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H-059-1: Operation Desert Storm, Part 7 (February-March 1991)

H-059-1: Desert Shield/Desert Storm Part 7 (February-March 1991)

Samuel J. Cox, Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

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

Operation Desert Shield, Arabian Gulf, January−March 1991.

Mid-February 1991. Central Arabian Gulf, Underway on USS Blue Ridge. “The Great Scud Hunt.”


This series is a departure from my normal H-Grams in that this is a personal recollection. I was the Current Intelligence Officer/Iraq Analyst 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.

photo of a U.S. flag flying off a ship at sea

The national ensign flies from the stern of a U.S. Navy ship at anchor in the Persian Gulf region during Operation Desert Storm in February 1991. (National Archives Identifier: 6468113)

“A monster hit on a monster target!” proclaimed the British officer spokesman with unconcealed glee, as the Tornado weapons systems video he was playing during the press conference showed seven closely-parked Iraqi mobile Scud surface-to-surface missile launchers blowing up in a gigantic ball of fire. It was spectacular video, and I really wanted to believe it, but it just seemed too good to be true. It was.

I wanted the spokesman to be right, partially because the Brits were paying a significant toll for their participation in the air campaign, suffering disproportionate losses among their Tornado jet fighter-bombers. Apparently, the Tornado’s weapon systems required low-altitude delivery, which prevented them from using the medium-altitude tactics that were working so well for our jets. As a result, the British pilots bravely kept flying through the dense anti-aircraft artillery environment, and bravely kept paying the price. Destroying seven mobile Scud launchers would be a huge victory. I just couldn’t figure why the Iraqis would have been so stupid as to park them in the open like that, especially since they had so completely confounded our efforts to find and destroy the mobile launchers before that.

Coalition air and special forces quickly wiped out the 28 or so fixed surface-to-surface launch pads in western Iraq, where they threatened Israel, during the first days of the war. The mobile launchers were a completely different story.

By the second night of the war, Iraq began retaliating for our strikes by using their home-made mobile launchers to fire indigenously modified versions of Soviet-designed Scud surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, that had sufficient range to just barely reach Israel, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and, Bahrain. (The term “Scud” came to be used for a variety of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles in the Iraqi inventory, including actual Scuds, as well as several variants of the longer range “al Hussein” missiles which the Iraqis had built themselves, with North Korean help, from Scud parts.)

The Scuds, especially the modified ones, were wildly inaccurate and posed no significant military threat, although there was always the risk of an extremely lucky hit, such as the one late in the war in Dhahran on a barracks that resulted in the largest single loss of U.S. life in the war. The “al Hussein” was very good at terrorizing civilian populations in cities, and their political leaders. If an “al Hussein” was launched at a city the size of Tel Aviv or Riyadh, it had a reasonable chance of landing within the city limits and killing a fair number of people with its good-sized warhead. If the missile had a chemical warhead, which the Iraqis were known to be working on, then the terrorizing effectiveness of the weapon increased greatly.

A key component of Coalition strategy was to convince Israel to sit this war out. If Israel became involved, it would almost certainly fracture the fragile coalition of Western and Arab countries, such as Syria and Egypt, that had been kluged together to counter Iraq. Hussein undoubtedly understood this weakness in the Coalition and made clear his intent to attack and provoke Israel into the conflict. His ballistic missile force was the only means that Hussein had that could realistically reach Israel. As a result, the U.S. promised Israel that we would prevent Hussein from launching missiles into Israel. With U.S. assurances, Israel reluctantly agreed to restrain itself for the time being.

True to his threat, Hussein fired “al Hussein” missiles into Israel (and later Saudi Arabia) the second night of the war. Several hit in Tel Aviv, killing a couple Israeli civilians, and making a mockery of the U.S. promises. A report of unknown authenticity, but that seemed plausible, reached our staff later in the war, claiming that as the first Iraqi missiles entered Israeli airspace, an Israeli strike force of F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers was already airborne over Jordan streaking toward Iraq. The assessment was that had the Iraqi missiles been armed with chemical, biological or even nuclear warheads, the F-4s would have proceeded to Baghdad with a retaliatory nuclear strike. The strike was recalled when the Israelis confirmed that the Iraqi missiles only had conventional high explosive warheads. True or not, the report showed just how high the stakes were.

Frustration rapidly mounted as the Iraqis fired missile after missile at Israel and Saudi Arabia, and a handful at Bahrain and Qatar, eventually totaling over 70 missiles. Although there were many reports that Coalition aircraft hit mobile mod-Scud launchers, none could be confirmed, and the missiles kept coming. It quickly became clear that the modified Iraqi ballistic missiles were unstable and were breaking up on their terminal entry, resulting in even greater inaccuracy and comparatively little damage on the ground. Despite this, the political pressure to stop the attacks reached a fever pitch.

We also had a very poor understanding of how many Scuds and Modified Scud variants were in the Iraqi inventory. Original order-of-battle databases at the start of Desert Shield indicated 150 or so. For some reason that I could not figure, the operators wanted to know a lot about Scud capabilities, despite the fact they posed negligible threat to moving ships. Through our CIA liaison team, we arranged to have a CIA expert on Scuds fly all the way out to brief us. The expert was quite attractive, who we henceforth referred to as the “Scud Lady.” More importantly, she was also brilliant. But I was really glad that I wasn’t the one to stand up in front of the Admiral and brief him that the national intelligence community, having now taken a much closer look at all intelligence, had come up with a new revised inventory of Iraqi ballistic missiles; somewhere between 400 and 800. “Gee, we’ve got that one nailed down real good,” I commented in an aside.

As the weeks went on, more and more Coalition aircraft were diverted to the “Scud hunt” and U.S. Patriot missile batteries were rushed to defend Israel. I was pleasantly surprised by the reports of success that the Patriot missile were having intercepting the Iraqi ballistic missiles, particularly since I knew the Patriots were not designed to counter ballistic missiles. I had previously assumed there was no defense against a ballistic missile except diving into a ditch or by moving. Ships were in no danger from non-nuclear ballistic missiles, since such missiles had no active terminal guidance (2021 comment: at that time.) The odds of a moving ship being bit by a ballistic missile were practically zero. We weren’t sweating them. (2021 Comment: The closest an Iraqi “al Hussein” ballistic missile came to hitting a ship was the night of 15-16 February when one impacted within the port facility of al Jubayl, UAE, about 1,000 yards from where Tarawa was moored to the quay.)

I got a laugh out of press reports describing the Scud as “old and slow.” The design was certainly “old,” basically not much different from German V-2 rockets in WW II, but all ballistic missiles re-enter the atmosphere at extremely high speeds, five-to-seven times the speed of sound, slowing down to two-to-three times the speed of sound due to atmospheric resistance before they impact. They are extremely difficult targets to hit, even the “old” ones. As it turned out, the Iraqi missiles were breaking up due to their own bad design, not because they were being hit by Patriots. Even if the Scuds did get hit, Newton’s Law says that what goes up, must come down, and several thousand pounds of metal (including the intercepting Patriot) are still going to land on something or someone.

