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The Gulf War: a report and prognosis.




[Conditions for a Viable Military Solution]


Coalition Air Offensive

Bomb Damage Assessment

Collateral Damage and Casualties

The Khafji Skirmish

The Scud Attacks

Israel and the Scuds

The Puzzle of the Iraqi Air Force



The Coming Ground War

Iraqi Chemical Capabilities

The Iraqi Supply Problem

A Concept of Operations


MAPS (not included) <BREAK> </BREAK>




Since the outbreak of hostilities in the Gulf on 17 January 1991 a wide range of opinion and assessment of varying quality has appeared.

The purpose of this report is to provide Senators and Members with an evaluation of the military conflict and to draw attention to considerations which may become increasingly important as the war approaches its ground phase.

In September 1990 the Defence Group issued a Background Paper entitled Issues of Military Strategy for War Against Iraq, which set out some key military strategy considerations and suggested conditions which a viable military solution would need to satisfy. For those without access to the earlier paper, pertinent parts are condensed below in smaller type. Following the summary is a discussion of the course of operations thus far and comment on likely developments.


The Aim

An appropriate aim for military operations against Iraq would be to compel Baghdad to disgorge Kuwait and accept that state's future independence and territorial integrity after a peace settlement. This contrasts, for example, with more ambitious (and less achievable) goals such as the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and Iraq's conversion into a pro-western Arab state like Egypt. The advantages of the aim are that it is limited and that it is possible at any time to evaluate how close to realisation it is. If developments suggest that the aim cannot be achieved, it is possible - and highly advisable - to cut one's military losses and disengage.

The Problem of Command

Though the United States is by far the preponderant military power which has deployed forces in the Gulf area, many other nations are represented in greater or lesser strength. The organisation of an adequate system of command and control will be an essential precondition for the effective conduct of military operations. Military command and control has become an ad hoc, but thus far effective, arrangement between the participating states, with the United States in de facto overall command.

The Method

Although the aim is the liberation of Kuwait, the strategic factors previously discussed show clearly the dangers of immediately mounting a direct assault on the Iraqi positions there. Such an approach fails to capitalise on the advantages enjoyed by Iraq's opponents and plays into the hands of the defending force. High casualties and slow progress are the most likely result. An indirect approach, as brilliantly expounded by the late Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, exhibits sounder strategic logic and creates in the enemy's mind uncertainty as to one's immediate operational intentions.

On the other hand, the broad-brush indirect and indiscriminate approach advocated by former US Air Force Chief of Staff General Dugan - "bombing downtown Baghdad" does not of itself promise to deliver an acceptable solution. Something more selective, directed against the Iraqi capacity to sustain military operations, might offer better results.


Being more or less entirely cut off from external sources of military supply and resupply and with few sources of revenue, Iraq must rely on existing warstocks and defence industrial infrastructure to sustain its massive war machine. Operations designed to destroy these stocks and infrastructure would severely limit Iraq's ability to conduct even defensive operations once stocks already in the field were exhausted. The locations of many of these facilities are well known to Iraq's opponents via satellite reconnaissance and other intelligence sources, as are those of Iraq's operational defence force facilities - airfields, ports and army bases.

Any campaign against Iraq should open, then, with coordinated and simultaneous strikes against these infrastructure targets. Where target facilities are deep in hostile territory or located close to civilian facilities, attack by land-attack cruise missiles offers good prospects of success. These missiles can deliver a conventional warhead with extreme precision over large distances. Flying as they do under enemy radar, they are almost impossible to detect and shoot down, and they can be launched from warships or aircraft which need not approach Iraqi territory. More conventional air strikes can be employed against isolated targets and targets where a cruise missile cannot deliver sufficient explosive to be sure of destruction. There is no useful purpose to be achieved by indiscriminately bombing "downtown Baghdad".

The power of the Iraqi air force should be broken. This can be achieved by attacking its bases, bringing it to battle in attempts to defend installations attacked by allied air power, and by forcing it to defend the lines of communication from Iraq to occupied Kuwait. Even should the Iraqis achieve a one:one ratio of losses (an unlikely result, for reasons already discussed), they will run out of combat aircraft and pilots before their opponents.

Multiple threats should be posed to the Iraqi borders. In particular, Iraq's borders with Turkey and Syria should be threatened - though not necessarily crossed in force - so as to compel the Iraqi command to maintain significant forces far from Kuwait.

The Iraqi force in Kuwait should be isolated from resupply, reinforcement and, through active electronic warfare measures, as far as possible from communications with its higher command in Iraq proper. Iraq has deployed very substantial forces to Kuwait. If the coalition leaders envisage getting Iraq out of Kuwait by force at acceptable cost, they will need to take steps to undermine the fighting power of these troops. The lowest-risk way of achieving this goal would seem to be the application of western air power - both strategic and tactical - to cut land communications from Kuwait to Iraq proper. As noted, this approach will most probably bring what then remains of the Iraqi air force to battle and facilitate its final destruction.

The force in Kuwait should be harassed, mainly by air, once western air superiority is established. The object of the exercise would be less to inflict casualties than to require the Iraqis to expend ammunition they cannot replace, to impress upon them their helplessness in the face of overwhelming air superiority and to exhaust them by maintaining incessant psychological pressure through fear of unpredictable attack. Possibly the pressure could be further intensified by means of shelling from heavy naval guns.

During the harassment period, the Iraqis will consume their supplies and their nerves. At the end of this period, if they are judged sufficiently demoralised and under-supplied, they can be assaulted from land and sea with good prospects of success.

In short, the coalition powers are best served by a military strategy which:

1. has as its aim the eviction of Iraq from Kuwait;

2. takes an indirect approach to the achievement of this aim;

3. initially targets the Iraqi capacity to wage war - that is, Iraqi defence industry and defence facilities - and eschews the bombing of "downtown Baghdad";

4. draws the Iraqi air force to battle and destroys it and its supporting infrastructure, both by interdiction and superior western air combat performance, but also by attrition if need be;

5. poses multiple threats to Iraq's borders;

6. isolates the Iraqi army of occupation in Kuwait from resupply and reinforcement by the concerted application of airpower;

7. saps the morale and consumes the supplies of the occupation army by constant harassing tactics; and finally

8. when the occupation force is adequately weakened and other operational requirements met, and if Iraq still refuses to negotiate on acceptable terms, attacks and defeats that force.


It is necessary to state that the following relies heavily on publicly available information released by the combatants. Truth is always the first casualty of war and for sound operational reasons, not to mention political considerations, neither the coalition nor Iraq can be relied upon for complete and candid data. Nevertheless, the data which is released is the only data there is, and what follows depends essentially on that material, albeit with an appropriate leavening of scepticism and some reliance on relevant prewar material. This paper was current as of early Monday, 11 February 1991, Eastern Australian Summer Time.

Since hostilities commenced on 17 January, the war has essentially been one of air power, with relatively minor skirmishes and engagements on the ground. The Iraqi use of modified Scud surface-to-surface ballistic missiles against Israeli and Saudi targets, though spectacular, has had little military effect.

The Coalition Air Offensive

The first phase of the air assault apparently concentrated on Iraq's military and defence support infrastructure. Communications - both physical (roads, bridges, etc) and electronic - were also heavily targeted, as were important Iraqi nuclear, chemical and biological (NBC) installations. It appears that Iraq's NBC production programs have suffered devastating setbacks during the air war, so that Saddam will be limited to whatever stocks he was able to store in bomb-proof bunkers. Iraqi airfields and aircraft holding bunkers have been constantly attacked. A massive effort is going into severing the physical lines of communication between Iraq and Kuwait, so as to cut off from supply and reinforcement the Iraqi forces deployed there.

More recently, the emphasis has switched from precision attacks on targets inside Iraq - though these continue - to heavy carpet-bombing by B-52 aircraft of the prepared defensive positions inside Kuwait and of the Iraqi Army's best units, the Republican Guard, in its positions near the Iraq/Kuwait border. Some 59,000 sorties - a sortie being one aircraft taking off on a mission - were flown against Iraq in the period 17 January - 10 February. Of these, a considerable proportion would not have involved weapons delivery (there being requirements for surveillance, reconnaissance, in-flight refuelling, electronic warfare and so on), though at least half probably did.

Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA)

It has been very difficult to obtain reliable BDA data, and such data as is available cannot be verified.

The coalition claims, however, to have reduced by half the combat effectiveness of the total Iraqi ground forces, and that of the Republican Guard (which is better protected and equipped) by about a third as of 7 February. These figures do not imply casualties of that magnitude; they indicate rather the cumulative effect of casualties, destruction of infrastructure (stores dumps, vehicles, communications) and psychological wear-and-tear on troops subjected to almost incessant air attack with no effective retaliatory capacity. It is interesting to note, also, that reports from western journalists who left Iraq on 10 February indicate definite signs of dissent and dissatisfaction with the Baghdad regime, including anti-Saddam graffiti and some failures to report for call-up. As the air offensive proceeds, continued degradation of Iraqi combat capabilities can be expected (according to the 10 February US military briefing in Riyadh, some 750 Iraqi tanks have definitely been destroyed thus far). This improves the prospects for the ground forces if and when the campaign moves to that phase.

The Question of Collateral Damage and Casualties

The accuracy of modern weapons delivery systems is now well-known. Nevertheless, modern systems can fail and ordnance like cruise missiles, if subjected to enemy fire, can be brought down over civilian areas with devastating results. It might be recalled that at least one Scud which hit a populated area was knocked off-course by a Patriot missile: no-one can say where the Scud might have landed had it not been hit, though US cruise missiles usually hit what they are aimed at unless interfered with.

Casualties to Scud attacks are not really "collateral" - that is, incidental and unintended by-products of a strike aimed at a military target - because the Scud is very inaccurate and is being used as an indiscriminate terror weapon. In Iraq, civilian damage and casualties will often be the result of: weapons operator error, guidance system malfunction or the effects of enemy fire on a delivery vehicle. But the coalition has also stated that deliberate Iraqi relocation of military targets to civilian areas will not render these targets immune to attack. Thus, there will be collateral casualties and damage wherever this is done.

The claimed civilian casualty figures coming from official Iraqi sources do not sit well with claims from the same sources of indiscriminate coalition attacks on civilian areas. Thus far, Iraqi claims of civilian casualties have been in the vicinity of three hundred; this is hardly consistent with mass bombing of civilian targets.

In fact, the serious collateral damage and casualties are probably being incurred in those areas (parts of Kuwait and the Basra district) subject to B-52 carpet bombing. If Kuwaiti population centres have to be retaken by assault, collateral damage and loss of life in these areas is also likely to be very high.

The Khafji Skirmish

On the ground, the only significant action to date was the Iraqi raid into Saudi Arabia. Several attacks were launched simultaneously but only one, which reached the Saudi town of Khafji, succeeded in piercing the coalition defensive screen. Some few hundred Iraqis seized and held onto the town for two or three days, but were defeated and destroyed or made prisoner. On the scale of forces deployed in the Gulf, the Khafji engagement was a mere skirmish of no great military consequence, the only value of which was to test each side in actual combat on a small scale.

The Scud Attacks

Iraq has succeeded in delivering considerable numbers of Scud missiles with conventional warheads to targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia. While there were fears that Iraq might possess the technology to put chemical warheads on its Scuds, no such warhead has yet been used. It is possible that Iraq lacks the technology, or that it is saving some few chemically-armed missiles for a last-ditch attempt to provoke Israel into an unwise move. The poor accuracy of this antiquated Soviet missile, even with Iraqi modifications, has meant that the conventional Scud attacks have had an effect similar to the German V-2 attacks on London in 1944: essentially nuisance value, with no significant adverse military consequences. Moreover, the US Patriot surface-to-air missile has, against what is a very easy target as ballistic missiles go, proven very successful. Many Scuds have been destroyed before reaching the targets, though some which were hit by a Patriot seem to have been knocked off course rather than destroyed. Overall, the Patriot has performed well.

