, began launching what he dubbed “ambiguity operations,” designed to confuse Iraqi defensive preparations, Myatt declaring, “I want to fuck with the Iraqis’ heads.” This unorthodox deception effort consisted of widely scattered artillery raids along the Kuwaiti frontier and the creation of a highly unusual unit known as Task Force Troy. Troy, headed up by Myatt’s deputy, General Tom Draude, was a bogus division composed of a handful of APCs (armored personnel carriers) jam-packed with radios and loudspeakers, which rolled along the border simulating the sounds and radio traffic of a full-strength Marine division, complete with fake call signs and operations orders.
Adding to the confusion along the border, just before midnight on January 21, a platoon from the Marines’ First Force Reconnaissance Company was attacked at Observation Post 6 by a company of Iraqi infantry. That morning the Marines had gotten word from a captured lieutenant that an entire infantry company was preparing to defect in their sector. After conversing with an advance group of eight Iraqis, things quickly soured as the Marines heard rounds being chambered in the darkness. The Marines were soon enveloped by machine-gun and RPG fire, and after a disjointed hour-long gun battle, backlit by the phantasmal glow of Iraqi artillery illumination rounds, the Marines managed to extract themselves from the observation post and move to a predesignated rally point beneath a nearby bridge. They emerged unscathed, albeit confounded as to the Iraqis’ intentions. No blood trails were found the following morning, although Iraqi defectors later confirmed that the attack had been conducted by a commando company from the 36th Division. The Iraqis suffered five dead.
By late January, the failure of the Scud attacks and air strikes, along with the bewildering situation near the Kuwaiti border, all added to the pressure on Saddam to act, to do something. As one Pentagon official put it, “Only an idiot would sit there forever while his military was being destroyed.” On the twenty-seventh, the plan for the offensive into Saudi Arabia was approved by Saddam. Some reports assert that he in fact caravanned to the southern Iraqi border town of Basra to confer with his field commanders about the upcoming operation.
Saddam, who had once told his staff that “the air force has never decided a war in the history of war,” seemed to have concluded that the time had come to draw the Allies into a slugfest where his tanks and artillery could slaughter the Americans. In September 1980, Saddam had done this very thing, launching a daring preemptive attack deep into Iranian territory that only bogged down after outrunning its supply lines. He hoped to do one better in Saudi Arabia.
Like Ho Chi Minh before him, Saddam was keenly aware of how impatient and irresolute the American public can be. He knew that if he produced enough body bags or POWs renouncing their country on the evening news, Americans would cry to their president to bring the boys back home. With a surprise thrust into Allied lines, Saddam would bloody the Americans on CNN and chop their resolve off at the knees.
Saddam’s plan called for a three-pronged drive into northeastern Saudi Arabia by the 3rd Armored Division and 1st and 5th Mechanized Divisions. The exact military objectives of the offensive remain unclear. Iraqi knowledge of American unit locations and strengths during this time frame was spotty at best. It appears that the focus remained upon dealing a strong blow against the Coalition, striking at its weak points, primarily the Khafji region, which was manned by inexperienced Saudi and Qatari units, as well as lashing out against the American units that had for several weeks been taunting frontline Iraqi troops with artillery raids and psychological operations.
A major concern for the Coalition was the colossal Marine logistics complex at Kibrit. Located at an abandoned airfield 30 miles south of the Kuwait border, it was in the direct line of the Iraqi assault. Kibrit, the largest fuel and ammunition dump in the Marine Corps’s history, had been erected on a previously unheard-of scale, sprawling over 25 square miles and at one point containing nearly two million gallons of gasoline. Kibrit had sprouted up practically overnight in preparation for the ground war and had been brazenly situated forward of friendly lines in order to maximize the attack’s forward momentum.
Amid all this sound and fury, Boomer and his staff were focused inward, consumed with the preparations for the impending Kuwait offensive, set to roll in late February. The Marines had been given what many considered to be a suicide mission.* They were to attack due north into the teeth of the Iraqi defenses, breaching two major obstacle belts loaded with burning oil pits, elaborate tank traps, miles of barbed
*A British tank brigade initially attached to the Marines had, in fact, been reassigned to the U.S. Army because London was convinced that the Marines were walking into a killing field in southern Kuwait. The assumption of this type of mission seemed at the time to fit into the pattern of ill-considered Marine charges such as the controversial assault on the Tarawa atoll in the Pacific during World War II, which cost 990 American lives.
wire, and row upon row of antipersonnel mines. While a new age in warfare may have been heralded over the skies of Baghdad, for those on the ground it seemed as if nothing had changed.
The breach itself was expected to be an exceedingly complex operation, with two 10,000-man divisions leapfrogging each other, all while exposed to the fearsome Iraqi artillery corps. In the doomstruck atmosphere that dominated the preparations, nightmarish visions of mustard and nerve gas attacks swept through the ranks, driving some to request transfer stateside. It seemed to some as if the legion follies of World War I were about to be relived. One light-armored vehicle company was told by higher headquarters to expect 85 percent casualties.
As a result of the immense, elaborate efforts dedicated to the coming thrust, the border itself was left only lightly manned. The entire Marine command was so intent upon the attack succeeding, so obsessed with the grim prospect of mass casualties, that the only units left protecting Kibrit, the fattest target imaginable, were a few scattered companies of light-armored vehicles and Ross’s platoon. This outward complacency extended all the way down to the enlisted-man level. As one Marine lance corporal put it, “The last thing we expected was for Saddam to invade Saudi Arabia.”
The U.S. Army forces in theater were also distracted, caught up in the preparations for the far-western Hail Mary run set to crush the Republican Guard in southern Iraq. This armor-heavy thrust exacted an enormous logistical and psychological toll as millions of man-hours were expended getting the army’s lumbering tank formations in place along with their extensive fuel and ammunition trains, all of which deflected attention away from the border and Iraqi activities in the here and now.
Adding to the Coalition’s woes, the Iraqis were exploiting their knowledge of American reconnaissance satellite patterns garnered from when the U.S. had shared overhead imagery with Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War. This striking case of blowback allowed the Iraqis to begin surreptitiously staging vehicles and equipment in southern Kuwait without setting off any alarms at the Coalition high command in Riyadh. Rolling forward in brutally enforced radio silence, Saddam’s legions slunk into their designated assembly areas while the mighty juggernaut, the largest American military force assembled since World War II, was looking the other way.
Excerpted from Storm on the Horizon by David J. Morris. Copyright © 2005 by David Morris. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.