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H-055-2: Operation Desert Shield, November 1990

AV-88 Harrier aircrafA port bow view of the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19).

A port bow view of the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) moored at Manama. Blue Ridge served as command ship of U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command, during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm. (National Archives photo)

H-Gram 055, Attachment 2

Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC

October 2020


Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm—Part Four: November 1990


H055.2 Desert Shield/Desert Storm Part 4 (November 1990)

Sam Cox, Director of Naval History, 08 October 2020

Desert Storm Deployment, USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), September 1990 - January 1991

This series is a departure from my normal H-grams in that this is a personal recollection. I was the Iraqi Subject Matter Expert on the Intelligence Staff of Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command for the entirety of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, serving under VADM Hank Mauz and VADM Stan Arthur. I first wrote this a number of years after the fact but I kept it true to what I believed and understood to be true at the time, so my dim view of Joint Operations as conducted during Desert Storm (which held the Navy back from making maximum contribution to the war) and U.S. Central Command, particularly the Intelligence Support Architecture, will be readily apparent. My reward for this heresy was to spend 12 of the next 21 years in joint commands, including three years as commander of the U.S. Central Command Joint Intelligence Center, where I had opportunity to see significant improvement in U.S. joint operations.

Early November 1990. Mina Salman, Bahrain.

We were literally stunned as we read the message from the Joint Chiefs of Staff announcing a huge increase in the build-up of U.S. military forces in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO), including many more naval ships. As we did the math, I commented that six aircraft carriers would be the largest carrier force assembled in one spot since World War II.

We already had a sizable force deployed to our region under the Commander, Naval Forces Central Command, our boss, Vice Admiral Mauz. The carriers Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and Independence (CVA-62) had arrived in the region within a few days of the Iraqi invasion in early August, but had since been relieved by John F. Kennedy (CVA-67) and Saratoga (CV-60) in the Red Sea, and Midway (CVB-41) and the battleship Wisconsin (BB-64) in the north Arabian Sea. The new message stated the carriers America (CV-66), Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and Ranger (CVA-61), plus the battleship Missouri (BB-63) would be deployed to the region and would arrive by mid-January. The force represented half the carriers and battleships in the U.S. Navy and would be a huge disruption to Navy deployment schedules for years, an indication to us of just how serious this buildup was. In a couple more weeks, we learned that the Navy would also deploy over 30 Amphibious ships with two full Marine Expeditionary Brigades embarked, which represented virtually the entire amphibious capability of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.The knowledge of the scale of the build-up provoked some conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, there was a somewhat perverse thrill about it. For over the last decade, the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean had been the scene of the action and had been considered the most "prestigious" seagoing intelligence assignment, but even the peak of the Libyan strike operations in February through April of 1986 had not involved more than three carriers at a time. When the detailer had offered me orders to Seventh Fleet, I'd had a brief moment of hesitation as I pondered whether I should try to hold out for Sixth Fleet instead, but I realized I should not be an arrogant ass and just count myself lucky to be offered an assignment at any “numbered fleet” staff. Now I thought of how I'd be kicking myself if I'd gone to Sixth Fleet only to see all their forces stripped away to go to the action somewhere else.

On the other hand, our new-found sense of “bragging rights” was quickly tempered by the seriousness of the situation. As we discussed the implication of the buildup, we reached a general consensus within the intelligence staff that we really couldn’t imagine deploying that much combat power, and not using it. Up until that point, we had been working with feverish intensity in the belief that we might be going to war. Now, the pace and stress ratcheted up even more as we worked in the belief that we would be going to war.

F/A-18C Hornet aircraft of Strike Fighter Squadron 113 (VFA-113)

F/A-18C Hornet aircraft of Strike Fighter Squadron 113 (VFA-113) sit armed and ready on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62). Independence is one of the U.S. Navy ships sent to the Persian Gulf in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. (National Archives photo)

November 1990. Mina Salman, Bahrain.