As it became increasingly obvious that the Scud hunt was futile, it became a bone of contention between the Navy and Air Force. We became suspicious that the Air Force knew the mission was useless, but since they were in charge of the air campaign, they assigned ever increasing numbers of Navy aircraft to boring holes in the sky instead of hitting targets that mattered to us, and assigning the better targets for themselves. True or not, the Scuds were no threat to Navy forces, and other threats that were remained untouched for weeks while Navy jets chased the elusive Iraqi mobile ballistic missile launchers.

One day late in the air campaign, there was a big commotion when we received a report from U.S. Special Operations Forces that a mobile Scud launcher had been identified just north of the Saudi-Kuwait border, in a position where it would pose the maximum threat (because of minimum range) to Bahrain and cities or key oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia. The report was amazingly detailed, stating that the missile was in erect firing position, even describing the launcher’s orientation azimuth. Every strike planning center in region scrambled to figure out the fastest way to attack the launcher. As it turned out, the “Scud” launcher was actually an oil derrick that had been in the exact same spot for decades. This event resulted in the production of a tongue-in-cheek “Special Operations Scud Identification Guide” that made the fax machine rounds, identifying everything from oil towers, to cranes, to sheep and camels as “Scuds.” We all got a good laugh at Special Operations expense.

A week or so after the British strike on the mobile launchers, I came across a human Intelligence report that had received little notice. Based on Jordanian press reporting, the report described how seven Jordanian tanker truck drivers, involved in smuggling UN-sanctioned oil out of Iraq, had been killed in a massive explosion a week earlier at a rest and refueling stop on the main road in western Iraq between Baghdad and the Jordanian border. I did some rudimentary “all-source analysis.” So much for the “monster hit.”

After the war, when UN weapons inspectors went into Iraq, it was conclusively determined that not a single Iraqi mobile ballistic missile launcher was destroyed by Coalition aircraft. In my view, a quote from Vice Admiral Arthur early in the campaign pretty much summed it up, “This Scud hunt is dumber than dirt.”

Photo of a ship at sea

USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) Underway in the Pacific Ocean, circa 1990. This photograph was received with the ship's 1990 Command History submission. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. (NH 107691)

18 February 1991. Central Arabian Gulf, Underway on USS Blue Ridge. “Mine Warfare.”

But for sheer luck, 18 February would have been the blackest day in U.S. Navy history since the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in July 1945. In shallow water like that of the Northern Arabian Gulf, the Italian-made Manta bottom influence mine will inflict catastrophic keel-breaking damage on any destroyer or cruiser-sized ship in the world. The only reason a billion dollar U.S. AEGIS-class guided missile cruiser and 300 of her crew are not resting on the bottom of the northern Arabian Gulf is because the Iraqis screwed up the sensitivity setting of the Manta mine that detonated too late, only damaging the USS Princeton (CG-59). Had the mine worked as designed, Princeton would have gone to the bottom in seconds, and in a single incident would have practically doubled the total number U.S. combat deaths in the entire Desert Storm operation, which would have had profound consequences for the future of the U.S. Navy. Because the worst did not happen, the U.S. Navy continues to bury its head in the sand and pay lip service to dealing effectively with the most cost-effective weapon in naval warfare, the mine. (2021 Comment: I think we do better at this now, but still….)

Adroit Marks the Way for Princeton

Adroit Marks the Way for Princeton. Painting, Oil on Canvas Board; by John Charles Roach; 1991; Framed Dimensions 26H X 34W. (92-007-X)

I’d no sooner set foot in the staff intelligence office early that morning than Lieutenant Commander Steve Carey (our Intelligence Collection Manager) hit me with, “Did you hear about the mines? Two of our ships were just hit.” The news had the effect of a body blow, inflicting a sense of despair that I hadn’t felt since the botched strike in Lebanon. It wasn’t that I was surprised. I was actually expecting it, but still hoping that it wouldn’t happen. The level of effort that the staff, and I personally, had put into trying to prevent it had been intense. To put so much work into something, only to fail, is crushing. On the other hand, we’d done the best we could with the assets we had, but the primary factor was CENTCOM’s decision to concede maritime battle space to the enemy without a fight.

Although I considered the Iraqi Mirage F-1s with Exocet missiles to be the primary threat to U.S. and Coalition naval forces in the northern Arabian Gulf, I believed the mines were a very close second. The reason I didn’t consider Iraqi mines the biggest threat was only because the Iraqis had not done much with them during the Iran-Iraq war; they had laid a few small defensive minefields with no reported success. The Iranians, on the other hand, using much the same types of mines as in the Iraqi inventory, had used them rather audaciously to great effect, a couple times to the great embarrassment of the U.S. Navy.

During the first Ernest Will convoy in 1987, in which U.S. warships provided escort for Kuwait tankers that had been re-flagged with the U.S. flag, the Iranians boldly used some small speed boats to lay mines right across the convoy’s track. Despite the U.S. Navy escort, the supertanker Bridgeton hit one of the mines; although the hole was very large, on a huge ship the size of Bridgeton, the damage was comparatively light. The same size hole on a destroyer or cruiser size of ship would likely sink it. This led to the rather ignominious photo of the damaged Bridgeton leading the way into Kuwaiti waters with her erstwhile U.S. Navy escorts following in her wake to protect themselves from mines. (2021 Comment: I’ve since heard that this was planned that way, but from a PR perspective it still looked bad.)

The Iranians even conducted “offensive” mining off Kuwaiti and Saudi ports, as well as laying a minefield off Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, which sank a couple commercial ships. The U.S. then caught the Iranians red-handed, capturing the small Iranian logistics ship Iran Ajr, fully loaded with moored contact mines, before all of them could be laid. Later, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) steamed into a freshly laid Iranian minefield and struck a mine while trying to back out. Due to great luck (calm seas and alert lookouts seeing the mines before the ship hit one) and heroic damage control by her crew, the severely damaged Samuel B. Roberts did not sink. This incident led to further escalation in the quasi-war between Iran and the U.S. Navy, shortly afterward culminating in Operation Praying Mantis and the sinking of the Iranian frigate Sahand and the missile boat Joshan.

The Iranian experience with mine warfare was very much on my mind as I evaluated the Iraqi mine threat. All the Iraqis needed was the will to use their mines, and they could pose a grave threat to any U.S. naval operations or amphibious operations in the northern Arabian Gulf. I knew much more about Iranian mine warfare capability than the Iraqis. Iraqi mine capability had never been a high collection priority, since they were supposedly the “good guys” during the Iran-Iraq War.

