The Tyranny of Distance

25 years after Desert Storm, America still hasn’t learned why it’s so difficult to win wars overseas.

During the first Gult War, named Operation Desert Storm, American soldiers wave to the camera from a truck as their convoy moves into Iraq, February 24, 1991. (Photo by Ken Jarecke/Department Of Defense (DOD)/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
During the first Gult War, named Operation Desert Storm, American soldiers wave to the camera from a truck as their convoy moves into Iraq, February 24, 1991. (Photo by Ken Jarecke/Department Of Defense (DOD)/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Twenty-five years ago, on Jan. 17, 1991, air and naval forces from a U.N.-authorized, U.S.-led coalition of nations disgorged a barrage of air and cruise-missile strikes against targets in Iraq and Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. The volley marked a phase change from Operation Desert Shield, the prewar buildup of American, European, and Arab military might in the Persian Gulf, to Operation Desert Storm, when coalition forces opened the fighting to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.

The Desert Storm air war gave way to a 100-hour ground war, ejecting the Iraqi Army from the beleaguered country of Kuwait. Ticker-tape parades ensued back home. New York City feted U.S. Navy returnees from the Gulf, including yours truly, during Fleet Week that June. (For this Southerner, Fleet Week debunked many preconceptions about surly Manhattanites and their “New York values”: From the Staten Island Ferry to the Met to the subway, city residents couldn’t have been more gracious.) Yet Desert Storm wasn’t the complete victory that we celebrated. Coalition arms freed Kuwait, yet didn’t fully safeguard its security. For example, Navy and Marine forces had to return to the Gulf in 1994 when Iraq menaced it anew. Nor did Baghdad comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Iraq surrender its biological or chemical arms or the makings of nuclear weapons. By 1998, in fact, President Bill Clinton was forced to order a new air campaign, Operation Desert Fox, in an effort to destroy what Saddam refused to dismantle.

The vanquished can always say no to a postwar settlement. Or, like Saddam, they can yield at first and then try to undo the battlefield result later through diplomacy, renewed fighting, or sheer chicanery.

Even smashing battlefield triumphs, then, can be perishable. Think about it. Defeat the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong surrogates repeatedly, and lose anyway. Collapse the Taliban regime, and find the outcome still in doubt 14-plus years later. Oust Saddam Hussein in 2003, and become embroiled in Iraq anew in 2014, when a new terrorist army arises. It ain’t over ’til it’s over in warfare.

Because of the Iraqi tyrant’s intransigence, the coalition had to compel him to abide by the U.N. Security Council cease-fire terms. U.N. weapons inspectors combed through suspected weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities, or tried to. Warships and officials enforced economic sanctions, bringing severe pressure on Iraqi exports and imports. Aviators patrolled no-fly and no-drive zones over northern and southern Iraq, preventing Saddam from assaulting rebellious populations from the air. One indicator of how burdensome the no-fly zones were: The U.S. Navy and Air Force aged their fleets of fighter and attack aircraft prematurely by flying them day in and day out — and are now finding it hard and expensive to keep increasingly maintenance-intensive airframes in the air.

Despite the military, economic, and diplomatic pressure, however, Baghdad never accepted the verdict of arms from 1991. As military theorists teach, the outcome of martial strife is never final until the defeated say it is — no matter how big the victor wins. Desert Storm and its aftermath reaffirmed that timeless truth.

Another timeless truth borne out by the Gulf War: No matter how powerful an armed force appears on paper, it is really, really hard to project power over intercontinental distances. Look at your map. It’s about 8,500 miles steaming distance from the main U.S. Atlantic Fleet base at Norfolk, Virginia, to the Persian Gulf. It’s even farther from Pacific Fleet bases at Pearl Harbor or along the West Coast. That’s a haul when you have to carry 100 percent of your weaponry and equipment to the fight.

Sure, the U.S. military maintained a token presence in the Gulf before the invasion of Kuwait. Around seven low-end combatant ships plied Gulf waters at the direction of the commander of U.S. Middle East Force. A bare-bones “Administrative Support Unit” on Bahrain furnished logistical support to the token U.S. flotilla — but was utterly inadequate when the avalanche of forces started crashing on the Middle East from the United States and its coalition partners. Consider: I remember walking on deck during Desert Storm and seeing four aircraft carriers, the battleship Missouri, and countless cruisers, destroyers, amphibious ships, and support ships. This was a massive fleet, and supporting it was a daunting task. Logistics is the great untold story of Desert Storm — much as getting “beans, bullets, and black oil” to the fleet was at once crucial and mostly invisible during the Pacific war against Japan.

