How the Gulf War combat debut of 'stealth and GPS' transformed war

When GPS-enabled sensors pinpointed enemy targets, surveillance aircraft monitored enemy troop movements and stealth bombers eluded radar tracking from air defenses in the opening days of Operation Desert Storm decades ago -- in January of 1991 – very few of those involved were likely considering how these attacks signified a new era in modern warfare.

When veterans, historians and analysts commemorated the 28th anniversary of the first Gulf War in February of this year, many of them likely now regard the military effort as a substantial turning point in the trajectory or evolution of modern warfare.

Many analysts and Pentagon strategists are quick to point out that the US margin of military technological military superiority is much less than it was at the time of the Gulf War; potential adversaries have since gone to school on US weapons and have succeeded in narrowing the gap.

What the World Learned

Operation Desert Storm involved the combat debut of stealth technology, GPS for navigation, missile warning systems, more advanced surveillance plane radar, and large amounts of precision-focused laser-guided bombs, (now retired) Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson, (former) Director of Requirements for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, told Warrior in a special interview several years ago.

Johnson retired from the Air Force in 2016, upon finishing a lengthy and distinguished Air Force career - which included flying high-risk A-10 combat missions during the Gulf War. Johnson spoke with Warrior prior to his retirement to offer a rare, experienced perspective on the emergence of new technologies during the Gulf War.

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“We saw the first glimpses in Desert Storm of what would become the transformation of air power,” he said, speaking to Warrior in the Pentagon several years ago.

The five-to-six-week air war, designed to clear the way for what ultimately became a 100-hour ground invasion, began with cruise missiles and Air Force and Army helicopters launching a high-risk mission behind enemy lines to knock out Iraqi early warning radar sites. Two Air Force MH-53 Pave Low helicopters led AH-64 Apache Attack helicopter into Iraqi territory, Johnson explained.

The idea of the mission was to completely destroy the early warning radar in order to open up an air corridor for planes to fly through safely and attack Iraqi targets. The mission was successful.

“This was the dawn of GPS - the ability to precisely navigate anywhere anytime without any other navigation systems. The Pave Lows had it and the Apaches did not - so the Pave Low was there to navigate the Apache's deep into Iraq to find the early warning radar sites,” he recalled. “Now, everybody has it on their iPhone but at that day and time it was truly revolutionary.”

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Johnson explained the priority targets during the air war consisted of Iraqi artillery designed to knock out any potential ability for Iraq to launch chemical weapons. Other priority targets, of course, included Iraqi air defenses, troop formations, armored vehicles and command and control locations.

The air attack involved F-117 Night Hawk stealth bombers, B-52s, F-15 Eagles and low-flying A-10 Warthog aircraft, among other assets.

Desert Storm Heroism

At one point during the Air War, Johnson’s A-10 Warthog plane was hit by an Iraqi shoulder-fired missile while attempting to attack enemy surface-to-air missile sites over Iraqi territory.

“I found myself below the weather trying to pull off an attack that failed. I got hit in the right wing. I yelled out and finally keyed the mic and decided to tell everyone else that I was hit. I safely got the airplane back. They fixed the airplane in about 30-days. The enemy fire hit the right wing of the airplane and the wing was pretty messed up, but I had sufficient control authority to keep the wings level,” Johnson said.

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On the way back from the mission, while flying a severely damaged airplane, Johnson received in-flight refueling from a KC-10 aircraft at about 25,000 feet. Johnson received the Air Force Cross for his heroism on another occasion during the war, where he helped rescue a downed F-14 fighter jet.

The Combat Debut of New Technology

While there was not much air-to-air combat during Desert Storm, the Iraqis did try to field a few Mig-29 fighter jets. However, upon being noticed by U.S. Air Force F-15E radar – they took off, Johnson said.

The advent of much greater air-fired precision weaponry, aided by overhead surveillance and GPS for navigation is largely referred to as the 2nd Offset – a moment in the evolution of warfare marked by significant technological leaps forward. Johnson explained that the 2nd Offset fully came to fruition in the late 90s during Operation Allied Force in Kosovo.

GPS guided bombs, called Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, did not yet exist at the time of the first Gulf War – but GPS technology for navigation greatly improve the ability of pilots and ground forces to know exactly where they were in relation to surrounding territory and enemy force movements.

