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6 Things to Know About Operation Desert Storm

U.S. Army Gen. Norman H. Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. Central Command, speaks to U.S. soldiers inside a hangar while visiting a base camp during Operation Desert Shield, April 1, 1992.(Defense Department)
U.S. Army Gen. Norman H. Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. Central Command, speaks to U.S. soldiers inside a hangar while visiting a base camp during Operation Desert Shield, April 1, 1992.(Defense Department)

Nowadays when people think of Iraq, they think of the war that began in 2003, ISIS and the long fight against terrorism. But the U.S. military's first major conflict with the country came more than a decade before that -- more than 25 years ago, in fact.

Operation Desert Storm began Jan. 17, 1991, after Iraqi forces who had invaded neighboring Kuwait refused to withdraw. The conflict is now commonly known as the Gulf War.

Here are six important facts you should know about it.

F-16A, F-15C and F-15E aircraft fly over Kuwaiti oil fires set by the retreating Iraqi army during Desert Storm. (U.S. Air Force/Fernando Serna)
F-16A, F-15C and F-15E aircraft fly over Kuwaiti oil fires set by the retreating Iraqi army during Desert Storm. (U.S. Air Force

The War Was Pretty Short

From start to finish, Desert Storm only lasted 43 days, from Jan. 17 to Feb. 28, 1991. In fact, the land campaign is infamously known as the "100-hour ground war" for obvious reasons -- that's about as long as it lasted.

Why It Happened

After the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Iraq was in debt to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, who had financed its war efforts. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein insisted both countries cancel that debt because he felt they owed him for protecting them against Iran. Both countries refused, however, so Hussein threatened Kuwait, its oil-rich, militarily-weak neighbor, reigniting a decades-old border dispute over Kuwait itself.

In July 1990, Saddam claimed that Kuwait and the UAE were over producing crude oil, driving down prices and depriving Iraq of critical oil revenues. He accused Kuwait of stealing from an oil field on the Iraq-Kuwait border, and he accused the U.S. and Israel of encouraging Kuwait to lower its oil prices.

Relations deteriorated with all parties, which led to Hussein invading and annexing Kuwait in August 1990.The United Nations Security Council placed an embargo and sanctions on Iraq, but months later, when Hussein refused to comply with a resolution requiring him to withdraw, Desert Storm began.

Bahraini Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Shaikh Khalifa Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa presents U.S. Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf with a sword in recognition of his role in the allied success during Operation Desert Storm, March 26, 1991. (U.S. Army/Dean Wagner)
Bahraini Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Shaikh Khalifa Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa presents U.S. Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf with a sword

The "Coalition of the Willing" Was an Extraordinary Partnership

Before the invasion, 40 countries quickly entered into a nonbinding alliance against Iraq. The "Coalition of the Willing" included NATO allies, several Arab nations and -- most importantly -- several former Cold War adversaries, including the Soviet Union. The Cold War had thawed the year before the invasion, which helped ease U.S. and United Kingdom security concerns and ensured near global unity in opposition to Iraqi aggression.

Also, for the first time, a U.S. Central Command commander, Army Gen. "Stormin" Norman Schwarzkopf, teamed up with a regional ally, Saudi Arabia's Prince Khaled bin Sultan, to co-command the allied forces. Saudi Arabia was where U.S. land forces gathered during the build-up to Desert Storm, so the collaboration was an important dynamic and integral to the operation's overall success.

U.S. Air Force aircrew members gather for a photo at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, before the mission that fired the opening shots of Desert Storm. (Defense Department)
U.S. Air Force aircrew members gather for a photo at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, before the mission that fired the open

Classified 'Secret Squirrel' Mission Makes History

Desert Storm started as an air campaign with Operation Senior Surprise, which became known as "Secret Squirrel." Seven B-52G Stratofortresses left Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, and flew 14,000 round-trip miles to, for the first time, launch 35 conventional air-launched cruise missiles at strategic Iraqi targets. It was the longest aircraft combat sortie of its time.

Air Force Senior Master Sgt. James Miles examines the tail section of a Scud missile shot down by a MIM-104C Patriot missile during Operation Desert Storm. (U.S. Air Force)
Air Force Senior Master Sgt. James Miles examines the tail section of a Scud missile shot down by a MIM-104C Patriot missile dur

Iraq's Scud Missiles Were Meant to Split the Coalition

Hussein realized he couldn't defeat the military forces and international political will represented by the coalition, so his only option was to try to divide it. In retaliation for Secret Squirrel, Iraq launched Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Hussein's hope was that Israel would retaliate, as it historically had, with military force -- a move that would have transformed the fight into yet another Arab-Israeli conflict. But Israel resisted as the U.S. promised to help protect it.

The MIM-104C Patriot missile detects, targets and detonates near incoming ballistic missiles to disable or destroy them. It had been under development since the 1960s, but its first successful use in combat was during Desert Storm.

The first Patriot missile intercepted a Scud launched over Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on Day 1 of the conflict. Two days later, President George H.W. Bush sent two Patriot air defense missile batteries to Israel, marking the first time U.S. Army crews had ever been sent to help with that country's defense (and, as stated above, helping to keep the coalition together).

The Patriot missile system intercepted many Scuds over the course of Desert Storm, making major contributions to the success of the operation. It's still a key defense platform for U.S. forces today.

The MIM-104C Patriot missile “Scud buster” in use during Desert Storm. (U.S. Army)

The War's Enduring Impact

While Desert Storm has largely been overshadowed by the more recent Iraq War and the current crisis with ISIS, the impact and relevance remain. About 697,000 U.S. troops took part in the war; 299 lost their lives.

The U.S. is still in good standing with many of the countries involved in the Coalition of the Willing today, and we can only hope those relationships -- however fragile -- continue to flourish into the future.

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Gulf War Military History