Skip to main content

The Persian Gulf War

The Persian Gulf War (1991) was caused by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, and had two major phases.The first phase was Operation Desert Shield—a largely defensive operation in which the United States and Saudi Arabia rushed to build up the defensive forces necessary to protect Saudi Arabia and the rest of the gulf, and the United Nations attempted to force Iraq to leave Kuwait through the use of economic sanctions. The United States then led the UN effort to create a broad international coalition with the military forces necessary to liberate Kuwait, and persuaded the United Nations to set a deadline of 15 January 1991 for Iraq to leave Kuwait or face the use of force.

The second phase, known as “Desert Storm,” was the battle to liberate Kuwait when Iraq refused to respond to the UN deadline. The fighting began on 17 January 1991 and ended on 1 March 1991. The UN Coalition liberated Kuwait in a little over six weeks, and involved the intensive use of airpower and armored operations, and the use of new military technologies. The Gulf War left Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in power, but it destroyed nearly all of Iraq's conventional forces and allowed the United Nations to destroy most of Iraq's long‐range missiles and chemical weapons and capabilities to develop nuclear weapons.

Desert Shield.

Saddam Hussein almost certainly saw the seizure and annexation of Kuwait as a means of solving Iraq's economic problems, of greatly increasing Iraq's share of world oil reserves, and as a means of demonstrating that Iraq had become the dominant power in the region. Kuwait was capable of adding at least 2 million barrels a day of oil to Iraq's exports of roughly 3.5 million, and offered the opportunity to double Iraq's total oil reserves, from 100 billion to 198 billion barrels (representing nearly 20% of the world's total reserves).

Although he continued to negotiate his demands on oil revenues and debt relief from the Persian Gulf Arab nations, Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to the Kuwait border in July 1990, built up all of the support capabilities necessary to sustain an invasion, and then ordered his forces to invade on 2 August 1990. Kuwait had not kept its forces on alert, and Iraq met little resistance. It seized the entire country within less than two days; within a week, Iraq stated that it would annex Kuwait as its nineteenth province. Iraqi forces also deployed along Kuwait's border with Saudi Arabia, with more than five Iraqi divisions in position to seize Saudi Arabia's oil‐rich Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia had only two brigades and limited amounts of airpower to oppose them.

Saddam Hussein may have felt that the world would accept his invasion of Kuwait or would fail to mount any effective opposition. However, Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states immediately supported the Kuwaiti government‐in‐exile. The Council of the Arab League voted to condemn Iraq on 3 August and demanded its withdrawal from Kuwait. Key Arab states like Algeria, Egypt, and Syria supported Kuwait—although Jordan, Libya, Mauritania, the Sudan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) supported Iraq. Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and most other European nations as well as the United States, Canada, and Japan condemned the invasion. U.S. President George Bush announced on 7 August that the United States would send land, air, and naval forces to the gulf.

Equally important, the end of the Cold War allowed the United Nations to take firm action under U.S. initiative. On the day of the invasion, the Security Council voted 14–0 (Resolution 660) to demand Iraq's immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. The United States, Britain, and Saudi Arabia led the United Nations in forming a broad military coalition under the leadership of U.S. Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf that deployed the military forces necessary to enforce the United Nations' sanctions and to defend Saudi Arabia. This was the defensive military operation code‐named “Desert Shield.”

On 29 November 1990, the United States obtained a Security Council authorization for the nations allied with Kuwait “to use all necessary means” if Iraq did not withdraw by 15 January 1991. Key nations like the United States, Britain, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and several others began to deploy the additional forces necessary to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

In 1990–91, the United States deployed a total of 527,000 personnel, over 110 naval vessels, 2,000 tanks, 1,800 fixed‐wing aircraft, and 1,700 helicopters. Britain deployed 43,000 troops, 176 tanks, 84 combat aircraft, and a naval task force. France deployed 16,000 troops, 40 tanks, attack helicopters, a light armored division, and combat aircraft. Saudi Arabia deployed 50,000 troops, 280 tanks, and 245 aircraft. Egypt contributed 30,200 troops, 2 armored divisions, and 350 tanks. Syria contributed 14,000 troops and 2 divisions. Other allied nations, including Canada, Italy, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates deployed a significant portion of their small forces.

Iraq responded by building up its military forces in the Kuwait theater of operations to a total of 336,000 troops and a total of 43 divisions, 3,475 battle tanks, 3,080 other armored vehicles, and 2,475 major artillery weapons. This buildup on both sides made full‐scale war steadily more likely and triggered a number of political debates within the West and the Arab world over the need for war. The most important of these debates took place within the United States; largely because of President Bush's political leadership, the Congress, after Bush gained UN endorsement, requested such authorization on 8 January 1991. On 12 January the House of Representatives by 250 to 183 and the Senate by 52 to 47 voted to authorize the use of force.

Though a number of new efforts were made to persuade Iraq to leave Kuwait in late December and early January, Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw under any practical conditions. Baghdad also continued to expand its military capabilities in Kuwait and along the Iraqi border with Saudi Arabia, and continued its efforts to convert Kuwait into an Iraqi province. As a result, the UN Security Council voted to ignore yet another effort to negotiate with Iraq. On that date, 15 January 1991, President Bush ordered the military offensive to begin.

