Cover: United States Air Force Fighter Support in Operation Desert Storm

United States Air Force Fighter Support in Operation Desert Storm

Published 1995

by Raymond A. Pyles, Hyman L. Shulman


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When historical commentators remark that war is uncertain, they refer mainly to predicting combat events and outcomes. Even in a setpiece battle (as on a board game, where both protagonists can see everything except their opponent's intentions and plans), the two sides constantly jockey for position and other advantages, weaving a pattern that is difficult to perceive, analyze, and predict. In real conflicts, the jockeying intensifies as both sides endeavor to take advantage of changing, incomplete operational information.

That jockeying places unpredictable demands on the logistics system. Every shot fired, every bomb dropped, and every sortie launched requires that specific resources and services be delivered at the right place and at the right time. To be successful in the presence of a rapidly changing operational situation, a force must have a logistics system that can deliver markedly different resources from those envisioned during initial planning.

The Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations were no different. In response to challenges and opportunities that arose, Central Command Air Force (CENTAF) changed the forces that deployed, reassigned mission taskings, revised deployment schedules, and redeployed aircraft in combat. By all accounts, the logistics system responded quickly to meet the forces' needs, despite the many changes in plans.

In this study, we asked two questions about Desert Storm logistics operations: How did they achieve such high performance? and What implications does that achievement have for future planning? The answers to the first question may identify policies and procedures that provide more-efficient wartime and peacetime support; the answers to the second question may identify policies and procedures especially relevant in the emerging context of a reduced force whose primary missions focus on unpredictable global contingencies.

USAF Fighter Support Demands Were Unpredictable

Figure S.1. Code 3 Break Rates Were Unpredictable

NOTE: Scales differ.

Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were characterized by unanticipated levels of demands for U.S. Air Force (USAF) fighter logistics materials and services—sometimes high, sometimes low, but seldom what was predicted during peacetime planning. Peacetime predictions about the required kinds, quantities, and locations of critical logistics resources were frequently wrong—often substantially.[1]

For example, Code 3[2] "breaks," or demands for aircraft maintenance, varied significantly from peacetime experience, as shown in Figure S.1: F-15Cs deployed to Desert Shield immediately experienced about two to three times the number of breaks per sortie, or "break rate," of nondeployed aircraft. In contrast, deploying F-16Cs initially had fewer Code 3 breaks per sortie than home-station F-16Cs, but their break rates increased in January as Desert Storm approached. Finally, the deployed EF-111As had consistently fewer Code 3 breaks throughout both Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

These patterns of unpredictable demands extended far beyond aircraft maintenance to include aircraft spare parts, electronic countermeasure (ECM) pods, Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) pods, and munitions. In response, the continental United States (CONUS) depots pushed[3] additional material to the units, redistributed material within the theater, and cannibalized critical parts from nondeployed wings; the Material Air Command created Desert Express[4] to move critical cargo to meet unpredicted demands and created CENTAF REAR[5] to assemble and manage that movement.

The Specific Demand Patterns Were Unique to Desert Storm

In hindsight, we can explain[6] what may have caused the specific patterns of demands. We still cannot predict future demands, because we cannot know that similar events will arise in future contingencies.

For example, most analysts attribute the increased F-15C demands to their immediate engagement flying combat air patrol (CAP) in theater. In that activity, almost every aircraft subsystem was required, and pilots facing an imminent enemy attack were particularly scrupulous about ensuring that all aircraft subsystems were operating at their fullest potential. In contrast, the deployed F-16Cs and other attack aircraft operated under severe flight and mission restrictions until bombing ranges were made available and, later, mass training sorties were organized. Initially, deployed F-16C Code 3 reports diminished, relative to those of nondeployed aircraft. In October 1990, F-16C Code 3 reports increased sharply and peaked when Desert Storm began, because combat-oriented training sorties were first authorized, then later intensified, and, finally, combat began. Lastly, the deployed EF-111As initially operated without the benefit of immediate feedback from ground ranges regarding the effectiveness of their jamming equipment and tactics. After November 1990, the electronic combat Aggressor Squadron tested the ECM gear on 13 EF-111As, which furnished feedback on the condition of the equipment and temporarily increased Code 3 breaks. Once combat operations began and the Iraqi Air Defense System became less active, aircrews received little feedback on their airborne jamming effectiveness, so break rates diminished again.

More important, demands on individual subsystems varied markedly from peacetime predictions. On the one hand, F-117As encountered substantially increased demands for inertial navigation systems (INS), because aircrews required more-accurate, more-stable INS for the much longer sorties in Desert Storm. On the other hand, F-111Es and F-111Fs did not need their terrain-following subsystems for the mid- to high-altitude Desert Storm missions, so demands for the related components fell. The redeployment of B-52s created a need to move substantial quantities of bombs to the new location. The development of F-111F "tank plinking"[7] led to an urgent need to move 500-lb bombs to the F-111F base.

