The Battle of 73 Easting: The True Story Behind Desert Storm’s Most Intense Tank Battle

August 11, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Skeptics Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWorldDesert Storm73 Easting

The Battle of 73 Easting: The True Story Behind Desert Storm’s Most Intense Tank Battle

What turned out to be an amazing and thrilling victory, could easily have been the biggest disaster of Desert Storm. (Part one of a two part series.)

You can read part two  here

When Army Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster was elevated to become President Trump’s national security advisor in 2017, the media was awash with references to his role in the biggest tank fight of Desert Storm, the Battle of 73 Easting. While these stories conveyed the basic outcome of the fight, they did little to illuminate how the battle unfolded or what set the stage before the first cannon shot screamed out of his tank. What turned out to be an amazing and thrilling victory, could easily have been the biggest disaster of Desert Storm.

Twenty-eight years ago this month I was at the Grafenwoehr training center in Germany where my unit, Eagle Troop of the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (2nd ACR), was conducting a series of field maneuvers and live fire exercises. The 2nd ACR was one of three cavalry regiments then providing frontline defense against the Warsaw Pact, patrolling the borders between West and East Germany in the north and West Germany and Czechoslovakia in the south.

The Warsaw Pact nations, anchored by the Soviet Union, had more than fifty thousand tanks and millions of troops. Based on the terrain in Central Europe, there was always the risk communist forces could come flooding across a large plain known as the Fulda Gap and potentially defeat the nations of Western Europe. The 2nd ACR was charged with defending the central part of the border, and as such, equipped with hundreds of M1A1 Abrahms Tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, mechanized artillery cannons, and attack helicopters.

On August 2, 1990, I and my Eagle Troop brothers were at Grafenwoehr preparing for a major exercise in which we would maneuver our nine M1 tanks and twelve Bradleys throughout the German countryside against another armored U.S. unit role-playing as a Russia tank brigade, followed by firing live ammunition from the move on a huge firing range. The training was realistic and closely replicated the actual combat conditions we would face had the Russians ever crossed the border and attacked the West.

 

Before we left our assembly areas for the operation, however, something happened halfway across the world that distracted us from our preparation. Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, had actually done what we feared the Soviets might do: he sent hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles flooding across their southern border with Kuwait in an unexpected attack and quickly subdued the Kuwait military. At the end of the operation Iraqi tanks were a mere three miles from the Saudi border—representing a dagger at the throat of the oil supply on which most of the Western world depended.

Almost immediately then-Captain McMaster, commander of Eagle Troop, and Squadron operations officer, then-Major Douglas A. Macgregor, adjusted our training to reflect the possibility we—as one of the forward-deployed armored cavalry organizations tasked with making first contact against enemy armored formations—would be called upon to fight Saddam’s troops.

Prior to the maneuver, McMaster addressed his troops and solemnly said, “Men, we must take very seriously what we are about to do. It is possible that the next operations order I give will be in the sands of Iraq.” There was an eerie sense of foreboding as he spoke because we all realized that what had just a few days ago seemed like another routine military maneuver might now be a final preparation for actual combat operations.

In November 1990 the potential turned into reality as the Secretary of Defense ordered the 2nd ACR to Saudi Arabia to potentially lead the U.S. VII Corps into battle. Within a month we were unloading our tanks and other armored vehicles off huge transport ships in the Saudi Arabian port of Al Jubayl. As soon as the vehicles were ready, the regiment began the movement towards the Kuwaiti border to begin final training prior to the attack day, known as “G-Day.” In a stunning mishap during one such exercise, McMaster came within a hair’s breadth of missing the attack altogether!

Since we had trained almost our entire careers in the forests and rolling hills of Europe, we had to rapidly adjust our techniques for the desert. Shortly after arriving in the border region, Macgregor had directed the squadron to conduct a simulated and complex night assault. Nighttime in the desert on a moonless night is so dark you, quite literally, cannot see your hand in front of your face. Using early generations of night vision goggles, we began the challenge of navigating in the dark when we could see no terrain and only with difficulty see our own vehicles.

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I was the Eagle Troop fire support officer, which meant I worked hand-in-hand with McMaster to reinforce his battle plans with artillery, mortar, and air support. On this exercise I was in my armored fire support vehicle following directly behind his tank. At a critical moment, he began giving radio instructions for the troop to change the plan and move towards a new objective. Then from about seventy-five yards behind McMaster I saw the silhouettes of two Bradleys driving directly into his path from the left. I tried in vain to warn him over the radio, but because he was in the middle of giving instructions, he didn’t hear me.