The Intelligence estimate for how many and what types of mines were in the Iraqi inventory was very fuzzy. We believed the Iraqis had at least a thousand mines, possibly even two thousand, but because we knew they were actually manufacturing some of their own, we really had no firm idea how many they had. We knew almost nothing about Iraq’s indigenous production, but estimated that they were standard moored contact mines. (A moored contact mine is the classic floating ball with “horns,” anchored to the bottom with a chain, seen in WWII movies. When a ship hits one of the horns, it creates a chemical reaction that initiates an electric charge and detonates the mine.)

Most of Iraq’s mines were bought from the Soviet Union and most of those were standard moored contact mines, little changed from the original, but still effective, 1908 Russian design. We also knew the Iraqis had a number of Soviet bottom influence mines. (Bottom influence mines rest on the seabed and, depending on the type, are detonated based on either magnetic, acoustic, seismic (pressure) or combination effects from the target ship passing overhead. The detonation of a bottom influence mine causes a large gas bubble to rise underneath the target ship, which caused the ship to, in effect, fall into the bubble, which breaks the keel and sinks the ship. The more shallow the water, the more devastating the effect of a bottom influence mine.)

My biggest concern was the Manta bottom-influence mines that Iraq had bought from Italy; besides having considerable explosive force, their design and construction (very little metal) made them very difficult to find and sweep. A Manta could easily sink an amphibious ship and take several hundred Marines to the bottom. Given the severity of the threat, I found it astonishing that CENTCOM showed virtually no interest in any effort to increase intelligence collection against Iraqi mine capability or activity; it simply was never a CENTCOM priority.

The northern Arabian Gulf (actually, the entire Arabian Gulf) is ideal for mine warfare, primarily because it is so shallow. Moored contact and bottom influence mines can be laid with ease anywhere in the Arabian Gulf, including the areas where U.S. aircraft carriers would have to operate. Neither aircraft carriers nor even the battleships were designed to withstand the effect of a shallow bottom influence mine. Bottom influence mines didn’t exist when the battleships were designed, and the carriers were intended to operate in deep open ocean water. In water the depth of the Arabian Gulf, the effect of a bottom influence mine on a carrier or battleship would be severe, and quite possibly fatal, despite the large size of such ships.

The muddy bottom, characteristic of almost all the Arabian Gulf, was ideal for laying bottom influence mines; the bottom mines were very hard to find when they settled into the silt, but were still just as deadly. The high tidal variations in the northern Arabian Gulf had no real impact on bottom mines, but did put a lot of stress on moored contact mines. If not anchored at the right depth, the moored contact mines might float on the surface at low tide, or be too far below the surface to hit a ship at high tide.

The tides would occasionally cause the chains of moored contact mines to break, causing the mines to float to the surface and drift away with the current. Even after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, mines would periodically break away from abandoned or forgotten minefields, where currents would take them south, posing a threat to tankers and commercial shipping in the heavily trafficked southern Arabian Gulf. Some of these drifting mines were real mines, but false alarms were common. A frequent cause of false sightings were dead sheep carcasses, thrown off the “Sheep Ships” that transited between Australia and Saudi Arabia, which would float on their backs, feet up.

We got a lucky break early on due to an unusual lapse in normally good Iraqi operational security. I got a call from the Navy Operational Intelligence Center (NAVOPINTCEN) in late October. Analysts there had identified an Iraqi auxiliary ship, the Spasilac ARS, in a Kuwait port with mines on deck and more on the pier being loaded. Not surprisingly, the report caused much commotion on the staff. I was quite prepared to believe the report, but there was considerable skepticism on the staff. For one, the Spasilac was not a minelayer, nor did it have any history of mine warfare activity. I argued this was not conclusive, since any ship could be used as a minelayer, and in fact the Iraqi Navy had no dedicated minelayers of any kind, but had laid mines in the past from auxiliary ships, and even their Super Frelon helicopters. When we got the image in over our by now antiquated FIST (Fleet Imagery Support Terminal), it seemed pretty clear to me that the NAVOPINTCEN analysts were right, although the limited resolution of the image made it a challenge to convince some of the die-hard skeptics.

Now that we had evidence indicating the Iraqis were laying or preparing to lay mines, the obvious questions were: how many, what type, and where? The next three months were an intensely frustrating attempt to answer those questions. We immediately requested that CENTCOM increase the priority of national and theater intelligence collection on Iraqi and Kuwaiti ports so we could try to see if more ships were involved and how often they were getting underway to lay mines. However, there wasn’t enough collection capability to cover all top priority requirements, and mines were not among CENTCOM’s highest priorities. Images of Iraqi and Kuwait ports remained few and far between for the duration of the operation, nowhere near frequently enough to discern any sort of operating pattern by Iraqi ships capable of laying mines.

The Iraqis also practiced great electronic emissions control. Ships conducting minelaying operations did not turn on their radars, even at night, and did not communicate on their radios, so there was no way to track them by these means. Human intelligence (HUMINT) on Iraqi minelaying was effectively non-existent, since HUMINT networks had not been established before the war, and HUMINT is a long-lead time capability. With virtually no imagery, signals or human intelligence, it was practically impossible to know for sure the extent or location of Iraqi minelaying operations.

The biggest impediment to tracking Iraqi minelaying activity was the decision by CENTCOM early in Desert Shield to draw a line across the northern Arabian Gulf and forbid U.S. ships and aircraft from going north of it. The purpose of this restriction was to prevent an inadvertent incident between U.S. and Iraqi ships and aircraft that might precipitate open hostilities before the U.S. was ready and the build-up of forces complete. The result was that the Iraqi navy and air force had a sanctuary were they could operate with impunity, unseen by U.S. and coalition tactical surveillance and reconnaissance assets. The Iraqis used this gift from Allah, courtesy of General Schwarzkopf, to lay large numbers of mines (over 1,200) in international waters in violation of international law, without even being observed by U.S. or allied ships and aircraft, making the northern Arabian Gulf a vastly more dangerous place to operate when we would later need to go in there to support the ground campaign. With virtually no intelligence, and no surveillance and reconnaissance, we were pretty clueless about what the Iraqis were up to.

The Saudis found the first “drifter” in late December (2021 Comment: 21 December to be exact.) Like other mine events, this one was initially greeted with skepticism by others on the NAVCENT staff with questions like, “How do you know it’s not an old mine from the Iran-Iraq war that broke free?” It seemed to me that many were desperate not to believe the seriousness of the mine threat, wanting to wish it away because of the profound impact it would have on our operations north of “the Line” whenever they commenced. However, by the end of December, a half-dozen more mines had floated across the line into areas where our ships were operating. The chance of hitting a floater was relatively remote, since they could be seen both by eyes and radar, which was not the case with a submerged mine. Nevertheless, the floaters did pose a danger, since they were definitely hard to see, especially at night. They also posed a significant question: w ere the mines breaking free from newly laid fields, or were the Iraqis deliberately laying floating mines? Setting mines adrift is a violation of the Law of Armed Conflict, specifically the 1907 Hague Convention that established “the rules” for mine warfare.

