From Saigon To Desert Storm

An M1A1 Abrams main battle tank lays a smoke screen during Desert Storm.
defense visual information center, riverside, calif.2006_6_34

The stealth aircraft was only the most advanced of many new weapons systems that were developed in the 1960s and 1970s and joined the U.S. arsenal in the 1970s and 1980s. The Air Force procured two agile new fighter-bombers, the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle, the B-1 Lancer bomber, and an aircraft for close support of ground forces, the A-10 Warthog. The Navy had its own superfighters, the F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet, as well as Aegis guided-missile cruisers (the first was the Ticonderoga , commissioned in 1983), Los Angeles – class nuclear submarines, and Nimitz -class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The Army bought a main battle tank, the M1 Abrams; an armored personnel carrier, the M2/M3 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle; a utility vehicle called the Humvee (high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle); the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and the UH-60 Blackhawk utility helicopter; an air defense system called the Patriot; and a mobile surface-to-surface missile launcher, the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System.

With the exception of the stealth aircraft, which remained a tightly guarded secret until 1988, every one of these systems was extremely controversial when it was in development. Virtually all were plagued by delays and cost overruns that led to embarrassing stories in the press. The journalist James Fallows, in his influential 1981 book National Defense , derided the Pentagon’s “pursuit of the magic weapon” encumbered with “more and more complex computer systems, whether or not there is reason to think that computers will help on the battlefield, and often when there is reason to think they will hurt.” Such criticisms were echoed by Congress’s Military Reform Caucus, a bipartisan group of more than 100 lawmakers led by Sen. Gary Hart who pushed for simpler, cheaper weapons in greater numbers.

A Better Tank

Luckily the Pentagon did not follow their advice. If it had, the United States would have fought Iraq in 1991 with equipment roughly equivalent to the enemy’s, instead of having weapons at least a full generation ahead.

What the reformers did not realize was that adding sophisticated electronics did not have to make weapons systems less reliable and harder to operate. Thanks to advances in solid-state electronics, new aircraft like the F-15 and F-16 were not only far more lethal than their predecessors but also easier to fly and less prone to malfunction. Far from being an encumbrance, advanced electronics gave such weapons a vital edge over less sophisticated adversaries.

The very prowess shown by the U.S. armed forces in 1991 made future foes wary of fighting this new Goliath on its own terms.

Consider the M1A1 tank, built by General Dynamics starting in 1980. It had a gas turbine engine that allowed it to go nearly 45 mph and Chobham ceramic armor (named for the British research center where it was developed) that could survive frontal hits from the Soviet-built T-72s in Iraq’s arsenal. Its 120-mm main gun fired 45-pound sabot rounds tipped with depleted uranium (more than twice as dense as steel) that could penetrate a T-72 at two and a half miles, well outside the T-72’s own range. But its true advantage lay in a fire-control system that employed laser range-finders, thermal and optical sights, and ballistics computers to let its main gun hit targets while on the move and in fog, night, or other conditions that would have rendered earlier tanks useless. In World War II the average tank needed 17 shots to kill an enemy tank; in the Gulf War, the Abrams would come close to achieving the ideal of one shot, one kill.

In the Night and the Sky

The M1A1’s ability to operate at night was a key advantage shared by most U.S. weapons systems in 1991. Night-vision equipment had been developed by the U.S. Army starting in the 1950s. It came in two versions: image-intensifying devices that amplify small amounts of ambient light and thermal forward-looking infrared detectors that sense differences in temperature between an object and its environment. The former are generally carried by soldiers as goggles; the latter usually come in more cumbersome systems attached to vehicles and aircraft. Since Iraqis had few, if any, comparable devices, the U.S. military owned the night.

Complementing its night-vision devices, the military benefited from unrivaled electronic warfare and reconnaissance capabilities. The U.S. Air Force and Navy operated a variety of aircraft designed to keep an eye on the “battle space,” the most famous of which was the AWACS, a Boeing 707-320B equipped with a huge rotating radar dome that could identify low-flying objects from more than 250 miles away. Onboard sat 13 to 19 mission specialists who could analyze information and co-ordinate air operations in real time, allowing hostile aircraft to be intercepted as soon as they were airborne and friendly aircraft to avoid either hitting or shooting at each other.