Revolution in Warfare? Air Power in the Persian Gulf

By Meilinger, Phillip S. | Naval War College Review, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Revolution in Warfare? Air Power in the Persian Gulf


Meilinger, Phillip S., Naval War College Review


Cohen, Eliot A., and Thomas A. Keaney. Revolution in Warfare? Air Power in the Persian Gulf. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1995. 226pp. $38.95

Even before the Gulf war had ended, it was realized that a high-level and independent study was needed to assess the performance of U.S. airpower. The Gulf War Air Power Survey was thus chartered by Air Force Secretary Donald Rice, and the well known scholar Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University was tabbed to lead it. Published in six volumes in 1993, the Survey had limited distribution. Fortunately, the immensely readable summary volume, coauthored by Cohen and Professor Tom Keaney of the National War College, has been revised and republished.

When General Norman Schwarzkopf began planning a response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, he quickly realized that all talk of AirLand Battle and ground assault was hopeless. Not only did he lack enough troops to dislodge the several hundred thousand Iraqis already digging in, but he knew such an assault would be extremely bloody. Instead, he turned to the Air Force chief of staff and asked for an offensive air option. The result was INSTANT THUNDER-a plan for the rapid and massive application of airpower at the strategic level of war. The codename was a deliberate counterpoint to the slow, painful, and ineffective policy of "gradual escalation" followed in Vietnam. That war had haunted American political and military leaders; the Gulf war would be an opportunity to expunge those ghosts. INSTANT THUNDER was modified and expanded in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to include hundreds of targets at the tactical and operational levels of war as well as strategic. Republican Guard divisions were singled out for special attention. For five weeks beginning the night of 17 January 1991, the coalition air arms flew an average of 2,500 combat sorties each day. By the beginning of the ground offensive on 24 February, the Iraqi army had been devastated-nearly ninety thousand men had already deserted, and another ninety thousand would soon surrender with hardly a fight. In addition, thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, and armored vehicles had been destroyed from the air. Coalition ground troops completed the rout.

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