Geography attenuates — perhaps even nullifies — a stronger power’s advantages over a weaker regional foe fighting on its own ground. The problem of projecting power resembles a phenomenon from physics. The inverse-square law declares that when something is radiated — light or other electromagnetic radiation, for instance — its intensity dwindles not gradually but by the square of the distance from the radiation source. In other words, its intensity plunges. Double the distance from the source and the radiation is one-quarter as strong; triple it and the radiation drops to one-ninth as strong. And so forth.

Now think about projecting lumbering forces across thousands of miles of congested, potentially contested waters and skies. An unwritten law of military affairs akin to the inverse-square law governs enterprises like Desert Shield and Desert Storm — as indeed it does in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and as it will in future wars in East or South Asia. Just as broadcasters have to boost a radio signal for it to travel long distances, it takes mastery of diplomacy and logistics as well as combat tactics to boost the amount of military force on foreign battlegrounds.

Coalition-building helps expeditionary forces surmount the tyranny of distance. During Desert Shield, NATO allies contributed ground, air, and naval forces while helping move manpower and materiel to the Persian Gulf. Arab allies contributed forces as well. Some — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, to name three — granted access to port and base facilities, easing the logistical burden immensely. Allied help turned up the “gain” on coalition power projection, letting the coalition concentrate superior power where it mattered, when it mattered.

Likewise, today U.S. aviators depend on access to land airfields adjoining Iraq and Syria to wage their air campaign against the Islamic State. Take away that access and U.S. Navy aircraft carriers — floating airfields — will be compelled to prosecute the airstrikes all by themselves. This at a time when the up-tempo operations since the 9/11 attacks have worn out hulls and equipment and have forced the Navy to “gap” its carrier presence in the Gulf. Now as in 1990 and 1991, bases on dry land remain crucial to military operations.

There’s also a soft-power dimension to power projection. Some of the daily activities that drove us youngsters nuts — social gatherings like receptions, ship tours for congressmen and foreign dignitaries, or sporting events — were part of the stagecraft that goes into constructing and maintaining alliances. They had little to do with battle readiness, but they helped create an era of good feelings among coalition partners. In turn, that supplied lubricant for collective decision-making. The social dimension helped ensure access to logistics hubs and bases close to embattled Kuwait and southern Iraq.

It’s worth noting, moreover, that Desert Shield and Desert Storm took place at an unusually propitious time for alliance diplomacy. This was a regional conflict that unfolded during the endgame of a protracted global struggle, the Cold War. Desperate to salvage the Soviet Union’s viability and legitimacy as a country, Mikhail Gorbachev proved pliant in a way no previous Soviet leader would have. That moment of East-West amity let President George H.W. Bush depict the Gulf imbroglio as a test case for a new world order — or, more accurately, for a revivified version of the old world order inaugurated at the United Nations’ founding in San Francisco in 1945. Fortune happens. It’s doubtful Washington could count on such fortuitous circumstances in the future, with an increasingly combative Russia and China wielding Security Council vetoes.

But Desert Shield and Desert Storm hinted at some of the difficulties besetting the United States in the “anti-access/area-denial” world we live in today. Even outmatched local defenders like Saddam’s Iraq boast advantages. They know the surroundings better than any outsider. They can bring the full weight of their armed might to bear whereas an external foe can typically send only a detachment.

For instance, Iranian speedboats’ harrying U.S. shipping near the Strait of Hormuz is nothing new. It was commonplace during the Gulf War. More menacingly, Iraqi forces dumped sea mines into the Gulf by the hundreds — capitalizing on the U.S. Navy’s perennial weakness in mine-hunting. Consequently, the ability of the amphibious task force stationed off the Kuwaiti coast to threaten — and perhaps execute — an amphibious landing had to wait on minesweepers to clear safe lanes close with the shoreline. And even then, the amphibious warship Tripoli and Aegis cruiser Princeton struck mines and found themselves put out of action.

If a second-rate power like Iraq could make trouble for a coalition of the world’s foremost powers, imagine what near-peer competitors like China or Russia can do elsewhere around the Eurasian periphery. And the logic of anti-access applies to land warfare as well. As political scientist Barry Posen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pointed out back in 2003, even backward adversaries armed with homemade weaponry can impose steep costs on high-tech opponents. Anti-access is serious business.

To continue with the purely military dimensions of the conflict, I found that military science is an arcane science — even for lawmakers who exercise oversight over martial affairs. One day my ship, the USS Wisconsin, hosted a congressional delegation. I was assigned to give a veteran U.S. senator a tour of our aft 16-inch gun turret — a six-story cylinder embedded in the ship’s structure that weighed as much as a frigate and housed three guns that could sling projectiles weighing as much as a Volkswagen over 20 miles.

