From Saigon To Desert Storm

An officer with night-vision binoculars scans personal daylight.
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What the AWACS did for air operations, the E-8A JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System) did for the ground war. Also housed in a 707 airframe, the JSTARS synthetic-aperture radar, in a canoe-shaped appendage under the fuselage, could locate and track moving vehicles over more than 200 miles. It was still in the experimental stages when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, but two prototypes went to Saudi Arabia and they proved invaluable in locating Iraqi ground forces.

The AWACS and JSTARS were joined by numerous other aircraft designed to listen in on enemy communications (RC-135 Rivet Joint), jam enemy radars (EA-6B Prowler, EC-130H Compass Call), or photograph enemy positions (TR-1/U-2). High above all these planes a constellation of satellites monitored the battlefield from space. Their exact details remain shrouded in secrecy, but satellites are known to have performed myriad functions, including providing meteorological data, creating detailed maps, offering early warning of Scud missile launches, relaying communications, and spying on enemy forces.

The most novel and important use of satellites was to provide navigational help to coalition forces. The Global Positioning System was based on a simple premise, that a user could determine his exact location by timing how long it took a radio beam to travel from his position to several satellites in fixed orbit. Navstar GPS, begun in 1973 by the Pentagon, was designed to orbit at least 24 satellites that would give anyone anywhere line-of-sight to at least 4 of them at one time—the minimum needed to get an accurate fix. Only 16 of the satellites had been deployed when the Gulf War began, so they did not provide continuous coverage. Another major limitation was the lack of GPS receivers. By the time Desert Storm began, following a last-minute shopping spree, the coalition had about 840 military GPS receivers and 6,500 commercial models. Even with its limited availability, however, GPS made possible much more accurate maneuvering and striking than ever before. Allied tank forces would not have been able to move through the vast deserts of Iraq without it.

Against this vast array of air and space sensors, the Iraqis had no satellites of their own and no way to fly air reconnaissance because of the Allies’ domination of the skies. Nor could they buy satellite time from private firms; the United States had bought up all the available capacity. It was almost as if soldiers on horseback were fighting tanks; the disparity between Iraq and the United States was that profound.

The Training Revolution

Developing all this high-tech gadgetry was one thing. Learning to use it properly was another. The United States would not have done so well in the Gulf War had not its armed forces transformed their training and doctrine since the Vietnam War. The training revolution began in 1969 when the Navy, concerned about the poor showing of its aircraft over North Vietnam, established the Fighter Weapons School at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego. “Top Gun” offered pilots realistic training in dogfighting that significantly improved their combat performance.

The Air Force took note and in 1975 opened its own version of Top Gun. Red Flag exercises at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada allowed pilots to compete against an “aggressor squadron” emulating the tactics and equipment of Soviet adversaries. Here a new generation of aviators learned how to put together elaborate “strike packages” designed to penetrate enemy air defenses. Experience showed that a pilot was most likely to be shot down while still green, during his first 10 combat sorties; Red Flag was designed to ensure that those missions occurred only on a training range.

The Army set up a realistic training center of its own at Fort Irwin, California, amid the barren scrubland of the Mojave Desert. Starting in 1981, mechanized battalions would travel to the National Training Center to fight a simulated engagement against a highly skilled “Opfor” (opposing force) modeled on a Soviet motorized rifle regiment. Lasers simulated the effects of actual gunfire, and computers kept track of the action for later analysis. Umpires delivered unsparing after-action reports on what went right and wrong. The visitors usually got whipped by the first-rate Opfor, but they learned a good deal from the experience.

At the start of previous wars, American soldiers had been thrown into battle without much combat experience or realistic training to draw on, and they usually paid a steep price for their inexperience. For instance, the First Armored Division was mauled by veteran German units at Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, in February 1943, losing more than 6,000 men. That didn’t happen this time. “Desert Shield and Desert Storm went so easily,” wrote the Air Force general Chuck Horner, U.S. air commander, “because everyone had been there before.”