Laying drifting mines is an act of war. So is laying mines in international water without announcement, which we believed the Iraqis were doing, but couldn’t prove until the floaters started drifting south. As far as we were concerned on the NAVCENT staff, the Iraqis had already started the war, and VADM Arthur began agitating even more for CENTCOM to lift the prohibition on U.S. Navy reconnaissance flying over the northern Arabian Gulf. CENTCOM refused. The Air Force and Army were still not ready for the war to start.

With the onset of the drifters, coupled with the renewed planning for an actual amphibious landing in Kuwait, mines became the top priority on the NAVCENT staff. The chart I maintained with all the mine sighting locations and everything we knew about Iraqi mines suddenly became in very high demand at numerous planning meetings. I gave a number of briefings, some of which became rather contentious. The operators kept pressing for intelligence on where the minefields were. They didn’t like my answer, “We don’t know.”

I laid out what we did know, and what we assessed, and they didn’t like that either. I briefed that as of early January, at least two Iraqi ships, Spasilac ARS and T-43 MSF (a minesweeper being used as a minelayer) were involved in minelaying operations, based on being imaged in the act of loading moored contact mines. We assessed that the amount of mines laid was “extensive,” based on the fact that the first detected activity was three months earlier.

We also had been able to have a boarding team debrief the Indian master of a ship that had been allowed to go into the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr because it was carrying a cargo of food, medicine and peace activists. According the ship’s master, Iraqi ships were going out “every night” to lay mines during the two weeks his ship was in Umm Qasr. If Iraqi ships had been going out every night since October, there could easily be over a thousand mines in the waters of the northern Arabian Gulf. This estimate agitated the operators even more.

I lost track of how many times some know-it-all sarcastically suggested, “Why don’t you get a navigation chart and look at the bottom contours, that way you can at least rule out some areas.” And many times I suppressed the urge to respond, “Duh, no s*** Sherlock,” responding only with, “We’ve already looked at that, the entire Arabian Gulf is ideally suited for both moored contact and bottom influence mines. No area can be ruled out due to depth or bottom composition.”

We learned a lot from the Saudis and our Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams who recovered a couple of the floaters and observed others before they destroyed them. (The means for destroying a floating mine involved dropping an EOD swimmer from a helicopter, who would swim up to the mine, place an explosive charge on it, before being picked up by the helicopter, which would detonate the charge and explode the mine.) Based on marine growth, the mines were not left over from the Iran-Iraq war; some had been in the water two-to-three months, others were very recently planted. Most of the mines still had lengths of chain attached, indicating they had broken free from their anchors. Several had no indication of chain attached, indicating they had been deliberately laid as drifters.

Most of the drifting mines were Iraqi-made, of a type we previously knew nothing about. By exploiting one of the mines the Saudi’s found, we determined the Iraqi designation was LUGM-145, and it was a crude, but workable, variation on standard Soviet-made moored contact mines.

Throughout the fall and into January, we tried all kinds of ways to try to figure out where the mines were laid. For example, certain versions of the Air Force E-3A AWACS (those with the “maritime” package) had the capability to record radar tracks of ships over time. We got hold of some of these plots to see if we could determine patterns of operations. In theory, if we could determine where ships were going, that might tell us where the mines were, since presumably the Iraqi ships would stay out of mined areas. This was inconclusive. The northern Arabian Gulf is so heavily cluttered with oil platforms and small boat traffic that the plots were basically useless blobs.

We also were able to get some “experimental” collection using a national overhead radar system, using it in a way that it might be able to detect moored contact mines just below the surface if they weren’t too far under. The first readout provoked a lot of excitement, since it seemed to show a dozen mines off Kuwait City. I burst the bubble when I brought in a navigation chart and pointed out that the “mine” positions corresponded exactly with the buoys in the main shipping channel.

Somewhat more useful were various current drift modeling tools provided by our staff scientist. Once the floaters started drifting south, we tried to use these models to “backtrack” the mines, to try to figure out where they’d been laid. However, the models were comparatively crude, and without knowing exactly how long a mine might have been adrift, it was very difficult to reach any definitive conclusion. In fact, the models showed that the first drifting mines originated near Kharg Island, well within Iranian waters, which muddied the analysis. In addition, there were indications that the Iranians had found some drifting mines in their waters, which completely defied the model’s predictions for mines laid in Iraqi waters. Nevertheless, the drift models seemed to suggest that none of the drifting mines were coming from waters very close to the Kuwaiti and Iraqi shoreline. The implication was that the mines had been laid fairly far out at sea, near the edge of where a ship like the T-43 or Spasilac could reach, lay mines, and return to port during the cover of darkness.

At the time the air campaign started on 17 January, my assessment was that the entire western half of the Arabian Gulf north of “the line” should be considered mined and dangerous; we simply could not prove that any of that area was not mined. I passed my assessment around to the N2, Commander Perras, and during multiple planning meetings. However, the persistent drumbeat continued from the operators demanding an intelligence assessment for the most likely location of the minefields. My equally persistent “don’t know, don’t have enough data” became increasingly unappreciated.

Finally, NAVOPINTCEN got formally tasked by someone to come up with an official estimate, which they dutifully did, although they included all the same caveats I’d been using. However, the NAVOPINTCEN “guesstimate” include specific coordinates for an assessed mined area, that ran from the Kuwait/Saudi border and then along an arc from Maradim Island to Qurah Island and then north to the Iraqi al Faw Peninsula. NAVOPINTCEN’s estimate actually proved to be fairly accurate, except the Iraqis laid the mines about 10-15 miles further out than the estimate showed. These coordinates were then converted into a “JOTS overlay” which was transmitted to all the U.S. ships, without the knowledge or approval of the NAVCENT intelligence staff. As a result, every U.S. ship equipped with a Navy Tactical Data System display had an area automatically depicted on the display that showed the mined area, but stripped of any of the caveats and uncertainty of analysis for how the coordinates were derived in the first place. (2021 Comment: That the JOTS overlay was transmitted is a fact. I have seen no other reporting as to whether it influenced U.S. ships as to where they thought they were safe and where they weren’t. Nevertheless, the initial starting point for the assembly of the U.S. minesweeping force was outside the NAVOPINTCEN estimate but actually in the outer Iraqi moored minefield belt. Numerous ships transited through this minefield multiple times without hitting the mines that were there.)

I believe that many U.S. ships were operating under the mistaken assumption that areas outside the delineated mine areas were “safe.” This false assumption was reinforced, when U.S. surface ships, such as USS Nicholas operated with extraordinary audacity in the early days of the war, shelling and “liberating” Kuwait oil platforms serving as Iraqi observation posts (and capturing the first Iraqi prisoners of war during Desert Storm.) It wasn’t until after the war that we learned some of these ships repeatedly transited through Iraqi minefields, but had the good fortune not to strike one.

Our quest to find the location of the Iraqi minefields continued even after the air war started. The first good indication came during the incident at Qurah Island about 24 January. During an engagement with U.S. aircraft and helicopters, an Iraqi supply ship trying to evade attack struck a mine and sank (This ship was identified as a “minelayer” in initial reports.) As the engagement unfolded, the small Iraqi garrison on Qurah surrendered to a U.S. helicopter flying overhead. U.S. Navy SEALs went ashore and captured some prisoners and documents, as well as liberating the first piece of Kuwaiti soil during Desert Storm. These provided little insight to mine locations (although the sunken supply ship provided a positive data point), but served as the impetus for a subsequent deliberate raid on the more substantial Iraqi garrison on Maradim Island.

The landing on Maradim Isaland was strongly pushed by Commander Perras for the specific purpose of capturing Iraqi documents that might give minefield locations. The raid took place about 29 Jan and was a success, and in fact we did get some Iraqi charts with minefield locations. Unfortunately, it only showed the area between the Kuwait-Saudi border and Maradim Island, but along with the mine location at Qurah Island showed that the minefield was further out than the NAVOPINTCEN estimate, and it confirmed there were a lot of mines in the extensive field.

In the pre-dawn hours of 18 February, U.S. ships began moving toward the Kuwait shore north of Qurah Island in order to begin preparations to move naval gunfire ships in to support the planned amphibious deception operation. The U.S. cruiser Princeton sailed into waters that had not been swept. The Commander of the British ships working with the U.S. task group balked, questioning on what basis the Americans deemed the area safe to operate, since his information indicated the area could be mined. I presume the British commander didn’t have the “mine area” overlay that was giving U.S. ships a false sense of certainty.

ship pulling into port

USS Tripoli (LPH-10) returns to Naval Station, San Diego, as a commercial harbor tug maneuvers the vessel into port. Tripoli suffered hull damage when it struck an Iraqi mine on 18 February 1991 while on patrol during Operation Desert Storm. The vessel underwent repair in Bahrain prior to its return to San Diego. (National Archives Identifier: 6478092)

The first ship to hit a mine was USS Tripoli, ironically the flagship of the Minesweeping Task Force, carrying the MH-53 minesweeping helos and providing command and control to the U.S. and Coalition Minesweeping ships. Tripoli proved the adage “every ship is a minesweeper -- once.” Tripoli hit a moored contact mine, which blew a massive hole near the bow, bigger than the one in USS Cole (DDG-67) at Aden in 2000. Fortunately, Tripoli was a large ship and was able to withstand the damage, although later inspection showed the Tripoli had been quite lucky.

A couple hours later, Princeton triggered a Manta bottom influence mine. The mine detonated prematurely, but even so severely shook Princeton, put a serious crack in the superstructure, and injured several Sailors. Some initial reports indicated Princeton triggered two mines, one underneath and one a couple hundred yards away. In that shallow water, a Manta detonating directly underneath would have sent the Princeton to the bottom. (2021 Comment: In recent discussions with Princeton’s CO, CAPT Ted Hontz, it appears that the Manta actually detonated too late, most of the ship had already passed over, so damage was most extensive in the stern area. The damage was also even more extensive than even I had believed, and it is a testament to the sturdy construction of a Spruance/AEGIS hull (and sea state) that the ship did not break apart. Also of note CNO Gilday was in the crew of Princeton that day.)

Because no Sailors were killed and neither ship was lost, the true gravity of this incident was lost on most of the Navy, and certainly on CENTCOM. With only slightly less luck, both ships and many hundreds of Sailors (as well as all the minesweeping helos) could have been lost, and Desert Storm would have been far uglier and bloodier, with the Navy suffering the vast majority of casualties, against an enemy Navy that only came out of port to flee to Iran, and to lay mines in the dark.

The real lesson, though, is that if you concede battle space to the enemy without a fight, you should expect to pay dearly to get it back. “The line” could have been the costliest decision of the war.

24 February 1991. Central Arabian Gulf, Underway on USS Blue Ridge. “Over the Top.”

The first deserters started coming across the front line about a week before the start of the ground campaign. At first it was just a handful of low-ranking Iraqi conscripts, but they told a consistent story of poor morale, poor or absent leadership, lack of food, water and ammunition, lack of will to fight, and despair at the relentless day-and-night pounding from Coalition aircraft. It was a hopeful counterpoint to the thousands of body bags that had been brought from the States in anticipation of the extensive American and Coalition casualties expected at the onset of the ground war. But no one wanted to get their hopes up too much in the event the reports proved too good to be true.

The atmosphere in the days leading to the start of the ground war was one of foreboding. The exact start of the ground offensive was a closely guarded secret known only to a very few, but we could sense it fast approaching. The weather was already starting to get hot and would only get worse with each passing week. The air campaign was going reasonably well (despite ourselves), but no one knew for sure what would happen when we launched offensive operations on the ground. Our troops were much better trained, equipped and, we believed, more motivated than the Iraqis.

The problem was that there were so many Iraqis, and they had been digging defensive fortifications and laying extensive minefields and obstacles largely unmolested for six months. They were preparing for a mode of warfare that had proved very effective in mowing down tens of thousands of Iranians. Over the preceding months, every increase in U.S. and coalition troop strength was met by yet more Iraqi reinforcements pouring into Kuwait from newly activated divisions. We believed many of these divisions were understrength and in poor condition of readiness. But even so, there were still so many of them that if they chose to stand and fight they couldn’t help but inflict considerable casualties; the landmines alone could kill many.

No one thought taking on the Iraqi army would be a cakewalk, especially the better trained, equipped and disciplined Iraqi Republican Guard armored forces. Time and battle-tested formulas required that offensive forces have a 3:1 ratio of troops and equipment in order to be assured of prevailing over a determined defense, 5:1 in order to decisively win. In even the best estimates, we were outnumbered 2:1 by the Iraqis. Potential Iraqi use of chemical weapons was a wildcard that could make the equations even worse. An awful lot was riding on the success of Coalition airstrikes in attriting Iraqi ground combat power before Coalition troops attacked into the teeth of prepared Iraqi defenses.

Not surprisingly, the Army wanted the Air Force to commence all-out bombing of Iraqi tanks and troops in Kuwait as soon as possible, while the Air Force sought to delay as long as possible in order to bomb as many strategic and command and control targets in Iraq that the Air Force believed would be a more effective way to end the war quickly than by “plinking” tanks in the desert. The Army became as frustrated with the Air Force as the Navy.

Trying to measure how much of the Iraqi forces were destroyed by airpower in order to achieve the force ratios desired by the Army before launching the attack became very controversial. Aircrew were prone to exaggeration of how much destruction they were causing on the ground, but would invariably become indignant and self-righteous when challenged. I remember looking at weapons systems infrared video that aircrew claimed confirmed kills on Iraqi armored vehicles; all I could confirm was that the bombs detonated, presumably somewhere in Kuwait. On the other hand, bomb damage assessment coming out of Washington (by the National Photographic Interpretation Center, which belonged to the CIA at the time) was overly conservative. So much so that a joke went around that if the CIA saw a tank chassis on one side of a ditch, and the tank’s turret lying upside down on the other side of the ditch, the CIA would call the tank “possibly” destroyed.

The truth was somewhere in between. Fewer tanks and armored vehicles were actually destroyed than claimed, but enough of them were hit that the psychological impact on the Iraqis was profound. Many Iraqi troops literally abandoned their armored vehicles, which were only serving as bomb bait. When the Air Force turned the B-52s on troop and armor concentrations most of the bombs landed in the desert, but the psychological shock to the Iraqis was intense.

The fixed defensive positions that worked well against the Iranians only served as good aimpoints for U.S. and coalition bombs. The Iranian Air Force only succeeded in conducting occasional inaccurate nuisance strikes during the Iran-Iraq War; U.S. bombing was relentless, intense, far more accurate, and around-the-clock. In the last week before the start of the ground campaign, when the Navy moved four carriers into the northern Arabian Gulf, Navy jets were dropping as many bombs on Iraqi troops as the B-52s, flying strike after strike into the “kill boxes” in Kuwait. (2021 Comment: Another bone of contention between the Navy and the JFACC was the refusal of the JFACC to assign the same kill-boxes to specific carriers, despite Navy request. The Navy position was that doing so would allow aircrews to become more familiar with targets in a particular kill-box, which would improve efficiency, and it would also allow for direct hand-off of identified but un-struck targets to the next strike from the same carrier. Instead, it seemed that every Navy strike into what appeared to be randomly assigned kill-boxes essentially started from scratch. The Air Force position was that the Navy was trying to recreate the “route pack” methodology from Vietnam to which the JFACC commander was adamantly opposed.)

Apprehension was very high on Blue Ridge the day the ground war started and we were focused on the Marines ashore that belonged to MARCENT. The Marines would lead the Coalition offensive, attacking into the strongest and most heavily defended Iraqi positions, in order fix the Iraqis in place, enabling the Army to complete the wide swing to the west (the “Hail Mary” plan) and attack into the Iraqis flank to decisively defeat the Republican Guard armored forces and cut off their retreat.

The Marines would conduct their main attack without the originally planned supporting amphibious attack, although we would conduct an amphibious “demonstration,” a feint intended to pin down Iraqi troops along the coast so they couldn’t turn and counterattack the Marines coming from the southwest. The Marines expected a tough fight.

The Iraqi forces in southern Kuwait had actually conducted a vigorous spoiling attack into Khafji, Saudi Arabia at the very end of January that was only beaten back after some intense house-to-house combat, overwhelming airpower, battleship gunfire, and the first significant U.S. ground force casualties of the war (although most of the deaths were caused by a “friendly” air strike). As it turned out, the Iraqi divisions that conducted the Khafji attack had been seriously mauled and were no longer combat effective, made even worse by three more weeks of bombing and shelling. Some of the Iraqi troops even tried to surrender to a Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) flying off one of the battleships providing spotting for 16" gunfire, or so the story was told.

The initial reports exceeded anyone’s expectations. Marine combat engineers blew through the first defensive berm and breached the minefields and fire-trenches with minimal opposition (this success was partially due to great intelligence on where the minefields and defenses were). Marines poured through the gap.

Those Iraqis who chose to fight were quickly overpowered by Marine fire and maneuver. The Iraqis simply could not cope with the speed at which U.S. forces moved. Dispirited, disillusioned, and exhausted by constant one-sided air bombardment, most Iraqi forces had already either deserted and fled, or quickly surrendered. There were some isolated pockets of intense resistance, but by midday of the first day, Marine forces were cutting through the Iraqis and were already into the southern Kuwaiti oilfields, which had already been sabotaged by retreating Iraqi forces. All the well-heads had been blown and were on fire, filling the air of the battlefield with thick noxious smoke. Although the oil fires reduced visibility and created confusion, the Marines were quickly advancing to the outskirts of Kuwait City.

The Marines’ advance was so stunning and rapid that General Schwarzkopf directed the Army to accelerate their timetable for launching their attack in order to take advantage of the Marines’ success. The more cynical view, widespread on the NAVCENT staff, was that Schwarzkopf became worried that the Marines would be planting the flag at the U.S. Embassy in downtown Kuwait City before the U.S. Army had even crossed the line of departure. The Marines were supposed to be the “supporting attack” tying down Iraqi forces for the Army’s “main effort.” By the second day, an advanced Marine recon team did make it to the U.S. embassy and raised a flag, while Army units were still racing through the desert to attack Iraqi forces north and west of Kuwait City from the flank and rear.

By the end of the second day, Marines effectively held the perimeter of Kuwait City, and awaited the Coalition Arab forces, mostly Egyptian and Saudis, that were advancing up the coast road. In the original plan, the Marines were to secure the perimeter and the Coalition Arab forces would attack into Kuwait City and do the difficult house-to-house fighting under the theory that Arabic-speaking forces would be better at finding their way around a large Arab city. Avoiding urban combat would also reduce the number of U.S. casualties. As it turned out, the Egyptian attack into Kuwait City turned into a victory parade rather than bloody urban combat; all but a handful of diehard Iraqis were already fleeing for their lives.

By the third day of the ground war, apprehension was giving way to outright euphoria, especially after Army forces made short work of the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard units that attempted to oppose the U.S. advance from the west. Although much of the Iraqi armor was already abandoned, due to fear of air attack, several pockets of Republican Guard armored units put up spirited resistance, but were no match for the speed, accuracy and vastly superior night-fighting capability of U.S. armor. More importantly, U.S. and Coalition casualties had been astonishingly light. Before the war, even the most optimistic estimates predicted 5,000 or more U.S. casualties, rather than the several dozen killed or wounded in the first days of the ground offensive. By the fourth day, it was clear that Desert Storm was a one-sided route of truly historic proportions.