This was particularly valuable in Iraq due to the terrain, Johnson explained. There was no terrain or mountainous areas as landmarks from which to navigate. The landscape was entirely desert with no roads, no terrain and no rivers.

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In addition, massive use of laser guided weaponry allowed air assets to pinpoint Iraqi targets from a laser-spot – thereby increasing accuracy and mission efficiency while reducing collateral damage.

“Laser weapons had been around since Vietnam but we expended laser-guided bombs in numbers that we had never done before,” he explained.

Some of the weapons dropped included Maverick missiles, the 2,000-pound Mk 84 penetrator and a 500-pound Mk 82 along with cluster weaponry. The Maverick missile is an anti-armor precision weapon which uses electro-optical precision weaponry to destroy targets.

“The Maverick has a camera in the front of the missile that would lock on and guide itself to the target. It is old technology but very precise,” Johnson added.

Also, airborne surveillance, in the form of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, provided attacking forces with an unprecedented view from the sky, Johnson said. The aircraft used Ground Moving Target Indicator and Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR, to deliver a “rendering” or painted picture of ground activity below.

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“This allowed us to monitor the battlefield day or night regardless of the weather and detect movement of enemy ground formations. The Iraqi forces tried to make a movement on the village of Khafji. It was a large-scale movement by the Iraqi Army in the middle of the night because they thought we could not see them. We saw them,” Johnson explained.

Due to this surveillance technology, the commander of the air war moved an entire theater’s worth of air power to attack the Iraqi formation.

“In Desert Storm, you had the ability to dynamically see what was going on in the battlespace and perform command and control in real time and divert assets in real time. You had the ability to navigate incredibly precisely and then the ability to apply precision weapons - one weapon kills one target at a time,” he added.

Desert Storm also involved the combat debut of beyond line-of-sight satellite communications which, among other things, provide missile warning systems, Johnson said.

“We did not shoot at every Scud that came in because we know where it was going to go,” Johnson recalled.

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Johnson explained that the Gulf War changed the paradigm for the strategic use of air power by allowing one plane to precisely hit multiple targets instead of using un-guided bombs to blanket an area.

“We began a change in calculus. Since the dawn of air power, the calculus has always been – ‘How many airplanes does it take to destroy a target?’ A-10s can put a string of bombs through the target area and hopefully one of the bombs hits the target. By the end of the 90s, the calculus was – ‘How many targets can a single airplane destroy?’ Johnson said.

Desert Storm Ground War

The 100-hour ground war was both effective and successful due to the air war and the use of tactical deception. U.S. amphibious forces had been practicing maneuvers demonstrating shore attacks along the Kuwaiti coastline as a way to give the Iraqis the impression that that is how they would attack.

"The Iraqis saw these amphibious maneuvers because that is what we wanted them to see,” Johnson explained.

However, using a famous “left hook” maneuver, U.S. coalition forces actually attacked much further inland and were able to quickly advance with few casualties through thinner Iraqi defenses.

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There were, however, some famous tank battles in the open desert during the ground attack. U.S. Army tanks destroyed large numbers or Iraqi tanks and fighting positions – in part because advanced thermal infrared imagers inside U.S. Army M1 Abrams battle tanks enable crews to detect the signature of Iraqi tanks without needing ambient light.

Although this gave U.S. forces an advantage – and the U.S. Army was overwhelmingly victorious in Desert Storm tank battles – there were some tough engagements such as the Battle of Medina Ridge between the Army’s 1st Armored Division and Iraqi Republican Guard forces.

Effects-Based Warfare – Changing Air Attacks

The use of such precision from the air marked the debut of what is commonly referred to as “effects-based warfare,” a strategic air attack technique aimed at attacking specific targets from the air without needing to destroy the infrastructure of the attack area.

As a result, targets included command and control centers, moving ground troops or armored forces, supply lines and other strategic and tactical targets. Effects-Based warfare experts describe this as a “strategic rings” approach with command and control at the center of the inner circle and other enemy assets in the so-called outer rings.

One idea, among others, was to use precision weaponry from the air to cut off communication and supply lines between the command and control centers and outer forces on the move -- in order to paralyze and destroy mobile enemy forces.

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“There once was a time when we thought we had to go into the layers sequentially where we had to start at the out layers and peel it back to get into the inner layers. Desert Storm indicated that this is not the case. The first ordnance to hit the ground was at the inner layer,” Johnson explained.

This story was originally published on Warrior Maven in 2016.

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