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 one of a five-part series.
There was a perfectly valid reason there was no amphibious landing by U.S. Marines into Kuwait: we would have had to literally destroy Kuwait to save it. The planned landing beach was lined by high-rise apartment buildings in the southern suburbs of Kuwait City, which would have been pulverized by battleship gunfire to adequately suppress Iraqi defenses to enable a successful landing. The best beach in Kuwait was even worse; it was right in the middle of Kuwait’s giant Mina al-Ahmadi oil refinery.
In the end, just the threat of an amphibious assault served to tie down many Iraqi divisions guarding against an attack that never came. However, in the preparations for the Coalition counterattack into Kuwait, an amphibious assault was not intended as a deception plan. The planning was quite real.
Planning for an amphibious assault began almost as soon as the Iraqi invasion. As the staff Current Intelligence Officer, I was called upon to provide intelligence support throughout the different planning phases, and nothing I had learned in Intelligence School prepared me for supporting an opposed amphibious assault into an oil refinery.
Planning initially focused on the possibility of having to extract U.S. personnel from the American Embassy in Kuwait City, which was surrounded, but not occupied initially, by the Iraqi invasion forces in August 1990. As each day and week went by, more and more Iraqi troops poured into Kuwait, vastly outnumbering initial U.S. amphibious forces in the Arabian Gulf. It quickly became apparent that an attempt to forcibly extract the U.S. diplomats from the embassy compound would be costly and unlikely to succeed. Eventually, after a “siege” lasting several months, the Iraqis permitted the U.S. diplomats to be withdrawn via Iraq.
From the very beginning, an opposed amphibious assault into Iraq or Kuwait was viewed as a very high risk and high casualty operation. The Iraqis quickly showed their respect for the threat from U.S. Marines by immediately digging in and heavily fortifying the beaches with interlocking and layered defensive positions. They clearly demonstrated their intent to extract a high price. In addition, none of the potential landing beaches were particularly good with generally too shallow a gradient, which made them ideal for defensive mining and required long approaches by landing craft and long runs by exposed personnel. Such a landing would have had a lot in common with Tarawa in WWII.
The most southerly acceptable beach was near Ras al-Qulayah, Kuwait, but it was only about a dozen miles behind Iraqi lines along the Kuwait-Saudi border, which made it hardly worth the high risk. The next beach to the north was split in two parts by the Mina al-Ahmadi oil transshipment terminal and bordered the huge refinery, the single most important facility to the Kuwaiti economy after the oil fields themselves.
The next beach to the north was in a heavily urbanized area, lined with multi-story residential buildings that provided ideal cover for defending forces. Further to the north, the beaches on the north side of Kuwait Bay and on Bubiyan Island were subject to very wide tidal variations. These beaches were at best extremely shallow, and at worst consisted of miles of mud flats, all leading to bottlenecks that would greatly constrain the ability of the Marines to maneuver once they were ashore. The potential for the Marines to get trapped was high.
Furthest to the north were the beaches on in Iraq proper, which had characteristics similar to the Bubiyan and Kuwait Bay beaches. Although landing on the peninsula would have been the most audacious approach—worthy of General Douglas MacArthur at Inchon—moving off al-Faw inland to Iraq would have been extremely difficult, especially in the winter months when the peninsula turned into a swamp. The Iranians tried it during the Iran-Iraq War, crossing the Shatt al-Arab waterway in a brilliantly executed surprise amphibious assault, only to become bogged down in months of horrific close-quarters combat in muck like that of Flanders Fields and the Somme in WWI.
The best of all bad options appeared to be the beach at the Kuwaiti refinery. It was far enough behind Iraqi lines so that enough would be gained to make the risk worthwhile, but not so far that it might result in “a bridge too far.” Nevertheless, it quickly became apparent that conducting combat operations in a refinery was not covered in any doctrine, nor could it be considered recommended—many things in a refinery are capable of blowing up even without bullets and shells whizzing around.
Beside numerous oil and refined product tanks, oil and fuel lines, cracking towers, and other explosive or flammable infrastructure, the biggest problem was the liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility in the middle of the refinery, very near the beach. An immense amount of analytic effort went into trying to determine the answer to the question, “What happens if that thing blows up during the landing?”
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.
This is part one of a five-part series. Read part two here.