Schwarzkopf of Arabia

Jan. 1, 2001

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf has spent little time over the last decade talking about airpower or any other aspect of Desert Storm. Aside from lucrative speeches and occasional television appearances, the famous Army officer who won the last big war of the 20th century has not been one to dwell on its intricacies.

He did not address the Army War College. He refused to let the Air Force interview him in 1992 for the Gulf War Airpower Survey. His agency, when approached, declares simply, “He never does interviews.”

One who did succeed in talking with him after the war was Diane Putney, author of a definitive, classified study of air war planning for the Office of Air Force History. “It was while he was working on his memoirs,” Putney recalled, “and he threatened to sue me if I released any of the material before his book came out.” She added, “I didn’t think he was joking.”

For all this, Schwarzkopf is still the best vantage point from which to assess airpower in Desert Storm. Air campaigns, like all joint military operations, can only be fully understood from the Commander in Chief’s perspective. From French Marshal Ferdinand Foch in World War I to Gen. Wesley Clark in Kosovo, it has been theater CINCs who have found and used the unique strengths of airpower.

This Schwarzkopf did well. Air Force Gen. Michael J. Dugan, Chief of Staff when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, once remarked, “I would tell you, the airpower hero of the Gulf War is named Norman Schwarzkopf.”

Near war’s end, Schwarzkopf gave a thorough briefing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on strategy behind Desert Storm. He also put his thoughts on campaign planning into his 1992 memoir, It Doesn’t Take a Hero. Those two sources, when combined with views of those close to Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm, show why and how the CINC made airpower the center of Desert Storm.

In the post­Vietnam years, Schwarzkopf had held command positions in the US and Germany as the Army reformed and made AirLand battle a centerpiece. In late 1988, he pinned on his fourth star and took over at Central Command, where fighting Soviet forces in the Zagros Mountains of Iran was still on the top of the agenda. Schwarzkopf pushed CENTCOM to consider more realistic scenarios. In July 1990, CENTCOM staff ran a wargame against Iraq. Schwarzkopf had actually briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff on contingency plans just hours before Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990.

A Thunderous Surprise

Saddam’s move took nearly everyone by surprise. Schwarzkopf hurried back to Washington to brief President George Bush and the National Security Council. He had little to offer. Schwarzkopf reported that the US could do nothing to stop Iraq, but “we could make certain moves with our air- and sea power to demonstrate US determination and, if necessary, punish Iraq.”

The US–and its allies–were far from ready to contemplate a major deployment and operation in the Persian Gulf region. Iraq had a million-man army with some of the best Soviet and Chinese equipment available. Worse, Iraq had chemical weapons and had used them during the eight-year Iran­Iraq war. Against this, the US had no immediate attack options, no forces on the peninsula, and no military partners.

On Saturday, Aug. 4, Schwarzkopf and his air component commander, USAF Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, helicoptered to Camp David to brief Bush and a small team of officials and to find out what they wanted him to do. Schwarzkopf again told Bush and his counselors that “airpower was the option most immediately available.”

Even that would take time. CENTCOM had already turned the aircraft carrier USS Independence back toward the Gulf. Air Force fighters and their tankers were on alert to deploy. Small units from the 82nd Airborne could arrive soon, but Schwarzkopf would have no real attack options for days. In two weeks, he would have a few hundred aircraft, rapid-reaction Marines, special forces, and Army ground units. What he really wanted was “tank-killing” equipment, from Apache attack helicopters to A-10s to tanks.

To defend Saudi Arabia, Schwarzkopf said, he would need three months to mass enough combat power to be absolutely assured of beating back an Iraqi attack. If the President wanted to kick the Iraqis out of Kuwait-which no one had discussed yet-he would need “eight to 10 months” to build up the forces.

The next step was a trip to Saudi Arabia with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to see King Fahd. When the king agreed to host US forces, Schwarzkopf told Horner to stay in Riyadh, get the tactical fighter squadrons moving, and act as CENTCOM Forward in charge of the joint force deployments and Saudi defense.

