Desert War Taught Lessons In How Superpower Uses Force
In the 25 years since the First Gulf War, it’s clear that the lessons learned in that conflict are plentiful and have had implications for strategy, technology, training and how a superpower uses force.
It was a conflict that came unexpectedly, as the Cold War had just ended, Communist walls were falling, and “No More Vietnams” was a chant among both hawks and doves. The success of Operation Just Cause in Panama provided a model for fast, simple military operations that included an exit strategy, completely unlike the experience in Vietnam of fighting an insurgency. The military challenges experienced in Southeast Asia were the driving force behind the effort to build a different kind of Army in the decade leading to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Since 1991 and the end of Desert Storm, technological changes have been immeasurable. Gone are the days of holding the 2-by-2 GPS box out of the Humvee window to get a triangulation in an attempt to traverse the desert.
Soldiers’ lives have evolved based on a number of lessons learned from the war in the Arabian Desert. Medical triage devices, weapons and ammunition, and communication systems have all developed based on the First Gulf War.
An M1A1 Abrams main battle tank lays a smoke screen during Operation Desert Storm.
(Credit: DoD/National Archives)
Three key lessons came out of the 100-hour ground war:
- Define what type of strategy along the spectrum of war the current fight requires to win.
- Establish popular support for any conflict.
- Require all wars to have a termination (or exit) strategy and an accompanying means for conflict resolution.
READY FOR VARIED INTENSITY
One of the key objectives of the so-called Powell Doctrine—an eight-question formula for the use of force articulated in the run-up to the First Gulf War by Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—was to establish an overwhelming strike capability with an emphasis on ground forces when putting U.S. forces in harm’s way. This litmus-type criterion could, at least theoretically, be superimposed on any conflict or war. For the fight in Desert Storm, strategists relied upon high-intensity conflict with a mix of tanks and personal fighting vehicles to destroy the fleeting Iraqi army from Kuwait.
The idea of establishing a strategy that tethers the full spectrum of operations based strictly on the failures of a past conflict is a major lesson for strategists to heed coming out of Desert Storm. Using the lessons from Vietnam and the contrasting strategy used in Panama led the Gulf War strategists to plan for a high-intensity conflict in Desert Storm and disregard a potential counterinsurgency fight. That strategy worked well for the Desert Storm battle because the goals and objective were well defined, resourced and limited to driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait and defending the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
A 101st Airborne Division soldier cleans his M16A2 rifle as he waits for transportation to his duty station at the outset of Operation Desert Storm. (Credit: DoD/National Archives)
Considering what worked well in the First Gulf War, strategists for Operation Iraqi Freedom appeared to mirror image the massive high-intensity conflict attack as the predominant means for ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003. Unlike the Desert Storm-era objective to push Hussein’s army out of an occupied country, however, the coalition in Operation Iraqi Freedom was ousting the dictator from his throne in his capital city. With this effort came an obvious risk of the formulation of disenchanted Hussein loyalists who would become rebellious to the coalition’s efforts.
Desert Storm may be, to an extent, the comprehensive model for lessons learned involving war termination and conflict resolution strategies, but there obviously existed a baseline framework that allowed the tactical and operational successes initially seen during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Assembling a large combat element, much like in Desert Storm, the post-Desert Storm strategists knew they could win the next high-intensity conflict fight. This was, of course, without the consideration that the next fight would be in Iraq proper. As a result, once the big gun battles ended, the subsequent fight required a counterinsurgency capability that few predicted and most attempted to ignore, given a reluctance to relive the protracted experience in Vietnam.
The coalition in Desert Storm was formed to expel the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. That goal was achieved in the first 100 hours of the war. The ensuing arguments questioning if the nation should have exploited this success and continued to defeat the Iraqi army in detail by going all the way to Baghdad is a moot argument, for seizing the Iraqi capital was never part of the original plan.
If the goal of Operation Desert Storm had been to extract Hussein from power, then the coalition most certainly would have experienced an insurgency requiring a counter. The overall goal established in the First Gulf War was to restore the legitimate government of Kuwait and prevent Iraq from further aggression in the Persian Gulf area. The objectives to support this goal didn’t include a march on Baghdad, so little was done to impose U.S. military might during any acts of rebellion in Iraq after the cease-fire in March 1991.
