The role of airpower in the 1991 Gulf War had deep-reaching consequences for US strategy and shaped its military approach in the Middle East. Will that decades-long policy change under Biden?
On January 15, 1991, the UN deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, which had been occupied since August 1990, had passed. ‘Operation Desert Storm’ commenced with airstrikes against Iraq and its military, launched by American F-117 stealth fighters and Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The war represented a transformation in the way America began to coerce Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations from the air. For more than thirty years, this policy endured, reaching its apogee under the Trump administration.
On the thirtieth anniversary of the 1991 Gulf war, the question remains as to whether the Biden administration will make a break with this decades-long policy.
Operation Desert Storm: the progenitor of America’s air wars
During Operation Desert Storm, Iraq would endure a six-week air campaign that represented the first time the US attempted to shape, control, and configure the region using airpower.
Twenty-five years later, the air campaign against Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria during the Obama administration demonstrated that America continued to determine the destiny of the Middle East from miles above its soil.
In January 2020 the Trump administration assassinated a sovereign official of the Iranian military, Qassem Soleimani, in an attempt to weaken the Islamic Republic’s influence on allied militias in Iraq.
Up until 1991, American intervention in Middle Eastern nations’ domestic affairs was carried out through covert operations: from the CIA overthrow of the Iranian premier Mosaddegh in 1953, or deploying the US Marines to Lebanon twice, in 1958 and then in 1982 during the civil war to prop up pro-Western governments.
Otherwise it projected its power through naval forces, such as in 1987 when the US Navy deployed to the Gulf to reflag Kuwaiti ships during the Iran-Iraq War, a campaign that led to the American warship Vincennes shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, on 3 July 1988.
Just a few years later, ‘Operation Desert Storm’ represented the first time the US sought to change the status quo on the ground in the Middle East, the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, from the air in an attempt to compel Iraq to withdraw.
However, the Iraqi military endured the next six-weeks of aerial assaults. The Iraqi soldiers were mass conscripted into a doomed defense of Kuwait and Iraq. They were hungry and had to conserve ammunition when defending themselves from the aerial onslaught.
Yet, they were commanded to defend Iraq and its 19th province, Kuwait, at all costs. In spite of the desperate need for provisions, what reached the frontline units were just words of support from the Iraqi leadership. The Iraqi military stood no chance of resisting the aerial campaign.
Six weeks later Iraqi forces still had not withdrawn from Kuwait. It took US and coalition ground forces to expel the Iraqi military, which happened relatively quickly within the span of two days, demonstrating that attempting to dictate reality on the ground from the air rarely achieves any strategic aims.
This lesson was not heeded by subsequent American administrations.
Continuation of America’s air wars
Saddam Hussein survived the 1991 Gulf War, and the air war continued for more than a decade afterwards, dubbed Operation Southern Watch, a policy that continued under the Clinton administration.
Airstrikes sought to discipline Hussein from the air: 153,000 sorties were flown over Iraq to enforce a “no-fly” zone, targeting Iraqi anti-aircraft radars.
This “Operation” continued until Operation Iraqi Freedom, when George W Bush sought to finish the unfinished legacy left by his father George H W Bush.
However, the 2003 invasion would lead to an insurgency erupting the same year, which would result in the rise of Daesh, which was then fought with another American air war under the Obama administration, and then continued under the Trump administration until the final collapse of its self-declared state in Syria and Iraq.
The Trump administration could have ended this air war, but instead escalated Middle Eastern tensions by supporting Saudi Arabia’s air war over Yemen. Riyadh failed to learn the lessons from the US as it sought to change the reality on the ground in Yemen to no avail, wreaking massive mayhem on civilians as a result.
Rather than seeing Operation Desert Strom as the beginning of a conflict that began in January 1991 and ended in March 1991, it was the beginning of America’s attempt to use airpower to shape Iraq and the region, which continued under the Trump administration and culminated in the Soleimani assassination.
New start for the Biden administration?
The Biden administration needs to reappraise the use of aerial bombardment as a disciplinary measure, as well as the drone war over the region.
PW Singer, in an article entitled, “From Dresden to Drone: The Morality of Air War,” just a few weeks after the Soleimani assassination, wrote, “Being able to strike from a great distance makes it too easy to launch an attack.”
This is the temptation of using air power, whether it is drones or Tomahawk cruise missiles that rained over the skies of Iraq in 1991. Without pilots, it is easy to use these weapons. However, the ease belies the fact that civilians can be caught in the crossfire of a drone strike or cruise missile attack, thus enraging local sentiment on the ground and achieving little in terms of long-term strategy in the region.
For the Biden administration, the Baghdad government may request airstrikes against Daesh remnants in Iraq. However, such requests are not a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, unlike the Trump assassination order against Soleimani.
Ultimately the Biden administration needs to use diplomacy to re-engage Iran and ensure a peace in Yemen, while rethinking the strategic utility of drone strikes against alleged terrorists, in order to end a fruitless, decades-long American strategy of disciplining the Middle East from the air.
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