Two Burning Needs

Schwarzkopf needed two things: a way to defend Saudi Arabia and the ability to strike Iraq if Saddam made a crazy move. What if Saddam ordered his forces to seize the US Embassy in Kuwait and started killing Americans? What if Iraq launched a chemical weapons attack as it had done during the Iran­Iraq war? CENTCOM had little with which to reply.

The model that came to mind was Eldorado Canyon, the 1986 American air raid on Libya in which USAF and Navy aircraft struck Libyan sites in retaliation for Muammar Qaddafi’s terrorism. The CINC needed something like the Libya raid, on a larger scale.

He also needed more help. Schwarzkopf had confidence in Horner-his most senior commander-but he knew Horner had his hands full in Riyadh. Schwarzkopf telephoned the Pentagon on Aug. 8 and asked that the Air Force “put planners to work on a strategic bombing campaign aimed at Iraq’s military, which would provide the retaliatory options we needed.”

The man who took the call was Gen. Mike Loh, the Air Force vice chief of staff. He recalled Schwarzkopf’s saying that he had a decent air­land option in the works but needed an air campaign and broader set of targets. “I need it fast because he may launch a chemical Scud or chemical attack,” and “I may have to attack those kinds of targets deep,” the CINC told Loh.

Schwarzkopf’s request cleared the Air Staff’s Checkmate planning cell to accelerate work on an air campaign plan to bomb strategic targets. Checkmate’s Col. John Warden and his team met with Schwarzkopf on Aug. 10, at CENTCOM headquarters near Tampa, Fla. The next day, they briefed Gen. Colin Powell, Joint Chiefs’ Chairman, in Washington and resumed work on their plan. One week later they returned to Tampa for a formal briefing to the CINC.

The plan briefed by Warden on Aug. 17 concentrated on 84 targets. Using around 670 aircraft generating a total of 1,000 sorties per day, the campaign–dubbed “Instant Thunder”–would in six days destroy Iraq’s strategic command and control, disorient its military forces, and disrupt the economy.

Schwarzkopf thought six days was overly optimistic and his CENTCOM staff had already picked out more targets, but he liked the look of Instant Thunder. “If we flesh this out, we’ll have the retaliatory package we’re looking for,” he said. “I saw it as dual purpose-a retaliation plan and Phase 1 of an offensive option,” Schwarzkopf later told Putney.

Instant Thunder was a stopgap measure. The CINC sent Warden and company on to Riyadh, where Horner and USAF Brig. Gen. Buster Glosson took charge of detailed planning for air options in line with Schwarzkopf’s guidance. Schwarzkopf approved the strategic target concept presented to him via Instant Thunder, but he also wanted a more complete and executable air campaign plan that covered all his priorities–a real-world plan, as he told Glosson in a phone call. As Powell later put it, “We also needed an air plan to help drive Saddam out of Kuwait if it came to that.”

Schwarzkopf was about to leave for Riyadh when Powell asked him to stop by the Pentagon to discuss offensive air and ground options. Schwarzkopf was surprised at Powell’s sudden interest. He objected that he could not put together an offensive using the defensive force that was beginning to arrive in the theater. “I can give you my conceptual analysis,” he told Powell, “but that’s all it is-apart from the Phase 1 air attack, it’s nothing I’d recommend.”

Campaign Up His Sleeve

However, Schwarzkopf already had a theater campaign plan in mind. His briefing to Powell on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 25, unveiled the CINC’s framework for Desert Storm. It was by no means a complete operational plan, but it did snap together all four phases of the campaign for the first time.

Putney, who reviewed the documents, said the CENTCOM staff had prepared a multislide briefing for their boss, going all the way up to a major campaign culminating with a ground attack. This was the most extensive planning done to date. Unlike Instant Thunder, the CENTCOM briefing pictured the whole joint campaign from opening airstrikes to pounding the Iraqi army and ejecting it from Kuwait.

