17 January – 28 February 1991

This is a US Air Force F-117A Nighthawk ‘Stealth’ ground attack aircraft, one of a new generation of vanguard weapons that changed the way modern battles are fought. The Nighthawk was first flown in 1981 and was used in operations in the First Gulf War. The name ‘Stealth’ comes from its capacity to avoid being detected by enemy radar.

The brief campaign in which the American-led Coalition compelled the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein to abandon its occupation of Kuwait was the first test of a whole generation of modern weaponry. The outcome of the final 100-hour battle was made possible by the significant technical margin between the two sides. Nevertheless, as with all innovations, victory also depended on the way in which the forces using them were deployed operationally on the battlefield. Here there also existed a decisive contrast between the two sides.

The technical gap between the Iraqi and Coalition forces was not the result of simple asymmetric warfare. Iraq had fought a long war against Iran in the 1980s; its army had plenty of battle experience and the Iraqi forces possessed an impressive array of modern weaponry. The army had an estimated 4,200 tanks and 3,100 artillery pieces; the air force had around 700 aircraft and helicopters, while Iraq was shielded by a modern air-defence system, including radar and SAM missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. It was perhaps because of the scale of his forces and the relative modernity of his weaponry that Saddam risked an assault on his tiny oil-rich neighbour, launched by 2,000 tanks and 100,000 troops on 2 August 1990. Invasion of Kuwait was followed by a build-up of forces along the Saudi Arabian border. In the West, fears began to spread at the prospect that Iraq might control one-half of the world’s known oil reserves.

The Saudi appeal to the United States for protection against a possible Iraqi attack coincided with a United Nations resolution calling on Saddam to withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait. The American commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, established a vast military camp on Saudi soil to set up a defensive line. Desert Shield, as it was called, was composed of units from thirty-four countries in the United Nations, though the largest contribution next to the American was British. Saddam rejected the call for withdrawal, hopeful that the Coalition might fall apart, or lack the public approval to wage actual war. On 29 November 1990, the United Nations issued Resolution 678 setting a final deadline for withdrawal of 15 January 1991. Schwarzkopf moved from defensive to offensive posture and 700,000 Coalition forces arrived in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

Schwarzkopf had at his disposal a cluster of new weapons, much of which had not yet seen combat. In almost all cases, they represented an important step beyond the modern weaponry available to Saddam. They included the M1A1 Abrams tank, the M2 and M3 Bradley fighting vehicles, the Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, the Patriot air defence missile system, the F-117 Nighthawk flying wing (capable of avoiding radar), satellite mapping, AWACS, and – among the most important innovations – night goggles and thermal imaging. Thermal imaging and weapons locator systems meant that in many cases the Americans could strike at tanks and artillery before the enemy even knew that they were under attack. The Iraqi air defence system could be destroyed using the F-4 Wild Weasel with its high-speed anti-radiation missiles that locked on to enemy radar. The new range of weaponry rendered Iraq’s sizeable arsenal all but obsolete and showed the extent to which Iraqi intelligence had failed to appreciate that fighting the Coalition would not be the same as fighting Iran.

The Coalition victory was certainly not a formality, but the new weaponry was tied to an operational plan that also out-thought the Iraqis. Imitating the German Afrika Korps commander, Erwin Rommel, Schwarzkopf planned a frontal assault on Kuwait City to pin down Iraqi forces, while two army corps positioned further west along the Saudi–Iraqi frontier would swing round behind them and cut off their retreat. While the final preparations were in progress, the Coalition air forces began a four-week campaign on 17 January to knock out key military and war-economic targets. A total of 110,000 sorties were flown and 46 aircraft lost, though not one from air-to-air combat. Most Iraqi aircraft flew to Iran while 146 were destroyed on the ground or in the air. The air campaign, Operation Instant Thunder, claimed 1,300 enemy tanks, 1,100 guns and 850 armoured personnel carriers, but the difficulty of identifying targets in urban areas, with a technology still in its teething stage, resulted in the death of more than 3,000 civilians. As the air campaign drew to a close the air forces prepared to support the ground war. The movement of 200,000 troops to the western zone had been kept secret, itself a remarkable achievement, and despite the torture of the few Coalition personnel that had fallen into Iraqi hands. On 24 February, the ground war began, as 575,000 troops, 3,700 tanks and 1,500 guns moved forward against a much-depleted Iraqi force.The technical edge supplied by the Coalition’s weaponry devastated the Iraqi defenders, but the speed and scale of success also depended on the operational plan. The two army corps designed to swing round and outflank the Iraqi line moved forward remorselessly, demolishing any resistance in their path.

Within hours, 13th Corps had reached the Euphrates Valley and could cut off the Iraqi forces stationed in and around Kuwait. The 7th US Army Corps was slower, hampered by smoke and dust, but it, too, moved irresistibly, opening up space for the British First Armoured Division to swing into place to the north of Kuwait City. The assault on the city was so rapid that the chief problem was coping with the thousands of Iraqi soldiers who surrendered. Iraqi resistance all but evaporated save for a few units of the elite Republican Guard. They fled down the road to the southern Iraqi city of Basra, but they were sitting targets. Two thousand vehicles were destroyed from the air in what came to be called the ‘Highway of Death’. At Medina Ridge north of Kuwait, one of the toughest tank engagements of the battle took place, but only one Coalition soldier was killed. The gap in fighting power between the two sides proved unbridgeable.

On 28 February, with Kuwait clear of Iraqi forces and the Iraqi defensive line destroyed, the Coalition announced a ceasefire. On 3 March, in a tent at the Safwan airfield, just inside the Iraqi border, Schwarzkopf dictated the terms of the armistice to Iraqi representatives. The battle was a disaster for the large Iraqi army. Only 7 of its 43 army divisions remained operational, while 3,800 tanks, 1,450 armoured personnel carriers and 2,900 artillery pieces had been destroyed. The best estimate is that 25,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed while 85,000 became prisoners of war. Coalition forces lost 240 dead in combat, 235 killed in accidents and 785 wounded. The battle had provided the opportunity to test weaponry that was state-of-the-art but still in development. When Iraq was invaded twelve years later in the Second Gulf War, the new battlefield bristled with electronic, laser and information technology equipment to which Saddam still had no answer.