Storm Break: Curator of the Navy Recalls War’s First Night 25 Years Later – Part II

By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

Editors Note: At the time Desert Storm began, NHHC Director Sam Cox was an active duty Lieutenant Commander, serving as an assistant intelligence officer on the staff of Vice Adm. Stan Arthur who commanded the U.S. Seventh Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command embarked on the command ship USS Blue Ridge operating in the Arabian Gulf. This is Part II of a two part series.

A Fighter Squadron 114 (VF-114) F-14 Tomcat aircraft flies over oil well fires still burning in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm.

A Fighter Squadron 114 (VF-114) F-14 Tomcat aircraft flies over oil well fires still burning in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm.

In January 1991, Saddam did have chemical weapons, and had recently used them, and Iraq did have biological weapons capability, an ongoing nuclear weapons program, and was manufacturing ballistic missiles with the range to hit Israel, Riyadh, and Bahrain. The chemical weapons threat was the most likely. Iraq had used chemical artillery shells, rockets and bombs to defeat Iranian human wave attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, killing many thousands of Iranian soldiers. Iraq had even dropped chemical bombs on Kurd villages inside Iraq, indiscriminately gassing several thousand Kurdish men, women and children to a horrible, choking death. There was no doubt Saddam retained numerous chemical weapons and the proven means to deliver them. But did he still have the will to use them?

There was less certainty about Saddam’s biological weapons capability. We believed Iraq definitely had developed biologic agents that could be used as weapons, but developing a means to deliver them accurately and reliably, without being a greater danger to the Iraqis themselves, was a tough challenge. Nevertheless, the briefing I prepared for the Admiral earlier in Desert Shield on Anthrax had been a real eye-opener for everyone, including me. I had always viewed biological weapons as just a somewhat nastier form of chemical warfare. The reality is that it is a quantum leap more dangerous in terms of lethality, area of coverage and persistence. When I was finished with the brief, everyone was pretty much speechless. Since there wasn’t much of anything we could do about it, except don our standard chemical defense gear (in which no one had much faith even for standard chemical warfare), we basically decided to ignore it.

DN-ST-91-07624 A Strike Fighter Squadron 83 (VFA-83) F/A-18C Hornet aircraft is launched from the No. 2 catapult aboard the aircraft carrier USS SARATOGA (CV-60) during Operation Desert Storm. ( Photos Courtesy of the National Archives)

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A Strike Fighter Squadron 83 (VFA-83) F/A-18C Hornet aircraft is launched from the No. 2 catapult aboard the aircraft carrier USS SARATOGA (CV-60) during Operation Desert Storm. ( Photos Courtesy of the National Archives)

We also knew the Iraqis had a nuclear weapons program, and in fact the Israelis had bombed the Osirik reactor in 1981 in a successful attempt to set the program back a decade. The national intelligence estimates early in Desert Shield discounted that the Iraqis had developed any nuclear weapons, although they were certainly working on it. As the likelihood of going to war increased, some reports from National Agencies became more alarmist, and just before the war, we received a report that maybe the Iraqis might have already produced one or two nuclear bombs. Since there wasn’t much we could do about it if they had, the attitude among senior officers at U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) when I briefed this bit of news can pretty much be summed up by, “Well, I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

The level of apprehension increased as the mass of blue symbols crossed into Iraqi airspace. The display was not like a video game; there was no way to tell what was really going on. In some ways it was like watching water boil, as the symbols moved nearly imperceptibly. It was impossible to keep track of individual aircraft, and as successive waves of aircraft and cruise missiles went in, it became hard to tell if all the aircraft going in were coming out. It looked like they were, but voice reports were lagging well behind the slow-motion action on the tactical display. Hopes began to go up though. If our new tactics weren’t working, then we probably would have been losing enough aircraft to be noticeable. Finally reports began to come in. The AAA was intense, but our aircraft were above it. Iraqi surface-to-air missiles were going “stupid,” their guidance disrupted by our jamming, electronic countermeasures, and high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM) launched against the Iraqi acquisition and guidance radars. Strike leaders from the first wave began reporting mission success.

