THE FIRST NIGHT: THE MOTHER OF ALL BATTLES
Before midnight on the 16th of January 1991, the wheels had been set in motion for the most devastating air attack in history. Ships carrying Tomahawk missiles were in their assigned launch positions. E-3 Sentry, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft were flying in four surveillance racetracks just south of the Saudi/Iraqi border. One hundred eighty tankers were orbiting south of the AWACS, just out of range of the Iraqi early warning radar. Fixed wing and rotary aircraft were being readied for battle.
The staggering firepower of the United States Armed Forces had been brought to bear on the northern Saudi Arabian border in just a little over five months. The Marines were concentrated along the Persian Gulf and thinly dispersed along the Kuwaiti border in small, fast moving screening units. These Marines were mounted in High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs) and Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs). The forward units were deployed to signal advance warning of Iraqi offensive thrusts into Saudi Arabia. Farther to the south, the remainder of the American force was positioned for counterattacks on advancing Iraqis or massed around forward supply and air bases. Every airfield within striking distance of Iraq and Kuwait was crammed full of Allied aircraft.
Six Navy Aircraft carriers ringed Iraq in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Hundreds of aircraft from America’s newest F-117A Nighthawks, to the venerable B-52 Stratofortresses, were being readied for war. The airfields were so crowded that there was no room for the B-52s. They would fly their first missions directly from their bases in Spain, Diego Garcia, and even Louisiana.
The largest logistic chain in history stretched from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf all the way back to both coasts of the United States. The pipe was full. Supplies and additional heavy armor units from the United States and Europe continued to pour in to Saudi Arabia. The hammer was cocked. There were rounds in the chamber and the trigger was being squeezed.
January 17th heralded the culmination of years of acquisitions of high-tech systems and the build-up of a highly motivated and trained all-volunteer professional military; months of deployments, planning, and “sharpening the sword”; weeks of diplomacy; and days of tension. The U.S. was planning to fight a four dimensional war (Air-Land Battle) for the first time. It was to be orchestrated in a precise time sequence. The Iraqis, on the other hand, were preparing to fight a two dimensional war of attrition. They had no concept of air superiority, timing or tempo. The Coalition would fight World War III while the Iraqis would fight World War I.
At 0001 on the 17th, two-dozen F-117 Stealth fighters from the 415th Tactical Fighter Squadron started taking off from a secret airbase located deep in the mountains of Saudi Arabia. These ultra-high tech aircraft would lead the manned air assault deep into Iraq. Within an hour, over three hundred additional attack aircraft began taking off from aircraft carriers and airbases all over the Persian Gulf. These attack aircraft were refueled and stacked up south of the Saudi border like jets on approach to O’Hare airport on a snowy Christmas Eve. At exactly 0140 the USS Wisconsin started launching Tomahawk Cruise missiles to join other Tomahawks being launched from the USS San Jacinto in the Red Sea. Tomahawk missiles would be the first to penetrate Iraqi airspace, flying under the radar and racing toward their targets at an altitude of fifty to one hundred feet above the terrain. The Tomahawks were launched at precise times so that they would reach their targets in concert with the rest of the first attack.
At a remote base in Western Saudi Arabia two teams (each consisting of four AH-64 Apache helicopters from the 101st Air Assault Division and an Air Force Pave Low helicopter from the 20th Special Operations Squadron) took off at approximately 0100. Each Apache was armed with four Hellfire missiles, two 2.75-inch rocket pods containing fleshettes and 1,100 rounds of 30mm ammunition.
The Pave Low helicopters accompanied the Apaches to provide the GPS navigation needed for the mission, additional Electronic Countermeasure (ECM) and rescue capability. This small but deadly force, commanded by Army Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cody, was code named TASK FORCE NORMANDY in honor of the “Screaming Eagle’s” spearhead operations nearly a half century earlier behind the beaches in France.
At 0215, the two teams of TASK FORCE NORMANDY crossed the border into Iraq in separate locations. Their objectives were two Early Warning RADAR facilities in Western Iraq. The Apaches of the 1st Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment approached their objectives at high speed, acquired their targets at the maximum range of their night vision sensors, locked on with their lasers, dropped down to only a few feet above the ground, and advanced on the objectives ‘low and slow’. All the lights in both facilities were on, suggesting that the Apaches’ approach had not been detected. When the Apaches came within range they ripple-launched their Hellfire missiles.
At exactly 0238, the first missile struck its target “like a thunderbolt from the skies.” Several missiles knocked out the facilities’ electric power generators. The Apaches (firing twenty-seven Hellfire missiles) destroyed radar antennas, operations centers, generators, and barracks. All of the missiles hit their targets. When the Apaches ran out of Hellfire missiles, they raked the area with rockets and thousands of rounds of 30-mm cannon fire. Both facilities were disabled within thirty seconds and completely destroyed in less than four minutes! Eight U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles streaked into Iraq behind TASK FORCE NORMANDY and destroyed the local air defense command and control center. These three attacks created a twenty-mile wide blackened radar corridor for our attack planes to enter Iraq.
Within minutes, F-117 s from the 415th Tactical Fighter Squadron bombed a radar control center one hundred sixty miles southwest of Baghdad, a radar facility in western Iraq, and an air defense site outside Baghdad extending the corridor farther into Iraq. Swarms of waiting attack aircraft then swept north through the corridor and fanned out toward their targets. EF-111 Ravens, EA-6B Prowlers, and EC-130 Compass Call Aircraft led the charge through the night sky. These electronic marvels of the night bombarded Iraq’s surveillance and communications equipment with billions of electrons. The Compass Call aircraft attacked the communications airwaves, disrupting military radio traffic. The Ravens and Prowlers targeted surveillance and air defense radars. F-14 Tomcats and F-15C Eagles raced into Iraq to their assigned Combat Air Patrol (CAP) areas. Their mission was to fly cover for the allied planes and engage any approaching Iraqi aircraft.
Air Force Captain Steve Tate approached Baghdad in his F-15C, along with his four wingmen just before 0300. Their assigned CAP area was over Baghdad and extending sixty miles to the east of the city. Captain Tate had a bird’s eye view for the opening moments of the war. “Baghdad was a really pretty city that night. As we started flying over the populous areas…F-117 s started dropping their bombs and then we started getting concussions all over the entire country. You could see it. At that point then, the sky started lighting up with AAA (Anti-Aircraft Artillery)…It looked like little sparkles going off all over…I figured we had some kind of cosmic weapon system out there just sprinkling all over the city…Then I started looking a little closer and I said, man-that’s triple-A that they’re shooting.” Shortly after 0300, Captain Tate was alerted to the approach of an Iraqi fighter, by an AWACS controller. He maneuvered his plane into attack position. At 0315 he shot down an Iraqi F1 Mirage with a single radar-guided Sparrow missile. This was the first air-to-air kill of the war and one of nine Iraqi aircraft to be shot down on the first night.
Read the entire story of Operation Desert Storm in Richard S. Lowry's first published book -
The Gulf War Chronicles.