Airpower had a central role in the CINC’s plan. The Aug. 25 briefing outlined four phases for a campaign: Instant Thunder, suppression of air defenses, attrition of enemy forces by 50 percent, and a ground attack. Phase 1 was to be an enhanced version of Instant Thunder. Phase 2-suppression of enemy air defenses-sounded like the plan of an airman, not a soldier. Putney saw the choice of words as evidence that the CINC “was listening to his airmen tutors.” Phase 3 was called “ground combat power attrition.” Phase 4, the ground attack, would come after air had done its work.

Phase 3 was the key to Schwarzkopf’s plan. Even in rudimentary form, it tasked airpower to take down the strength of the Iraqi army before the ground attack. Schwarzkopf wrote of how A-10s could “fly low and slow over the battlefield, blasting tanks.” Schwarzkopf knew he could use airpower to kill tanks and artillery. It was his offsetting advantage against a bigger Iraqi force. With air attrition, breakthroughs and maneuver would be possible. Powell seemed satisfied.

Schwarzkopf was delighted when Horner and Glosson, in Riyadh, gave him a first look at their more complete three-phased air plan in early September. Schwarzkopf said: “Brigadier General Buster Glosson, Chuck Horner’s top planner, had expanded the retaliatory scheme of the Pentagon Air Staff into the best air campaign I’d ever seen. It gave us a broad range of attack options and could be conducted as a stand-alone operation or as part of a larger war.”

Of more immediate importance, Schwarzkopf by the end of September believed he finally had sufficient air and ground power in theater to defeat an attack.

His only concern now was symbolic attack. If “Saddam had been able to sneak a few airplanes through our defenses, he could have caused great embarrassment to the United States,” explained Schwarzkopf. “I would call Chuck Horner and say, ‘Guarantee me that not one airplane is going to get through your air defense net.’ ” Horner guaranteed him that no aircraft would leak through.

The Iran Factor

The real shortfall was in ground power. The first problem was that policy objectives remained uncertain. “Our orders were simply to deter and defend,” Schwarzkopf recalled. Some believed sanctions might work or that the US could not fight for Kuwait. Mirroring the Cold War strategy for the region, Schwarzkopf believed the US might want to keep Iraq viable to counterbalance Iran after the crisis was over. Ten years later, Powell recalled it the same way when he told MSNBC, “We did not want to leave Iraq defenseless, to Iran, its mortal enemy, with whom it had fought a war for eight years previously.”

This left Schwarzkopf without clear guidance. The question he faced was how to attack and defeat a numerically larger Iraqi force. He was convinced that there would have to be a ground attack to retake Kuwait. Schwarzkopf wanted Arab forces to play a prominent part in liberating Kuwait. Besides, Saddam was pouring reinforcements into the theater. The CINC was ready to execute an air attack if ordered to do so, but Iraqi forces were becoming more entrenched and numerous all the time.

When he looked at the ground situation, Schwarzkopf did not like what he saw. He brought to Riyadh a four-man team from the Army School of Advanced Military Studies, Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., to help with planning a ground offensive. On Oct. 6, they gave Schwarzkopf a briefing that looked to him just like what he had outlined two months before. With the forces then available, the best option was to drive straight for Kuwait City. The SAMS team estimated that this attack could leave 2,000 dead and 8,000 wounded and many more in the event of a chemical weapon attack.

Schwarzkopf was still mulling his problems with the ground offensive when he got the call to send a team to brief President Bush. He wanted to go himself but Powell ordered him to stay in Riyadh. Schwarzkopf suggested sending Horner in his place, but Powell vetoed that, too, on the grounds it would cause too much disruption. The job fell to Glosson, who would brief the air campaign; Lt. Col. Joe Purvis from the SAMS team, who would brief the ill-starred ground plan; and Schwarzkopf’s chief of staff, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Bob Johnston.