I showed the senator, who was clearly a bright guy, the machinery spaces within. He appeared duly impressed — only to say it was a shame the turret couldn’t turn off centerline! Wow. That’s what gun mounts do. They rotate to shoot off axis, away from the direction the ship is cruising. Indeed, fire control would verge on impossible if crews had to point the ship’s bow or stern directly at targets. Lesson: Military folk must learn to explain what they do to laymen in clear, intelligible language — lest lawmakers make ill-informed decisions about martial endeavors or the electorate fails to grasp what its armed forces are doing.

Think about the U.S. Navy’s ongoing experiment with “distributed lethality,” a latter-day effort to repurpose the existing fleet. Navy leaders intend to arm most or all surface ships — even, potentially, tankers — with cruise missiles, high-tech guns, or even exotic weaponry like shipboard lasers or electromagnetic railguns. This will permit commanders to break up the surface fleet into small yet hard-hitting “surface action groups,” causing opponents problems around their peripheries.

The 1980s Navy brought back and upgraded World War II battleships for similar reasons. Indeed, in another back-to-the-future case, the USS New Jersey (launched in 1942) surface action group bombarded Syrian-held positions in Lebanon back in 1984. Just as Navy leaders explained how antique vessels could contribute to Cold War maritime operations, explaining the logic of distributed lethality to nonspecialists should rank high on the Navy leadership’s agenda. Refining the vocabulary for illuminating such concepts is a must.

Desert Storm also furnished a case study on the potential and shortcomings of air power. The war is embedded in American popular memory as a high-tech enterprise in which coalition warplanes and missiles pounded Iraqi forces into submission. And there’s considerable truth to that picture. Yet the air war also revealed the limits of air power. Despite the media hype, for one thing, most of the munitions dropped by coalition aircraft weren’t precision-guided. Most were “dumb” unguided bombs reminiscent of World War II.

More importantly, aerial bombardment wasn’t the deciding factor in the conflict. Think about it: Controlling territory, not blowing things up, is the goal of military strategy. Air forces can destroy from aloft. But raining bombs isn’t the same as controlling what happens on the ground below — witness the desultory campaign against the Islamic State today. Notwithstanding the claims of air-power boosters, it still takes fighting forces on the ground to prevail in combat. The soldier on the scene with a gun is the arbiter of control.

The Gulf conflict, furthermore, demonstrated that it’s possible to repurpose old kit to good effect. My ship was built during World War II to duel the Imperial Japanese Navy and pummel Japanese-held shores. Shipbuilders reactivated Wisconsin in the 1980s after three decades in mothballs. Suitably upgraded with modern electronics, sensors, and armaments, it rendered good service in America’s first post-Cold War conflict — firing 24 Tomahawk cruise missiles in the first combat use of that untried weapon. Indeed, the ship acted as Tomahawk strike commander — coordinating the efforts of all missile-firing ships deployed for Desert Storm.

That’s extracting new value out of old hardware. As the U.S. Navy tries to wring more combat power out of the inventory of ships, planes, and armaments through initiatives like distributed lethality, the lessons of past efforts along these lines are worth rediscovering.

And lastly, let’s kick the discussion back up to the strategic and political levels. In the closing stages of World War I, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau famously quipped that war was too important to be left to generals. Quite so. Statesmen must supervise strategy. George H.W. Bush’s administration could have used Clemenceau’s counsel as Desert Storm wound down. Instead, the administration delegated the cease-fire negotiations to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the supreme coalition military commander.

Schwarzkopf hurriedly concluded an agreement with Saddam’s generals at Safwan, near the Iraq-Kuwait border. In his haste, he pledged that the coalition would speedily evacuate Iraqi territory. In so doing, he lifted the pressure on Baghdad to conclude a cease-fire on the victors’ terms. And while he demanded that Saddam’s air force ground its fixed-wing fighters, Schwarzkopf agreed to let the Iraqis operate helicopters — aircraft Saddam then used to mercilessly put down rebellions against his rule.

The upshot: Making peace is not a strictly military decision. For Washington to involve itself in peacemaking does not constitute micromanagement of military affairs, however much the Republican candidates for president might say so. The armed forces’ political masters must exercise oversight over peace talks — or risk forfeiting gains from military action. That would be a shame after U.S. armed forces overcame the tyranny of distance — and vanquished some future Saddam Hussein.

Image Credit: Ken Jarecke/Department Of Defense (DOD)/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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