The Iraqi F-1 pilots knew exactly where “the line” was. Day after day, Exocet antiship missile-equipped Mirage F-1s came screaming out of Iraq and down the Arabian Gulf off the Kuwaiti coast, sometimes as many as seven per day. I knew the profile well. Iraqi F-1s had flown the exact same strike profile during the Iran-Iraq War, launching Exocets and hitting over a hundred Iranian and neutral tankers and ships, as well as USS Stark (FFG-31). The only difference now was that the Iraqi pilots turned away just before crossing the arbitrary line that CENTCOM had drawn across the northern Arabian Gulf, a line that the U.S. Navy was not allowed to cross.

“The line” was a major point of contention between NAVCENT and CENTCOM. Throughout the fall, the buildup of U.S. forces in the Middle East continued, but the Army and Air Force were not yet ready for war. The Navy, on the other hand, was heavily engaged in operations from the very beginning, intercepting, boarding, stopping, and sometimes firing warning shots at Iraqi merchant ships, as well as merchant ships from other countries trying to violate the UN Security Council resolutions that imposed economic sanctions on Iraqi that were enforced by U.S. and Coalition Navy maritime interception operations. Navy carriers and battle groups routinely deployed ready and trained for combat operations. Nevertheless, General Schwarzkopf didn't want to take the risk that a clash between U.S. Navy and Iraqi forces might precipitate the start of the war before the rest of the U.S. and Coalition force was ready. His solution was to draw a line across the Arabian Gulf and order the Navy not to cross north of it. This conceded international waters and airspace to the Iraqis, who proceeded to use that “sanctuary” to violate international law by laying mines, and to engage in a very dangerous game of Exocet “chicken.”

The waters of the Arabian Gulf are very constrained, and reaction time for naval forces was extremely limited to begin with. Conceding battle space to the enemy made it significantly worse. From “the line,” Iraqi jets were only a few minutes flight time from U.S. ships in the Arabian Gulf, from key ports and logistics nodes critical to the build-up and supply of U.S. ground and air forces, and only a few minutes from whereUSS Blue Ridge was tied up to the pier at Mina Salman, Bahrain (a position in the harbor that looked remarkably like the center of a bullseye). The Iraqi “chicken” flights were brazen and audacious. Not surprisingly, this made naval forces quite nervous. Navy fighters and missile-armed ships were constantly positioned to shoot the first Iraqi jet to cross south of the line. Many times the Iraqi jets turned away at the last second.

As a result, “the line” did absolutely nothing to diminish the hair-trigger environment and the high risk that Navy and Iraqi aircraft and ships might shoot each other, but did drastically reduce warning and reaction time, arguably increasing the risk of an inadvertent clash. The aggressiveness of the Iraqi pilots (who apparently knew exactly where they were safe and where they weren't) led us to believe that the Iraqi Mirage F-1 pilots, the cream of the Iraqi Air Force, still retained the boldness and fighting spirit they had demonstrated repeatedly during the Iran-Iraq war. As a result, we were forced to plan to “hold back” aircraft from the bombing campaign in Iraq in order to provide for fleet defense against what still appeared to be a very serious threat to naval forces. As it turned out, the Iraqi Mirage F-1 force was just a pale shadow of its former self, its pilots unmotivated and their antiship strike prowess long since atrophied. Had we been allowed to engage with them earlier, we might very well have called their bluff, which would have allowed us to move the carriers closer earlier and commit many more strike sorties and bomb tonnage to destroying targets in Iraq and Kuwait in support of the air and ground campaigns.

“The line” may have made sense to a four-star Army general, but it sure seemed dumb to us, and it damn near cost the lives of hundreds of Sailors later in the war.

Early November, Mina Salman, Bahrain.

Eureka! The mystery of the long-lost target imagery graphics, desperately needed by the carriers to conduct strike planning, was finally solved. It turned out the target graphics were shipped by mistake to the MIDEASTFOR flagship, rather than the NAVCENT flagship, where they had been sitting in the Communications Materiel Security (CMS) vault on USS LaSalle (AFG-3) for over a month. Eventually the Communications Security Officer got fed up tripping over the big boxes of imagery and finally decided perhaps it was time to walk down the passageway to the MIDEASTFOR Intelligence Office to see if this stuff was of any use to anyone, otherwise he was going to burn it.

