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Gathering Storm: Mina al-Ahmadi in the Crosshairs - Part Two

Feb. 24, 2016 | 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 two of a five-part series. To read part one from this series, click here 
"What happens if that thing blows up during the landing?"

Oil storage tanks at a refinery that was attacked by coalition aircraft during Operation Desert Storm continue to smolder days after the air strike. The refinery is located approximately four miles west of the Kuwaiti border.

No one seemed to know what would happen if the liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility in the middle of the refinery, very near the beach exploded during an invasion. And the answer certainly wasn't in any intelligence publications or databases. I eventually was able to get an answer from some oil industry experts through our Central Intelligence Agency liaison team, but it took a couple months. The answer was that if the biggest LNG storage tank went up, it would explode with the force of somewhere between a two- and six-megaton nuclear bomb, which would basically destroy the whole refinery, along with Kuwait's economic future, not to mention the entire landing force.

The next question became, should we preemptively destroy the LNG facility before the landing, or risk having the Iraqis blow it as a defensive measure during the landing, or risk having it blow up by chance during the cross-fire? It didn't take long for enthusiasm for an amphibious assault to quickly wane on the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) staff. The plot thickened, however, as the Iraqis moved four fully loaded supertankers to the oil loading terminals, which bisected the beach just off the refinery. This provoked even more difficult questions. What were the Iraqis up to? Although it was possible they simply needed someplace to moor the tankers, why were they fully loaded? They weren't going to be able to export oil anytime soon with UN sanctions and the naval "blockade"in full operation.

We reached the conclusion that the Iraqi intent was to discharge oil from the tankers into the water as a defensive measure just prior to an amphibious assault. This led to even more questions. How big an oil slick would it cause? How thick? What would be the effect of the oil slick on amphibious landing craft trying to motor through it? Would it clog intakes and engines and immobilize the craft? What would be the effect of the fumes from the slick on Marines in the landing craft? Would they be debilitating or even toxic? Would their effect be temporary or represent a permanent health risk? Would standard chemical-biological-radiological gear be needed - or even work - in the fumes? What would happen if the Iraqis set fire to the oil slick during the landing? Needless to say, none of this was taught in school.

It got even better.

I received human intelligence reports that the Iraqis were installing "electro-shock" weapons on the beach intended to electrocute landing Marines. How did that work? Was it even feasible? Would the sea act as a giant ground or short-circuit? How much power was required to generate the desired effect? Did the Iraqis have the ability to generate that much power? As with the LNG questions, no one in any intelligence agency knew for certain, although it appeared to be technically possible to electrify knee-deep water in a localized area. We then received an overhead photo that showed discoloration near some storage buildings in the port area of the refinery.

This lead to speculation that the Iraqis were making a big ANFO (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil) bomb - basically a big version of a "fertilizer" bomb such as that later used in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh that would be powerful enough to destroy the entire port area during the landing, or even set off the LNG plant. Although I began to suspect the electro-shock and ANFO-bomb reports were bogus, they didn't even come close to being the most outrageous. That distinction belonged to the reports of Iraqis bayoneting Kuwaiti babies in incubators (in Allied propaganda at the start of WWI the German "Huns" supposedly had done the same thing to Belgian babies). And the most outlandish report had to be the "underwater" landing strip in Lake Tharthar that the Iraqis could raise and lower. It didn't take long before I reached the conclusion that most human intelligence reporting was pure baloney, but trying to disprove such reports took a lot of time and was frequently impossible.

A bow view of the amphibious assault ship USS NEW ORLEANS (LPH-11) underway during Operation Desert Storm I don?t know precisely when the planning for an amphibious assault transitioned to deception planning, but by late November it was pretty apparent. My first indication was when my boss gave me a stack of intelligence messages and told me, "Don't ask questions, but what would be the intelligence "damage" if these messages were to fall into Iraqi hands?" I provided an assessment, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that if the Iraqis got a hold of those particular messages, it would reinforce their belief that the U.S. intended to conduct an amphibious assault. Reinforcing something that the enemy already believes is the most effective technique of operational deception. Soon after, I was "read in" on the deception plan.

As a result, I watched all the high-profile media reporting we were allowing on amphibious rehearsals in the United Arab Emirates and later along the north coast of Saudi Arabia (Operation Imminent Thunder) with a unique perspective; we were blatantly telegraphing our intent to conduct an amphibious assault, and the international press was the means to make sure the Iraqis got the message. The people who didn't get the message were the Marine and Navy planners aboard the amphibious task force and in the two Marine expeditionary brigades that would conduct any actual amphibious assault. No one told them they were the deception plan. They thought they were going to be fighting and dying on the beaches of Kuwait, and became increasingly and understandably annoyed and angry when none of their requests for increased intelligence collection of the beach areas were approved by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

Although there were a small number of us at NAVCENT who knew the details of the deception plan, it appeared that just about everyone at CENTCOM did, and they weren't about to divert any scarce intelligence collection assets to support an amphibious assault that they knew wasn't going to happen. This put those of us on the NAVCENT staff in the awkward and uncomfortable position of trying to explain to irate planners in the amphibious task force why they weren't getting squat for help from us or CENTCOM without revealing details of the highly compartmented deception plan.

The amphibious command ship USS BLUE RIDGE (LCC-19), right foreground, Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate USS HAWES (FFG -53), left foreground, and other U.S. and French warships stand moored to a pier outside Manama in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm  
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 three from this series, click here