Why Desert Storm Was The West’s Most Devastating Victory

Francis Fukuyama infamously penned his 1989 essay “The End of History?”, and expanded it into a full book in 1992 “The End of History and the Last Man”.

Very broadly speaking, Fukuyama argued a Hegelian interpretation of history, in which the ending political order would be some variation of liberal democracy.

Western liberalism had just triumphed over the Soviet defense system in Eastern Europe, without firing a shot (though with the blessing of Mikhail Gorbachev).

On Christmas Day of 1991, the last bastion of Soviet political ideology receded into the “dustbin of history”.

The political and ideological victory was complete, and even a demonstration of military victory was completed on February 28th of 1991, with the tidy defeat of the Soviet style Iraqi Military.

While I don’t intend to add my voice to the two decades of dog piling on Mr. Fukuyama, as I at the very least respect the man and lack the requisite qualification to competently critique his early work, the last triumph is an example of both unjustified and dangerous Western triumphalism.

The relative ease of the Gulf War, and the false equivocation between Soviet Forces and Iraqi forces, has made western policy makers arrogant, and can lead to chasing “easy wars” that are anything but easy.

American jets waiting for their next mission during Operation Desert Storm. Photo Credit: Walter/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

American jets waiting for their next mission during Operation Desert Storm. Photo Credit: Walter/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Operation Desert Storm was a flawless execution of the doctrine of AirLand Battle (ALB).

Put over simply, ALB relies on utilization of air forces on a tactical level, special forces in the deep battle space, and a counter blitz composed of armored and mechanized units, in order to both forestall reserve units, and deplete the momentum of the breeching force.

This would negate the overwhelming superiority of Warsaw Pact forces, and resulted in the Pentagon estimating for the first time that NATO might be able to win a land war in Europe against the Warsaw Pact.

The defeat of the Iraqi Military then, was heralded by many as a proof of concept, and that Warsaw Pact forces had been overestimated.

After all, Iraqi battalions equipped with BMPs, T-55s, and T-72s melted in the face of Abrams, Challengers, AMX-30s, TOWs, Hellfires, Mavericks, Paveways, and the rest of the menagerie designed to defend Europe against a Soviet fueled onslaught.

This was all accomplished with great speed, and few casualties.

Western military superiority should not be taken for granted however.

First, it should be noted that Coalition Forces were: more numerous, better trained, and had a much better developed doctrine in the way of ALB.

These are all qualities that would not have been shared by Warsaw Pact forces. What the Iraqis did share with the Warsaw Pact was equipment, to an extent.

Saddam intentionally kept the Iraqi Air Force weak, for fear of an Air Force sponsored coup. As a result, pilots of Iraqi’s most valuable air superiority fighters, their MiG-29s, proved ineffective against Coalition aircraft.

This is epitomized in one instance in “an early engagement in which a MiG-29 pilot shot down his wingman and then flew his own aircraft into the ground some 30 seconds later”.

Furthermore, despite having the 6th largest air force in the world at the time, less than half of Iraq’s aircraft were third or fourth generation aircraft, leaving the Iraqi Air Force both incompetent and technologically outpaced in comparison to Coalition forces.

The situation on the ground was much the same for the Iraqi Army. Top of the line Soviet armor, then and to this day, out range their NATO peers due to the utilization of Anti Tank Missiles fired from the gun barrel, like the 9M119 Svir.

The Soviet Union was also one of the first pioneers of Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA), and used it extensively.

American military personnel during Operation Desert Storm. Photo Credit: Walter/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

American military personnel during Operation Desert Storm. Photo Credit: Walter/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

An often copy and pasted, but thus far elusive, article purportedly in “Jane’s International Defense Review” by Richard M. Ogorkiewicz and entitled “Impenetrable Russian Tank Armour Stands Up to Examinination”, claims that tests conducted on Soviet T-72s outfitted with Kontakt 5 ERA were able to defeat anti-tank munitions available to NATO in the 1980s when Kontakt 5 would be top of the line ERA.

I cannot find the original article, if it exists, and the results may be dubious even if it does. In any case, top of the line Soviet armor would have been highly impressive in combat against NATO units in both firepower and protection.

The Iraqi Army however, did not have top of the line Soviet armor. Much like the Iraqi Air Force, the Iraqi Army’s armor was a mishmash of old and new, and with terrible training. An infamous report of an engagement between a single American M1A1 and three Iraqi “Asad Babil” T-72s recounts the Iraqi tanks ambushing the Abrams.

The first two fired high explosive rounds, ill suited for fighting armor, and the final engaging with a sabot round.

All three were destroyed, including the last tank being killed through a sand dune. Iraqi’s tank force, in addition to being unaware of what types of rounds to use against modern main battle tanks, was partially composed of somewhere in the range of 3,000 T-54s and its derivatives, as well as 1,500 T-62s.

The Iraqis also had around 1,000 T-72Ms imported from Poland. T-72Ms were a variant of the Soviet main battle tank designed for export, and to be inferior to their Soviet counterparts.

Media coverage of Operation Desert Storm was near around the clock and totally changed the way people looked at war. Photo Credit: Daniel Oines/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Media coverage of Operation Desert Storm was near around the clock and totally changed the way people looked at war. Photo Credit: Daniel Oines/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Dubbed by Viktor Suvorov as “monkey models” in his 1982 book “Inside the Soviet Army”, the Soviet Union exported these simpler tanks to its allies, and would be mass produced for usage by the Soviet Union itself should a large scale war break out and last for more than a few weeks.

As a result of these simplifications, monkey models: do not have stabilized guns, cannot fire anti-tank missiles, lack composite armor, lack NBC protection systems, have inferior radio and optical equipment, and exclusively manual turret traversal, among other simplifications.

There is also some merit to the claim that domestically produced “Saddam” and “Asad Babil” T-72s were further downgrades of the T-72M, though this claim is contested.

As a result of all of these factors, we can conclude that the Iraqi Military was ill equipped and ill trained to engage Coalition forces who consistently outgunned and outclassed them.

But this is not representative of the quality of competent usage of technologically relevant Soviet equipment.

Why then does the myth of Western invincibility exist?

In particular the American M1A2 Abrams is susceptible to this myth. The hulking tank, weighing 70 tons, can only be airlifted one at a time by a handful of aircraft in the US arsenal, which makes rapid reaction near impossible.

This is all worth it though, because its impervious to incompetent Iraqi tank crews and insurgents with RPG-7s, thanks to depleted uranium armor, right?

The only variant of the M1 Abrams used by the Saudi Army is the M1A2, seen here cooked off by a Houthi ATGM:

The ATGM in question is likely a variant of the 9M133 Konkurs, based on the infrared bulb on the back of the warhead. Granted, it appears that this Saudi Abrams was not utilizing any kind of appliqué armor, but an $8 million vehicle was destroyed by a Soviet era ATGM all the same.

Perhaps then, Western policy makers should not give in to the attractive vision of an easy war? Perhaps planners should not presume full spectrum dominance when charting out plans for the defense of the Baltic states, Taiwan, or Seoul?

Perhaps being humble in our capabilities, and meticulously planning alongside friends, the hopefully infrequent and necessary wars we fight is a better use of our blood and treasure than chasing “easy wars”?

RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in public affairs. Anyone can write for us as long as you are fiercely interested in making the world a better place. 

Cover Photo Credit: Bryan Dourrough/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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About the Author
"John Massey has a B.A. in political science and history from the University of Alabama. His primary interest is in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but he also finds time to study French and political theory. "

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