In short, Desert Storm's changing operational strategies and tactics drove the demands for all manner of logistics resources. The next war may not have the same strategies or tactics. Thus, the logistics demands that will arise may also differ substantially.

Ample Resources and Management Adaptations Enabled High Force Capability

Despite such unpredictable demands, the USAF fighter forces maintained exceptionally high levels of aircraft availability and sorties. Broadly, we attribute that performance to two factors: ample resources and management adaptations.

Ample Resources Were "Pushed" to the Theater

With the exception of a few aircraft mission design series (MDS, i.e., F-15E, F-111F, and F-117A), only part of the total USAF inventory of each MDS deployed to Desert Storm. The deployed forces were thus able to draw upon larger pools of highly trained personnel, spare parts, serviceable maintenance equipment, and bombs and other munitions.

Some of those resources were critical to maintaining high sortie levels and aircraft availability in theater, particularly aircraft maintenance personnel and equipment. Because the units had ample highly motivated and trained personnel, many units doubled their peacetime sortie rates. In many units, the breaks per sortie also increased twofold,[8] thereby quadrupling the workload. Even so, most deployed units were able to reduce the maintenance aircraft backlog. Units' ample flight-line capacity made it possible to support mass aircraft launches, even when they experienced the dramatically higher Code 3 break rates.

Air Logistics Centers (ALCs) used their deep stores and repair capacity to assemble and move—"push"—even more material into the theater. ALC repair shops surged, munitions and other consumables were "pushed" to the theater, ports at both ends swelled to overflowing—all based on predictions of what material the forces would need in the approaching battle.

No doubt, some of the material was actually used. But it was both too much and too little, because of the uncertainties in the demand processes. Despite deploying with full-up war reserve spares kits (WRSK), pushing follow-on spares kits (FOSK) forward, and surging spares production at the ALCs to meet the anticipated demands, deployed units experienced unpredicted demands that even those enhanced resource levels could not cover. The extra, unneeded parts, munitions, and other resources could not substitute for the material that was actually needed.[9]

Responsiveness-Oriented Management Adaptations Filled the Gap

Because demands emerged in unpredicted, even unpredictable, ways, the Desert Storm logistics system transformed itself and its operations to become more responsive to emerging demands being experienced on the battlefield. Inter-theater (Desert Express) and intra-theater (Camel routes) airlift of critical material was created, regional repair locations were set up at Rhein-Main Air Base (AB), Germany, and some U.S. Air Force, Europe (USAFE) bases, and CENTAF REAR was established to locate and assemble critical material from nondeployed forces.

Each of those adaptations had the effect of shortening the response time between the Desert Storm forces' recognition of a need and the meeting of that need, effectively letting the forces "pull" the really important material from the best source. Thus, critical spare parts were moved to the theater by Desert Express in slightly more than one day and distributed from the theater port to the flying units in a similarly short time. C-130 avionics and engine repair at Rhein-Main AB considerably shortened the time between the removal of a critical C-130 component and its return to a unit; similar activities at Hahn AB, Germany, and other USAFE air bases enhanced the responsiveness of support for F100 engines on F-15 and F-16 aircraft in theater; F-111F avionics and engine repair depended on home station (at RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom). Finally, CENTAF REAR located unit-identified critical aircraft components at CONUS bases and directed their movement to Charleston Air Force Base (AFB), S.C., for Desert Express shipment.

Ample Resources and Management Adaptations Were Not Always Enough

In some cases, sufficient assets did not exist to cover both the deployed and nondeployed forces' needs. In particular, some aircraft did not have a substantial nondeployed force, and some critical resources were not available in sufficient quantities.

The F-15E, F-111F, and F-117A MDS aircraft were almost fully deployed to Desert Storm, so they could not draw on the resources of the nondeployed forces for MDS-specific material and services. Furthermore, in some cases there were not enough spares to begin with. As a consequence, these aircraft experienced special difficulties in obtaining spares support.

Similarly, support to ECM pods suffered because of unpredictable demands and limited resources. USAF policy allocates sufficient ECM pods to each squadron to mount one pod per aircraft, as if the pods were highly reliable and easily maintained. They are neither. ECM pods require some of the most sophisticated, complex, sensitive technologies of any USAF equipment; test times, on equally complex, sophisticated and expensive automatic test equipment, are usually in excess of 18 hours, and multiple tests are typically required to detect, diagnose, fix, and confirm an effective repair. In Desert Storm, several deployed wings experienced a growing backlog of ECM pods awaiting repair because demands overwhelmed their ECM repair capacity; the shortfall was "solved" by deploying more pods from nondeployed forces. Thus, the unpredictably higher Desert Storm ECM pod removal rates[10] combined with a constrained repair capacity and limited pod availability to threaten the deployed forces' combat capabilities, and ultimately drew down the capabilities of the nondeployed forces. Some nondeployed units had as few as four operating ECM pods remaining by the end of Desert Storm.[11]

