Thursday, February 4, 2021

Saddam, AEGIS, and the Debut of the Tomahawk: The 30th Anniversary of Desert Storm


USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) firing a Tomahawk cruise missile at Iraqi targets during Desert Storm. USS Paul F. Foster (DD 964) to the right.(Navsource)

By Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to invade the tiny, oil-rich nation of Kuwait. In addition to the armed invasion, Saddam Hussein had violated several United Nations resolutions. As a result, the United States had the full support of the United Nations to deal with Hussein and his recent invasion.

President George H.W. Bush, along with his military advisors, was concerned that Hussein might not be content with just invading Kuwait and might continue with an invasion of Saudi Arabia. Since Saudi Arabia was an ally, President Bush felt compelled to prevent this from happening. Along with 40 other allied nations, the U.S. implemented a plan called Desert Shield.
General Schwarzkopf talking with troops (Los Angeles Times)

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf was the overall commander in charge of the coalition for Desert Shield. Schwarzkopf, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam, had a very specific battle plan: do not attack until you are prepared. Having served in Vietnam, Schwarzkopf knew that the American public would be apprehensive about a lengthy ground war in a foreign land that would possibly result in extensive American casualties. Therefore, Schwarzkopf's plan had two phases. The first was the buildup of the coalition forces referred to as Desert Shield. The second phase, the offensive aspect, would include a lengthy air campaign, and was referred to as Desert Storm. Schwarzkopf’s plan would include significant support from the United States Navy.
USS Midway (CV 41), USS Ranger (CV 61), USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and USS America (CV 66) are escorted by USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55) and USS Normandy (CG 60) at the end of Desert Storm (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Reminiscent of the large-scale invasions of World War II, the U.S. Navy deployed to the Persian Gulf with six aircraft carriers, 18 cruisers, 13 destroyers, 18 frigates, two nuclear fast attack submarines, and a wide variety of support ships. The Hampton Roads-based vessels alone numbered thirty six, including the battleship USS Wisconsin (BB 64). Within this assembled armada was a class of ship that would prove to be a true workhorse during the operation: the Ticonderoga-class AEGIS cruiser.

USS San Jacinto (CG 56) transits the Suez Canal to the Red Sea in September 1990 to join the build up of forces in Desert Shield. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Ten AEGIS (Automatic Electronic Guidance Intercept System) cruisers deployed to support the operation from bases in Norfolk, San Diego, Mississippi, and Japan. AEGIS uses a combination of computers and radar to track multiple targets simultaneously. The AN/SPY-1 radar used by the cruisers also enabled the ships to track over 100 targets over 100 nautical miles away. Utilizing the AEGIS system, the various cruisers performed the tasks of coordinating anti-air warfare and anti-surface warfare operations. While serving as the Battle Force Anti-Surface-Warfare Commander (controlling aircraft from four different aircraft carriers), USS Mobile Bay (CG 53) directed carrier-based aircraft to engage 38 Iraqi naval vessels during the Battle of Bubiyan, which took place from January 29 to February 2, 1991. The outcome of the battle was the annihilation of the Iraqi navy, which proved the effectiveness of AEGIS in combat. Another new weapon system used by the Navy was the Tomahawk cruise missile. 

Concept art of the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) from the 1970s. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Tomahawk first entered service with the Fleet as the primary land attack missile in 1983. This new cruise missile provided the Navy with an all-weather long-range weapon capable of engaging multiple targets simultaneously. Desert Storm was the combat debut of the Tomahawk, and the majority of the cruisers supporting the operation fired several of these weapons. The AEGIS cruiser USS San Jacinto (CG 56) fired the first Tomahawk missile in combat on January  while operating in the Red Sea. Other cruisers such as USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) and Mobile Bay fired Tomahawks from the Persian Gulf. A Sailor aboard Mobile Bay described the scene aboard the cruiser:

I can't remember what time we went to general quarters, but I know it was in the middle of the night. Normally a GQ in the middle of the night meant being pissed at getting pulled out of my rack for a drill. But not this time. I had been having trouble sleeping because being part of the CIC [Combat Information Center] watch team I knew we had plans to fire [Tomahawks]. I didn't know when it would happen, but . . . [I] knew that the GMs had gone in to remove the safeties on a lot of our missiles. So when GQ came I just knew we were going to get in a scrap! Because my GQ station was down in engineering monitoring the 400hz system, I didn't get to see the first missiles of Desert Storm get launched. But nobody on the ship could say you didn't feel and hear those bad boys launching. Net 66, the sound circuit for Aegis maintenance, went WILD with everybody whooping and cheering. We quickly got settled down by [the combat systems officer]. But I know I didn't have any issues staying awake in the middle of the night just waiting and not being disappointed in more and more TLAMs being launched. [*Mobile Bay fired 22 Tomahawks during Desert Storm

A Sailor in the CIC aboard USS Normandy (CG 60) a few years after Desert Storm (Wikipedia Commons)

USS Wisconsin (BB 64) launches a Tomahawk missile against an Iraqi target during Desert Storm (Wikipedia)

Two Iowa-class battleships, USS Missouri (BB 63) and Wisconsin, also fired Tomahawks utilizing the box launcher system installed during their modernization in the 1980s. Below the surface, USS Louisville (SSN 724) also fired Tomahawks at Iraqi targets, which marked the first successful launch of a Tomahawk from a submarine. The U.S. Navy launched a total of 288 Tomahawks during Desert Storm, hitting the enemy with great effect. Targets destroyed included command and control centers, power facilities, surface-to-air missile sites, and the Presidential Palace.
A Sailor from Louisville holds a commemorative Louisville Slugger baseball bat marked with the date of the submarine's Tomahawk launch against Iraqi targets. Note the text "Kick Saddam's Butt, Jan. 19, 1991." (National Archives and Records Administration)

Kuwait was liberated on February 27, 1991 with Hussein’s army fleeing in great numbers, and Iraq agreed to the resolutions from the United Nations the next day. The Navy’s role during Desert Storm was a key element to the coalition victory over Iraq. The Navy provided unchallenged control of the seas, provided consistent delivery of equipment and essential supplies, and flew numerous sorties during the air campaign. The use of new and at the time untested weapon systems like AEGIS and the Tomahawk land attack missile helped ensure a quick victory over the Iraqi forces.

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