This discovery resolved the months-long saga of the wayward target graphics. Produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency in the first months of Desert Shield, the target imagery graphics were very important to the aviators for strike planning; without them, all they had to visualize the target was a chart and the “file” imagery the aircraft carriers held onboard, which could be anywhere from a month to a couple years old. Since there was no way to send bulk high-resolution imagery by electronic means at that time, it had to be shipped by aircraft. Once the material hit the loading dock, things went wrong. The next couple months would have made a good “Who's on First?” routine with the dialog between NAVCENT and DIA going something like, “Did you send it yet? Yes we did. We didn't get it. We sent it a month ago. We didn't get it. We sent it. Where did you send it? To you.” This might have been funny, except that if the war had broken out in October this would have constituted a major intelligence failure. A later shipment of target graphics did fail to get to the carriers; the boxes of imagery were found stuffed in a warehouse in Bahrain after the war.

The problem with the target imagery graphics was symptomatic of larger issues that made providing intelligence support to naval forces far more difficult than in other regions of the world. Simply put, the intelligence support infrastructure developed over the years in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific did not exist in the Central Command region.

CENTCOM had only been established as a Theater Command relatively recently (@1983), carved out of area that previously belonged to the European Command and mostly to the Navy-centric Pacific Command, and the Navy still hadn't gotten over it. The Navy had all the love for CENTCOM that they did for MacArthur in WWII and for similar reasons. The Navy wasn't interested in expending the resources to set up a naval intelligence support infrastructure in CENTCOM, and the Army-centric CENTCOM was not sufficiently interested in naval operations to demand it.

Naval Intelligence support revolved around a concept called Operational Intelligence (OPINTEL). The whole point of the OPINTEL process was to get rapidly-fused all-source intelligence into the hands of operational decision-makers throughout the fleet as fast as possible. The system existed to drive intelligence from higher echelons to lower echelons in order to better support the forces doing the fighting.

By contrast, CENTCOM had no conception of operational support. At that time, the CENTCOM Joint Intelligence Center was essentially a glorified briefing shop. It existed to suck in intelligence in order to brief the four-star CENTCOM Commander (Commander-in-Chief (CINC) back then). It was a black hole. Very little of timely operational significance ever came back out. In fact, CENTCOM tasked us to support them. It didn't take long to figure out that CENTCOM didn't care a whole lot about what the Navy had to say, so we blew that requirement off. Periodically, some of the lower-ranking CENTCOM staff would beat up on us for not sending in a daily “Intelligence Summary” but we continued to successfully ignore them.

From CENTCOM's perspective, providing intelligence support to operational naval forces was not their problem to begin with. CENTCOM had an intelligence support architecture that required the service components to provide their own intelligence support. CENTCOM called it a ”ederated” architecture. We called it, “every man for himself.” This might have worked, except that the Navy had no intelligence support architecture in the CENTCOM region.

In other theaters, Naval Intelligence provided support to operational forces using two kinds of facilities, the Fleet Ocean Surveillance Information Facilities (FOSIFs) and Fleet Intelligence Centers (FICs). As soon as we were directed to head toward the Arabian Gulf, we turned to our normal support lifeline for intelligence production, the Fleet Intelligence Center Pacific (FICPAC). We were in a bit of a panic because we had virtually nothing about Iraq onboard, such as target imagery, since Iraq wasn't in the Seventh Fleet area of responsibility. However, the Pacific Fleet decided that Desert Shield was a CENTCOM problem, FICPAC had more important things to do dealing with the Soviets (the Cold War being over hadn't sunk in yet), and therefore we must go to CENTCOM for help. This might have worked if CENTCOM had a FIC, but it didn't, and it was this that forced us to go to DIA instead of the FIC for such things as target imagery graphics, a process that neither DIA nor us had practiced before.

