America's Greatest Fear: What If Saddam Had Invaded Saudi Arabia?

Once Iraq invaded Kuwait, U.S. officials expected Saddam to move on Riyadh. What if he did?

In early August 1990, the Iraqi Army executed a nearly flawless operation to seize and occupy Kuwait.  Iraqi forces had grown increasingly lethal in the final year of the Iran-Iraq War, and they brushed aside Kuwaiti resistance with little difficulty.

What came next is well-known; the Iraqis hunkered down in the belief that the United States and its allies would shy away from a direct military confrontation over the future of Kuwait.  The Bush administration assembled an impressive coalition of forces, and tossed the Iraqis from Kuwait with trivial casualties.

But at the time, many in the United States worried that Saddam Hussein would order his army south, into Saudi Arabia.  And in retrospect, giving the United States the time to mobilize a huge army in Saudi Arabia looks like something of a blunder.  Would Saddam have had a better chance if he had gambled for higher stakes at the start, and ordered his forces to invade Saudi Arabia?

Setting the Stage

Although the Bush administration and the U.S. military did not expect an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, U.S. officials would not have been surprised if Iraqi forces had followed up with an invasion of Saudi Arabia. Contingency planning in the hours and days following the Iraqi attack focused on the possibility of escalation. The first American response would have involved the deployment of air assets to the region, likely followed by a small airborne force.  Notably, U.S. commanders didn’t expect the ground force to have much of a chance of stopping Iraqi armored spearheads, although air commanders were initially quite optimistic about the potential for disrupting Iraqi logistics.

Air and Land Battle

During the Cold War, the Army and the Air Force often butted heads over the appropriate strategies for defeating enemy forces.  To the credit of the commanders at the time, however, these tensions did not re-emerge immediately in the wake of the Iraqi invasion. General Norman Schwarzkopf was, by almost all accounts, genuinely solicitous of Air Force ideas for stopping, and potentially pushing back, the Iraqi forces.

But within the Air Force, conflict emerged between Tactical Air Command and Strategic Air Command.  Since the 1970s, the “Rise of the Fighter Generals” had put tactically minded fighter pilots in charge of the service.  These commanders concentrated on the ability of airpower to work with ground forces, and their influence helped facilitate the development of AirLand Battle, the offensive maneuver doctrine that the U.S. Army expected to use against the Soviets in Central Europe. In part this rise resulted from generational change, but it also came from widespread dissatisfaction with how SAC dominance had left the Air Force unprepared for the Vietnam War.

TAC wanted a series of attacks on Iraqi Army logistics, in order to slow the advance of the force into Saudi Arabia. This wasn’t exactly close air support, and the reins would remain firmly in the hands of Air Force officers, but the idea was sound; take steps to defeat the fielded forces of the Iraqis before they could accomplish their military and political objectives.

But SAC, which had taken a backseat since Vietnam, had its own ideas.  A Lieutenant Colonel named John Warden had written a manuscript titled “The Air Campaign.” Warden, one of the key contributors to the neoclassical school of airpower, wanted a much broader assault against Iraq, informed by his “Five Rings” concept.

Warden argued that attacks against fielded forces, even at the level of logistics, were a waste of the true promise of airpower.  Instead, the USAF should concentrate on targets associated with the regime, in an effort to undercut the Hussein government’s ability to communicate with its armed forces and maintain control over its population. At the extreme, Warden recommended against direct attacks on Iraqi forces in the field, as these forces would be necessary for the re-occupation of the country after the fall of Hussein.

In the event, an attack on the logistics of the Iraqi Army almost certainly would have frozen any advance into the Kingdom. The Iraqi Air Force, consisting largely of short-ranged, ground controlled fighters, could not have kept up with the armored spearheads in sufficient strength to defeat or even deflect a serious U.S. effort.  

On the other hand, a decision to concentrate on the regime might have left Iraq in control of substantial swaths of Saudi Arabia, even as the United States waited hopefully for cracks to appear in Hussein’s government.

Capabilities of the Iraqi Army

Could the Iraqi Army have sustained an advance into Saudi Arabia?  Into the northern border areas, perhaps. Into the interior, probably not. The Iraqi Army had little experience with long range logistics over forbidding terrain (most of the fighting in the Iran-Iraq War had taken place along a relatively small region of the border), and managing a heavily armored force with huge fuel and ammunition requirements is no small task.  American, and even Saudi, airstrikes would have greatly complicated the already overwhelming task facing Iraqi logisticians.