Thirty years ago, new U.S. military technologies exploded onto the popular scene during the Coalition invasion of Iraq through Operation Desert Storm. Those weapons included radar-evading stealth planes, laser-guided precision bombs, GPS-enabled sensors and large radar-enabled surveillance planes.
The now famous 1991 Gulf War included “stealth” air attacks for the first time in history, used GPS for combat navigation, employed missile warning systems, unprecedented applications of force tracking technology, advanced surveillance plane radars, and large amounts of precision-focused laser-guided bombs. While beginning with Apache and Pave Low helicopters, the Gulf War air attack involved F-117 Night Hawk stealth bombers, B-52s, F-15 Eagles and low-flying A-10 Warthog aircraft.
“We saw the first glimpses in Desert Storm of what would become the transformation of air power,” retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson, (former) Director of Requirements for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, told The National Interest in the Pentagon in 2016 during a special 25th Gulf War Anniversary discussion.
The five-to-six-week air war included a coordinated allied attack which set the conditions for what became a 100-hour ground invasion. In fact, that invasion began with cruise missile attacks 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 helicopters into Iraqi territory, to knock out the early warning radar systems. This was intended as a way to open up a safe air corridor for aircraft to fly through into Kuwait to destroy Iraqi targets.
“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.”
The initial high-value priority targets during the air war, Johnson explained, included the destruction of Iraqi artillery in order to knock out any potential ability for Iraq to launch chemical weapons. In addition, other targets included Iraqi air defenses, troop formations, armored vehicles and command and control locations.
Johnson retired from the Air Force in 2016, after a distinguished Air Force career—which included flying high-risk A-10 combat missions during the Gulf War. 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 occasion during the war, where he helped rescue a downed F-14 fighter jet.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.