Desert Duty

Feb. 1, 1991

Night and day, one could see the Air Force’s heavily armed F-15 fighters roar into the desert sky from Alert Base Alpha in Saudi Arabia, giving the United States the power to defend the kingdom from Iraqi aggression or to go on the offensive.

It was a double-edged task, perfectly suited to the versatile aircraft, pilots, and ground crews of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing, which rushed from Langley AFB, Va., to the Persian Gulf in August to thwart a threatened Iraqi advance.

The mission, hardships, and challenges faced by the men and women of the 1st TFW were a microcosm of Operation Desert Shield itself as US reinforcements continued to pour into Saudi Arabia throughout the autumn and first months of winter.

Like sweltering Army forces dug in on the front lines and Navy ships patrolling nearby waters, the 1st TFW prepared itself to be able to switch from defensive to offensive operations within minutes of receiving a White House order. Like other US military units subjected to the punishing mix of sand, heat, and the unexpectedly high humidity of the Saudi wasteland, the 1st TFW and its equipment suffered unforeseen difficulties.

Logistic support occasionally lagged. Highly trained Air Force personnel suffered under a grinding regimen of endless work days and too few off-duty distractions in what they soon discovered to be the most puritanical of Islamic societies.

These hardships provided a sharp test of morale within the proud all-volunteer force that rushed to the desert only to go into a frustrating slowdown as Washington awaited for months the outcome of its economic and diplomatic pressures on Baghdad’s Saddam Hussein. For all that, however, Col. John McBroom, wing commander, felt confident from the start that, when called on, his and other Air Force units would “finish [a war] quickly in the air.”

From the moment its first F-15s completed fourteen-hour flights with eight midair refuelings to touch down on Saudi soil on August 8, the 1st TFW took up a front-line role. The F-15Cs and F-15Ds were deployed to defend one of the largest centers of air reinforcement and to provide combat air patrols along the Saudi border with occupied Kuwait.

“There was nobody between us and them–nobody,” recalled Sgt. Fred Dunning of Richmond, Va., an aircraft mechanic. “I can’t speak for others, but I know I was kind of shaky.”

Showing the Flag

Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, who in the early days served as US Central Command’s on-the-scene commander, worked without letup to cobble together a defensive force with whatever personnel or equipment happened to be on hand, knowing full well that the token US forces could at that time really only show the flag and buy time.

Before he relinquished his field responsibilities to his boss, Central Command’s Commander in Chief Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, General Homer had this to say: “Every night, before I go to bed, I have to say to myself, ‘What if the attack comes tonight? What do we do?”‘

For the 1st TFW, the pace started out fast and rarely slackened. Its pilots flew missions four times as long as their eighty-minute sorties at Langley. Ground crews worked on rotating twelve-hour shifts to keep planes armed and operating. “These planes fly great,” observed SSgt. Tim Clem of Fort Worth, Tex. The reason, he emphasized, was that “we’ve got good people to take care of them.”

In the first months of Operation Desert Shield, Air Force ground crews readied their aircraft while blending high-tech efficiency with old-fashioned superstition, which often surfaced when lives could be in danger. One crew chief, inspecting an outbound F-15 flown by Maj . Kevin Sheehan of Grafton, Va., carefully checked the connections on the Sidewinder and Sparrow air-combat missiles before tugging loose their sating pins. Then, in a gesture of good luck intended for Major Sheehan, he affectionately touched the wing of the plane as it edged toward the runway.

Overall, however, the attitude on the flight line was cautiously relaxed. “We’re just here to do a job,” said MSgt. Roger Dogi of Lynchburg, Va., a laid-back munitions specialist and twenty-year veteran. “We’re doing what we’re paid for.”

As the overnight August deployment of F-15s dramatized, Saudi Arabia’s remote location and the fast-moving nature of the crisis were the factors that gave the Air Force its most prominent combat role since the Vietnam War. Within thirty days of the order to move, more than 500 US tactical fighters, bombers electronic warfare planes, and surveillance aircraft had poured into the region to bolster Saudi defenses while slower-moving ground forces got into position. By year’s end the fleet topped 1,200.

The Aluminum Bridge

Military Airlift Command (MAC) aircraft, during just the first thirty days of the operation, moved an astonishing 72,000 tons of equipment and 91,000 service personnel halfway around the world. This was vital to US plans for bolstering a thin line of American defenders in the critical days before more than 130 ship deliveries boosted this nation’s stockpiles to more than 7.5 million tons of materiel, enough to sustain the expanding US force for more than thirty days of combat.

Once the government in Riyadh opened additional airfields to American aircraft, Gen. H. T. Johnson, commander in chief of MAC and of the unified US Transportation Command, dipped into the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) inventory to utilize seventeen civilian passenger, jets and twenty-one cargo planes.

The airlift’s “aluminum bridge” encountered “no major surprises,” recalled General Johnson. “We’re fortunate we didn’t have to fight our way in.”

Well before President Bush paid his visit to US troops on Thanksgiving, tankers from Strategic Air Command carried out more than 15,000 midair refuelings during almost 42,000 flight hours. In more than 5,400 missions by early December, MAC had lost only one cargo plane. That was a giant C-5A Galaxy that crashed on takeoff from Ramstein AB, Germany, killing thirteen Air Force Reservists.

In a paper made public shortly before Iraq lunged into Kuwait, USAF Secretary Donald Rice wrote that the post-cold war world required an Air Force that would “deter, deliver a tailored response, or punch hard when required-over great distances with quick response.”

In effect, that is exactly what the Air Force did.

“The quick reaction,” said General Homer, “was the main reason the United States was able to deter an immediate outbreak of hostilities,” which would have meant going to war at a time and in circumstances far less favorable to the US than to Iraq.

The Pentagon laid great responsibilities on the Air Force’s inventory of more than 1,200 aircraft, which were dispersed to more than two dozen air bases in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Turkey and on British-owned Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. As former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael J. Dugan foresaw, a no-holds-barred air campaign was envisioned against Iraqi forces. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney may have sacked General Dugan for his remarks, but no one publicly challenged their accuracy.

Exercise Imminent Thunder last fall, which featured 1,100 allied aircraft, showed for the first time the likely scale of the bombing campaign that would be needed to destroy Iraqi positions inside Kuwait and thereby spare an estimated 200,000 US ground troops the need to fight their way through thirty-mile- wide, World War I-style Iraqi defenses.

In addition to Navy attack planes, the US nut together plans to call rapidly on the Air Force’s Diego Garcia-based B-52 bombers, F-111 Fighter-bombers based in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and Saudi-based US attack aircraft-F-117A stealth fighters, F-15E multimission fighters, F-16s specially equipped for ground attack, and A-10 Thunder-bolt II close air support planes.

From the outset, US air-to-air fighters–primarily the Air Force’s F-15s and F-16s, secondarily the Navy’s F-14s and F/A-18s–were given the responsibility for expeditiously seizing the skies from Iraq’s fleet of more than 500 warplanes, among them late-model Soviet-built MiGs (including the MiG-29) and French-built Mirages.

Unexpected Flexibility

The front-line USAF fighter aircraft quickly showed the breadth of Air Force capabilities. Said Maj. Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, the Air Force’s director of tactical programs, “we have never specifically focused on tailoring our forces only for the defense of NATO. We have tried to build the flexibility in our forces and the deployability of our forces for many years.”

American pilots used the weeks of “near war” in late 1990 and early 1991 to study Iraqi tactics and perfect their responses. American flyers always had “healthy respect” for their Iraqi counterparts, maintained USAF’s Lt. Gen. Thomas R. Ferguson, Jr. Yet no amount of professed respect could hide other realities, on which Air Force officials focused immediately. “Now, are the aircrews trained as well?” General Ralston asked. “Are the weapons there? Are the avionics there? No.”

Colonel McBroom explained that the pilots from the 1st TFW spent the opening months of Desert Shield trying to penetrate not just the doctrine of the Iraqi pilots, but also their mindset. As the Colonel explained it at the time, “We look at how bold he is. And we look at tactics: How is he going to fight against us?”

Many of the Air Force’s insights, such as they were, resulted from unpublicized cat-and-mouse air engagements over the Saudi-Kuwait border as well as from around-the-clock monitoring of Iraqi air operations by Saudi and US E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes.

The tasks of these computer- and electronics-laden AWACS surveillance aircraft were vital. For months, they flew missions lasting as long as twenty hours in order to track the Iraqi warplanes that occasionally raced south from their airfields toward Saudi Arabia. US F-15s and allied aircraft then would “paint” the would-be intruders with their targeting radars–the signal for the Iraqi pilots to retreat.

The Iraqi tactic was characterized in this fashion by Lt. Col. Laszlo Bakonyi of Austin, Tex., an AWACS mission crew commander: “They just like to duke the border.”

Detection and identification of the Iraqi fighters helped to refine the plans and improve the coordination of allied forces as well as smooth Saudi decision-making on knocking down intruders in peacetime.

“In almost all situations, we want the Saudis to make the call on whether the guy is a hostile or whether they want us to shoot,” explained Col. Thomas F. Bliss, of the 552d AWACS Wing deployed from Tinker AFB, Okla., who also noted that American pilots had been given authority to fire only if fired upon.

The Toll on Equipment

The constant probing and testing exacted a price from US equipment and personnel. Losses of an F-111 fighter-bomber, an Air National Guard RF-4C reconnaissance plane, and an F-15 fighter during a single ten-day period claimed six lives. A “flying stand-down” was initiated to ensure training programs that would, according to one Air Force official, “maintain the highest levels of combat readiness with safe operations.”

The F-15 fleet suffered problems, too, including fuel seepage from vent tubes while the fighter was airborne. In the first twenty-three days of the deployment, 1st TFW aircraft experienced such seepages roughly once every two days, rather than once a month as is usually the case. The problem often was corrected by pilots “playing with the switches.” On other occasions, aircraft had to return to base to deal with some unexplained problem that would leave senior officers scratching their heads.

The Air Force took a number of steps to reduce the abrasive effects of sand on sensitive equipment. Filters were changed frequently. Rigorous daily inspections were carried out. Crews carefully and regularly scrutinized equipment that might be examined less frequently back home. Special precautions were taken with aircraft canopies. Engine intakes and exhaust nozzles were covered whenever aircraft were on the ground.

Most of the difficulties that cropped up, Air Force officers reported, were handled by ground crews experienced with harsh desert conditions. Squadrons of the 1st TFW, for example, had exercised in Jordan and Egypt within the past five years and therefore were somewhat better prepared than most for a deployment to Saudi Arabia.

“I don’t mean to tell you it’s a piece of cake,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Jimmie V. Adams, deputy chief of staff for Plans and Operations, after reviewing the evidence of the first weeks of Desert Shield. “But we know the special things that have to be done to deal with temperature and dust.”

Theater-wide, USAF fighter aircraft in the early months had a mission capable rate of ninety percent –up from eighty-five percent in peacetime. Of grounded aircraft on any given day, half were awaiting proper parts. The other half were undergoing repairs.

Timely deliveries of spare parts were crucial for relatively smooth operations. Five depot centers in the United States funneled spares into the logistics train to be flown to Saudi Arabia on daily cargo flights. On one typical day, forward deployed Air Force units ordered 297 spares; 240 were shipped immediately.

When shortages occurred, Saudi stockpiles proved to be invaluable sources of supply. Over the past decade, the kingdom’s small but highly advanced air force has built up a huge supply of parts and equipment that is common with USAF inventories. “The advantage with the Saudis is this: When we’re thinking F-15, they’re thinking F-15,” explained TSgt. Marv Kusumoto. “We both talk the same language.”

American planes slid easily into tailor-made Saudi F-15 facilities, located behind sand-colored revetments and in hangars fitted with blast doors. The Saudis, said Colonel McBroom, “build everything big and everything right.”

