Desert Storm Air War
The Aerial Campaign against Saddam’s Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War
Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 2017, 288 pages
Book Review published on: October 4, 2019
Jim Corrigan’s book Desert Storm Air War offers another take on the well-documented 1990–91 Gulf War, specifically the air campaign, from the perspective of both the politicians and strategists who conceived it and the pilots who executed it. As a retired Air Force officer, the book has great appeal to me; however, the book shies away from asking tough questions and is predominantly a stroll down memory lane. That said, the author delivers many gripping accounts of what the aviators flying those missions went through.
Corrigan also does a superb job of laying out the run-up to the war and describing the logic of senior air strategists and planners who had lived through the debacle that was the air war in Vietnam (the last large-scale U.S. air campaign). Those officers would insist this campaign would not be a repeat of that long, drawn-out, deflating experience. This is the sauciest and most intriguing segment in the whole book. Luckily, Corrigan wastes no time enmeshing us in it.
Gen. Charles Horner, a seasoned fighter pilot from the Vietnam era, unexpectedly finds himself more than two decades later as the joint force air component commander for U.S. Central Command, led by Army Gen. “Stormin” Norman Schwarzkopf. Horner is tasked with overseeing the development of an air campaign plan to take out key Iraqi strategic, operational, and tactical targets to prepare the way for a follow-on ground attack led by Schwarzkopf himself.
As Corrigan tells it, with Saddam Hussein’s unanticipated move south into Kuwait (and potentially into Saudi Arabia), Schwarzkopf scrambles to assemble his team. After meeting with the Saudi leadership, he leaves Horner in Jeddah while he returns to the United States to coordinate things on that end. In a hurried departure, he somewhat mechanically tells Horner that he will get some Pentagon strategists started on developing a strategic air campaign. To his great surprise, the normally jocular Horner angrily replies, “Okay, but we ain’t picking the goddamn targets in Washington.”
Horner bitterly remembers Lyndon Johnson once bragged of his control over the pilots in Vietnam saying, “They can’t even bomb an outhouse without my approval.” During that war, the rules the White House laid down regarding the application of airpower effectively negated America’s asymmetric advantage while placing fliers at greater risk. Horner bristled under those restrictions, blaming, within his own mind at least, the Washington crowd as complicit in the shoot down or death of fellow airmen. Over time, “[Horner] and the others began bending the rules. If they were going to risk their lives in combat, it should at least do some good, they reasoned.” Horner admitted, many years later, “We lied about what we were doing in North Vietnam … We lied about what targets we hit … If I saw a better target … I would miss my [assigned] target and somehow my bombs would hit [a target he deemed worthier].” According to Corrigan, Horner “hated the duplicity, but felt trapped by Washington’s style of warfare.” As an exasperated young pilot routinely risking his life, he and many of his fellow airmen felt that despite the politicians having no seeming interest in winning, they were intent on winning.
Now, more than two decades later, Horner is adamant his experience then would not be replicated, putting pilots in an impossible position. Schwarzkopf assures Horner that he, as the overall combatant commander, has Horner’s back. Despite his different experience as a young ground combat officer, Schwarzkopf shares similar disgust about how that war had been prosecuted by Washington, and tells Horner forthrightly, “Look, Chuck, you’re my air boss, with final veto authority over everything connected with air.” With that reassurance, Horner sets about pulling together a plan that would satisfy both his boss and himself. He would need a lot of help—some sought, some not.
Deep in the basement of the Pentagon, a team of Air Force strategists in a planning cell named “Checkmate” were already busy designing a comprehensive air campaign to dislodge Saddam by targeting his network, both in Kuwait and, more importantly, in Iraq. Checkmate had been established in the 1970s to analyze air combat between NATO and Soviet forces. But unlike its usual business of running simulations of notional battles, those same planners now had a chance to create a real campaign, and it would be a radical departure from conventional thinking.