In the end, the Iraqi army simply lacked the will to fight. Still exhausted by the eight-year bloodbath of the Iran-Iraq War, the typical Iraqi soldier, who would fight tenaciously to defend Iraqi soil, did not understand why they were in Kuwait and did not believe in their mission. The bombing directed against Iraqi ground units had a lot to do with breaking the ground forces’ will to resist. The strategic air campaign against Iraqi command and control was largely irrelevant; the Iraqi conscript force in Kuwait had already been abandoned by their leaders. Poorly trained, with inadequate supplies, and treated like expendable cannon-fodder by their own leaders, the Iraqi army in Kuwait was defeated before the first shot was fired.

painting of ship under attack by a missile

USS Missouri under Attack by Iraqi Silkworm. Painting, Oil on Canvas Board; by John Charles Roach; 1991; Framed Dimensions 28H X 34W (92-007-U)

25 February 1991. Central Arabian Gulf, Underway on USS Blue Ridge. “Silkworm Shot.”

The stunning advance of the Marines on Kuwait City showed, in hindsight, that a supporting amphibious assault was not actually necessary. The decision to cancel the amphibious assault no doubt saved many U.S. lives. The substitute amphibious “demonstration” nearly proved costly because of our failure to destroy threat systems earlier in the campaign.

Following the mine strikes on Tripoli and Princeton, the plans to conduct amphibious raids and demonstrations in support of the impending ground campaign were scaled back considerably. The next time naval forces approached the Kuwaiti coast, the minesweepers would lead the way. With little time remaining before the start of the ground offensive, the minesweepers could only a clear a small box. The new plan called for the battleship Missouri and several escort ships to operate in the swept box and conduct naval gunfire missions in an attempt to deceive the Iraqis into thinking an amphibious assault on the coast of Kuwait was impending, essentially reinforcing what the Iraqis already believed. On the day the ground assault started, U.S. amphibious ships were to come into the box, put landing craft in the water, and stage a deception amphibious assault that would do everything short of actually landing on the beach, although this plan too was scaled way back.

The Iraqis responded by hauling Silkworm anti-ship missile launchers out of hiding, and firing two missiles at Missouri. The Silkworm was the Chinese version of the old Soviet SS-N-2 Styx missiles that had been exported to Iraq (and Iran). Although the seeker technology was dated, and vulnerable to U.S. electronic countermeasures, the Chinese warhead was of more advanced design and packed a considerable wallop, much bigger than an Exocet. Even Missouri with its thick armor-plated belt would notice if it was hit by a Silkworm, and for smaller destroyer or frigate-sized warships a direct hit from a Silkworm could easily be mortal, or would certainly put it out of action.

The Iraqis had about seven Silkworm launchers. The towed launchers were mobile, but it would take an hour or so for the Iraqis to set up the launcher to fire, although well-trained and experienced crews could potentially do it faster. Although the Silkworm missile had the range to hit ships as far as 60 miles away, the Iraqis did not have a good way to see “over the horizon” to target the missile. If fired in the blind, the missile’s seeker was even more likely to home in on one of the hundreds of Kuwaiti offshore oil platforms or large merchant tankers as it would the intended target. The seeker would go after the first large radar return that it saw.

In the early days of the war, reconnaissance flights and satellite imagery detected Silkworm launchers in open exposed positions on the Iraqi and Kuwaiti coasts. However, because the Silkworm launchers were on land, the Navy did not have permission to strike them. Instead, we had to submit them as a target nomination to the Joint Force Air Component Commander who would prioritize the target relative to other targets on the preplanned target list (the Master Air Attack Plan), and would direct Navy aircraft to bomb some motor vehicle assembly plant instead, because it was still the “strategic” phase of the air campaign. Even when the Silkworms were approved to strike, the process took so long that the launcher had since moved. Not surprisingly, when the JFACC decided that the time had come to start destroying tactical targets, the mobile Silkworm launchers were hidden and nowhere to be seen. As a result, a Silkworm launcher that could have and should have been killed in the opening days of the war, lived to get a shot off when U.S. warships were most vulnerable, operating in a constrained area within sight of shore.

Although a subsonic missile, the Silkworm is still fast and when fired by surprise at such close range there was very little time for the warships to react. One Silkworm fell in the water all by itself while the other Silkworm was shot down by a Sea Dart surface-to-air missile fired by HMS Gloucester, but only after the missile had already passed its closest point of approach to Missouri and other coalition warships, i.e., the Silkworm had already “missed” when it was shot down. Although the missile may have missed due to U.S. electronic countermeasures, it more likely was due to Iraqi error either in target data input or in maintaining the missile’s seeker, i.e., Iraqi incompetence is probably the real reason a coalition ship was not hit and Sailors killed by the Silkworm missiles.

Although this instance is the only recorded case where the Iraqis fired a missile at Coalition ships, there may have been another. Well after the end of the war as Blue Ridge was preparing to head for home, I received an intriguing report via circuitous means. Some Army engineers had found the remnants of the tail section of a missile along the shore near Khafji, Saudi Arabia. The details were somewhat sketchy and I was unable to get in contact with the original source, but what really caught my attention was that the fragments had Chinese markings, and the general description fit a Silkworm missile more than any other possibility. I plotted the location, and it roughly matched the point at which a Silkworm missile, fired from the southernmost detected Silkworm launcher position in Kuwait, would have reached fuel exhaustion. My supposition was that during the Battle of Khafji in late January, the Iraqis took a maximum range, line-of-bearing shot at the U.S. battleships providing gunfire support. Although the Iraqis did not have effective over-the-horizon targeting capability, the muzzle flashes of 16” guns can be seen from a long way, and the Iraqis could easily have figured out the approximate location of the battleship. It would have been an extremely low-probability shot, but I envision some Iraqi battery commander going, “What the hell, why not? It may be the only chance we ever get to be a hero.” If the Iraqis did shoot a Silkworm during the Battle of Khafji, the flight went completely undetected. (2021 Comment: It’s also possible that these were floating debris from the Silkworm missiles fired against Missouri and they just happened to wash ashore at the fuel-exhaustion distance.)

27 February 1991. Central Arabian Gulf, Underway on USS Blue Ridge. “The Highway of Death.”

The word raced through the staff spaces on Blue Ridge; some Navy pilots on the carriers were refusing to fly more strike missions against Iraqi forces attempting to retreat on the road north of Kuwait City because it had turned into a horrific one-sided slaughter of trapped Iraqi troops. Most everyone agreed with the pilots.

The Iraqi retreat from Kuwait actually began even before the start of the ground campaign, in fact parts of the Coalition ground campaign were started early out of concern that Iraqi forces would escape to fight another day. Many of the better-disciplined Iraqi Republican Guard forces managed to escape the trap by Marine and Coalition forces closing in from the south, while U.S. Army armored forces raced from the west trying to cut the escape route.

