The Buzz

Stealth, GPS, 'Smart Bombs' and More: How Desert Storm Changed Warfare Forever

As laser-guided bombs incinerated Iraqi tanks from the sky, surveillance aircraft monitored enemy troop movements and stealth bombers eluded radar tracking from air defenses in the opening days of Operation Desert Strom decades ago – very few of those involved were likely considering how their attacks signified a new era in modern warfare.

Earlier this year, when veterans, historians and analysts commemorated the 25th anniversary of the first Gulf War in the early 90s, many regard the military effort as a substantial turning point in the trajectory or evolution of modern warfare.

Operation Desert Storm involved the combat debut of stealth technology, GPS for navigation, missile warning systems, more advanced surveillance plane radar, and large amounts of precision-focused laser-guided bombs, Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson, Director of Requirements for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, told Scout Warrior in a special interview earlier this year.   

“We saw the first glimpses in Desert Storm of what would become the transformation of air power,” he said.

The five-to-six-week air war, designed to clear the way for what ultimately became a 100-hour ground invasion, began with cruise missiles and Air Force and Army helicopters launching a high-risk mission behind enemy lines to knock out Iraqi early warning radar sites.  Two Air Force MH-53 Pave Low helicopters led AH-64 Apache Attack helicopter into Iraqi territory, Johnson explained.

The idea of the mission was to completely destroy the early warning radar in order to open up an air corridor for planes to fly through safely and attack Iraqi targets. The mission was successful.

“This was the dawn of GPS - the ability to precisely navigate anywhere anytime without any other navigation systems. The Pave Lows had it and the Apaches did not - so the Pave Low was there to navigate the Apache's deep into Iraq to find the early warning radar sites,” he recalled. “Now, everybody has it on their iPhone but at that day and time it was truly revolutionary.”

Johnson explained the priority targets during the air war consisted of Iraqi artillery designed to knock out any potential ability for Iraq to launch chemical weapons. Other priority targets of course included Iraqi air defenses, troop formations, armored vehicles and command and control locations.

The air attack involved F-117 Night Hawk stealth bombers, B-52s, F-15 Eagles and low-flying A-10 Warthog aircraft, among other assets.

Desert Storm Heroism

At one point during the Air War, Johnson’s A-10 Warthog plane was hit by an Iraqi shoulder-fired missile while attempting to attack enemy surface-to-air missile sites over Iraqi territory.  

“I found myself below the weather trying to pull off an attack that failed. I got hit in the right wing. I yelled out and finally keyed the mic and decided to tell everyone else that I was hit. I safely got the airplane back. They fixed the airplane in about 30-days. The enemy fire hit the right wing of the airplane and the wing was pretty messed up, but I had sufficient control authority to keep the wings level,” Johnson said.

On the way back from the mission, while flying a severely damaged airplane, Johnson received in-flight refueling from a KC-10 aircraft at about 25,000 feet. Johnson received the Air Force Cross for his heroism on another ocassion during the war, where he helped rescue a downed F-14 fighter jet. 

The Combat Debut of New Technology

While there was not much air-to-air combat during Desert Storm, the Iraqis did try to field a few Mig-29 fighter jets. However, upon being noticed by U.S. Air Force F-15E radar – they took off, Johnson said.

The advent of much great air-fired precision weaponry, aided by overhead surveillance and GPS for navigation is largely referred to as the 2nd Offset – a moment in the evolution of warfare marked by significant technological leaps forward.  Johnson explained that the 2nd Offset fully came to fruition in the late 90s during Operation Allied Force in Kosovo.

GPS guided bombs, called Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, did not yet exist at the time of the first Gulf War – but GPS technology for navigation greatly improve the ability of pilots and ground forces to know exactly where they were in relation to surrounding territory and enemy force movements.

This was particularly valuable in Iraq due to the terrain, Johnson explained. There was no terrain or mountainous areas as landmarks from which to navigate. The landscape was entirely desert with no roads, no terrain and no rivers.

In addition, massive use of laser guided weaponry allowed air assets to pinpoint Iraqi targets from a laser-spot – thereby increasing accuracy and mission efficiency while reducing collateral damage.

“Laser weapons had been around since Vietnam but we expended laser guided bombs in numbers that we had never done before,” he explained.

Some of the weapons dropped included Maverick missiles, the 2,000-pound Mk 84 penetrator and a 500-pound Mk 82 along with cluster weaponry.  The Maverick missile is an anti-armor precision weapon which uses electro-optical precision weaponry to destroy targets.

“The Maverick has a camera in the front of the missile that would lock on and guide itself to the target. It is old technology but very precise,” Johnson added.

Also, airborne surveillance, in the form of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, provided attacking forces with an unprecedented view from the sky, Johnson said.

The aircraft used Ground Moving Target Indicator and Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR, to deliver a “rendering” or painted picture of ground activity below.

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