Israel and the Scuds

In launching Scuds against Israel, which was not previously involved in the war, Iraq's intentions were more political than military. It hoped to provoke the Israelis into a military response which might allow Iraq to represent the war as an Arab-Israeli conflict. Under strong US and coalition pressure, however, Israel has as yet declined to be provoked and Iraq's political purposes have been frustrated. Moreover, key Arab members of the coalition have indicated that an Israeli response to unprovoked attack, so long as it was not "disproportionate" to the attack itself, could be understood and tolerated under the doctrine of self-defence. If Iraq launches chemically-armed missiles against Israeli cities, a military response may well occur.

The Puzzle of the Iraqi Air Force

One of the conditions for military success set out above was that the Iraqi Air Force be drawn to battle and destroyed. Much of the Air Force's infrastructure - airfields and support facilities - was destroyed in the early days of the war, and constant return sorties keep runways cratered and unserviceable. But the Iraqi Air Force has shown no serious inclination to oppose the coalition air bombardment or to defend essential lines of communication between Iraq and occupied Kuwait. Indeed, about one hundred of Iraq's best combat aircraft have landed on Iranian territory.

According to Rahaei Khorasani, Chairman of the Iranian Majlis' (Parliamentary) Foreign Affairs Committee, who gave an interview in English to Western media on 2 February, the Iraqi aircraft which have gone to Iran did so without orders from their higher command. Khorasani also reiterated the Iranian position, reinforced by President Rafsanjani, that the Iraqi aircraft now in Iran and their pilots will be held until the war is over. Iran seems very concerned to preserve its neutrality, and the coalition has been at pains to accept Iranian assurances.

Unless Iran goes back on its word and involves itself actively in the war, the Iraqi aircraft now in Iran are as much out of the fight as if they were shot down. It remains problematical whether these aircraft and their pilots defected, simply sought sanctuary from a hostile air environment (ie, ran away), were ordered by disgruntled Iraqi Air Force officers concerned to preserve something from the impending catastrophe or, notwithstanding the Iranian view, were sent there by Saddam Hussein himself.

In any case, it would seem that the Iraqi Air Force is either destroyed, sheltering in bunkers but with few functional airfields, or in Iran. The coalition claim of air supremacy, recently elaborated by a statement that the Iraqi Air Force is now "brain dead", is justified.


The September 1990 Background Paper excerpted above said of Iraq's strategy at the time that Saddam Hussein resembled a gambler who, having had a big win (seizing Kuwait), would like to get up from the table risking nothing more. That strategy, at least, has failed: Saddam has not been allowed to take his winnings and go. Iraqi strategy seems not to have thought beyond that point. Kuwait was crammed with troops, threatening the coalition with heavy losses if it used force. But the coalition was not deterred, and the issue has come down to war. A single Third World nation, albeit a powerful one, has taken on the world's greatest military power and several other powers as well. Is this a failure of strategy - in that the issue was never supposed to end in war, but Iraq miscalculated - or is there yet another level to Saddam's calculation?

There is a view that the Iraqi leadership, playing up to the Arab and Islamic worlds, is prepared to take heavy losses and even suffer complete military defeat if only it can, in the process, hurt the coalition, especially the US, enough to claim a political "victory-in-defeat". The Khafji encounter was thus inflated for its political significance, based on the deaths of a few Americans and the temporary seizure of a Saudi town. The subsequent destruction of the Iraqis in Khafji was somehow passed over. In this view, the Iraqi strategy is a calculated design emphasising longer-term political goals rather than seeking military success (beyond inflicting severe losses on the enemy).

Certainly, military power alone will not usually solve political problems. The objective of current coalition military operations is to force Iraq out of Kuwait and to have Baghdad accept Kuwait's existence. Longer-term political problems will require political, not military, solutions. But for Saddam to court, even invite, military disaster in the hope of later political gain is a strategy criminally wasteful of Iraqi human and economic resources. Nor does it seem likely, however much new hatred of the west and its Arab supporters is engendered by this war, that the interests of the Arab states will be greatly advanced if Iraq is ruined by war, the Arab world divided and destabilised, Israel rehabilitated in the hitherto increasingly jaundiced eyes of many westerners and the PLO discredited by its support for Saddam. It is difficult, in short, to view this analysis of the Iraqi strategy as anything more than a pre-facto rationalisation of defeat, or a cover story for what amounts to a succession of disastrous misjudgments by Saddam Hussein and his colleagues ever since Iraq invaded Kuwait.


