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January 16, 1991 and After: ’Operation Desert Storm’: US Launches Massive Air Assault against Iraq

One of the many air strikes launched against Iraqi targets during Operation Desert Storm.One of the many air strikes launched against Iraqi targets during Operation Desert Storm. [Source: US Air Force]The US launches a massive air assault against Iraq in retaliation for that country’s invasion of Kuwait (see August 2, 1990). The air assault begins the day after a UN deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait expires (see November 29, 1990). F-117 Stealth bombers hit Baghdad with an array of high-tech bombs and missiles; many of the explosions are televised live, or on briefly delayed feeds, on CNN, which launches virtually 24-hour coverage of the air strikes. In the first 48 hours of the war, 2,107 combat missions drop more than 5,000 tons of bombs on Baghdad alone, nearly twice the amount that incinerated Dresden in World War II.
'Thunder and Lightning of Desert Storm' - US Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, chief of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), announces the beginning of hostilities by transmitting the following: “Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of the United States Central Command, this morning at 0300, we launched Operation Desert Storm, an offensive campaign that will enforce the United Nation’s resolutions that Iraq must cease its rape and pillage of its weaker neighbor and withdraw its forces from Kuwait. My confidence in you is total. Our cause is just! Now you must be the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm. May God be with you, your loved ones at home, and our country.” [US Navy, 9/17/1997]
Initial Attacks Obliterate Iraqi Navy, Much of Air Force, Many Ground Installations - The attack begins with an assault of over 100 Tomahawk land attack missiles (TLAMs) launched from US naval vessels in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and attack helicopter strikes on Iraqi radar installations near the Iraq-Saudi Arabian border. The assaults destroy much of Iraq’s air defense and command-and-control capabilities. The missile assault is quickly followed by fighter, bomber, and assault helicopter strikes which continue pounding at Iraqi government buildings, power stations, dams, military sites, radio and television stations, and several of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. The strikes essentially obliterate the Iraqi Navy, and drastically cripple the Iraqi Air Force. (Between 115 and 140 aircraft and crews of the Iraqi Air Force flees to Iran over the course of the war, a move that surprises US commanders, who expected the aircraft and their crews to attempt to flee to Jordan, not Iran. The Iranians will never give Iraq back its aircraft, and will not release Iraqi air crews for years to come.) A US Navy review later calls the combined Navy-Marine air campaign, conducted in concert with US Air Force strikes, “successful beyond the most optimistic expectations.” The Navy later reports that “allied air forces dropped over 88,500 tons of ordnance on the battlefield.” [US Navy, 9/17/1997; NationMaster, 12/23/2007] Iraqi anti-aircraft counterattacks are surprisingly effective, downing around 75 US and British aircraft in the first hours of attacks. The US media does not widely report these downings, nor does it give much attention to the dozens of pilots and air crew captured as POWs. [NationMaster, 12/23/2007]
'The Mother of All Battles' - Five hours after the first attacks, Baghdad state radio broadcasts a voice identified as Saddam Hussein. Hussein tells his people that “The great duel, the mother of all battles has begun. The dawn of victory nears as this great showdown begins.” [NationMaster, 12/23/2007]
US Embassy Helped Locate Targets for Air Strikes - Deputy Chief of Mission Joseph Wilson, the last American to leave Baghdad (see January 12, 1991), and his staff provided critical assistance to the US battle planners in choosing their initial targets. Over the months, Wilson and his staff developed a “hostage tracking system,” monitoring and recording the movements of the American hostages as they were transferred from site to site to be used as human shields in the event of a US strike (see August 4, 1990 and August 8, 1990). Wilson and his staff were able to identify some 55 sites that were being used around the country, presumably some of the most critical military and infrastructure sites in Iraq. Wilson gave that information to the Pentagon. He will later write, “I was gratified when several months later, on the first night of Desert Storm, long after the hostages had been released, many of those sites were ones hit by American bombs.” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 141]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Navy, United Nations, US Department of the Marines, US Department of the Air Force, US Department of the Army, CNN, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Norman Schwarzkopf, Joseph C. Wilson, US Department of Defense, US Department of State, Saddam Hussein

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

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