How the Gulf War combat debut of ‘stealth’ and ‘GPS’ transformed war

File photo, Marines of the 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division head in the direction of Kuwait City, in M60A1 main battle tanks during the third day of the ground offensive of Operation Desert Storm, an operation in the liberation of Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion. 26 February 1991. (Photo: © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

When the GPS-enabled sensors to localize enemy targets, aircraft monitored enemy troop movements and stealth bombers elude radar tracking of air defenses in the first days of Operation Desert Storm decades ago — in January 1991 – very few of those involved were likely to be seen how these attacks heralded a new era in modern warfare.

When veterans, historians and analysts commemorated the 28th anniversary of the first gulf war in February of this year, many of them probably now regard the military effort, a significant turning point in the trajectory, or the evolution of modern warfare.

Many analysts and strategists of the Pentagon are quick to point out that the U.S. margins of military technological military superiority is much less than it was in the time of the gulf war; potential opponents have since gone to school on US weapons and succeeded in narrowing the gap.

What the World Learned

Operation Desert Storm involved in the combat debut of the stealth technology, GPS for navigation, missile warning systems, more advanced surveillance aircraft, radar, and large quantities of precision-targeted laser-guided bombs, (now retired) Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson, (former) Director of Requirements for the Deputy chief of staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, told the Warrior in a special interview from a few years ago.

Johnson retired from the Air Force in 2016, after finishing a long and distinguished Air Force career included flying high-risk-10 missions during the Gulf War. Johnson spoke with Warrior prior to his retirement to offer a rare, experienced perspective on the emergence of new technologies during the Gulf War.


“We saw the first glimpse in a Desert Storm of what would become the transformation of the air force,” he said, speaking to Warrior in the Pentagon for a number of years ago.

The five-and six-week air war, designed to the way for what is ultimately a 100-hour ground invasion began with cruise missiles and air force and the Army helicopters to launch a high-risk mission behind enemy lines to knock out Iraqi early warning radar sites. Two Air Force MH-53 Pave Low helicopters led AH-64 Apache Attack helicopter in the Iraqi territory, Johnson explained.

The idea of the mission was to completely destroy the early warning radar to open up an air corridor for aircraft to fly through safely and attack on Iraqi targets. The mission was successful.

“This was the beginning of the GPS – the ability to accurately navigate and anywhere without any other navigation systems. The Jobs of Lows and had the Apaches not – so the Pave Low was there to navigate the Apache’s deep into Iraq to find out the early warning radar sites,” he recalled. “Now, everybody has it on their iPhone, but on that day and time was truly revolutionary.”


Johnson explained the priority targets during the air war consisted of Iraqi artillery designed to knock out a potential opportunity for Iraq to launch chemical weapons. Other priority goals, of course, included in the Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries, troop formations, armored vehicles and command and control locations.

The air attack involved F-117 Night Hawk stealth bombers, B-52s, F-15 Eagles, and low-flying A-10 Warthog aircraft, among other assets.

Desert Storm Heroism

At one point during the air war, Johnson’s A-10 Warthog plane was hit by an Iraqi shoulder-fired rockets while attempting to attack the enemy surface-to-air missile sites on Iraqi territory.

“I found myself below the weather trying to pull off an attack that failed. I was hit in the right wing. I screamed, and then finally keyed the mic and decided to tell everyone that I was hit. I received safely the plane back. They fixed the plane in about 30 days. The enemy fire hit the right wing of the plane and the wing was pretty confused, but I had enough control authority to keep the wings level,” Johnson said.


On the way back from the mission, while flying a severely damaged aircraft, Johnson received in-flight refueling of a KC-10 aircraft at about 25,000 feet. Johnson received the Air Force Cross for his heroism at another occasion during the war, where he helped with the rescue of a downed F-14 fighter jet.

The Control of the introduction of New Technology

Although there is not much air-to-air combat during Desert Storm, the Iraqis did try to field a couple of Mig-29 fighter jets. However, to be noted by the U. S. Air Force F-15E radar – they took off, Johnson said.

The advent of much larger air-fired precision weapons, aided by overhead surveillance and GPS for navigation is largely referred to as the 2nd Offset – a moment in the evolution of the war were characterized by a significant technological leaps forward. Johnson explained that the 2nd Offset fully came to fruition in the late ‘ 90 during Operation Allied Force in Kosovo.

GPS-guided bombs, called Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, did not yet exist at the time of the first Gulf War, but the GPS technology for navigation can greatly enhance the ability of pilots and ground crews to know exactly where they are in relation to the surrounding area and enemy force movements.