Desert Storm: The Air War.

The Gulf War began early in the morning on 17 January when the United States exploited its intelligence and targeting assets, cruise missiles, and offensive airpower to launch a devastating series of air attacks on Iraqi command and control facilities, communications systems, air bases, and land‐based air defenses. During the first hour of the war, U.S. sea‐launched cruise missiles and F‐117 stealth aircraft demonstrated they could attack even heavily defended targets like Baghdad.

Within three days, a mix of U.S., British, and Saudi fighter aircraft had established near air superiority. In spite of Iraq's air strength, UN air units shot down a total of thirty‐five Iraqi aircraft without a single loss in air‐to‐air combat. Although Iraq had a land‐based air defense system with some 3,000 surface‐to‐air missiles, the combined U.S. and British air units were able to use electronic warfare systems, antiradiation missiles, and precision air‐to‐surface weapons to suppress Iraq's longer‐range surface‐to‐air missiles. As a result, Coalition air forces were able rapidly to broaden their targets from attacks on Iraq's air forces and air defenses to assaults on key headquarters, civil and army communications, electronic power plants, and Iraq's facilities for the production of weapons of mass destruction.

Victory in the air was achieved by 24 January, when Iraq ceased to attempt active air combat. A total of 112 Iraqi aircraft fled to Iran, and Iraq virtually ceased to use its ground‐based radar to target UN aircraft. This created a safe zone at medium and high altitudes that allowed U.S. and British air units to launch long‐range air‐to‐surface weapons with impunity. The UN air forces were also able to shift most of their assets to attacks on Iraqi ground forces. For the following thirty days, UN Coalition aircraft attacked Iraqi armor and artillery in the Kuwaiti theater of operations, as well as flying into Iraq itself to bomb Iraq's forward defenses, elite Republican Guard units, air bases and sheltered aircraft, and Iraq's biological, chemical, and nuclear warfare facilities.

Iraq's only ability to retaliate consisted of launching modified surface‐to‐surface Scud missiles against targets in Saudi Arabia and Israel, which had remained outside the war: forty Scud variants against Israel and forty‐six against Saudi Arabia. U.S.‐made Patriot missiles in Israel shot down some Scuds, but although the United Nations carried out massive “Scud hunts” that involved thousands of sorties, it never found and destroyed any Scud missiles on the ground, which demonstrated the risks posed by the proliferation of mobile, long‐range missiles.

Iraq's Scud strikes could not, however, alter the course of the war. Iraqi ground forces were struck by more than 40,000 air attack sorties; U.S. authorities estimated that airpower helped bring about the desertion or capture of 84,000 Iraqi soldiers and destroyed 1,385 Iraqi tanks, 930 other armored vehicles, and 1,155 artillery pieces before the United Nations launched its land offensive. They also estimated that air attacks severely reduced the flow of supplies to Iraqi ground forces in Kuwait and damaged 60 percent of Iraq's major command centers, 70 percent of its military communications, 125 ammunition storage revetments, 48 Iraqi naval vessels, and 75 percent of Iraq's electric power–generating capability.

Desert Storm: The Land War.

By 24 February 1991, airpower had weakened Iraq's land forces in Kuwait to the point where the UN commander, General Schwarzkopf, felt ready to launch a land offensive. Early that morning, UN land forces attacked along a broad front from the Persian Gulf to Rafha on the Iraqi‐Saudi border. This attack had two principal thrusts: a massive, highly mobile “left hook” around and through Iraqi positions to the west of Kuwait to envelop the elite Republican Guard; and a thrust straight through Iraq's defenses along the Kuwaiti border designed to fix the forward Iraqi divisions.

The “left hook” was carried out by a mix of U.S., British, and French armored and airborne forces. The armored VII Corps deployed four armored divisions, one of them British, for the main thrust. Its western flank was protected by the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, composed of three U.S. divisions—the 82nd Airborne, the 101st Air Mobile, and the 24th Infantry (Mechanized)—and the French 6th Light Armored Division. They advanced toward the Iraqi cities of Salman, west of Kuwait, and Nasiriya on the Euphrates River, and attacked in an arc to the northeast toward the main routes of communication leading north from Kuwait toward Basra in Iraq. French forces led the attack toward the Iraqi lines of communication along the Euphrates. U.S. armored, mechanized, and attack helicopter forces advanced rapidly toward Basra in the leading edge of the “left hook.” British forces guarded the U.S. flank and attacked to the northeast across the gorge of al‐Batin along the Iraqi‐Kuwaiti border.

The other thrust—directly north through the Iraqi positions along the Kuwaiti border—was carried out by the I Marine Expeditionary Force, and an all‐Arab corps composed primarily of the Saudi Army and Egyptian units. These forces rapidly penetrated Iraq's forward defenses and advanced so swiftly that Iraq's shattered ground forces in Kuwait could only launch scattered counterattacks. As a result, the allies rushed toward Kuwait City, Wafrah, and Jahrah.

