From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
The dust had hardly settled in the Middle East following the end of Desert Storm in 1991 before factions within Iraq fractured, creating uprisings against the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein.
Seven years of the Iraqi president using his Republican Guard to quell uprisings by Shiite Muslims in the south and Kurdish rebels in the north, threatening his border neighbor Kuwait, and his consistent rejection of weapons inspections in his country, culminated in a massive air strike 16 years ago, Dec. 16, 1998, called Operation Desert Fox.
In the Persian Gulf, the Navy was already providing a number of rotating carrier strike groups to enforce no-fly zones north of the 36th parallel where a coalition of allied countries – United States, Great Britain and France – created a safe haven for Kurds, and another along the 32nd parallel to protect the Shiites.
Tensions flared again in 1997 after Hussein expelled members of the United Nations inspection team, claiming they were spies. As Allied countries built up military forces, Hussein backed down, but stated sites designated as “palaces and official residences” would be off limits, places U.N. officials suspected were being used to conceal possible weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was threatened with renewed economic sanctions.
Although an agreement is hammered out between Iraq and the U.N. to continue inspections with the accompanying lift of economic sanctions, Hussein abruptly ended the inspections in August 1998, claiming there had been no lifting of the economic sanctions.
After several weeks of “will he or won’t he,” a renewed military build-up began again in the Persian Gulf. After several weeks of threats, on Dec. 15, a U.N. report accused Iraq of a repeated pattern of obstructing weapons inspections by not allowing access to records or inspection sites and by moving equipment and records from one site to another.
With no response from Hussein, on Dec. 16, 1998, the coalition of U.S. and Great Britain began a massive air campaign against key military targets.
Lasting four nights, the coalition bombs hit 100 Iraqi military targets.
Defense Secretary William Cohen said in a press conference at the Pentagon on Dec. 19: “We’ve degraded Saddam Hussein’s ability to deliver chemical and biological weapons. We’ve diminished his ability to wage war against his neighbors.”
According to a Desert Fox fact sheet, besides “degrade and diminish,” a third goal was to show Hussein there would be consequences for violating international agreements.
The initial strikes consisted of approximately 250 Tomahawk cruise missiles, as well as 40 sorties launched from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and her Carrier Air Wing 3.
USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) Battle Group and its Carrier Air Wing sent out 11 aircraft on 14 airstrike missions, using 20 precision-guided and 60 laser-guided munitions, hitting nearly 50 targets at a half-dozen Iraqi military sites in the southern part of the country.
USS Belleau Wood (LHA 3) acted as the staging platform for Combat Search and Rescue Operations in case an American or Coalition plane was shot down during the four-day operation intended to neutralize Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs. She also provided support for the 31st MEF ashore in Kuwait.
For the second night, Air Force B-52s stationed on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean launched cruise missiles, while the B-1 bomber made its combat debut by striking at Republican Guard targets. Air Force and British aircraft based at Kuwait also participated.
By Dec. 19, U.S. and British aircraft had struck 97 targets, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen claimed the operation was a success. Supported by Secretary Cohen, as well as United States Central Command commander General Anthony C. Zinni and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry H. Shelton, President Bill Clinton declared “victory” in Operation Desert Fox.
In total, the 70-hour campaign saw U.S. forces strike 85 percent of their targets, 75 percent of which were considered “highly effective” strikes. More than 600 sorties were flown by more than 300 combat and support aircraft, and 600 air dropped munitions were employed, including 90 air launched cruise missiles and 325 Tomahawk land attack missiles (TLAM).
Rear Adm. Robert C. Williamson spoke on the Navy’s response in Desert Fox during an appearance before the Subcommittee on Seapower of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 24, 1999. At that time, he was the director of the Navy’s Office of Program Appraisal. He retired a month after his appearance before the subcommittee.
“The purpose of our Naval forces is to directly and decisively, influence events ashore from the sea, anytime, anywhere. Since 80 percent of the world’s population and 80 percent of capitals are within 500 miles of an ocean, our Navy-Marine Corps team is uniquely situated to project power from the sea,” he stated. “We recently demonstrated the value of ready, forward-deployed naval forces during Operation Desert Fox and continue that effort today in the sky over Iraq, on the ground in Kuwait, and in and under the Arabian Gulf…In the dawn of the 21st century, the Navy-Marine Corps team, forward-deployed and ever-ready, is preparing to meet the challenges of an uncertain future. With your support, we always have been, and always will be, there for America.”
Operation Desert Fox inflicted serious damage to Iraq’s missile development program, although its effects on any WMD program were not clear. Nevertheless, Operation Desert Fox was the largest strike against Iraq since the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, until the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom just five years later.
Information on the Desert Fox chronology timeline came from the Defense Department.
Desert Storm Fact Sheet information was prepared by historian Air Force Capt. Gregory Ball, Ph.D., Air Force Historical Studies Office, Joint Base Anacostia Bolling, Washington, D.C.