At the White House, the briefing team reported that coalition airpower would reduce Iraqi forces by 50 percent before a ground attack. This was a remarkable step. Campaign plans for defeating a standing army in central Europe called for attrition of about 50 percent, but this was the first time that this was expected of the air component alone. The 50 percent number came up early in the planning process, and Schwarzkopf had talked about it several times. Briefing it at the White House emphasized that Schwarzkopf was making air attrition of the Iraqis the major precondition for launching the ground attack.

Schwarzkopf Asks for More

As for the ground attack, Schwarzkopf wanted more forces. He was so uncomfortable with the plans as they stood that he gave Johnston three slides to show at the White House. The first one said “CINC’s Assessment: Offensive ground plan not solid. We do not have the capability to attack on the ground at this time.” Those attending the White House briefing had already reached that conclusion. Powell reported, “The White House is very comfortable with the air plan, but there was a lot of criticism of the ground attack.”

Schwarzkopf wanted to bring into the theater another heavy armor corps so that he could plan for a wide, flanking attack to the west. He got it. Planning for a two-corps attack with many NATO allies and coalition forces became an enormous task and one that required improvisation by the Army. Lt. Gen. John Yeosock, Army component commander, had to create out of thin air much of the structure to control and supply US forces.

At this point, Schwarzkopf made an important decision. Unlike Eisenhower, Schwarzkopf never delegated his authority to run the ground war. He did not want to put an extra layer of command between himself and the ground forces. Schwarzkopf appointed Army Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller to act as his deputy, but he did not let either Waller or Yeosock take over as joint force land component commander. Instead, Schwarzkopf was both Commander in Chief for the whole theater, in charge of integrating all joint operations, and land component commander in charge of the ground war.

On Nov. 14, Schwarzkopf gathered his senior commanders and let them in on the full plan for Desert Storm. He described for them the four phases of attack: “strategic bombing first; then gaining control of the Kuwaiti skies; then bombing Iraqi artillery positions, trench lines, and troops”; and, at the end, the ground offensive. Heavy armor was still deploying to the theater. When the air war began, they would need a few weeks to redeploy west for the flanking maneuver. Schwarzkopf estimated the ground attack could start no sooner than mid-February 1991.

The air war began at approximately 3 a.m., local time, Jan. 17, 1991. Coalition airpower was abundant and dominant. Schwarzkopf was able to make changes to the air operations based on tactical considerations and implement them within several hours. After the first few weeks, Horner recalled, the procedure at the nightly staff meeting was this: “The CINC turns to a map on his right and points to the Iraqi divisions he wants struck.”

Schwarzkopf now “continued to work like crazy” on the ground campaign plan, monitoring preparations and visiting commanders and units all over the war zone. His role as the land component commander began to absorb all of his time. Schwarzkopf was focusing tightly on the final act and air shaping for the ground offensive.

First, the air war covered the Army corps redeployment to the west by taking out Saddam’s ability to see what it was doing in Saudi Arabia, said Schwarzkopf. With the air campaign under way Iraq’s forces were pinned and would not be able to maneuver to intercept the redeployment. “Once the air campaign started,” said Schwarzkopf, Iraqi forces would be “incapable of moving out to counter” the swing even if they detected it.

The Iraqi action at Khafji proved Schwarzkopf was right about what would happen if Saddam tried to maneuver his forces in the Kuwait Theater of Operations. On the night of Jan. 29, his 5th Mechanized division attacked the abandoned Saudi town of Khafji. Lead elements occupied the town and held it through the next day.

Encounter at Khafji

Saddam was probably trying to bruise Saudi forces and lure the coalition into ground action so as to inflict casualties. The CINC did not take the bait. To increase the margin of safety, Schwarzkopf ordered a phased redeployment in the Marines’ sector to put a buffer of about 20 kilometers of territory between coalition forces and the Iraqis. Early on Jan. 30, the Saudis attempted to re-enter the town, but they “were forced to pull back and we sent in Air Force and Marine air,” according to Schwarzkopf. Then coalition air “pounded the living hell out of the column all day long, until pilots were complaining they couldn’t find targets because of smoke from ones they’d already hit.” Coalition aircraft stopped an effort by another Iraqi division to reinforce Khafji, and by midday Jan. 31, Saudi forces and a Qatari unit retook the town with support from US Marine artillery and continuing fixed-wing and helicopter strikes.