The purpose of the FOSIFs was to provide the time-sensitive indications and warning intelligence of enemy operations. The Central Command area didn't have a FOSIF either. Rather, the decision had been made several years earlier not to establish one. Instead, the FOSIF at Rota, Spain, was given responsibility for reporting on activity in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, while the FOSIF at Kamiseya, Japan, had responsibility for the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.

This arrangement with the FOSIFs had severe drawbacks. For operational security reasons, CENTCOM ordered operational traffic not to be sent outside the CENTCOM area. As a result, Rota and Kamiseya were in the dark about the operations they were tasked to support, which made it really tough to support them. In addition, in an attempt to manage the huge communications jam, our own communicators had to stop any messages coming in from outside the CENTCOM or Seventh Fleet region. We could receive messages from Kamiseya, but Rota was effectively filtered out. We therefore received no reporting on Red Sea and Gulf of Aden activity, even though three U.S. carrier battlegroups and several Iraqi merchant ships were in the Red Sea at the start of Desert Storm. The effect of this was demonstrated shortly after the war ended when a Soviet destroyer transited the Suez Canal and was already into the Gulf of Aden before we even knew it was coming. Unfortunately, there was no way for our communicators to allow only FOSIF Rota traffic through the filter.

FOSIF Kamiseya tried heroically to support us, but cut off from in-theater operational reporting and hampered by the communications delays, about all they managed to do was tell us what the Iranian Navy and Air Force had done yesterday (which is what they'd been reporting on since the Ernest Will/Praying Mantis days of the Iran-Iraq tanker war). We already knew what the Iranians had done, since our ships could see it. The Iraqis were the problem, and the vaunted FOSIF and FIC system that worked so well elsewhere was of practically no use to us during Desert Shield/Storm.

Virtually none of the naval forces that came into the Middle East had operated in the Central Command region before. They expected to get the kind of intelligence support they were used to getting from the FOSIFs and FICs. They were unhappy when they didn't get it. Unfortunately, with the technology of the era, there was not enough time to stand up a new FOSIF before the war started. Some of the carrier battlegroups, particularly Theodore Roosevelt and Ranger, accepted this sad state of affairs with stoicism and actually found ways to be pretty self-reliant. A couple other battlegroups whined liked a bunch of helpless baby seals, blaming NAVCENT for everything that was wrong with the CENTCOM theater architecture. We did the best we could, considering we had to do it all from scratch.

We also did our utmost to respond to dozens of “requests for information” submitted by the carrier battlegroups and amphibious groups, although a number of RFIs submitted (especially from the baby seal battlegroups) proved the adage that, yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question. I remember one testy exchange over an RFI that was a laundry list of highly detailed and technical questions about lubricants used by the Iraqi Air Force. It would take a lot of time and work to get the answers (and I had little time and a lot of work). I understood the rationale for the question. Although Iraq was an oil exporting country, it had to import the high-end refined products like lubricants for precision parts in jet engines. In theory, cutting off the supply of lubricants would eventually ground the Iraqi Air Force. The fallacy of the theory was that Iraq had such huge stockpiles of all manner of war supplies, and the amount of this kind of lubricant required was relatively small and could easily be smuggled into Iraq over land. It would take years for this strategy to have effect. The battlegroup didn't like my response and persisted in wanting the answers to the full list of questions. I suggested they could make better use of their time (and mine) by focusing their effort on tracking the SA-6 batteries that would be shooting at their aircraft in the next month, and I put the RFI at the bottom of my “hold” pile.

My piles of message traffic were actually quite high. There was no electronic storage back then, and given the unreliability of the communications, many messages that I did get I would save for future reference. I had so many stacks of hard-copy messages on, above, and underneath my desk that I was facetiously accused of single-handedly giving Blue Ridge a one degree starboard list. On many other occasions, however, I was able to amaze and delight my fellow staff members by my ability to utilize my unique “sedimentary” filing system, reaching into a two-foot tall stack of messages and pulling out the one that had the answer to the question at hand.