Air Force Col. John Warden leads Checkmate. He is a lean, polished, cerebral man, unafraid to buck convention. He had served as a forward air controller in Vietnam, which was a tough and dangerous assignment. Later, he fashioned himself into an airpower scholar and theoretician. Warden was a polarizing figure within the Pentagon; while many recognized him as “a deep thinker,” others derided him as “an intellectual,” lacking common sense (or maybe emotional IQ) and the requisite fortitude to command. This latter opinion no doubt crystallized when he was fired after serving only six months as a wing commander in Germany by a gritty general who sent him packing.
Horner’s acrid memories of Vietnam-era air-campaign fiascos understandably leaves him tainted against anyone hailing from Washington (uniformed or otherwise) who comes pitching theories promising better results than can reasonably be expected and risking lives with delusional plans. Thus, it was no surprise that Horner has no interest in hearing Warden’s pitch. But Powell and Schwarzkopf had both taken Warden’s briefing stateside and were intrigued; now, they want Horner’s opinion. Grudgingly, he capitulates.
Warden knows it is going to be a tough sell, not only because of Checkmate’s ambitious plan, but also due to Horner’s disposition. Despite a rather cold reception from Horner, Warden’s cocky delivery appears to discount trouble, or at least exudes confidence that the plan’s brilliance would overwhelm skepticism. “This is not Rolling Thunder, it is Instant Thunder. Where Rolling Thunder sought to cripple the enemy gradually—nearly four years, as it turned out—Instant Thunder would do so immediately.” In this case, “immediate” equated to six days. Horner stonily looks on. Warden’s air campaign plan, the “Five-Ring System Model, calls for continuous airstrikes that would largely bypass Saddam’s fielded forces and focus instead on softer targets that, he promises, would have cascading deleterious effects throughout the entire system.
Hearing bold prediction after bold prediction, Horner grows increasingly agitated. It reminds him of far-fetched fantasies spun in Washington throughout his entire career. As the slick briefing continues, both Horner and Warden appear to be grating on one another with cynical questions from Horner followed by cheeky replies from Warden. Finally, Warden’s overly rosy depiction and brash predictions are too much for Horner. He tears into Warden, shouting: “We could be looking out the window right now and see the Iraqi tanks coming into Riyadh!” Self-assured, Warden pushes back: “You are being overly pessimistic about those tanks.”
The room freezes. You can hear a pin drop. Warden realizes he has overstepped, apologizes, and attempts to reset the conversation. But he has gone too far. “Apology accepted,” Horner coldly replies. With that, Horner adjourns the meeting. He ends up asking several of the Checkmate staff to remain in Riyadh as part of his planning team. As for Warden, he is sent home, once again expelled.
The air campaign plan that ultimately emerges prior to the initiation of Desert Storm resembles, in many ways, Warden’s ideas but is tempered by Horner’s cynical eye and by Schwarzkopf’s outrage upon seeing the initial airpower allocation proposal (as envisioned by Horner and his chief deputy, Brig. Gen. Buster Glosson).
The overwhelming majority of the book is liberally seasoned with robust accounts of heart-pounding air assaults, strikes, raids, rescues, and more than a few mishaps. These are very interesting, and the book is a genuine page turner. These varied glimpses into the cockpits and operations centers leaves one feeling as though America had truly turned the corner on the ghosts of Vietnam.
And yet, being written in 2017, long after the war, and in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent Global War on Terrorism, the book seems oddly out of place. One cannot help but wonder what the war, let alone the air campaign within it, gained us besides evicting Saddam from Kuwait. Ultimately, after a dozen frustrating years of no-fly zones and inconclusive UN weapons inspections, the United States would have to revisit that troubled place, but in a far more deadly and disastrous war that would last more than eight years. Iraq was free of Saddam, but mired in death, chaos, conflict, and a murky future.
The success of the First Gulf War, short as it was and against a strategic imbecile, made us proud, but undoubtedly filled us with hubris, too. And, as it turned out, and so often does, the distance between the narrative and the reality was great. “Although air power played an important role in the coalition’s victory, its role has been exaggerated and misunderstood.” The war ushered in a major and constant distraction over the next quarter of a century. It also served as a wake-up call to other malicious actors who began assessing America’s preferred way of war and how they might frustrate that method going forward.
While the book does not offer any new insights that cannot be found in many other tomes, it is an indulgent pleasure to read and a worthy addition to any military history library.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas