The Gulf War 1990/1991

Historical Context
The Iraqi Armed Forces
The Coalition Forces
The Gulf War, 1991

Historical Context

First it is necessary to look at the background history for this turbulent area of the World. Although we tend to call the 1990/91 conflict the Gulf War this was not the first Gulf war in this region. From 1980 to 1988 Iraqi fought a bloody war against its neighbor Iran. In 1980 Iraqi invaded over a border dispute over the ownership of the Shatt Al Arab waterway which borders the two countries. For years Iraqi steadily lost ground against the numerically superior but technologically inferior Iranians. In the 1988 the Iraqis changed tactics and by using chemical weapons, massive artillery bombardments and the Republican Guard it made rapid advances rolling back the Iranians until when the War ended they had gained 500 miles of territory. The Waterway was so clogged with silt and debris it was now useless. The war left Iraq with over $80 billion worth of debts mainly to Kuwait. It was these tactics of chemical and artillery bombardment, which the Coalition forces were expecting during the later Gulf war, and these debts, which were the seeds of that future conflict.

By 1990 Iraq was in severe financial difficulties the price of oil was low and Iraq relied on this as its main source of income. It accused Kuwait of overproducing and flooding the market with cheap oil. Kuwait agreed to lower production but this failed to pacify Sadamm Hussain. He had a second grievance with Kuwait that of the Rumalia oil field in northern Kuwait. The Iraqis owed half this oil field and wanted the rest of it, so they accused the Kuwaitis of stealing oil from the Iraqi half of the oil field.

With the Western powers focused on Europe and the end of the Cold War few paid much attention to the Iraqis threats to Kuwait a "Rich, small vulnerable state". Even when conflict looked likely it was thought that if they did invade it would be for limited objectives such as the oil field, (this is what Gen Schwarzkopf believed). The only intelligence agency to predict the invasion was the CIA and then it was on the day before the Iraqis invaded, (not much use!).

On 2nd Aug 1990 100,000 Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait spearhead by 3 divisions of the Republican Guard. It was well organized with Heli-bourne and Amphibious assaults, with Special Forces landing at key sites and ground controllers disguised as civilians going on ahead to direct Armour. The resistance was quickly crushed. Saddam Hussein then made his first big mistake, his forces stopped at the Saudi Arabian border. He had 130,000 men 1,200 tanks and 800 guns against only 72,000 Arabians, if he had invaded it would have provoked a stronger international response but with Arabian airfields and ports in his hands it would have made any liberation very difficult indeed. Maybe he was unable to support his forces logistically? Maybe he feared retaliation? No one knows, but this was to be possibly his only chance to win the War. By December 1990 it was clear the Iraqis were digging in, and foolishly throughout the following Coalition build up he left their forces in Saudi Arabia unmolested.


The Iraqi Armed Forces

On paper the Iraqi Armed forces were impressive, they could field over 1 million men making them the 4th largest Army in the world. But this was misleading, as the War was later to show. The Army had not fully recovered from the Iran/Iraq war; many units were undermanned and desperately short of technicians. The reserves where badly trained and the Army had suffered from purges of its command (those who fell out of favor with Sadam normally had fatal helicopter accidents) it is also highly centralized a feature of dictatorships which made it very vulnerable. Out of 60 Divisions 9 were armored and 5 mechanized, (2 of each being Republican Guard .Two Elite formations also existed, Special Forces and Naval infantry. Crucially both the Army and the Air force lacked the ability to fight at night and their marksmanship was poor. Milan anti tank weapon strike rates were about 1 in 6, Sagger (Soviet Anti tank weapon) were about 1 in 20!

Although the Iraqis had about 5500 tanks 90% were designed over 30 years ago and were nearly harmless to a modern MBT. Tank gunnery was also poor. The most modern was an unarmored T-72 whose autoloader could grab a gunner's finger if they were a bit slow. Artillery was good being South African 155mm based on the designs of Dr Gerald Bull (Dr Bull was killed Mar 1990 probably by Israeli Secret Service).

Anti Aircraft ability was poor except for the Russian made ZSU-23-4, which made low level flying dangerous. The Air force was large but their best planes were Mirage F-1's and MIG 29's the later had been delivered without the look down shoot down radar.

The Iraqi forces did have large stocks of chemical weapons and had used them in combat in the previous war; their possible use was a great concern to the Coalition Commanders. By the time the War started the Iraqis had around 400,000 men on the front line, 150,000 in Kuwait alone.

The Coalition Forces

The Invasion of Kuwait took the world mostly by surprise; the first priority was a rapid build up of forces in Saudi Arabia. This proved problematic for the Saudi's as they wanted US/Western forces to defeat the Iraqi's yet this would mean a great many westerners camped out in a strictly Moslem country. The US estimated a build up would take three months for although light equipment could be flown in, most of the heavy equipment including the MBT's had to be shipped in. foolishly Saddam allowed the coalition this time, leaving the Airfields and ports in Saudi Arabia unmolested. At the time the US did not know this and quickly rushed in combat troops (airborne) and tank killing helicopters. Coalition airpower also rapidly increased, by 11th August RAF Tornado F3 and Jaguar aircraft had arrived, but airpower cannot hold ground and ground troops and tanks were badly need in case of an Iraqi invasion.

