A League of Airmen: U.S. Air Power in the Gulf War

By: James A. Winnefeld, Preston Niblack, Dana J. Johnson


The 1990-1991 war in the Persian Gulf was one of the most thoroughly reported and commented-on military actions in U.S. history. It etched a series of vivid media images in the public mind: tracer fire over Baghdad on the first night of the war; laser-guided bombs entering air shafts to destroy buildings with pinpoint accuracy; the “highway of death” where allied forces attacked Iraqi ground troops fleeing Kuwait. Most of these images featured air power and associated technology. The impact of these images, in conjunction with the fact that for many months air forces alone waged the campaign’s only offensive operations, have helped to shape the widely held perception that air power was decisive in defeating Iraq.

Since the war’s end, defense analysts and scholars have vigorously debated the validity of this perception. Some have argued that air power could have won the war alone, without the employment of ground forces, if only given more time to work. Others have disputed the validity and effectiveness of certain aspects of the air war, such as the strategic campaign. Yet others have focused on the shortcomings of some weapon systems to bolster their argument that air power performance was inadequate.

In an era of shrinking budgets and reduced forces, it becomes increasingly important to understand the potential contributions and limitations of various force elements. In this volume the authors have attempted to evaluate the claims and counterclaims of the current air power debate and to provide a comprehensive and objective account of the contributions and limitations of air power in the Gulf War.

RAND’s Project AIR FORCE division conducted an extensive program of original research before, during, and after Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. This research effort covered many different aspects of operations during the Gulf War, including strategic airlift, munitions and logistics support, command and control, intelligence and bomb damage assessment, and analysis of enemy prisoner of war interviews, among other topics. This book draws on this body of original research, insofar as is possible under classification restrictions, as well as on the authors’ interviews with participants and reviews of secondary sources. A significant effort has been expended over the last two years in cleaning, linking, and analyzing a vast quantity of raw data. These data and subsequent analyses were made available to both the Pentagon’s Conduct of the Persian Gulf War analysis and the official Air Force study led by Eliot Cohen. Much of the data is still in classified or in draft form. Some of the more interesting unclassified data can be found tabulated in the appendix. Analysis and evaluation of this information and other lessons learned will be continued over the next several years.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that seeks to improve public policy through research and analysis. Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center, performs studies and analysis for the United States Air Force.


Chapter One: Introduction

Chapter Two: The Setting for the Gulf Air War

Defining Desert Storm as an Intersection of Trend Lines

The End of the Post-Vietnam Era

The Gulf as the New Cockpit of U.S. Security Interests

The Rise of Iraqi Military Power

The Technological Evolution in Warfare

Revived Professionalism

The Arrival of (Almost) True “Jointness”

The State of Air Doctrine on the Eve of the Gulf War

Prewar Developments

Movement to Crisis

The Initial U.S. Response — 2 August 1990

Chapter Three: The Deployment

Overview of Strategic Airlift Operations

Historical Summary

Precrisis Preparations

Phase I: 7 August-6 November 1990

Phase II: 9 November 1990-16 January 1991

Phase III: The War, 17 January-28 February

Phase IV: Redeployment and Postwar Activities, March-August 1991

Performance Shortfalls in Strategic Airlift

Factors That Substantially Limited Strategic Airlift Operations

Commercial and CRAF Operations

An Assessment of the Contribution of Commercial Airlift

Aerial Refueling Operations During the Force Deployment

SAC Unit Deployments

Fighter and Other Combat Unit Deployments

What If Saddam Had Invaded Saudi Arabia in August 1990?

A Retrospective on the Deployment

Chapter Four: Planning the Air Campaign

U.S. Regional Strategy and Plans

The Evolution of Air Doctrine

The Early Role of Checkmate in Gulf War Planning

The Instant Thunder Plan

Air Campaign Planning

The Desert Storm Air Campaign Plan

The Air Campaign Objectives and Target Sets


Translating the Plan for the First 48 Hours to Air Tasking Orders

In-War Planning

The Command and Control Interface

The Intelligence Interface

Issues in Apportionment and Targeting

A Critique of the Strategic Air Campaign Plans

Planning in Perspective

Chapter Five: Command, Control, and Organization

The Coalition Command Structure

Command and Control in CENTCOM’s Service Component Commands

The Air Force Component Command Structure

The Navy Component Command Structure

The Marine Corps Component Command Structure

The JFACC Organization

How the Command and Control System Worked

Air Defense Command and Control

USAF and Marine Approaches to Airspace Control

Marine Close Air Support

The Special Operations Forces (SOF) Interface

Direct Action Missions

Combat Search and Rescue

Command, Control, and Organization in Perspective

Chapter Six: Operations

Overview: Executing the Air Campaign

Training for War

The First Twenty-Four Hours

The First Two Weeks: Achieving Air Supremacy and the Strategic Air Campaign


Achieving Air Supremacy

The Strategic Campaign

The Scud Hunt

Tanker Support

The Key to Effective Operations: The Air Tasking Order

Controlling Air Operations

The Damage Assessment Problem

Coalition Operations

The Second Air Front: Joint Task Force Proven Force

Weeks 3-5: Attacking Enemy Ground Forces

Assessing Attrition

The Final Week: Supporting the Ground Campaign

Friendly-Fire Casualties

Results of the Air Campaign

Assessing the Strategic Campaign

The Air Campaign in the KTO

Chapter Seven: Tactics

The First Two Days: The Interface Between the Plan and Tactics

Killing the Iraqi Air Force

Runway Denial Tactics

Air-to-Air Combat Tactics

The Scud Hunt

Strike Tactics

B-52 Tactics

Battlefield Preparation

Defense Suppression Tactics

Close Air Support

Close Air Support of Army and Coalition Forces

Close Air Support of Marine Forces


Air Control



Targeting Limitations

Availability of Support Aircraft

Assessment of Tactics

Chapter Eight: Information Acquisition and Management

The First Information War

Prewar Activities

Organizing to Support the Air Campaign

CONUS-Based Intelligence

Theater-Based Intelligence

The Sensors and the "Enablers"

Sensors: Tactical Ballistic Missile (TBM) Warning

Sensors: Airborne Reconnaissance and Surveillance

Sensors: HUMINT

The Enablers: Environmental Monitoring (Weather)

The Enablers: Remote Sensing

The Enablers: Navigation and Positioning


Tactical Communications

Intratheater Communications in Supporting Air and Space Defense

Long-Haul Communications

Targeting and Mission Planning

Battle Damage Assessment

Information Acquisition and Management in Perspective

Chapter Nine: Logistics

Phase II Deployments

Service and Joint Logistics Support Concepts for Air Forces

The United States Air Force

Marine Air

Navy Air

Express Airlift

Intratheater Airlift



Air Force

Redeployments, Tactics, and Target Allocation Changes Drove Intratheater Munition Support Efforts


Marine Corps

Sortie and In-Commission Rates

Base Building

Logistic Support in Perspective

Logistics Concept of Operations

Supporting a Downsized Wartime Force

Transportation, Repair, and Spares Tradeoffs

Infrastructure of Host Nation

Chapter Ten: Air Combat System Performance

Measuring Aircraft System Performance

F-117A Nighthawk

Tomahawk Sea-Launched Cruise Missile

The F-111 Aardvark

F-15E Strike Eagle

A-10 Thunderbolt

F-16 Fighting Falcon

F-14 Tomcat

A-6E Intruder

F/A-18 Hornet

F-4G Wild Weasel

B-52 Stratofortress

AV-8B Harrier

EF-111 Raven

S-3B Viking

Chapter Eleven: Air Power Performance in the Gulf War

A Revisionist View

Force Application

The JFACC: A Step on the Long Road to Jointness

The Triumph of Service Doctrine and Preferences

Land- and Sea-Based Air

Heavy Bombers Versus Fighter Bombers

What Would We Change in Retrospect?

The Scud Hunt

Intelligence/Battle Damage Assessment

Lift Planning

Precision-Guided Munitions Capabilities

Moving Naval Air into the Gulf

Tanker and Fuel Compatibility


Chapter Twelve: An Assessment of Air Power’s Role

Is There a Consensus View?

Arguing at the Extreme

Sequentially Enabling the Application of Power

Air Power in Historical Perspective

The “All Wars (and Especially Desert Storm) are Unique” School

The Contribution of Air Power to the Gulf Victory

The Objectives of the Air Campaign

Appendix: Statistical Data on Desert Shield and Desert Storm


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