There was one loss on the first wave. The first U.S. aircraft shot down during Desert Storm was a Navy F/A-18 strike-fighter, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Scott Speicher. The initial reports indicated the jet was hit by some kind of missile at higher altitude (above the AAA envelope) and exploded in a ball of fire. There was no sign that the pilot survived the explosion or that he successfully ejected, but in the darkness and confusion this was not necessarily conclusive. In the days following, there was discussion on the staff about why Lt. Cmdr. Speicher was the only jet to be hit by a missile, when the new tactics appeared to work against all the other Iraqi surface-to-air missiles. There were reports that at least one Iraqi MIG-25 Foxbat managed to get airborne the first night and was in the vicinity of Speicher’s jet, leading to speculation the Foxbat had collided with Speicher in the darkness, or had hit Speicher with an air-to-air missile, which if true would make Speicher the only U.S. pilot to be downed by Iraqi air-to-air fire. Lieutenant Commander Speicher was the only U.S. pilot to remain unaccounted for at the end of the war. There was no evidence at the time that he’d been captured by the Iraqis, although inconclusive claims that he was surfaced years later. To this day, he is listed as Missing in Action, his body never found. (Post-script: The account above was written in 2003. Scott Speicher’s body was discovered and positively identified in the desert in western Iraq in 2009; he had not survived the crash.)

090813-N-1522S-007 JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Aug. 13, 2009) Members of a Navy honor guard carry the remains of  Capt. Michael Scott Speicher to All Saints Chapel at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Jacksonville, Fla. Speicher was killed when his F/A-18 Hornet was shot down over Anbar province, Iraq on the first day of offensive operations during Desert Storm on Jan. 17, 1991  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Leah Stiles/Released)

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Aug. 13, 2009) Members of a Navy honor guard carry the remains of Capt. Michael Scott Speicher to All Saints Chapel at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Jacksonville, Fla. Speicher was killed when his F/A-18 Hornet was shot down over Anbar province, Iraq on the first day of offensive operations during Desert Storm on Jan. 17, 1991 (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Leah Stiles/Released)

Editors Note: The offensive action against Iraq, codenamed Operation Desert Storm was carried out under provisions of twelve U.N. Security Council resolutions and resolutions of both houses of the U.S. Congress. Forward deployed naval forces provided protection for early introduction of land-based ground and air assets, and may well have deterred further aggression by Iraq. Maritime superiority and unchallenged control of the sea enabled the safe and timely delivery of equipment, supplies and spare parts necessary to support the allied campaign. Naval aviation complemented allied air operations, added flexibility to the air campaign, and deterred reintroduction of Iraqi aircraft from Iran into the conflict while Tomahawk cruise missiles took out heavily defended targets in Iraq and significantly degraded enemy air defenses. For 38 days, coalition forces mounted continuous air attacks, which, according to historical documents, grew to more than 1,000 sorties a day. During that time, Iraq’s air force was destroyed along with its anti-aircraft and command and communication capabilities, as well as military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. The ground offensive began at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24 (8 p.m. EST on Feb. 23) as U.S. and coalition forces began moving into Iraq and Kuwait for the ground assault phase of the operation. The ground offensive advanced quickly, with coalition troops making steady progress against Iraqi troops, many of them deserters waving white flags. By the third day of the offensive, allied troops had liberated Kuwait City. President Bush declared a cessation of hostilities at 8:01 a.m. Feb. 28, just four days after the ground war began. On March 3, Iraqi leaders formally accepted the cease-fire terms, and the first U.S. combat forces returned home five days later. Forward deployed naval forces, which had operated in the region for decades, stayed on station and remain so today. Presence mattered then and continues to today.

For Part I of this blog series click here.

DN-ST-91-07575 Six ships of Battle Force Zulu steam in formation after the cease-fire that ended Operation Desert Storm. At left, from top, are the guided missile cruiser USS LEYTE GULF (CG-55), the aircraft carriers USS MIDWAY (CV-41) and USS RANGER (CV-61) and the guided missile cruiser USS NORMANDY (CG-60). At right are the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71), top, and the aircraft carrier USS AMERICA (CV-66)

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Six ships of Battle Force Zulu steam in formation after the cease-fire that ended Operation Desert Storm. At left, from top, are the guided missile cruiser USS LEYTE GULF (CG-55), the aircraft carriers USS MIDWAY (CV-41) and USS RANGER (CV-61) and the guided missile cruiser USS NORMANDY (CG-60). At right are the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71), top, and the aircraft carrier USS AMERICA (CV-66)

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