Air war architect reflects on Operation Desert Shield 20 years later
The day retired Gen. Charles A. Horner received the call 20 years ago that eventually launched Operation Desert Shield he was flying his F-16 Fighting Falcon, engaged in an air-to-air training mission near the North Carolina coast with two F-15 Eagles from Langley Air Force Base, Va.
General Horner, then the commander of 9th Air Force and U.S. Central Command Air Forces at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., had expected to hear from Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf since Saddam Hussein moved seven divisions of his army into Kuwait several days earlier on Aug. 2, 1990. But once the call from the Federal Aviation Administration came for him to return to Shaw, he knew instantly what it meant.
"We'd been following the invasion since it happened," General Horner said. "In fact, I had the 363rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Shaw (AFB) and 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at Langley (AFB) on alert for about a month to the point it was affecting their peacetime operations. My boss, Gen. Bob Russ, called me and said, 'Chuck, you probably need to take them off alert. You're affecting operations.' I said I can't. Suddenly, the invasion occurred, just like everybody was predicting."
Operation Desert Shield began five days after the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait when President George H. W. Bush ordered air and ground forces to Saudi Arabia. It became the largest American deployment since the Vietnam war. More than 30 other nations joined the coalition and 18 other countries contributed with financial and humanitarian aid. The coalition built up its force in the Arabian Peninsula during the next six months and Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm Jan. 17, 1991. As the joint force air component commander, General Horner was the architect of the air campaign against Iraq.
Long before the Gulf crisis began, the American military had trained for an eventual showdown with Iraq, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union. A month earlier, a U.S. Central Command war game had a scenario of a "Country Orange" attacking Kuwait and Saudi Arabia from the north. When General Schwarzkopf accepted command of U.S. CENTCOM in November 1989, he told his military leaders since a war with Russia wasn't likely to happen, "we have to find a new enemy or go out of business," General Horner said.
"He said he was concerned about Iraq because they came out of the Iran-Iraq War with a huge military and dead broke and owing a lot of money," General Horner said. "So he told us to think about that. So I had been thinking about it and in March, I'd gone to brief him about things like using the (MM-104) Patriot for ballistic missiles defense.
"I knew if we'd ever gotten into a ground war against Iraq, our Army would never know what they'd come up against until they came up against it. So what I wanted to do was to make sure they'd get all the air support they needed when they needed it and where they needed it, but they didn't tie down the Air Force in anticipation. Those sorties could be out killing the enemy instead of sitting on the ground waiting on the Army to call. Schwarzkopf bought the concept immediately because he was very intelligent and easy to work with."
The coalition, organized for both operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, gave U.S. military services an opportunity to work closely with each other, as well as with forces from other nations, as they would do later during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. An Air Combat Command exercise called Blue Flag in the early 1980s was intended to train servicemembers who would deploy to Europe or Korea to augment the air operations center. General Horner insisted that his 9th Air Force units work with Army, Marine Corps and Navy contingents, "who we would actually be going to war with," he said.
"(Marine Gen. George) Crist understood that and enforced it," General Horner said. "So my Blue Flag (exercises) were not Air Force exercises, they were joint force exercises on how to use airpower and my Blue Flags were a rehearsal of what actually came to pass. Nobody really was trained in a joint way that my staff was. That paid off in spades during the war. It was one of the biggest training victories we had."
General Horner considers the Air Force that he would later lead in the dominant aerial bombardment that launched Desert Storm five months after Desert Shield began, "the most well-trained force ever."
The general gives much of the credit to the late Gen. Bill Creech, who was the commander of Tactical Air Command before it became ACC, and his emphasis on realistic training.
"He was an absolute bear about realistic training, even to the point he'd tolerate a certain (number) of accidents if it was done in search for better training," General Horner said. "If you had too many accidents, you were in trouble because you were stupid. But if you didn't have any accidents, it meant you were not training hard enough.
"He rewarded realistic training. To him, bomb scores were important. Flying sorties were important. So he brought a whole combat focus to the training. Everything was focused on making the operations readiness of the force No. 1. That's why he put so much focus on maintenance. To him, maintenance was everything. In Desert Storm, we really reaped benefits of General Creech's emphasis on operational readiness, and General Russ continued that."
Since his retirement in 1994, General Horner has remained active, from co-writing the book "Every Man a Tiger" with Tom Clancy, which details the air war during Operation Desert Storm, to serving on committees like the one that reviewed allegations of the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib. He sees a much different war being fought today in Afghanistan and worries about how the strategy that became necessary because of the nature of the enemy will affect the way the military faces a unified force next time.
"Some of the major things that really paid off in Desert Storm, like unity of effort, are not being recognized today," he said. "The thing that strikes me is the huge change in battlefield strategy from Desert Shield to where we are today in Afghanistan, where we're not fighting a big army. There's no air force against us. We're really not interested in fighting big battles but to support small dispersed ground operations. So the whole mix has changed. The things that were important in Desert Storm are not necessarily important today.
"We're fighting the war we have today the best we can, but what is the long-term effect of that? Does it mean we're going to buy airplanes and systems that won't be useful if we have to fight another Desert Storm or major conflict? Does it mean our training will lead us down a path where our people will be unprepared for a major conflict? I don't know the answer to those questions, so the current leaders have a real dilemma on their hands because they have to meet the needs of the war today, but they also have to be able to prepare the Air Force to be able to fight in the future."
Article by Randy Roughton, Defense Media Activity-San Antonio