As Horner stated, the battle was downplayed at the time “because we didn’t really understand what the objectives of the Iraqi army were.” Still, Schwarzkopf showed how he would use air to contain and break up the attack and isolate the front from maneuvers to reinforce it. He did not want to start ground action until his flanking attack was ready, and the superiority of the coalition’s airpower meant that he did not have to do so. Most of the Iraqi 5th Mech ended up trapped between two of its own minefields for the rest of the war.

Evening the Odds

After Khafji, Schwarzkopf’s main concern was deciding when to launch the ground attack. Airpower had to take out enough of Iraq’s tanks and artillery to even the odds. The CINC explained the strategy at the end of the war: “Any student of military strategy would tell you that, in order to attack a position, you should have a ratio of approximately 3-to-1 in favor of the attacker. In order to attack a position that is heavily dug in and barricaded such as the one we had here, you should have a ratio of 5-to-1 in the way of troops in favor of the attacker. … We were outnumbered as a minimum 3-to-2 as far as troops were concerned. … We had to come up with some way to make up the difference. … What we did of course was start an extensive air campaign.”

Iraq had about 4,700 tanks facing the coalition’s 3,500 tanks and “a great deal more artillery than we do.” Iraq had its infantry forces on the front lines with most armored units, including Republican Guards, curved around Kuwait. The CINC wanted specific results from the attacks. Breaching points had to be hit hard so that ground forces could penetrate fast and shift to exploitation. “It was necessary to reduce these forces down to a strength that made them weaker, particularly along the front-line barrier that we had to go through,” Schwarzkopf said. The Republican Guard had to be prevented from reinforcing the garrison in Kuwait. Above all, Schwarzkopf wanted to keep his forces moving so they did not bunch up into easy targets for chemical weapons.

Getting to the desired level of attrition took time-and the wait bred confusion and frustration among the ground commanders. Schwarzkopf the CINC knew how well the air war was going but that did not always get through to other ground commanders. At the start of February, the ground commanders worried about not being allocated enough air sorties and wondered if the emphasis of air attacks would be shifted in time to give them eight or nine days of battlefield preparation in their sectors.

Schwarzkopf had not set a date for the ground attack. He postulated that it would occur between Feb. 10 and Feb. 20, giving ground forces enough time to redeploy westward. The ground commanders naturally wanted control of airpower in their sectors since it was their troops that would be going through the breaches. Historian Richard Swain of the US Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth pointed out that the issue was “who would control the fires” in the Phase 3 battlefield preparation. “The ground commanders assumed they would,” Swain wrote, but as it turned out, “they were wrong.”

Horner was in the thick of the controversy. With no overall ground component commander to set priorities, ground commanders discussed priorities every day, fruitlessly. As Horner described it, “We remained in some ways a debating society for air until the evening meeting, when Schwarzkopf would decide.”

The Big Picture

Only Schwarzkopf-in his double role as CINC and ground commander-had full insight. He brushed off complaints from corps commanders about the number of sorties allocated. He had his own clear plan for Phase 3 and Phase 4, and in fact, he frequently restricted the support the joint forces air component commander gave to the corps commanders so that Iraqi divisions would be hit in the order Schwarzkopf wanted. For example, some front-line artillery was hit later to prevent the Iraqis from repositioning it. He knew the real measure was his map with the attrition percentages. Schwarzkopf tracked the air war like an airman and gave little thought to whether his senior ground commanders saw it as he did.

Each evening, Central Air Forces officers briefed Schwarzkopf on attrition inflicted on the ground forces. At first the tallies were small, but over time, destruction accumulated. By late February, airpower had destroyed almost half of Iraq’s tanks, 30 percent of its other armored vehicles, and 59 percent of its artillery. On the enemy situation board almost all of the stickers that represented Iraqi units along the front lines had changed from red to green, indicating that the units had been bombed to 50 percent strength or less. Units on the second line of defense almost all showed up amber, which meant 75 percent strength or less.

