The Capture of Tehran, 1983
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous seven chapters of this series we remembered the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, the course of the war itself, the breakdown in Iraq’s relations with its coalition allies and with the United States in the war’s aftermath, and the chain of events that pushed Iraq and the United States towards the brink of armed conflict with one another. In this segment, we’ll look at what happened when Baghdad and Washington stepped over that brink.
April Glaspie’s letter to Baghdad about what the US reaction would be to an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait set off warning bells inside the war rooms of the Iraqi army general staff. They’d known for months that armed conflict with the United States over Kuwait was possible, maybe even inevitable, but Glaspie’s statement hinted that Washington was prepared to take swift action to thwart Iraq’s strategic plans--possibly even the use of nuclear weapons. While nukes were actually a last resort, the Bush Administration was certainly ready to confront the Baathist dictatorship on the battlefield if push came to shove. In what would turn out to be a miscalculation with fatal consequences for his regime, Saddam concluded that his only recourse was to launch the invasion of Kuwait ahead of schedule before the United States and its coalition allies could finish assembling the expeditionary force meant to stop that invasion.
Unfortunately for Saddam, the Bush Administration had foreseen just such a contingency and given General Schwarzkopf the green light to attack Iraqi forces along the Iraq-Kuwait border at the slightest sign that said forces were attempting to penetrate Kuwaiti territory. And lest anyone should doubt Schwarzkopf was willing to exercise this prerogative, he held a press conference the day after Glaspie’s letter to state that if a single Iraqi army unit entered Kuwait "we are going to cut it off and then we’re going to kill it".1
On the morning of June 2nd, 1990 routine surveillance by U.S. spy satellites detected a large convoy of Iraqi armored vehicles going south from Basra towards the Iraq-Kuwait border. Within minutes, a flight of Apache helicopters had confirmed that the convoy was indeed approaching the Kuwaiti frontier, and just seconds after that General Schwarzkopf officially cleared U.S. and allied forces in the Persian Gulf to begin combat operations against Iraq.
The Gulf War had started.
While most people associate the air element of Operation Desert Storm with high-tech aircraft like the F-117 Stealth fighter, a number of considerably more low-tech planes would also play a major part in the opening hours of the coalition’s military campaign against Iraq. One aircraft that would be particularly important to the success of the first wave of coalition air strikes on Iraqi military, industrial, and command/control targets was the venerable B-52 Stratofortess, a bomber whose entry into active service with the U.S. Air Force predated not only the Vietnam War but the birth of many of the pilots flying them. The B-52 and its younger cousin, the B-1 Lancer, fired cruise missiles from just outside the range of Iraqi air defenses and knocked out scores of vital targets, including at least three key radar stations in the Baghdad area.
Another alumnus of the Vietnam War, the A-6 Intruder attack bomber, would wreak havoc on Iraqi transportation systems in the first 4-6 hours of Desert. Though it had no guns, it could carry a rather impressive bomb load; that capability was put to extensive use blasting roads, bridges, supply depots, naval bases, and low- level or mid-level Iraqi army unit HQs. Assisting the A-6 on these missions was the A-7 Corsair II, then approaching the end of its own lengthy career. One squadron of A-7s, in spite of heavy ground fire from Iraqi AA gunners, succeeded in crippling the main civil airport at the port city of Umm Qasr.
Those Iraqi fighters which somehow managed to survive the initial wave of coalition bombing raids had the misfortune to be confronted by two of the deadliest fighter-interceptors in the US arsenal, the F-14 Tomcat and the F-15 Eagle. For Iraqi MiG pilots who had downed Iranian Tomcats with ease during the Iran-Iraq War, the combat effectiveness of F-14s flown by U.S. crews came as an unpleasant shock; one out of every three U.S. air combat kills in the first hours of Desert Storm were registered by U.S. Navy Tomcats.
One plane which saw considerable action in both interceptor and ground support roles was the F-16 Fighting Falcon, possible the most versatile tactical combat aircraft of its generation. Swift, highly maneuverable, and capable of carrying seemingly everything short of the kitchen sink, the F-16 was a nightmare all around for the highly beleaguered Iraqi forces trying to penetrate the Kuwaiti frontier. An Iraqi MiG pilot who encountered the Falcon for the first time the day after Desert Storm began would later recall that it struck him as "a creation of the devil".
Iraqi ground troops who had the misfortune to encounter the F-16 in the line of duty found it a nightmare as it rained bombs and missiles on their defensive positions with unerring accuracy. In at least one well-known(and somewhat controversial)2 instance, a U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot picked off an Iraqi army T-62 tank literally with his eyes closed. And many a Scud launcher along the Iraq-Kuwait border also fell prey to the Falcon-- which posed a bit of a problem for the Iraqi general staff, considering they’d been hoping to use Scuds to disrupt coalition battle lines when they invaded Kuwaiti soil.
While not quite as fast or maneuverable as the Falcon, the A-10 Warthog-- a.k.a. Thunderbolt II --was every bit as dangerous to Iraqi ground vehicles. Its reputation as a tank-killer, initially tested in Panama when U.S. forces fought to unseat Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, would be cemented in Desert Storm. By sunset local time on June 5th, at least one-third of the Iraqi army’s total pre-Gulf War armored fighting vehicle inventory would be in flames thanks to A-10 missile, gun, and bomb attacks.
Once coalition warplanes had softened up the Iraqi ground defenses, it was time for coalition troops and tanks to go to work. The M-1 Abrams, the US armed forces’ main heavy tank since 1980, was the speared for the main coalition armored thrust against Iraq while what was left of the Iraqi army’s tank corps countered with the T-72. For at least a decade, military analysts on both sides of the Iron Curtain had speculated on what might happen if the M-1 and the T-72 went head-to-head on the battlefield; the debate would finally be resolved in Desert Storm...
....and to the dismay of the Baghdad general staff the M-1 prevailed nine times out of ten against the T-72. By June 7th, just five days after the Gulf War began, 80 percent of the Iraqi army’s T-72 inventory had become victims of the M-1.3 Next to the M-1, the coalition main battle tank Iraqi ground commanders feared the most was the British Challenger 1, which although a bit slower than the Abrams was every bit as dangerous in terms of firepower. And just as American strategy in Desert Storm was influenced by the lessons of Vietnam, the British Army took a good number of its cues in fighting the Gulf War from its successful campaign to liberate the Falkland Islands eight years earlier.
One of those cues was to make full use of the famed Special Air Services(SAS) whenever the opportunity presented itself. Such an opportunity came on June 8th, the sixth day of the Gulf War, when coalition intelligence agents learned that the Iraqi army was getting ready to deploy three medium-range ballistic missile launchers equipped with chemical warheads to Iraq’s border with Saudi Arabia. Two SAS teams were inserted into Iraqi territory via helicopter when the convoy paused for a brief refueling stop; the chemical warheads themselves were sabotaged by the first team, while the second team blew up the missile batteries which were to have fired the warheads into Saudi territory. The loss of those batteries further diminished Saddam’s already razor-thin hopes of being to fulfill his objective of inflicting mass casualties on coalition troops and civilians.
Incredibly, despite abundant and mounting evidence that Iraq was losing the war, the Baathist propaganda machine only told the Iraqi people of victories; one Iraqi government spokesman, nicknamed by the Western media "Baghdad Bill", became an inadvertent comedy superstar in America thanks to his ridiculous and quickly discredited boasts of smashing triumphs by Saddam’s armies over the U.S. and its coalition allies. Nobody in Iraq would be laughing, however, when the Iraqi army disintegrated under the coalition’s relentless pressure...
To Be Continued
 “Schwarzkopf Pledges To Confront Iraqi Army Head-On If It Attacks Kuwait”, New York Times, May 12th, 1990
 The pilot in question nearly collided with his wingman and as a result was reprimanded for violating Air Force flight safety regulations.
 According to official U.S. Defense Department post-Gulf War estimates of Iraqi armored vehicle losses.