Many Desert Storm Logistics Options Will Not Be Available in the Future

Clearly, the USAF and its supporting infrastructure will be downsized as a result of both serious U.S. government budget concerns and the demise of the Cold War. That downsizing will remove, or at least diminish, two important options exercised during Desert Storm: pushing resources forward from ample supplies and diverting resources from the nondeployed forces. While some low-tech material stockpiles may emerge temporarily from retiring older aircraft or from slowing munitions consumption, the critical, sophisticated state-of-the-art radars, engines, ECM pods, LANTIRN pods, and smart munitions materials so important in Desert Storm will probably still be in short supply, because the latest modifications will have been introduced in only a subset of the aircraft. For example, radar subsystems in different F-16 blocks differ substantially, so some F-16C radar components cannot be used to meet other F-16C spares demands.

More critically, future USAF and DoD policymakers may need to think twice before diverting resources between deployed and nondeployed forces whose combined size is just adequate to meet two major regional contingencies. Even if one force were not currently engaged, the world situation might change rapidly enough that diverting key resources from the non-engaged force might jeopardize its ability to respond to the second contingency.

Thus, the current fighter logistics system, with its long response times and its reliance on great quantities of previously acquired material, may not match the challenges of the 1990s and beyond. Material alone is insufficient to meet the uncertainties, and some of the backups inherent in the larger forces of the past will disappear.

Enhancing Logistics System Responsiveness Should Improve Wartime Support

Fortunately, Desert Storm also demonstrated the viability of a more responsive concept of logistics operations. Desert Express, more-responsive rearward (including CONUS depot, regional, and contractor) support, and more-aggressive command and control critically enhanced the combat capability of the Desert Storm fighter forces, even after accounting for the massive materials "pushed" to the theater. We anticipate a "Lean Logistics" system operating in both peace and war could achieve much the same performance levels as seen in Desert Storm, without relying on such massive quantities of materials or diverting material from nondeployed forces, even with the much higher demand uncertainties inherent in wartime operations. Initial analytic research[12] has already demonstrated the potential of such a system; USAF field demonstrations are under way to refine and implement such a system.


  • [1] How could they ever be right? The demands were extrapolated from peacetime flying, with one mix of flying operations, logistics structure, and aircrew expectations, to wartime combat, for which all those factors change depending on the nature of the tasking.
  • [2] When returning from a sortie, USAF aircrews rated the aircraft's status as "Code 1" (mission ready), "Code 2" (mission ready, but needing minor maintenance), or "Code 3" (requires maintenance before the next mission). "Code 3" aircraft are called "broken" until the maintenance is successfully completed.
  • [3] USAF logistics managers extrapolated peacetime experience and pushed material, i.e., moved material without deployed units' request or stated requirement.
  • [4] Desert Express: a daily C-141 express shipment of spare parts and other critical material to Dhahran airport for all Central Command (CENTCOM) forces.
  • [5] CENTAF REAR: support command-and-control center established at Langley AFB, Va., to coordinate CONUS support to USAF forces assigned to CENTAF.
  • [6] That is, we can construct a plausible explanation after the fact. Other, equally plausible, explanations may exist, which only compounds the difficulty of predicting future demands.
  • [7] Tank plinking: dropping laser-guided 500-lb bombs from F-111Fs with laser designators to attack tanks. Previously, the laser-seeking bomb heads had been used mostly with 2,000-lb bomb bodies to attack large, fixed installations.
  • [8] A few aircraft, such as the A-10, flew fewer but longer sorties in Desert Storm. Overall, Desert Storm fighters flew about twice the sortie rate during the war as nondeployed aircraft (1.0 versus 0.51 sorties per day). Average daily flying hours increased even more, from 0.8 to 3.7 hours per aircraft (4.5 times the nondeployed force hours).
  • [9] Moreover, they sometimes got in the way by using limited air transportation resources that could have met the more relevant demands actually encountered by the forces.
  • [10] Pod use is severely constrained in peacetime by security and range availability. The small sample sizes and constrained operating circumstances of peacetime operations make estimates of wartime demands highly unreliable, even when the differences in utilization are considered.
  • [11] A similar policy affects LANTIRN pods, and a similar result ensued—except that all the LANTIRN targeting pods were deployed to Desert Storm, leaving none for nondeployed units.
  • [12] I. K. Cohen, R. A. Pyles, and R. Eden, in "Lean Logistics: A More Responsive, Robust, and Affordable System," RAND, unpublished draft, describe and evaluate such a system for repairable components. I. K. Cohen, J. B. Abell, and T. F. Lippiatt summarize some peacetime and wartime uncertainties and propose mitigating management adaptations in Coupling Logistics to Operations to Meet Uncertainties and the Threat (CLOUT): An Overview, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, R-3979-AF, 1991.

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