By the start of the ground war, virtually all the front-line units were at or below 50 percent strength. These units had many conscripts and had shed 973 prisoners of war before the ground attack started. Schwarzkopf still wanted his forces to move through the obstacles fast. “The nightmare scenario for all of us would have been to go through, get hung up in [a] breach, … and then have the enemy artillery rain chemical weapons down,” said Schwarzkopf.

Armored units behind the front lines were a concern. “The real tough fighters we were worried about right here, were attrited to someplace between 50 [percent] and 75 percent,” Schwarzkopf told the press a few days later. Several Republican Guards units remained at 75 percent or above. For Schwarzkopf, 50 percent was not an iron law but a guide. Based on the compiled daily reports, he was comfortable with the levels of attrition and trusted his instincts about the impact of the air campaign.

He told Cheney: “I think we should go with the ground attack now. We’ll never be more ready-our guys are honed to a fine edge and if we wait much longer we’ll degrade their preparedness.” The Marines asked for two days to reshuffle their position. The new date for the ground attack was set at Feb. 24.

One more problem remained. Weather forecasters told Schwarzkopf there might be bad weather that night. Now Schwarzkopf was sweating out the weather just like Horner had back in January, and for the same reason. Without adequate flying weather for air support, no one wanted to launch the ground attack. Schwarzkopf still thought the coalition could take 5,000 casualties in the first two days and he wanted the right conditions.

Now came the final test for airpower. The ground war was launched in the early morning hours of Feb. 24 and was an immediate success. Ironically, it was during the ground war that Schwarzkopf’s double role took its toll. The greatest power that Schwarzkopf kept for himself was the authority to integrate the air and ground components while commanding the ground component’s operations. In the planning phases, his control was essential to crafting the campaign. But when the ground war started, the two roles competed for his attention. Mistakes at the end of the ground war put in jeopardy one of his major objectives: the destruction of the Republican Guard.

Official documents indicate that destruction of the entire Republican Guard was not an objective. Still, Schwarzkopf saw them as a center of gravity. While Schwarzkopf was absorbed with land operations, the fire support coordination lines for both VII and XVIII Airborne Corps were set far ahead of the advance in the early hours of Feb. 27, G+3 of the ground war. The intent was to leave room for rapid advance, but the effect was to keep airpower from interdicting retreating Iraqi forces. Airstrikes inside the fire support coordination lines had to be run by forward air controllers. Beyond the line, pilots could strike targets at will since no friendly forces would be nearby. Now, airmen had to slow the tempo for 17 hours in the XVIII Corps sector. And, VII Corps kept its fire support coordination line out 50 miles ahead of its position, giving two Republican Guards divisions a break from sustained air attack as they fled north. It was Horner who finally brought this to Schwarzkopf’s attention and got the lines moved.

Just a few hours later, Powell called Schwarzkopf to tell him that President Bush was thinking of terminating the war in six hours, at 5 a.m. Persian Gulf time. “I don’t have any problem with it,” the CINC told Powell.

Ten years later, Schwarzkopf’s achievement remains a source of insight into how airpower can be used in joint operations. His perspective on airpower oscillated from tactical preoccupation to strategic mastery, but in the end, his tasking of airpower gave him his victory.

In the 20th century, it was usually up to a theater commander without an airpower background to make the most of the air instrument. Some, like Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Nimitz, did it brilliantly. Schwarzkopf, too, made the most of what coalition airpower had to offer. “Gulf lesson one is the value of airpower,” said President Bush after it was all over.

Schwarzkopf knew that before it all started.

Rebecca Grant is president of IRIS, a research organization in Arlington, Va., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation. Her most recent article, “True Blue: Behind the Kosovo Numbers Game,” appeared in the August 2000 issue.