All military operations to this point have had as their objectives either the destruction of Iraq's war-fighting potential or the isolation and harassment of the Iraqi force in Kuwait. This has been preparatory to the launching of a ground offensive aimed at the defeat of the Iraqi army of occupation in Kuwait, the liberation of that country and forcing Baghdad to relinquish its claim to Kuwait. The ground war will not be launched until the coalition command is satisfied that maximum effect has been extracted from the application of airpower and that adequate air resources are available for close tactical support of the ground forces.

Large scale military operations rarely seek to occupy territory. They seek rather the defeat of the opposing forces because, this done, territory can easily be occupied. The ground war, if and when it comes, will have as its military goal the defeat of Iraq's forces in the field. If this is achieved, Iraq will be helpless to resist further the enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions.

The Coming Ground War

The ground war will be the most difficult, dangerous and costly phase of the war. Iraq's greatest strength has always been in ground forces, and the coalition, though greatly superior technologically, will not have a significant numerical superiority. No doubt local superiority at key points will be attained through concentration of forces, thus thinning-out the lines in less important areas. This admittedly invites attack in these areas but - given that Iraq remains on the strategic defensive and would in any case be unwise to attack in unimportant sectors - appears nonetheless to entail acceptable levels of risk.

The air offensive has been designed inter alia to reduce the fighting power of the army in Kuwait by cutting off its supplies, destroying or damaging its fortifications and subjecting it to constant air attack, thereby exhausting the troops. Moreover, although troops, armour and artillery can take shelter from air attack in bunkers and camouflaged emplacements, the fact remains that when the Iraqi positions are assaulted by ground forces, the troops will need to leave their bunkers and man what the air assault has left intact of their above-ground defensive positions, the armour will need to move and the artillery to fire. Moreover, the coalition approach to ground warfare will no doubt be to force the Iraqis out of their prepared positions into a war of movement. Certainly, the Republican Guard will have to move if it is to confront the coalition offensive. But once they move, the Iraqi troops, armour and artillery will be exposed to air attack with no air cover of their own, thereby running very great risks.

Iraqi Chemical Capabilities

Though Iraq has yet to deliver a chemical warhead via Scud missile during this war, there can be no doubt of its ability to employ Chemical Warfare (CW) against ground forces. In that the Iraqi Air Force, which could drop chemical weapons, is either destroyed, bunkered or interned in Iran, the principal means of delivery will probably be artillery shells, though very crude delivery systems (involving atomisers attached to trucks with tanks of mustard gas) have been reported from the Iran/Iraq war. Both mustard gas and nerve agents are available to Iraq.

Coalition forces are well protected against CW. Tanks are sealed environments which gases cannot penetrate; CW suits provide a similar environment for troops who have, moreover, been taking buffering and antidote agents against nerve gases for some time as advance protection. The main CW threat, then, is not so much against the lives of troops as against their effectiveness, because CW suits are very clumsy and can be extremely hot, making it wellnigh impossible for the occupant to function as an effective soldier. One factor which may weigh heavily, though there is no reliable data available, is the extent to which Iraq's own forces have adequate CW protection in case wind shifts turn their chemical attacks back on their own lines or in case the coalition retaliates with CW itself.

At the same time, effective use of CW depends on accurate delivery and favourable weather. This makes the use of such weapons by the Iraqis essentially an imponderable, the likelihood and effects of which are difficult to predict. But, on its past record, it seems clear that Iraq will use CW if conditions seem suitable to the leadership.

The Iraqi Supply Problem

Iraq has concentrated a force of over 500,000 in the Kuwait theatre. In World War II, the German Sixth Army - a force roughly half this size - was cut off at Stalingrad. Hitler ordered it to stand fast and promised supply by air. It emerged that some 600 tons of supplies per day would be needed to keep Sixth Army an effective combat force, and that the Luftwaffe could not deliver anything near this tonnage. In the end, of about 250,000 troops, only 91,000 lived to go into Soviet POW cages after a ten week siege and only 5,000 ever saw Germany again. All their equipment was lost and the city of Stalingrad reduced to rubble.