Members of the XVIII Airborne Corps await takeoff in a C-130 Hercules for redeployment to Fort Bragg, N.C., following the liberation of Kuwait. (Credit: DoD/National Archives)
GAINING, MAINTAINING POPULAR SUPPORT
While the Powell Doctrine emphasized a need for an operation to be focused on national interests as well as the employment of overwhelming strike capabilities, it also indicated a need for an operation to garner widespread public support. Desert Storm planted the seed for the wide array of family support group activities and oversight that took flight in the years following the First Gulf War. With the onset of sweeping technologies, the days of courier mail communications between family and soldier as the primary means to communicate during deployment had changed to Voice over Internet Protocol and email.
The divide between lessons learned and the development of technologies to replace antiquated systems is small. What the military did learn as a salient strategic advantage during the First Gulf War was that popular support, both internally and by external means, is decisive in victory. Large, diverse and universally focused coalitions were built in the major follow-on wars in Afghanistan and again in Iraq. While coalitions are not new to the strategic landscape, the combination of these alliances in concert with unwavering internal public support is what our military learned as a critical key to success.
One of the key things strategists learned from building such an extensive supporting coalition during Operation Desert Shield was that building a vast array of support enabled much-needed backing from the United Nations. Ironically, though President George W. Bush is often criticized for taking on the fight in Operation Iraqi Freedom, there was unilateral acceptance from a vast majority across the globe. A coalition of 49 countries formed in 2003 provided critical support in so many ways to the fight. Their presence led to U.N. support.
WHEN, HOW TO TERMINATE WAR
A lesson U.S. strategists failed to learn was the ability to establish, plan and execute an exit strategy in Desert Storm. The limited objective of thwarting Hussein from Kuwait is an example of success in terms of an exit strategy and perhaps should be used as a model for others to follow. According to a General Accounting Office report (“Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign”), one of the objectives in Desert Storm was an “immediate, complete, and unconditional withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait.” Once that objective was achieved, the U.S. could, and did, withdraw from the theater.
The U.S.-led coalition in Desert Storm followed a plan. It didn’t allow for mission creep to occur. It didn’t submit to the very vocal critics of a cease-fire after only 100 hours. The coalition appropriately followed a war termination strategy because the pre-developed criteria to measure success were followed. In addition, the conflict resolution requirements were physically insignificant after Desert Storm because there were minimal postwar occupation requirements.
In the same light, surging south of Baghdad in concert with the pinching movement from the north gave the coalition the ability to destroy the Iraqi army and remove Hussein from power. What the Operation Iraqi Freedom coalition didn’t learn from Desert Storm, however, was that when an occupation force remains in place, something has to be done to address issues among the indigenous population. After the main fight ends, the problem of what happens to the affected infrastructure, people and defeated army needs to be solved. These actions are part of a conflict resolution strategy that is planned prior to the first shot fired.
A lesson that Desert Storm provides is that with any strategy, there needs to be a clear set of defined goals accompanied by a measurable set of objectives to achieve them. By following this logic, Desert Storm was a successful operation that provided a model for other operations to follow. The fights after Desert Storm didn’t heed this lesson learned, and as a result, we struggled to find a clear path to war termination and conflict resolution.
Members of the 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), after defeating an Iraqi division in southern Iraq (Credit: DoD/National Archives)
WHAT TO TAKE AWAY TODAY
Every war, every battle and every foray are replete with lessons. Merely capturing them in a codified form is not enough. Acting on them and coupling them with technological evolutions provide an opportunity for strategists to execute the next battle better than the last. The U.S. military habitually tends to review the last fight and impose similarities in the execution of the next, or, in the case of Vietnam, our military did everything in its might to not repeat the strategy and accompanying operations and tactics developed and employed in Southeast Asia.
Focusing first on the injection of the appropriate type of conflict as it fits in the full spectrum of war based upon the goals and objectives at hand is the first order of business in any strategic plan. Coupling that approach with a full array of national and international support and then having a vision that is resourced and planned to resolve the fight are the lessons that Desert Storm and the many operations that followed can provide.