This is particularly valuable in Iraq as a result of the site, Johnson explained. There was no terrain or mountainous areas as places from which to navigate. The landscape was completely desert, with no roads, no terrain and no rivers.


In addition, the mass use of laser-guided weapons allowed air assets to designate Iraqi targets of a laser spot, thereby increasing accuracy and mission efficiency, and reduce unnecessary damage.

“Laser weapons had been around since Vietnam, but we used laser-guided bombs in the numbers that we have never done this before,” he explained.

A number of the weapons that are included Maverick missiles, the 2,000-pound Mk 84 penetrator and a 500-pound Mk 82, together with cluster weapons. The Maverick missile is an anti-armor precision weapon that uses electro-optical precision weapons to destroy targets.

“The Maverick has a camera on the front of the missile that will lock on and guide themselves to the target audience. It is an old technology, but very accurate,” Johnson added.

Also, airborne surveillance, in the form of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, provided that the attacking troops with an unprecedented view from the air, Johnson said. The aircraft, Ground Moving Target Indicator and Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR, for providing a “rendering” or painted image of the activity under the ground.


“This gives us the ability to monitor the battlefield of the day or night, regardless of the weather, and detect movement of enemy ground formations. The Iraqi forces tried to make a move on the town of Khafji. It was a large-scale movement by the Iraqi Army in the middle of the night because they thought we could not see them. We saw them,” Johnson explained.

By this surveillance technology, the commander of the air war moved an entire theater’s worth of air power to attack the Iraqi formation.

“In Desert Storm, you had the ability to dynamically see what was going on in the battlespace and conducting command and control in real time and to divert assets in real-time. You had the ability to navigate incredibly precise and the ability to use precision weapons – a weapon kills a target at a time,” he added.

Desert Storm also involved in the combat debut of outdoor line-of-sight satellite communications that, among other things, equipped with missile warning systems, Johnson said.

“We did not shoot at each Scud that was because we know where it goes,” Johnson recalled.


Johnson explained that the Gulf War changed the paradigm for the strategic use of air power by a plane exactly hit multiple targets instead of the use of the un-guided bombs blanket an area.

“We started with a change in the analysis. Since the beginning of the air force, the calculus has always been, ‘how many aircraft it takes to destroy a target?’ A-10s can take a series of bombs through the target area and hopefully one of the bombs hits the target. By the end of the 90s, the calculus of how many targets can one plane destroy?’ Johnson said.

Desert Storm Ground War

The 100-hour ground war was both effective and successful due to the air war and the use of tactical deception. US amphibious troops had been practicing maneuvers to show shore attacks along the Kuwaiti coastline as a way to the Iraqis the impression that that is how they would attack.

“The Iraqis saw this amphibious maneuvers, because that is what we wanted to see,” Johnson explained.

However, with the help of a famous “left hook” maneuver, AMERICAN coalition actually attacked much further inland and were able to quickly with a couple of victims by thinning Iraqi defense.


However, there were a number of well-known tank battles in the open desert during the ground attack. The AMERICAN Army, tanks destroyed large numbers or Iraqi tanks and fighting positions – in part because of the advanced thermal infrared imagers in the U.S. Army, M1 Abrams battle tanks to enable crews to detect the signature of the Iraqi tanks without ambient light.

Although this gave the AMERICAN forces an advantage – and the AMERICAN Army was overwhelming victory in the Desert Storm tank battles there were a number of difficult tasks, such as the Battle of the Medina Ridge between the Military of the 1st Armored Division and the Iraqi Republican Guard forces.

Effects-Warfare, Changing Air Attacks

The use of such precision from the air debut of what is commonly referred to as “securities on the basis of war,” a strategic air attack technique focusing on the attack of specific targets from the air without destroying the infrastructure of the attack area.

As a result, targets included command and control centers, to move ground forces or armored forces, pipes, and other strategic and tactical goals. Effects-warfare experts describe this as a “strategic stakes” approach with the command and control of the middle of the inner circle and other enemy assets in the so-called outer rings.

An idea, among others, was to use precision weapons from the air to cut off the communication and supply lines between the command and control centers and external forces in movement-in order to paralyze and destroy mobile enemy forces.


“There was once a time that we thought we had to be in the layers behind each other where we had to start with the layers and peel it back to get into the inner layers. Desert Storm indicated that this is not the case. The first ordnance hitting the ground in the inner layer,” Johnson explained.

This story was originally published on the Warrior Maven in 2016.

More Weapons and Technology –WARRIOR MAVEN (CLICK HERE)

Follow us

Don't be shy, get in touch. We love meeting interesting people and making new friends.

Most popular