It is difficult to assess how much supply is required to keep the Iraqi force in Kuwait effective. The supply scales for a surrounded German Army in a Russian winter in 1942 may not throw much light on those for Iraqis in Kuwait. In particular, the Iraqis have had several months to build up supplies in Kuwait without interference. On the other hand, the accuracy of modern bombing and missile systems far exceeds World War II levels, so that significant proportions of the Iraqi stockpiles may have been destroyed. Moreover, supply requirements will increase dramatically once ground combat begins. What is clear, however, is that a force as large as that Iraq has in and near Kuwait requires massive tonnages of supply each day, whether from stocks or transported in, and that any extended supply breakdown will have serious effects on the fighting power of units once they consume materiel immediately to hand. A principal intent of the coalition air offensive has been to create just such a supply breakdown.

The success of this approach depends on several unknowns. Firstly, how much materiel Iraq was able to concentrate in supply depots for its Kuwait force and the Republican Guard; second, how rapidly these stocks are being consumed or destroyed by the air offensive; thirdly, how rapidly they are being replenished (current coalition claims are that only 10% of materiel sent to Kuwait from Iraq gets through); and fourthly, how accessible these stocks are likely to be under combat conditions. In general, most advantages seem to be with the coalition.

A Concept of Operations

If it proves necessary to conduct ground operations on a large scale, there will be opportunity for a war of rapid movement. Generally, the more mobile a campaign, the less costly in terms of casualties: it is positional warfare, especially trench warfare, which generates heavy losses. Coalition air supremacy encourages its ground forces, which are lavishly equipped for mobility, to practise mobile warfare against Iraq. The shape of such a campaign cannot be predicted with confidence, but what follows would be consistent with mobile warfare concepts applicable in the Gulf theatre.

It is improbable that the principal ground effort will be a set-piece frontal assault on the Iraqi defensive positions on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border, though heavy diversionary attacks may be mounted in this sector in a bid to draw the Republican Guard, Iraq's principal mobile striking force, further south.

A heavy stroke launched from the general area where the borders of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia converge (or a little west of there) could follow, with units moving first northerly and then east towards the coast of northern Kuwait or southern Iraq. If this thrust reached the coast, the Iraqis in Kuwait would be cut off and pinned against the sea, whence might come an amphibious landing in their rear. So long as Iraqi counterattacks were beaten off, the force in Kuwait could be strangled and forced to capitulate. Loss of so great a proportion of its fighting strength would militarily cripple Iraq.


The stated aim of this war is to force Iraq to relinquish Kuwait and agree not to resort to force again in any dispute it has with that country. Now that hostilities are underway, and the critical ground campaign is approaching, it will be essential to maintain that aim and not lose sight of it.

The aim is the yardstick by which success or failure can be judged. If weeks of bloody ground fighting fail to dislodge the Iraqis from Kuwait, the appropriate military response is to admit defeat and cut losses, not to pour more and more troops into an unwinnable war. It is always important in major military operations to know when to get out. Failure to recognise this cost the Americans dear in Indochina, and the Soviets similarly in Afghanistan.

Admitting military failure would of course carry serious strategic and political costs. But such are the risks of going to war.

More likely, given the coalition's tremendous preponderance of resources over Iraq - and bearing in mind that this is no guerrilla war like Indochina or Afghanistan, but a major conventional battle - the coalition forces will defeat Iraq militarily. The unanswerable question at present is, at what cost in lives and materiel will this victory be gained? All that can be said is that if everything goes well, the victory may come at a bearable cost to the coalition but, if things go wrong, it may be extremely expensive. For Iraq, all probable outcomes look costly in terms of infrastructure damage, money and lives, and most appear to involve severe military defeat as well.

Gary Brown

Defence Group, Parliamentary Research Service

11 February 1991

ISSN 1034-8107

Copyright Commonwealth of Australia 1991

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Published by the Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1991