From Vietnam to Desert Storm

Jan. 1, 1992

One year after President Bush gave the go-ahead to launch what was to become one of the most successful military campaigns in US history, analysts and historians are still sifting through the evidence to ascertain definitive lessons to be learned.

Operation Desert Storm will unquestionably mold the debate over post-cold war military doctrine for years to come. The US experience in the Persian Gulf War will become a touchstone for decisions on reshaping military forces, selecting weapons, and determining how to employ them. The exercise has spawned a cottage industry among journalists, think tanks, and armchair strategists who seek to derive fundamental truths for the future.

There are numerous pitfalls in such an approach, however. The war in the Gulf was unique in many ways, and a large number of the lessons may not be applicable to other scenarios.

Desert Storm must be analyzed in a broader historical context if fundamental truths are to be identified. That requires a basic understanding of what the US learned from its last major conflict–the Vietnam War– and how successfully it applied those lessons to the prosecution of a war nearly two decades later.

The 1991 war marked Washington’s first involvement in a major conflict since the wind-down of the war in southeast Asia in the early 1970s. The military machine the US brought to bear against Iraq was shaped greatly by the Vietnam experience. One of the most controversial aspects of the Vietnam War revolved around the question of the value of airpower. The limits of airpower were made painfully apparent in that conflict.

The war also called into question US reliance on high technology. Ever since World War II, the US had pursued a policy of substituting machines for individuals in combat. This approach was costly, and, in Vietnam, the benefits were hardly visible. For example, the effort to use a high-tech combination of sensors and air strikes to stem the flow of men and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to South Vietnam proved a costly failure.

Ultimately, experience gained in Vietnam would pay off in Desert Storm. The art of electronic combat evolved from primitive beginnings in Vietnam into a formidable tool. Remotely piloted vehicles, shunned by military leaders for years because of poor performance in Vietnam, began living up to expectations in the Gulf War. Precision guided munitions, first introduced during the Vietnam War, were employed with great effect in Iraq.

Still, the most significant lessons from Vietnam were applied well before January 17, 1991, when Air Force F-117s dropped the first bombs of the Gulf War. In strategic planning and overall management of the air campaign, the legacy of Vietnam was felt most strongly.

The Critical Air Boss

One manifestation was the decision by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the overall military commander, to create a single manager for air operations, a move that had become an article of faith among airmen in the wake of Vietnam.

The specter of Vietnam haunted senior American political and military leaders in the months immediately following the August 2, 1990, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It was especially vivid in the minds of senior Air Force officers, many of whom had served in that war.

During a trip to review Air Force units deployed in the Mideast in September 1990, Gen. Michael J. Dugan made it clear that the mistakes of Vietnam would not be repeated.

The Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, who from December 1966 to November 1967 flew an A-1E with the 1st Air Commando Squadron in South Vietnam, spoke for many when he predicted, “This wouldn’t be a Vietnam-style operation, nibbling around the edges.”

General Dugan went on, “The way to hurt you is at home, not out in the woods somewhere.” Discussing the type of air campaign he envisioned against Iraq, the General said, “We are looking for centers of gravity where airpower could make a difference early on.”

On that trip, discussions with General Dugan and other senior members of the Air Staff often drifted back to Vietnam. Lt. Gen. Jimmie V. Adams, the deputy chief of staff for Plans and Operations at the time, said Air Force leaders had thought a lot about the Vietnam experience as they prepared for the air campaign against Iraq. (General Adams has since pinned on his fourth star and now commands Pacific Air Forces.)

“I think we learned a lot of lessons in Vietnam, and one of them is that gradualism does not work,” said General Adams, who served a year-long tour flying F-4 Phantoms out of Thailand. “We hope that, if we are to inflict pain, . . . we are allowed to inflict pain . . . we would be allowed to inflict it rapidly and with an overwhelming capability, not unlike in Linebacker II, which, in fact, brought the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table.” He was referring to the unrestricted bombing of targets in and around Hanoi and Haiphong in December 1972, raids authorized by the Nixon Administration after peace talks had broken down.

“While everyone wants to hold up Vietnam as the example showing that airpower can’t do it all,” said General Adams, “the lesson that we learned out of the war was that air power can’t do it all if it isn’t applied correctly.”

Rolling Thunder

The policy of gradual escalation in the bombing of the North was long a thorn in the sides of airpower advocates. Code-named “Rolling Thunder,” it envisaged the measured application of airpower, gradually increasing in intensity, to make Hanoi cry uncle and abandon its war in the South. By the end of 1968, this policy had proved bankrupt.

