On the morning of 2 August 1990, Iraq invaded nearby Kuwait. In less than four hours, Iraqi forces occupied Kuwait City and had annexed the country as the 19th province of Iraq. In response, the U.S government initiated Operation Desert Shield on 6 August to deter and contain potential attacks on neighboring countries. By 21 August, the U.S. had based fighter, attack, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, airlift, and tanker aircraft in the Gulf region.
The following November, United Nations delegates passed Resolution 678 authorizing member states co-operating with the government of Kuwait to use "all necessary means" to enforce a prior resolution that demanded that Iraq withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush obtained Congressional concurrence with UN action on 12 January 1991; when the 15 January deadline for withdrawal passed, Bush signed a National Security directive authorizing U.S. military action.
Coalition aircraft set forth on the largest air campaign since World War II on 17 January 1991. By the end of the day, Iraq was well on the way to defeat, in no small part due to the strategic air campaign. Over time, the attacks drove Saddam and his leadership underground, reducing its control over events, and heavily damaging critical military support networks such as command and control, communications and intelligence capabilities, integrated air defenses, and power generation. On 28 February, only one hundred hours after the ground campaign began, President Bush declared a ceasefire and announced that Kuwait had been liberated.
For the Air Force, the tenet of air superiority took on new meaning as the air campaign became the initial phase of the war. Colonel John A. Warden III and his group of planners on the Air Staff in the Pentagon dubbed the Checkmate planning group, developed Instant Thunder (the preliminary name given to the air plan later incorporated into Operation Desert Storm) based on a new strategic concept for the use of airpower. Warden advocated viewing the enemy as a system, rather than groups or specific military units, and to cause physical paralysis (render ineffective) by building an air campaign around five "rings" or essential centers of gravity that included the leadership, organic essentials, infrastructure, population, and fielded military forces of the enemy. Disrupting the command and control (C2) of enemy forces and convincing enemy commanders that they could not achieve their goals at a reasonable cost were key elements of the strategy. Colonel Warden's planners also sought to achieve effects (convincing the enemy to take desired actions), as opposed to victory through a strategy of annihilation or attrition.
Moreover, U.S. forces brought new weapons to the fight, including stealth aircraft, global positioning devices, and precision guided technologies. Perhaps more importantly, however, the one hundred hour war had important implications for the future of the Air Force. Lessons garnered from the conflict would ultimately lead to the development of the modern Air Expeditionary Force (AEF), which is the airpower unit deployed to support combatant commanders worldwide with rapid, flexible, and reliable force packages that can respond to developing crises by establishing or increasing theater airpower capability.
Dr. Deborah Kidwell, Historian, AFHSO.
See the AFHSO publication by Perry D. Jamieson: Lucrative Targets: the U.S. Air Force in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations
Read the unpublished study by William T. Y'Blood, AFHSO Historian: Operation Desert Shield: the Deployment of USAF Forces
Read the report by the 9th Reconnaissance Wing Historian: Coy F. Cross II: The Dragon Lady Meets the Challenge: the U-2 in Desert Storm
Read the 37th Fighter Wing Office of History special study: Nighthawks Over Iraq: A Chronology of the F-117A Stealth Fighter in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm