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Desert Warfare

Desert Warfare. The nature of deserts—arid, barren regions lacking sources of fresh water—makes combat operations there particularly demanding on troops and equipment. Additionally, deserts frequently lack readily identifiable landmarks, making map reading and navigation very difficult. Though visibility tends to be excellent at extreme ranges, cover and concealment are minimal. Thus, modern desert warfare tends to mean armored and mechanized warfare.

For many years U.S. doctrine failed to address desert warfare. During World War II, U.S. forces suffered heavy losses in the opening phase of the North Africa Campaign (1942–43) at the hands of German and Italian troops at Sidi‐bou‐Zid and the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. Stung by these defeats, American forces learned quickly and fared somewhat better later.

After the war, American military doctrine focused on the defense of Europe, and desert warfare was again ignored—until the Arab‐Israeli War of 1973. Stunned by Israel's initially heavy losses to wire‐guided antitank weapons, and impressed by the Israelis' rapid recovery and counterattack, the U.S. military began to reevaluate its approach to armored warfare in the desert. A national training center was established in the Mojave Desert at Fort Irwin, California (1981)—the army's premier combat training center. All combat units were required to rotate through a warfare training cycle at Fort Irwin in the 1980s and 1990s, which pitted them against an opposing force (OPFOR) that until the 1990s employed Warsaw Pact– style equipment and tactics.

The U.S. guiding principles in conducting desert operations may be summarized as find, fix (immobilize), and destroy the enemy at extreme long range. Typically, satellite imagery is used to gather intelligence on enemy force dispositions. Long‐range air strikes are then launched to destroy these forces—as well as their communications infrastructure—to disrupt the enemy's system of command and control and deny him the ability to maneuver. Ground maneuver units of heavy armor and mechanized infantry punch through or bypass enemy positions, using sophisticated fire control systems to destroy enemy assets at extremely long ranges (up to two and one‐half miles in direct fire mode). This method was essentially employed successfully by the U.S. and Coalition forces during Operation Desert Storm in February 1991. Field Manual 90‐3, Desert Operations (1993), incorporated the “lessons learned” during the Persian Gulf War (1991).
[See also Middle East, U.S. Military Involvement in the.]


U.S. Field Manual 90‐3/FMFM 7‐27 , Desert Operations, 1993.
Gen. Robert H. Scales , Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War, 1994.
Richard M. Swain , Lucky War: Third Army in Desert Storm, 1995.

Frederick J. Chiaventone

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