A Coalition was formed and troops from all over the world started to arrive. This wide spread of nations was vital if the war was to be seen as just not just a war by the US against an Arab state. This build up was Operation Desert Shield. In the up coming offensive the ground element was to be Operation Desert Sword and the British element Desert Saber.

At first British involvement was the 7th Arm Brigade (2 Armored Regts and 1 Stafford's with Warriors) this was to support the USMC but later British forces were increased to an Armored Division by the addition of the 4th Arm Bde and support troops such as medics and large numbers of artillery 3 M109 regts , 1 M110 Regt and 1 MRLS Regt giving the British contingent a heavy punch. This would give us greater flexibility and a bigger role to play in the up coming battles. The British Commander was General Sir Peter De la Billere.

Coalition forces eventually numbered over 500,000, with large numbers of Arab allies such as Syrians and Egyptians. Various plans were put forward, including some very silly ones such as a 500 mile drop of paratroopers behind the lines and an armored link up as in Operation Market Garden, General Schwarzkopf was under pressure to attack early but he refused until he had all the heavy equipment he needed.

The Gulf War 1991

The Air war begin on 17th Jan 1991, The Air attacks had five main target areas; Command and Control, Air Superiority, Interdiction, destruction of NBC weapons, and the Republican Guard. The plan was to carry out strategic bombing, gain Air superiority, bomb the Iraqi artillery, troops and trenches and then finally launch a ground offensive. Make no mistake despite the impression given in the media of smart bombs they were not overly accurate for example the F-117 had a hit rate of 55%, while the older F-111 hit the target 70% of the time with laser guided bombs. The most important part was the ground offensive. Only ground forces in particular infantry can take and hold ground, although airpower was vital in softening up the Iraqi trenches and forces, it is nearly impossible to dislodge or destroy an opposing force without the use of ground troops.

Air Superiority was soon won, with 116 Iraqi aircraft fleeing to Iran were they were seized. To have complete dominance over the air is very rare in warfare and it allowed normally vulnerable helicopter Gunships to roam at will across the open battlefield.

This is what is called the Air land battle or Deep battle where due to modern weapons with extended range an attack does not just attack the enemy front lines but his whole military organisation, his front, his art, his reserves and importantly his C&C, without this his troops are blind and helpless.

The ground assault began on 24th Feb 1991 and lasted exactly 100 hours; the pace of operations was intense. The plan was a general attack along the line with dummy and decoy attacks on the right and the left flank swing around like a huge left hook. 2 US armoured divisions under Gen Franks were to drive north then east and pin the Republican Guard against the Sea and destroy it. If it went south the British forces were to form the anvil and the 2 US divisions would swing back like a hammer.

The first day went very well, the Iraqis who were expected to fight stubbornly were steam rollered by the Coalition forces, with no recon, poor supplies and their Armour being completely outclassed progress was rapid Coalition casualties on the first day were 8 dead and 27 wounded.

On day two sandstorms stopped many of the air resupply missions but thanks to GPS the Coalition forces kept advancing, although not fast, frequently taking Iraqi units by surprise in the poor weather conditions. Heavy rain started to fall and in the darkness the British forces encountered the 12th Iraqi Armoured Division, after calling down support fire they attacked and drove the Iraqis off, inflicting heavy casualties.

On the third day cloud was limiting air recon and the advance continued, now a race to catch and destroy the Republican Guard. On first light the British forces attacked a large enemy position with a two pronged armoured attack and 1 Stafford's attacking them from the rear clearing out the prepare position.

It was during this afternoon that two US A-10s accidentally fired on 2 British Warriors AFV's of the Royal Fusiliers, nine men died and 11 were wounded. By the end of the War the British division had in 66 hours wrecked the better part of three armoured divisions and captured more than 7,000 prisoners in an advance of over 180 miles, a testament to both our ability and the speed of modern warfare.

Marine Corps Tank Battles in the Middle East, Oscar E. Gilbert. Covers a range of types of armoured warfare, from the conventional tank battles of the two Gulf Wars to counter insurgency work in Afghanistan. Paints a picture of a flexible, adaptable and competent armoured force that plays a key part in just about every Marine Corps deployment, despite never being at the top of the pile for funding. Also suggests that the tank can be surprising effective in counter-insurgency work, providing a powerful backup to the infantry (Read Full Review)
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Blackwell, James. Thunder in the Desert, Bantam Books, London, 1991.
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Cordesman, Anthony and Wagner, Abraham. The Lessons of Modern War - Volume IV: The Gulf War, Westview Press, Oxford, 1996.
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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (2 June 2002), The Gulf War 1990/1991,

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