On this day, January 17, 1991, Operation Desert Storm began. In less than 100 hours a cease-fire was called with all operational objectives having been achieved.
Events That Led Up Operation Desert Storm
On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, claiming the following reasons:
- Iraq had run up a huge debt during their war with Iran in the early 1980s. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were the largest holders of this debt. Iraq had asked Kuwait to forgive the debt without success.
- Oil prices tumbled prior to the invasion making it extremely difficult for Iraq to make debt payments. Iraq claimed that Kuwait was exceeding OPEC oil quotas, forcing oil prices down, and engaging in “economic warfare” by exacerbating their debt problem.
- Iraq claimed that Kuwait was slant drilling across its border into the Rumaila oil field and stealing Iraqi oil.
- Iraq claimed Kuwait was a British imperialist invention formed after World War I, and should legitimately be considered an Iraqi territory.
After the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq continued its aggressive behavior by moving 120,000 troops and 850 tanks to the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. President Saddam Hussein denied exit visas to Western civilians, essentially holding them hostage in Iraq. Saddam Hussein also began a news campaign, claiming that the Saudi Arabian government was both illegitimate and unworthy as a protector of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, thus heightening concerns that if Saudi Arabia were also invaded, Iraq would control most of the world’s known oil reserves.
Operation Desert Shield
On August 7, President George H. W. Bush announced a defensive mission, Operation Desert Shield, to defend Saudi Arabia from any attack by the Iraqi military. In apparent retaliation for that move, the following day President Saddam Hussein declared Kuwait the nineteenth province of Iraq. The stage was now set for Operation Desert Storm.
Armed with United Nations Resolution 678 which called for “all necessary means” to remove Iraq from Kuwait, coalition forces were formed from 34 countries with the intent of forcing Iraq to pull out of Kuwait; the major contributors being the United Kingdom with 43,000 troops, France with 18,000 troops, and Canada with 4,500 troops. Nearly 1 million coalition troops were pledged for the invasion with the total U.S. commitment representing nearly 73% of that figure. Germany and Japan, while not investing boots on the ground, made financial contributions totaling $16.6 billion. The resolution gave Iraq until January 15, 1991, to unconditionally withdraw its forces from Kuwait.
The Gulf War
The war was conducted in two parts. First a bombing campaign was designed to eliminate Iraq’s command and control capability, essentially severing the torso (their troops) from the head (Saddam). The thought was that since Iraqi troops were not encouraged to act independently from the normal command structure, without communication with Saddam and his generals they would essentially be paralyzed. Second, a ground campaign was devised to physically liberate Kuwait from Iraqi troop control.
On January 17, 1991, one day after the Resolution 678 deadline, about five months after the Iraqi invasion, the air campaign was launched.
- The first priority was to eliminate Iraq’s ability to defend the skies.
- The second priority was to eliminate their ability to communicate with ground troops.
- The third priority was to target the Iraqi military — scud missile launchers, weapons research facilities, and Iraqi naval forces.
The Air War
The air campaign flew over 100,000 sorties, dropped over 85,000 tons of bombs and launched 288 cruise missiles. President Saddam Hussein ordered Soviet-made Scud missiles to be launched at targets in Israel hoping to draw them into the conflict and disrupt the coalition, which included many Muslim countries opposed to Israel. Saudi Arabia was also targeted. The scud missiles, although not very accurate or effective, accounted for the largest single loss of U.S. troops during the war when a missile hit a U.S. army barrack killing 28 and wounding over 100 soldiers.
In late January and early February initial movements into Iraq began. Elements of the 1st Calvary Division pushed into Iraq, engaged the enemy, and then withdrew according to a plan to lead the Iraqis to think that the main attack would come from the south. At the same time U.S. troops began a decoy attack of naval gunfire and air strikes along east-central Kuwait, leading the Iraqi military to believe that an amphibious invasion force would attack along that part of the coast.
The Ground War
At 8 p.m. EST on February 23, 1991, the ground war began, catching the Iraqi forces completely by surprise and quickly cutting off the main escape routes for Saddam’s elite Republican Guard Units — a primary target of the ground campaign. Unlike regular Iraqi military units who surrendered quickly, the Republican Guard units tended to fight harder, but were completely overwhelmed by the superior firepower of the coalition troops. Coalition losses were very light in troop and equipment, while Iraqi losses were extremely heavy.
Severely outgunned, Saddam ordered the retreat from Kuwait on February 26th, two days after the invasion began. As his troops began to pull out they started setting fire to the oil fields in Kuwait. Their forces were pursued and destroyed to within 150 miles of Baghdad.
On February 28th, one hundred hours after the ground war began, President George H. W. Bush declared a ceasefire. Kuwait had been liberated.
“There are probably things I could have done better,” former President H.W. Bush stated upon the 20th anniversary of the war. “I honestly believe history will say we did this right.”
- How is war declared? What are the roles of the President and Congress when it comes to the declaration of war? Research which military conflicts were actually declared wars. (See resources below.)
- Many former presidents express the sentiment that the hardest part of their job is sending someone else’s son or daughter into combat. What criteria would you use to determine if a cause was worth risking lives and treasure? Make a list of levels of escalations that would have to be reached before you would commit troops if you were the President of the United States. (Read the “Powell Doctrine” below.)
- During Desert Storm the nation was primarily unified behind the cause. How do you think that unity affects the decision making that goes on behind the scenes? Make a list of conflicts where the nation was unified vs. those where the nation was primarily opposed to military action. Research their outcomes.
- At the time, many came out after the conflict suggesting that we stopped too early. More should have been done — particularly, that Saddam Hussein should have been forced out, his military power should have been further crippled or eliminated, etc. Using the resources below, research the stated objectives of the conflict. Analyze the outcomes. What do you think? Write an essay summarizing and backing up your conclusions.
President George H.W. Bush’s speech to the nation January 17, 1991.
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Operation Desert Storm Chronology
Showing the important events.
“Thunder and Lightning” – The War with Iraq
Brief historical events from the U.S. Navy.
National Security Directive 45
August 20, 1990, directive numerating the principles that would guide U.S. policy during the crisis in the Gulf.
National Security Directive 54
January 15, 1991, directive authorizing military action and detailing the objectives.
Operation Desert Storm: Military Presence Allied Forces
Coalition members and their contributions.
Oral Histories from Frontline (PBS):
- Colin Powell – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
- Richard Cheney – Secretary of Defense
- James Baker – Secretary of State
- Brent Scowcroft – National Security Advisor
- General Norman Scwarzkopf – Commander-in-Chief Central Command
- General Wafic Al Samarrai – Head of Iraqi Military Intelligence
- Tariq Aziz – Foreign Minister of Iraq
The “Powell Doctrine”
The former Joint Chiefs of Staff plan for “decisive” military action.
Official Declarations of War by Congress
From the U.S. Senate site.
Commander in Chief
A look at the president’s role in declaring war from the Heritage Foundation.
The Gulf War: Operation Desert Shield
Extensive lesson plan for older students at Georgia Tech.
The Gulf War: Operation Desert Storm
The next lesson in the series at Georgia Tech.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
The Middle East
Map of the Persian Gulf theater.
Desert Storm Map
Map of ground operations.
Desert Storm Notebooking Pages
Set of notebooking pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.