Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Persian Gulf War (17 January–28 February 1991)

Title: Burning oil wells in Kuwait
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The Persian Gulf War resulted from the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait. In July 1990 U.S. intelligence detected an Iraqi military buildup along the Kuwaiti border. On 17 July Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein threatened military action against Kuwait for its violation of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil caps. Overproduction had driven down the price of oil. Because of Iraq's recently completed eight-year war with Iran (1980–1988), it had accumulated a war debt of some $80 billion, and Baghdad was anxious to keep oil prices high. There was also an ongoing Iraqi border dispute with Kuwait over charges of Kuwaiti slant-drilling into Iraqi-controlled oil fields. Finally, Iraq had long claimed Kuwait as a province.

Washington had been increasingly concerned over Iraq's expanding nuclear industry and its chemical and biological weapons, some of which Hussein had used in the war against Iran and even against his own people, the Kurds. But U.S. policy was ambiguous, and Iraqis knew that Washington had tacitly supported them in the war with Iran, providing satellite intelligence information on Iran. U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad April Glaspie delivered mixed messages on behalf of the George H. W. Bush administration that seemed to allow Hussein free rein in the Persian Gulf. Hussein thus believed that Washington would probably not challenge a move against Kuwait. On its part, the State Department did not believe that Hussein would actually mount a full-scale invasion. If military action occurred, Washington expected only a limited offensive to force the Kuwaitis to accede to Iraqi oil production demands. Clearly, Washington underestimated Hussein's ambitions.

On 2 August 1990 Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait and speedily overran the country. The United States demanded that Hussein recall his troops from Kuwait. When he refused, the Bush administration took action. Washington feared that an unchecked Iraq would threaten Saudi Arabia, which possessed the world's largest oil reserves, and thus would be able to control both the price and flow of oil to the West. Bush also saw Hussein as a new Adolf Hitler and was determined that there would be no Munich-like appeasement of aggression.

On paper Iraq appeared formidable. Its army numbered more than 950,000 men, and it had some 5,500 main battle tanks (MBTs), of which 1,000 were modern T-72s; 6,000 armored personnel carriers (APCs); and about 3,500 artillery weapons. Hussein ultimately deployed forty-three divisions to Kuwait, positioning most of them along the border with Saudi Arabia.

In Operation desert shield, designed to protect Saudi Arabia and prepare for the liberation of Kuwait, the United States put together an impressive coalition that included Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia as well as Britain, France, and many other states. Altogether, coalition assets grew to 665,000 men, 3,600 tanks, and substantial air and naval assets.

Hussein remained intransigent but also quiescent, allowing the buildup of coalition forces in Saudi Arabia to proceed unimpeded. When the deadline for Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait passed on 15 January 1991, coalition commander U.S. Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf unleashed Operation desert storm on 16 January. It began with a massive air offensive, striking targets in Kuwait and throughout Iraq, including Baghdad. In only a few days the coalition had established absolute air supremacy over the battlefield. Iraq possessed nearly 800 combat aircraft and an integrated air defense system controlling 3,000 antiaircraft missiles, but it was unable to win a single air-to-air engagement, and coalition aircraft soon destroyed the bulk of the Iraqi Air Force. Air superiority assured success on the ground.

The air campaign destroyed important Iraqi targets along the Saudi border. Night after night B-52s dropped massive bomb loads in classic attrition warfare, and many Iraqi defenders were simply buried alive. Schwarzkopf also mounted an elaborate deception to convince the Iraqis that the coalition was planning an amphibious assault against Kuwait. This feint pinned down a number of Iraqi divisions. In reality, Schwarzkopf had planned a return to large-scale maneuver warfare, which tested the U.S. Army's new AirLand Battle concept.

Schwarzkopf's campaign involved three thrusts. On the far left, 200 miles from the coast, XVIII Airborne Corps of the 82rd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), supplemented by the French 6th Light Armored Division and the U.S. 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, were to swing wide and cut off the Iraqis on the Euphrates River, preventing resupply or retreat. The center assault, the mailed fist of VII Corps, was to be mounted some 100 miles inland from the coast. It consisted of the heavily armored coalition divisions: the U.S. 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions, the 1st Cavalry Division, the 1st Infantry (Mechanized) Division, and the British 1st Armored Division. VII Corps's mission was to thrust deep, engage, and then destroy the elite Iraqi Republican Guard divisions. The third and final thrust was to occur on the coast. It consisted of the U.S. 1st Marine Expeditionary force of two divisions, a brigade from the U.S. 2nd Armored Division, and allied Arab units and was to drive on Kuwait City.

On 24 February Allied forces executed simultaneous drives along the coast, while the 101st Airborne Division established a position 50 miles behind the border. As the Marines moved up the coast toward Kuwait City, they were hit in the flank by Iraqi armor. In the largest tank battle in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Marines, supported by coalition airpower, easily defeated the Iraqis. The battle was fought in a surrealist day-into-night atmosphere caused by the smoke of oil wells set afire by the retreating Iraqis.

As the Marines, preceded by a light Arab force, prepared to enter Kuwait City, Iraqi forces fled north with whatever they could steal. Thousands of vehicles and personnel were caught in the open on the highway from Kuwait City and were pummeled by air and artillery along what became known as the "highway of death." The Allies now came up against an Iraqi rear guard of 300 tanks covering the withdrawal north toward Basra of four Republican Guard divisions. In perhaps the most lopsided tank battle in history, the Iraqi force was defeated at a cost of only one American death.

Lieutenant General Frederick Franks Jr., commander of VII Corps to the west, angered Schwarzkopf by insisting on halting on the night of 24 February and concentrating his forces rather than risk an advance through a battlefield littered with debris and unexploded ordnance and subject to the possibility of casualties from friendly fire. When VII Corps resumed the advance early on 25 February, its problem was not the Iraqis but the supply of fuel; because of the speed of the advance, the M1s needed to be refueled every eight to nine hours.

The afternoon of 27 February saw VII Corps engaged in some of its most intense combat. Hoping to delay the coalition, an armored brigade of the Medina Republican Guard Division established a 6-mile-long skirmish line on the reverse slope of a low hill, digging in their T-55 and T-72 tanks. The advancing 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division came over a ridge, spotted the Iraqis, and took them under fire from 2,500 yards. The American tankers used sabot rounds to blow the turrets off the dug-in Iraqi tanks. The battle was the largest single armor engagement of the war. In only forty-five minutes, U.S. tanks and aircraft destroyed sixty T-72, nine T-55 tanks, and thirty-eight Iraqi armored personnel carriers.

Allied tanks, especially the M1A1 Abrams and the British Challenger, had proved their great superiority over their Soviet counterparts, especially in night fighting. Of 600 M1A1 Abrams that saw combat, not one was penetrated by an enemy round. Conversely, the M1A1's 120mm gun proved lethal to Iraqi MBTs. It could engage the Iraqi armor at 3,000 meters (1.86 miles), twice the Iraqis' effective range, and its superior fire control system could deliver a first-round hit while on the move. Overall, the coalition maneuver strategy bound up in the AirLand Battle worked to perfection. As VII Corps closed to the sea, XVIII Corps to its left, with a much larger distance to travel, raced to reach the fleeing Republican Guards' divisions before they could escape to Baghdad.

In only one hundred hours of ground combat, Allied forces had liberated Kuwait. On 28 February President Bush stopped the war. He feared the cost of an assault on Baghdad and was also concerned that Iraq might then break up into a Kurdish north, a Sunni Muslim center, and a Shiite Muslim south. Bush wanted to keep Iraq intact to counter a resurgent Iran.

The war was among the most lopsided in history. Iraq lost 3,700 tanks, more than 1,000 other armored vehicles, and 3,000 artillery pieces. In contrast, the coalition lost 4 tanks, 9 other combat vehicles, and 1 artillery piece. In human terms, the Allies sustained 500 casualties (150 dead), many of these from accidents and friendly fire. Iraqi casualties totaled between 25,000 and 100,000 dead, with the best estimates being around 60,000. The coalition also took 80,000 Iraqis prisoner. Perhaps an equal number simply deserted.

Following the cease-fire, Hussein reestablished his authority. He put down, at great cost to the civilian population, revolts by the Shiites and Kurds. He also defied United Nations (UN) inspection teams by failing to account for all of his biological and chemical weapons, the so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Ultimately, President George W. Bush would use the alleged presence of WMD as an excuse to send U.S. and allied forces to invade and occupy Iraq in another war in 2003.

Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Romjue, John L. American Army Doctrine for the Post–Cold War. Washington, DC: Military History Office and U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 1997.; Scales, Robert H., Jr. Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 1997.; Schubert, Frank N., and Theresa L. Kraus, eds. Whirlwind War: The United States Army in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center for Military History, 1994.; Schwarzkopf, H. Norman. It Doesn't Take a Hero. New York: Bantam, 1992.

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