From the outset, US military leaders had advocated a different course: a massive and rapid strategic air campaign against key military, industrial, and economic targets in the heartland of North Vietnam. They would later argue that the political decision not to heed their professional advice was a major contribution to the US failure in the war.

The perceived failure of airpower in Vietnam had long been an albatross around the neck of the Air Force. General Dugan and others saw the impending conflict with Iraq as an opportunity to show what airpower could do if applied correctly. In deliberations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Air Force Chief of Staff forcefully pressed adoption of a pure air option. General Dugan lost that policy battle, however, and eventually lost his job when he aired his views too explicitly in public.

The idea of relying on airpower alone to achieve American war aims was rejected by JCS Chairman Gen. Colin L. Powell, who also based his arguments on the legacy of Vietnam. General Powell advocated to his fellow Chiefs the massing of an overwhelming air, sea, and land force to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, who replaced General Dugan as Chief of Staff, questioned the necessity of such a large force. Though he was less emphatic than General Dugan had been, General McPeak believed airpower could do the job.

General Powell argued that the US needed a force that could ensure total victory. According to high-level military officials, General Powell posed to airpower advocates a difficult question: “What if we don’t win?” The nation could not afford another Vietnam, he argued.

Nonetheless, airpower was to play a key role in the armed campaign launched in the early morning hours of January 17, 1991. It was applied much as prescribed by General Dugan four months earlier. Allied air commanders put into motion a strategic air campaign that included rapid strikes against key military and economic targets in Iraq.

Among the first hit were the “centers of gravity” to which General Dugan had referred: Iraqi command-and-control facilities and other targets that would weaken the political and military control exercised by Saddam Hussein and his inner circle. Next came a concerted effort to destroy Iraq’s offensive capabilities, including its nuclear, biological, and chemical production facilities and stockpiles, as well as its Scud missiles. Iraq’s economic infrastructure was also targeted. Then the campaign shifted its emphasis to strikes against Iraqi ground forces.

The true effectiveness of the bombing against certain segments of this target set is questionable. The most glaring example is Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. Overall, however, the US goal unquestionably was achieved. After thirty-eight days of sustained bombing, the allied ground offensive was able to roll over a disorganized and demoralized Iraqi army–formerly one of the world’s largest and best equipped–in just 100 hours.

Prophets Vindicated

After more than forty years of unfulfilled promises, airpower achieved nearly all that its most vocal advocates had said it could do. The concept of “victory through airpower,” espoused by Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, and other prophets of airpower, was largely realized in the war against Iraq. While it must be remembered that the situation in the Mideast was ideally suited to air warfare, the success of the bombing campaign proved that airpower could be decisive.

A key element–perhaps the key element–in the success of the air war was General Schwarzkopf’s creation of an air boss. Overriding the natural desires of the services to run their own air operations, General Schwarzkopf demanded an integrated air campaign run by a single commander for air. Armed with the increased authority given to field commanders under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, General Schwarzkopf was able to avoid the pitfalls his predecessors had faced in Vietnam.

The result was that, for the first time, all US air units went into action under the same operations plan. This was a complete change from the parochialism of two decades earlier, when each military service in the Vietnam War ran its own separate air war.

During the early stages of the air campaign against North Vietnam, Navy and Air Force commanders vied for the relatively few targets open to them. Overlapping command structures and poor communications between Navy carriers and Air Force headquarters in Saigon often resulted in Navy and Air Force strike forces going against the same target.

To eliminate confusion and duplication of effort in Vietnam, the two services agreed to limit operations to certain times of the day. Navy aircraft would hit targets in the morning, for example, while Air Force planes would strike in the afternoon. This solution was soon found to be impractical, as weather delays often led to overlapping missions.

By the end of 1965, an interservice committee arrived at a compromise that lasted for the remainder of the campaign. North Vietnam was divided into six geographical areas, known as “route packages.” The Air Force and Navy were given sole responsibility for hitting targets in each of their assigned route packages under the loose coordination of the Commander in Chief, Pacific.

Separately, the air war over South Vietnam was controlled from Saigon by Gen. William C. Westmoreland. He also ran air operations against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in neighboring Laos in conjunction with the US ambassador in Vietnam. By 1970, when the US launched its incursion in Cambodia, the United States was running four separate air wars in southeast Asia, with little coordination among them.

“Damn Valuable Lesson”

“We learned a pretty damn valuable lesson from that,” observes Lt. Gen. Michael A. Nelson, who took over as Air Force deputy chief of staff for Plans and Operations in January 199 1. “You need some ‘king’ who has the coordinating and command-and-control authority to make things happen in a cohesive and coherent way.”

