Operation Desert Storm Was Not Won By Smart Weaponry Alone

Despite the “science fiction”-like technology deployed, 90 percent of ammunitions used in Desert Storm were actually “dumb weapons”

Three F-14 Tomcats fly in a tight formation over the Red Sea during Operation Desert Storm. The F-14s primary function was to intercept multiple airborne threats in all weather conditions and at night. Aero Graphics, Inc./CORBIS

Technology has long been a deciding factor on the battlefield, from powerful artillery to new weaponry to innovations in the seas and the skies. Twenty-five years ago was no different, as the United States and its allies, proved overwhelmingly successful in the Persian Gulf War. A coalition of U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters, cruise missiles from naval vessels, and Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk “stealth fighters” soundly broke through Saddam Hussein’s army defenses in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, which became known as the “100-hours war.”

The military response was a reaction to Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait earlier that year. The United Nations Security Council had demanded that Hussein withdraw his troops by a mid-January 1991 deadline, or it would launch a counter-offensive. When troops remained on the ground past the cutoff date, Operation Desert Storm came to fruition.

The swift and dominant victory made it seem like the future was now when it came to science fiction-like military weaponry that helped win the day.

The U.S., entrenched in the Cold War, had been heavily investing in its military technology for years leading up to the Gulf War. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s proposed missile defense system against the USSR, Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), signaled a commitment to the highest technology not just in space, but in different realms, says former defense analyst Robert English. English advised the military on national security in the 1980s, when much of the technology used in Operation Desert Storm was first put on the drawing board.

At the time, English recalls, it was at first an uphill battle to get the Pentagon to approve spending money on high-tech projects. As a general rule, military brass were reluctant to introduce new technology, as they would rather stick to with a larger quantity of battle-proven weaponry. But the “Star Wars” defense program, as SDI was dubbed, helped serve as an impetus for new investments in technology across the board.

This led to the debut of the Patriot air missiles, which targeted and intercepted Iraqi Scud ballistic missiles and the Lockheed F-117, a “stealth fighter,” first deployed when the United States invaded Panama in 1989. The fighter was described by Daniel Plesch and Michael Wardell for the Los Angeles Times in 1991. They wrote, “…It is intended to close in on its target unnoticed, virtually eliminating the enemy's capacity to react. Its radar signature is supposed to be no bigger than that of a duck.”

Though the fighter proved effective against Iraqi forces, stealth technology was still in its infancy at the time of Desert Storm, as Plesch and Wardell point out in their piece. For instance, British allies on Royal Navy destroyers in the Gulf were able to pick up the F-117 up to 40 miles from its targets, using technology more than a decade old. Despite its glitches, the Nighthawks’ surgical strike capability was what “convinced the U.S. Air Force to make significant changes after the war,” writes Don Hollway for HistoryNet, moving the U.S. toward new technology and tactics. The F-117 would have a long shelf life. The 1,313th and final F-117 was delivered to the U.S. Air Force just this month.

During Desert Shield, soldiers, sailors and air crews also used $25,000 Holographic One-Tube light amplifying goggles to capture and reflect visible light too dim for the naked human eye, electronically, “somewhat like the viewfinder on a home video camera, with magnification,” wrote Martha P. Hernandez for the Associated Press at the time. It was these glasses, she predicted in a piece published right after Operation Desert Storm began, that would give the U.S. and its allies a “major edge” over Iraqi forces in night battles.

Perhaps one of the most effective technologies employed during the Gulf War was using satellite surveillance systems. The war might have been prolonged has troops not been given GPS receivers, the United Kingdom’s Science Museum positions. Though the U.S. Department of Defense had been investing in GPS technology since the 1960s, it was unprepared to supply troops in the Gulf with multiple GPS receivers. The museum writes:

Manufacturers had to scramble to make new receivers and send them out to the troops. Often there were as few as two instruments for 100 vehicles. Some soldiers relied on members of their families to buy civilian GPS systems and ship them out, even though they were less accurate. Even the military equipment was not well designed for use in a theatre of war – tank crews and helicopter pilots stuck the devices to their vehicles with gaffer tape, for example.

Yet despite supply problems, GPS receivers were what allowed troops to find Iraqi ground forces, as well as assess bombing damage. The Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems (JSTARS), U-2 reconnaissance planes, and reconnaissance satellites all relied on the surveillance equipment.

However the surveillance technology was not perfect, cautions Robert H. Gregory, Jr. in his book, Clean Bombs and Dirty Wars: Air Power in Kosovo and Libya. The technology was “susceptible to being fooled by Iraq's use of decoys, camouflage, and digging in of forces.” As Gregory points out, Iraq had in fact purchased “thousands of dummy tanks and artillery from an Italian company before the Gulf War,” which UN observers after the war called virtually “impossible to distinguish from actual equipment.”

But for all the posssibilites that this “Computer War,” offered, such as laser guidance systems on precision-guided munitions (PGMs), like cruise missiles—18-foot-computer-guided flying bombs launched from warships, Operation Desert Storm was not won by smart weaponry, alone. Rather, as English estimates, 90 percent of the ammunitions employed in Desert Storm were actually “dumb weapons.” The bombs, which weren't guided by lasers or satellites, were lucky to get within half a kilometer of their targets after they were dumped from planes. While dumb bombs might not have been exciting enough to garner the headlines during the attack, they were cheaper to produce and could be counted on to work.

PGMs might have been the “invention that shaped the Gulf War,” as Malcolm W. Browne wrote for the New York Times in 1991, as they enhanced the effectiveness of attacks by an extreme measure, yet it was the dumb bombs that was the most commonly used weapon during the attack. But frequency of use doesn’t change why history will remember Desert Storm for its smart weapons, rather than its dumb ones.

As Philadelphia Inquirer staff reporters Matthew Purdy, Karl Stark and Tim Weiner reported, “Almost all the new technology, built and paid for in the trillion-dollar military buildup of the 1980s and intended for a full-tilt war with the Soviet Union, had never before been tested in battle,” which meant that their success rates in Dessert Storm had reason to be “not as dazzling as initially believed.” By introducing the high-tech weaponry during the operation, however it would set a precedent for how the U.S. would engage in the Balkans and a dozen years later, back in Iraq.

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