A success story in intelligence support during Desert Shield/Storm was our embarked Joint Inter-Agency Support Element (JILE), a deliberately vague euphemism for the CIA. The JILE team came as part of a National Intelligence Support Team (NIST). The NIST had members from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency (NSA), and the CIA. The DIA element was useful but not all that much value added. The NSA element provided the best information on real-time Iraqi air and missile activity, absolutely critical to protecting our force.

The JILE team was especially valuable in getting answers to RFIs that were outside the normal experience of naval intelligence, and there were an awful lot of them. Given CENTCOM's lackluster performance in providing accurate answers to RFIs, the JILE team was a huge help. Another big advantage was the JILE's direct link to CIA headquarters in Washington. On a number of occasions, we used this link to bypass CENTCOM to get national level collection we needed because the CIA oftentimes agreed that it was important, even when CENTCOM did not.

A drawback to the JILE support was that their communications system was incompatible with the Navy's. The JILE would give us messages that had useful information for the fleet, but in order to send a CIA message to other Navy ships we had to manually retype the entire message into our communications system; we had several intelligence specialists who did little else but retype CIA messages all day long. Although the amount of intelligence the CIA was willing to share tended to be personality dependent, based on who was in charge of the JILE at the time, the CIA came through for us so many times that I have had a soft spot for them ever since. They really are great Americans.

Although Naval Intelligence support during Desert Shield/Storm fell short of what we all hoped it would be, it was far superior to that I remember receiving during the Lebanon crisis in 1983. By any objective measure, I believe it was superior to any previous conflict. Given that we deployed to an area that wasn't even our responsibility, that had no intelligence support infrastructure, and did it with just a handful of officers and enlisted Sailors on Blue Ridge, in the largest naval combat operation since WWII, I think it was pretty damn good. I give the greatest credit to the Seventh Fleet/NAVCENT Intelligence Officer, Commander Wayne Perras. He provided the direction that made the whole thing work, under the most trying circumstances, and under the most unbelievable pressure. He was truly on a high wire with no net. He is a true hero of Desert Storm. Because of him, when war came, we were ready. 

A Fighter Squadron 32 (VF-32) F-14A Tomcat aircraft

A Fighter Squadron 32 (VF-32) F-14A Tomcat aircraft passes a desert dust storm during a flight off of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) while Kennedy and its embarked air wing were in the Red Sea to support Operation Desert Shield. (National Archives photo)

Late November 1990. Dubai, United Arab Emirates

I was crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with a crowd of unkempt laborers from Bangladesh, Baluchistan, and who-knows-where-istan, on a small, lightless ferry boat, yet I felt more at peace then I had for months. In fact, the effect was magical on that balmy night. The packed wooden “abra” glided across the half-mile-wide estuary called Dubai Creek, and the lights from the minarets and the souk bazaar in the old city of Dubai shimmered on the black waters ahead of us, while the glitzy lights of the new city danced on the water behind, as the evening call-to-prayer lofted through the starlit sky around us.

We’d spent over two months tied up to the pier in the harbor of Mina Salman, Bahrain, and apparently Vice Admiral Mauz had gotten some wanderlust. One of the distinct advantages of having a headquarters on a ship was that we could move it. So, Blue Ridge transited to the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates and we got our first real liberty since we'd left Japan.

Most of the crew seemed content to stay in a barricaded area on the pier called “the sandbox” where they could guzzle beer and not get into too much trouble. Navy liberty policy was also a bone of contention with the other services, which were governed by General Schwarzkopf's “General Order Number 1” which forbade the consumption of alcohol, but it applied only to Saudi Arabia where the vast majority of U.S. Army and Air Force personnel were. Since we weren't in Saudi Arabia, the Navy took advantage of the loophole and refused to abide by even the spirit of General Order Number 1. There hadn't actually been much imbibing up to that point in Bahrain simply because most places that served alcohol were closed due to the evacuation of most of their foreign expatriate patrons, and because it was too hard to get from the pier to the city, and none of us on the staff had any time anyway. Jebel Ali was the first blowout of the deployment. Amazingly, we only had a handful of liberty incidents. The sandbox worked.

