High-tech coalition took cover in 'fog of war'--and thickened it WAR IN THE GULF

March 03, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- At the end of the war fought under the name Desert Storm, one army was in ruins. Another army, relying heavily on technology and deception, startled the world with the speed and finality of its success.

This sharp, violent conflict had its share of "the fog of war," a favorite phrase of U.S. officers -- feints, confusion, exhaustive rehearsals for battles never fought, real fog that hampered air strikes, a fog of words and the acrid black smoke from burning oil wells.

Fighting ended, or at least came to a pause, when the U.S.-led coalition almost ran out of targets, so nearly total was the destruction of the army that Iraq expensively outfitted to occupy Kuwait. By all accounts, there wasn't an army left to fight.

How and when the war began depended on where you were.

More than a hundred Air Force pilots began their war accelerating down runways in Saudi Arabia at 3 a.m. Jan. 17, gulf time. Navy missile technicians had begun their cool, remote battle about 90 minutes earlier with the launch of cruise missiles from vessels in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. For residents of Baghdad, Desert Storm began when the missiles arrived, probably unsighted until the blasts were heard and felt.

Depending on their expectations, people dispute whether the conflict was short or long. In the first seven hours, allied pilots flew 750 missions, at the time a number that sounded impressively high. Given the lack of response from Iraq -- few planes left the ground -- the first day seemed, briefly, as if it was going to be enough, or nearly enough.

Leaders on both sides made predictions. Their forecasts were more fog, because the bluff and bombast were carefully calculated and could not be separated from facts.

President Saddam Hussein's most advanced weapon was his rhetoric, expertly targeted on the Arab and Muslim worlds. He presented himself as every Arab's brother, and if he also was a bully, his bullying was supposed to be overlooked for the sake of the Arab family -- and if not overlooked, then praised as a sign of Arab strength.

Iraq's neighbors anxiously complied for years and made Mr. Hussein stronger. In hindsight, he overstepped himself with the invasion of Kuwait; he made the bullying impossible to hide.

His neighbors sought protection by joining a military coalition organized by the United States. Mr. Hussein responded by firing insults. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and his advisers were "evil men," "plotters." President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was "a clown and a liar."

Mr. Hussein never sounded less than supremely confident. "It would be an honor for the believers to fight in one of the days of this battle," he said to inspire his troops and to intimidate the West. He cast the fight as against economic oppression and for the liberation of Palestine.

"For these reasons," he concluded in a phrase no one forgot, "the battle in which you are locked today is the mother of all battles."

The best publicist for the coalition was Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, its military commander. He might have been cast for the role by Hollywood: physically imposing, sharp-tongued, equipped with a chip-on-the-shoulder confidence. He looked born to be saluted.

General Schwarzkopf made his prediction in September. "Iraq is going to lose," he said, "and they're going to lose big time."

At the time, his prediction was part bluff. In September, he was four months away from having the forces necessary to launch an offensive. By January, when more than 500,000 troops were here, his army still was outnumbered in soldiers and outgunned in tanks and artillery, and by large measures.

"So you can see basically what our problem was at that time," he said after the shooting was over. "We had to come up with some way to make up the difference."

*

Part of the solution was the air campaign. In his message to the U.S. troops on the first morning of the war, General Schwarzkopf called the bombing "the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm."

The 750 missions of the first morning were only a squall. By the time the United States and Iraq agreed to a tentative cease-fire, pilots had flown 110,000 missions over Kuwait and Iraq, roughly four times the number flown against Japan during the last year of World War II.

Iraq's military infrastructure was the first target: airfields, command centers, ammunition dumps and the industrial complexes dedicated to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Pilots flew 2,000 missions a day, then 2,500, 2,700 and eventually more than 3,000.

Iraq responded with Scud missiles, the second night of the war. Seven missiles in the first barrage were fired into Israel and one toward Dhahran, headquarters of Saudi Arabia's oil industry and site of a key air base. Militarily, the results were insignificant. Politically, the damage was devastating -- but only for Iraq.

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