Though some Iraqi Republican Guard units fought well, the bulk of Iraq's army consisted of poorly trained conscripts with low morale and little motivation. Many Iraqi troops fled after putting up only brief resistance and others were taken prisoner. As a result, UN forces reached their major objectives in Kuwait in half the time originally planned. At the same time, the Coalition continued its air attacks, dropping a total of 88,500 tons of ordnance. U.S. and British air units used 6,520 tons of precision‐guided weapons and destroyed or damaged 54 bridges. These attacks helped to end the war by cutting off Iraqi land forces from the roads along the Tigris River north of Basra, although UN forces did not have time to encircle fully or cut off all Iraqi forces, or to use airpower to destroy the retreating Iraqi forces around Basra.

By 26 February, Coalition land forces were in Kuwait City, and U.S. forces had advanced to positions in Iraq to the south of Nasiriya. Many of these advances had taken place at night and all occurred in spite of major rainfalls, substantial amounts of mud, and weather problems hampering the ability to provide air support. These advances effectively ended the war.

Baghdad radio announced on 26 February that all Iraqi forces would withdraw from Kuwait in compliance with UN Resolution 660. A day later, President Bush declared that the United States would halt military operations early in the morning of 28 February, a week after the land offensive had begun. A cease‐fire was negotiated on 3 March and formally signed on 6 April. Iraq agreed to abide by all the UN resolutions.

The Aftermath of the War.

The Gulf War achieved the United Nation's original objectives of liberating Kuwait while producing remarkably one‐sided losses. Iraqi military casualties totaled an estimated 25,000 to 65,000, and the United Nations destroyed some 3,200 Iraqi tanks, over 900 other armored vehicles, and over 2,000 artillery weapons. Some 86,000 Iraqi soldiers surrendered. In contrast, UN forces suffered combat losses of some 200 personnel from hostile fire, plus losses of 4 tanks, 9 other armored vehicles, and 1 artillery weapon. U.S. battle deaths among the 532,000 Americans included 122 from the army and Marines (35 to friendly fire) and 131 noncombat fatalities. The navy losses were 6 and 8; in the air force 20 were killed in action and 6 in other deaths. The allied forces of 254,000 suffered 92 combat deaths. Although Coalition aircraft flew a total of 109,876 sorties, the allies lost only 38 aircraft versus over 300 for Iraq. This was not only the lowest loss rate in the history of air warfare but a lower loss than the normal accident rate in combat training. The terms of cease‐fire were designed to enable UN inspectors to destroy most of Iraq's remaining missiles, chemical weapons, and nuclear weapons facilities.

The Gulf War reshaped the face of modern warfare. It demonstrated a dramatic increase in the importance of joint operations, high‐paced air and armored operations, precision strike systems, night and all‐weather warfare capabilities, sophisticated electronic warfare and command and control capabilities, and the ability to target and strike deep behind the front line, marking what might be the beginning of a revolution in military affairs. It also demonstrated the growing importance of the mass media in shaping the conduct of operations, and the need to carefully consider collateral damage, casualties, and the impact of instant TV coverage of military operations.

The Gulf War did not, however, bring stability to the gulf or drive Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party elite from power. Indeed, he suppressed Kurdish and Shi’ite rebellions in 1991. In 1998, Iraq still had the largest army in the gulf region. It seemed to retain some long‐range missiles, some ability to deliver chemical weapons, and most of its prewar biological weapons capability. Though it had lost most of its nuclear weapons production facilities, it retained much of its nuclear weapons technology. Baghdad was also able to launch terrorist activities against Kuwait and drive most of the UN mission in Iraq out of the country. Iraqi agents plotted to assassinate President Bush when he visited Kuwait on 14–16 April 1993, and Iraq conducted a major military buildup near the Kuwaiti border in October 1994.

The failure to drive Saddam Hussein from power, and Iraq's actions since the war, have led many to argue that the United Nations should have expanded its war‐fighting objectives and invaded Iraq to force Saddam Hussein from power. Some military analysts have argued that even a few days of additional fighting would have proved decisive in overthrowing Saddam Hussein. There is no way to resolve such debates, but it seems unlikely that a few days of additional fighting would have done more than kill more Iraqis, since many of the Republican Guards had already escaped to the north of Basra and half the Iraqi Army and most of Saddam Hussein's security forces remained intact. Expanding the goals of the war might have driven Saddam Hussein from power, but it might also have caused an Iraqi civil war and divided the country, led to bloody urban warfare, and forced a lengthy UN occupation of a sovereign and hostile state. Instead, the United Nations maintained economic sanctions and an embargo on military supplies against Iraq for years after the Persian Gulf War.

This entry is being updated.
[See also Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare; Middle East, U.S. Military Involvement in the; News Media, War, and the Military.]

Anthony H. Cordesman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"The Persian Gulf War." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"The Persian Gulf War." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/persian-gulf-war-0

"The Persian Gulf War." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/persian-gulf-war-0

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.