Storm Front: The Threat of Mina al-Ahmadi – Part Four

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

Editor’s 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 (LCC 19)  operating in the Arabian Gulf. This is part four of a five-part series. To read part three from this series, click here

The battleship USS WISCONSIN (BB-64) fires its Mark 7 16-inch 50-caliber guns to eliminate shoreline targets in preparation for an amphibious landing off the coast of Khafji during Operation Desert Storm

The battleship USS WISCONSIN (BB-64) fires its Mark 7 16-inch 50-caliber guns to eliminate shoreline targets in preparation for an amphibious landing off the coast of Khafji during Operation Desert Storm

I had been directed by the working group leader to conduct research and assemble a briefing for the next day that would describe the percentage of attrition on Iraqi threat systems so far and project when we would achieve 50 percent attrition.

Having determined in my own mind that every day was now of the essence, I balked, “Sir, I can give you that brief right now, and you’re not going to like it.”

I then rattled off by memory the handful of Mirage F-1s that had been shot down to date, and then listed all the Exocet-armed Mirage F-1s and Super Frelon helicopters, Silkworm-armed B-6D Badger bombers, shore-based Silkworm antiship missile batteries, and missile boats that had not yet been targeted—let alone destroyed—a week into the air campaign. I explained that none of these threat systems were being targeted during the strategic phase of the air campaign.

The working group, which consisted mostly of surface line officers, was stunned into silence, and then they comprehended why the aviators in our strike warfare cell had been apoplectic about the Air Force’s air tasking order for weeks. As long as these threats remained in port or on the ground, they would not be struck.

I continued, “Attrition of the primary threat systems is less than 5 percent. At the present rate of attrition, it will be sometime next year before we reach 50 percent.”

A landing signal enlisted man (LSE) signals to the crew of an SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopter preparing to lift off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS NEW ORLEANS (LPH-11). The NEW ORLEANS is serving as a platform for mine-clearing operations in the gulf following Operation Desert Storm

A landing signal enlisted man (LSE) signals to the crew of an SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopter preparing to lift off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS NEW ORLEANS (LPH-11). The NEW ORLEANS is serving as a platform for mine-clearing operations in the gulf following Operation Desert Storm

At first the working group wanted to disbelieve these numbers. They couldn’t believe the Air Force targeting strategy could be so insane. Each day’s delay in destroying Iraqi threat systems would add to the delay in conducting minesweeping operations. This in turn made it impossible to conduct an amphibious operation until well after the start of the ground campaign (at which point it would become moot) unless the Navy was prepared to accept a significantly higher level of risk to our ships. At first I was told to rework my numbers, but I stood my ground. The threats were simply not being addressed by the Air Force targeting strategy.

The working group then decided to deal with the threat dilemma by ignoring the issue and focusing instead on the details of the primary landing beach at Mina al-Ahmadi. They didn’t like what I had to say about that, since by this time I had rounded up answers to most of the difficult esoteric questions raised several months earlier. The working group reached the conclusion that we would have to bomb and blow up the LNG plant before the landing to prevent the Iraqis from doing so during the landing.

During the first briefing to Vice Admiral Stanley R. Arthur, the concept of deliberately setting off a multi-megaton explosion in the middle of the refinery that was the lifeblood of the Kuwaiti economy didn’t go over well. We were sent back to the drawing board as the admiral decided that this was not an acceptable solution. By this time, we’d also received word that Lieutenant General Boomer had changed his plan again, and now an amphibious landing was absolutely critical. Meanwhile, no mines had yet been swept.

The working group then shifted focus to the next best beach further north. This plan required the battleships Wisconsin (BB 64) and Missouri (BB 63) to level the southern suburbs of Kuwait City, which by this time were heavily entrenched and fortified by the Iraqis in a densely populated urban area. There was also considerable risk that the greatly outnumbered Marine landing force could get trapped, because it might take longer to link up with the main Marine ground assault that would be coming across the Saudi border to the south and west. Nobody from the admiral on down liked this plan either, but we worked it out in considerable detail in concert with the planners afloat in the amphibious task force.

GEN. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander-in-chief, U.S. Central Command, waves to troops assembled for his departure as he prepares to board a C-21A Learjet aircraft. Schwarzkopf has been visiting coalition forces stationed at Riyadh Air Base in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm

GEN. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander-in-chief, U.S. Central Command, waves to troops assembled for his departure as he prepares to board a C-21A Learjet aircraft. Schwarzkopf has been visiting coalition forces stationed at Riyadh Air Base in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm

About 10 days before the start of the ground offensive, General Schwarzkopf and Lieutenant General Boomer flew by helicopter out to Blue Ridge. General Schwarzkopf said practically nothing as Lieutenant General Boomer briefed his plan, and then we briefed our supporting plan. I recall that Lieutenant General Boomer seemed to suddenly waffle a bit about the “criticality” of the supporting amphibious landing. Then, General Schwarzkopf threw everyone out of the room except Admiral Arthur, Lieutenant General Boomer, and Brigadier General John J. Sheehan (who had been sent by Headquarters Marine Corps a month earlier, presumably to make certain NAVCENT didn’t do anything stupid with our assigned Marines.)

The closed-door discussion went on for some time. When it was over, the amphibious landing was back to being a deception operation.

Editor’s 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.

 To read part five from this series, click here

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