Life after work, however, left a lot to be desired

Bedrock City

At the end of missions or shifts, many 1st TFW personnel returned to “Bedrock City,” a sandy tent city of air-conditioned accommodations for 1,100 located near a flight line. The invented community takes its name from Fred Flintstone’s hometown in the 1960s animated television series and from sweating airmen who drove tent pegs into rockhard sand in the searing, 130-degree heat of August.

As with other units across Saudi Arabia, meals and coffee breaks became a highlight. A cafeteria known as “Dine’s Diner” fed hundreds at every sitting. The goal of two hot meals a day for every airman was met quickly, but Lt. Gen. Henry Viccellio, Jr., deputy chief of staff for Logistics and Engineering, cautioned that “field” conditions might last a year before things were done “a little more permanently.”

Inside the sleeping tents housing dozen airmen each, cots had been lined up barely two feet apart. Electric lights on strings cast an eerie glow in the night. Troops tried to personalize their new homes with of sweethearts, spouses, or children. It was hard, how- to disguise the Spartan conditions. Chemical gear was always kept nearby as well.

For all the inevitable tensions that came with living in crowded conditions, there seemed to be few major disciplinary problems, according to Air Force officials. Col. John Duncan, Tactical Air Command’s deputy staff judge advocate, said his operation was handling fewer military justice cases than might be expected from such a large force garrisoned under austere conditions.

Front-line humor helped lighten the austerity. A sign in one tent warned: “Danger, No Swimming, Lifeguard Not On Duty.” A wall inside a munitions bunker known as “The Cave” displayed a picture of Saddam Hussein peering from behind the crosshairs of a gunsight. Nearby were Sidewinders, Sparrows, and 20-mm ammunition to make good on the threat.

The give-and-take of combat medicine gave the wing’s air-transportable, fifty-bed hospital an atmosphere similar to that of television’s “M*A*S*H.” When its ten doctors, twenty-five nurses, and 100 other personnel finished dealing with snake bites, broken bones, diarrhea, and desert eye irritations, they busily assigned each other nicknames from the popular program. Maj. Rich Williams, the hospital commander, was “Colonel Potter.”

Cultural Isolation

Troops had little direct experience with their very foreign surroundings, thanks to the Saudi decision to keep the troops isolated in order to avoid offending Islamic sensibilities. GIs were reminded that Saudi girls don’t date. US nurses, on their infrequent visits to the downtown marketplaces, known as souks, wore flowing robes over their Western clothes, the better to cover their arms and legs. Air Force women drove only on official business; even then they drew stares of disbelief from Saudi men accustomed to prohibitions against women drivers.

Misunderstandings cropped up despite all the efforts to smooth the way. A group of women nurses unwittingly caused a stir by walking through the front door of a magnificent gymnasium on a Saudi air base–one normally used only by men but which had been opened for the first time to women for an aerobics class. Shocked Saudis ushered the women through the gym’s back door.

Against such a demanding backdrop, Americans took delight in smaller pleasures: sending letters home, watching videotaped movies, playing sports, and relying on such time-tested diversions as card games or checkers.

Proximity to a flight line handling inbound C-141B Starlifters and C-5 A/B Galaxies gave the 1st TFW some amenities that were harder to come by for Army and Marine troops deployed to remote locations . Precious, special-edition copies of European Stars and Stripes were passed along like chain letters, scoured for any hint of what might erupt from the rhetorical combat between Washington and Baghdad.

The 1st TFW’s proximity to Iraqi-held Kuwait also gave off-duty troops the chance to hear “Baghdad Bruce” or “Baghdad Betty,” propagandists for Radio Baghdad’s English- language broadcasts. Warned one, “When our dear leader’s patience has ended, the sands of Arabia shall become your unmarked grave.”

Observed one American, “When you’re feeling a little down, Iraq Radio really picks up your spirits.”

Stewart M. Powell, national security correspondent for Hearst newspapers, covered Desert Shild in Washington and in Saudi Arabia. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was “Fallback From the Philippines” in July 1990 issue.