Regular Iraqi army forces began to flee in haphazard panic, along with the vicious Baathist thugs who were responsible for the vast majority atrocities in Kuwait, and were now trying to flee in stolen cars and trucks packed with looted Kuwaiti goods. The result was a massive traffic jam on the only main road leading back to Iraq from Kuwait City. The jam was soon compounded as U.S. aircraft bombed both ends, trapping the Iraqis in the middle.

Throughout the day, strike after strike rolled in on the sitting duck target. Thousands of vehicles were destroyed and thousands of Iraqis killed in a scale of carnage that boggled the mind. Twisted, mangled and burning vehicles stretched for over twenty miles, in some places ten to twenty vehicles across. Hundreds of defenseless, fleeing Iraqi foot soldiers were burned alive, many more blown to bits by blast and fragmentation. As the stomach-churning reports poured in, it became clear that this wasn’t the elite Republican Guard forces being massacred, these were just the hapless Iraqi conscript force abandoned to their fate by Saddam Hussein, intermingled with Baathist looters who probably did deserve what they were getting. Concern began to mount in the senior ranks that the scale of the slaughter could split the fragile Coalition if Arab nations saw the mass killing of brother Arabs as unnecessary and excessive.

As reports of the “Highway of Death” filtered back to Washington, they were a major impetus in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell’s decision to recommend to the Secretary of Defense and President that the ground campaign be terminated after only 100 hours. Most of the objectives of the war had been achieved. Although much of the Republican Guard had escaped, Kuwait was liberated, the Iraqi army defeated and routed, with astoundingly low Coalition casualties. There was no need for more useless killing. Although the decision to terminate the war early was later criticized by armchair generals who felt we needed to be more ruthless, it was the right decision.

March 1991. Kuwait City, Kuwait. “Vision of Hell.”

The scale of destruction was astonishing. By this time I’d seen hundreds of photos of Kuwait City taken from satellite and reconnaissance aircraft; none had the resolution to detect the true extent of damage. From the air, most of the city seemed pretty intact. From the ground, it appeared that every window in the city was broken, every shop and house looted, gutted, trashed, many of them burned. The dense black pall of roiling smoke from hundreds of burning oil wells blocked out the sun. It looked like doomsday.

Commander Perras and I flew from Bahrain up to Kuwait City about two weeks after the end of the ground war to go to a meeting at the newly reopened U.S. embassy. It didn’t seem so bad at first. The wind was blowing the smoke away from the airport, and we landed under a blue sky and bright sun, but the sight of dozens of blazing oil wells was unreal; they looked like orange traffic flares dotting the horizon. The airport was in ruins, the terminal intact on the outside but burned out and unsafe to enter on the inside. Our transportation plan quickly fell apart and we wound up hitching a ride on the back of a Humvee to the Army headquarters in order to find the ride that was supposed to pick us up at the airport. Sitting on the cargo on the back of the Humvee, blasted by the hot, smoky wind as we drove the airport perimeter road, I definitely felt out of place in my khakis. Everyone else was still in combat gear; Commander Perras and I may have been among the first “tourists” into Kuwait City.

The drive from the airport to the embassy was mostly in silence; we were literally stunned by the damage. We had not conducted an amphibious landing into Kuwait primarily due to concern about how much destruction we would cause to the city. It was clear the Iraqis had done a pretty good job without our help. They had obviously looted practically everything of value from the city, and much of the booty, and the looters, were burned to a crisp in the smoking carnage of the “highway of death” north of the city. There were hardly any Kuwaitis to be seen. The euphoria of liberation that we had watched on CNN tapes had already passed. The party was over, and the Kuwaiti’s were engaged in the grim task of trying to find out how many people had really been killed, how many were missing and would never be seen again, and starting to rebuild.

As we made the turn northward on the coastal boulevard, we could still see the remnants of Iraqi fortifications intended to defend the beach against our amphibious attacks. The beach was still off-limits because many landmines were yet to be recovered. Much of the barbed wire and obstacles had already been removed, but enough still remained to indicate that the Iraqis were truly serious about defending the beach against an amphibious assault that they clearly believed was coming. If the Iraqi defenders had been motivated enough to stand and fight, they could have made any landing quite bloody. Shortly after the liberation of Kuwait City, U.S. forces found an extraordinarily detailed scale sand-table mock-up of the beach defenses, confirming that the Iraqis expended enormous effort to prepare to defend against our deception plan.

Although the threat of amphibious assault is credited with tying down several entire Iraqi divisions, thus diverting defenders away from main Coalition ground attack to the west, most of those divisions were down to skeletal strength before the ground war even began. Those Iraqi soldiers that remained on the Kuwaiti coast at the end of the air campaign took flight before the amphibious landing would have even started. But even devoid of defenders, just the land mines and sea mines could have taken a terrible toll.

By the time we returned to the airport, the wind had changed and the smoke blacked out the mid-afternoon son, an unnatural darkness not unlike the total eclipse I’d experienced in Nova Scotia in 1972, but far more sinister as this was done by the hand of man. The blowtorch flames of the burning oil wells stood out even more against the black sky in an unforgettably surreal, yet bizarrely beautiful vision. I felt strangely guilty for thinking that about a scene of hell on earth.

As our plane climbed through the smoke and broke through into the brilliant sunlight, the huge extent of the black cloud was clear, covering virtually the entirety of Kuwait and out into the Arabian Gulf. For some reason I was reminded of Wellington’s comment after defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

Intelligence Staff for Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command during Desert Storm:

(Original Seventh Fleet Staff)

Commander Wayne Perras (Fleet Intelligence Officer - N2)

Commander Jerry Rapin (Fleet Cryptologist and Deputy N2)

Lieutenant Commander Steve Carey (Collection Manager)

Lieutenant Commander Sam Cox (Current Intelligence)

Lieutenant Commander Alex Butterfield (Plans/Policy and Primary Intelligence Watch Supervisor)

Captain Brad Sillman, USMC (Expeditionary Intelligence)

Lieutenant Dave Dobis (Cryptologic Resource Coordinator)

(Augmentees from Pacific Fleet/Intelligence Center Pacific)

Lieutenant Commander Scott Shuman (Strike Intelligence)

Lieutenant Steve Curran (Assistant Current Intelligence)

Lieutenant Bob Rose (Intelligence Watch and Assistant to Everybody)


In the next Desert Storm H-Gram:

  • Man Overboard
  • Casualties
  • Aftermath
  • Homeward Bound – Lessons Learned
  • Return to Yokosuka

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, although some number of them are “first reports (always wrong). I would note that these are more “PC” than my account. Also, Shield and Storm: The United States Navy in the Persian Gulf War, by Edward J. Marolda and Robert J. Schneller: Naval Historical Center, 1998, is excellent.

Published: Fri Feb 05 18:35:41 EST 2021