In the case of Operation Desert Storm, this person was Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, acting as Joint Forces Air Commander. “He was really the choirmaster, the guy with the baton,” General Nelson said. “I have no doubt that our experience in southeast Asia was relevant here. It helped us to see the benefits of a single manager for air.”

General Horner, who flew forty-eight combat missions in F-105s over North Vietnam and another seventy in F-105 Wild Weasels, had undisputed control of all US air assets in the Persian Gulf theater. He also was given carte blanche in mapping out an air campaign to achieve the objectives set forth by Washington.

Working closely with General Horner was Brig. Gen. (now Maj. Gen.) Buster C. Glosson, who was given the job of developing that plan in detail. General Glosson, another veteran of the Vietnam War, said some of his actions in planning for the air campaign against Iraq were a direct result of his southeast Asia experiences.

“There were two scars that General Horner and I took away from Vietnam,” he said. “One was the fact that we flew missions [in Vietnam] with only one or two bombs, so we weren’t about to run out of munitions” in the Gulf War. The second scar, according to General Glosson, was the front-line pilot’s sense of isolation from overall planning of the air war in Vietnam. “Sure, I was getting a target and was told to go destroy it,” General Glosson said, “but no one had ever taken the time to explain to me how what we were doing was going to lead to some ultimate objective.”

Bomb shortages, caused by inadequate stockpiles and logistics snafus, often resulted in pilots being sent on missions against heavily defended targets in the North without a full load of bombs. To guard against this, the Air Force in Operation Desert Shield mounted a massive logistics effort, sustained throughout the war. While isolated instances of munitions shortages were reported during the war, they were not nearly so widespread as in Vietnam.

As for eliminating the pilots’ sense of isolation, General Glosson brought into the planning process personnel from each unit that would actually fly missions, in addition to having them on the planning staff at headquarters in Riyadh. As each combat unit deployed to bases in the Mideast, two representatives were sent to Central Command headquarters. There they worked alongside representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, as well as coalition partners.

The Plan Is Yours

“When the planning for the air campaign was finished and it came time to execute, it was as much their plan as it was our plan,” General Glosson explained. “I think that is probably different from any other air campaign that we’ve ever executed, in that it was not something dictated from headquarters that [the front-line pilots] didn’t have anything to do with.”

In fact, when the overall air campaign was laid out in skeletal form, General Glosson sent it to each wing commander for his approval. “This is our plan,” he told them, “and you have the option of asking me to change anything you want to. Nothing is sacrosanct. We’re just trying to do this the smartest way possible.”

While General Glosson and General Horner were pursuing this effort to plan from the bottom up, they felt little pressure from above. From General Glosson’s perspective, one of the most important factors in the success of the war was the absence of top-level interference in the planning and day-to-day execution of the air campaign.

“We did not have low-level echelons of civilians in the White House or in the Pentagon giving us guidance, second-guessing us, and tweaking everything we did,” he said.

In Vietnam, field commanders were exasperated by the micro management to which they were subjected by higher headquarters and civilians at the Pentagon. In the early years of the war, targets were selected at the White House by President Johnson and a handful of his most trusted advisors. The President once boasted to reporters, “I won’t let those Air Force generals bomb even the smallest outhouse without checking with me.”

Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara also took a personal interest in the smallest of details. One Air Force general recounted how, after a bombing strike against a key bridge in Laos, the pilot who took the bomb-damage assessment photographs was whisked to the Pentagon. He soon found himself in Secretary McNamara’s office on his hands and knees going over bombing routes, release points, and other details of the mission with the Secretary.

As the conflict wore on, President Johnson and Secretary McNamara eventually eased their grip on the reins and allowed the military more latitude in the daily execution of the war. By then, however, the initiative had been lost.

This high level of political control in planning and daily operations was noticeably absent in the Gulf War. Once the decision to go to war had been made, President Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney gave operational commanders a virtual free hand in planning and executing the campaign to meet the stated political objectives. The only condition imposed from above was that the plan of operations should be designed to minimize casualties to the allied force and minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties.

“In my opinion, the significance of what President Bush, Secretary Cheney, and Chairman Powell were able to do has not received the recognition that it should,” General Glosson said. “We get hung up on the lessons that all of us majors and captains learned in Vietnam. But the senior political leadership in this country learned a lesson, too.”

He goes on, “History shows that . . . too much political involvement at a lower level is the most detrimental thing you can do to the military profession,” he said. “That did not happen in this war.” This was one lesson, said General Glosson, that he hoped would not be lost on future generations.

John D. Morrocco is the Senior Military Editor of Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine and author of two books on the air war in southeast Asia. His most recent articles for AIR FORCE Magazine were “Coming Up Short in Software” and “Trumps in Danger,” which appeared in the February 1987 issue.