I chose to take the 45-minute bus ride from the Jebel Ali port area to the city of Dubai. Bahrain and Dubai had long been in competition to be the trading and finance center of the Persian Gulf. Dubai was clearly winning, and was obviously taking advantage of Bahrain's misfortune of being closer to the war zone. Commerce in Dubai was booming. There wasn't the slightest hint that anyone in Dubai cared a hoot that their fraternal neighbor to the north, Kuwait, had just been gobbled up by Iraq. I suspect they saw Kuwait's demise as just one less economic competitor.

Dubai was an incredible mix of traditional and ultra-modern architecture. The city was a cacophony of different peoples from all over the world. It was a swirl of color of numerous different tribal costumes from all over the Middle East and South Asia. Shops were bulging with more glittering gold jewelry than I had ever seen in one spot in my life. The old souk was a beehive of buying and selling of all manner of goods in a manner unchanged for centuries, except almost all the shops and stalls took Visa.

Fascinating contrasts hit me the moment I stepped off the bus in Dubai. The first thing I saw was a rather heavy-set woman, dressed head-to-toe in black, her face entirely veiled, waddling down the street in a scene right out of the Middle Ages, until she stopped, pulled out a set of keys, hopped into a large white Mercedes, fired it up, and drove away. I was floored. As I learned the region better, I came to know that places like Bahrain and Dubai were vastly different and centuries away from the ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.

Later, I took a taxi over to the east side of Dubai Creek where I rendezvoused with other members of the Seventh Fleet/NAVCENT staff at a bar. Eventually tiring of that, one of the other Intelligence Officers on the staff, Lieutenant Commander Steve Carey, and I decided to strike out back to the old city. I have no idea what possessed us to take an abra instead of the taxi that normal people, including the local Arabs, took. I guess we were just moved by the spirit of adventure. And it was hard to beat the price, about a nickel, which was why it was the transportation mode of choice for the "Third Country Nationals (TCNs)" laborers.

The ferry master grossly overloaded the boat. There had to be over 50 people on the 20 foot abra, but we had gotten on early, so there was no real way to get back off if we had tried, as the master just kept jamming more forlorn looking people in behind us. As we pulled away from the rickety ferry dock I could see that the boat traffic on Dubai Creek, even at night, was astonishingly heavy, with large traditional dhows transiting at rather high rates of speed, their wakes rocking our open boat, which only had a few inches of freeboard to spare. I also noted the abra had no lights. This may have explained why the crowd of passengers was totally silent. They may have been the Third World "Wretched of the Earth," but they had the good sense to be scared stiff.

For my part, I imagined a newspaper story, "Ferry boat capsizes. Fifty Bangladeshis Die. Two U.S. Naval Officers Drown Too; No One Could Explain What The Hell They Were Doing There." But the exotic beauty of the abra ride was sublime, and I promptly forgot all danger as I tried to soak in all the atmosphere. I thought, “Only because of the U.S. Navy would I ever have been in this spot. This must be the adventure part.”

A month later, 20 Sailors from Saratoga drowned when their liberty ferry capsized during a port visit to Haifa, Israel, just before Christmas.

In the next H-Gram─(Part 5, December 1990)─Final Preparations for War and JFACC Follies (part one).

Source: (Me. Although I wrote these pieces by memory a number of years after the fact, the best pretty comprehensive source for information on the U.S. Navy during Desert Shield/Desert Storm is still the two-volume set of “Desert Shield at Sea: What the Navy Really Did” and “Desert Storm at Sea: What the Navy Really Did” both by Marvin Pokrant (the NAVCENT/C7F CNA Rep during both operations): Greenwood Press, 1999. (It wasn’t cheap.) Also useful is the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, “The United States Navy in Desert Shield, Desert Storm” of 15 May 1991,” which has the best chronology and other facts and figures. I would note that these are more “PC” than my account.)

Published: Thu Oct 08 18:18:41 EDT 2020