*Author’s note- When I started this blog in 2012 my first two entries were the Gamble in the Desert series. The series was pushed off to the side and forgotten as other topics came to the forefront. So, in the spirit of finishing series that have been left incomplete I am continuing Gamble in the Desert. For reference I will post links to the first two entries at the end of this one*
The invasion of Kuwait presented the United States with the immediate need for a sizeable force to be deployed to the Arabian Peninsula immediately. When Operation Desert Shield commenced there was no up to date template, scenario or OPLAN for unit commanders and their staffs to draw from. Plans for the deployment and employment of initial units were put together or improvised on the fly, in many cases while those very units were in the air and on their way to Saudi Arabia. With this in mind, it needs to be noted that the opening phase of Desert Shield was not a ‘no plan’ contingency. The beginnings of the ‘big picture’ plan were available, as well as several older contingency plans. This helped, however, it was far less than planners were accustomed to working with in an exercise, let alone a real world crisis.
This situation was not limited solely to the first Army and USAF units to deploy. All of the services were facing the same predicament. The end result was a series of unique problems which required unique, improvised solutions in the shortest amount of time possible. It was not orderly or by the book, however, the job was getting done.
The US Air Force was essentially caught between two chairs as August progressed. Along with its primary role of deploying combat aircraft to the region, the Air Force was also responsible for providing the airlift capability to move the first wave of airborne and airmobile Army troops and their equipment to Saudi Arabia. By C+11 (August 18, 1990) 95 percent of the operable C-5 Galaxies, and 90 percent of the operable C-141 Starlifters were flying the air bridge between CONUS and Saudi Arabia. This effort was augmented by civilian airliners that were part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. On C+10 stage one of the CRAF program was initiated.
In mid-August, after a large portion of the 82nd Airborne Division had arrived, the focus of airlift priorities was shifted. C3I (Command, Control Communications & Intelligence) systems and other types of assets were needed to support the fighter and bomber force gathering in the Middle East. At this point, airpower was providing the bulk of the combat power in Saudi Arabia and needed to be supported properly. While this was happening, the flow of combat aircraft into the theater dropped off to a more moderate pace from C+11 until C+16 but would pick up again later in the month.
For CENTCOM, its needs evolved as time went on. In August of 1990 tits deployment plans maximized the flow of combat units. The first ground units to move were the 82nd Airborne and the air-transportable Marine Expeditionary Brigades which linked up with prepositioned equipment in Saudi Arabia. Next on the list were the 101st Airborne Division and 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized). The 24th was a heavy maneuver unit that carried a lot of tanks and armored fighting vehicles. The bulk of its equipment needed to be transported by sea. The 101st, though an airborne division in name, was in reality an air mobile division. It’s primary method of troop transportation was the helicopter. The majority of the division’s helicopters would be moved by sea as well.
The embarkation ports for the 24th Mech and 101st were Savannah and Jacksonville respectively. Two fast sealift ships, the USNS Altair and USNS Capella had arrived at Savannah on C+5 and began loading equipment immediately. Capella was loaded within forty-eight hours and departed on C+7 bound for Saudi Arabia. The first ship carrying the 101st Airborne’s equipment left Jacksonville on C+12. During the five-day period in between and thereafter these dates, transport ships converged on southeastern US port cities to take on equipment. Shipping was not as readily available as aircraft though. The ready reserve ships expected to be available by C+11 were delayed by a week and there were mechanical problems with other vessels. It was a two-week journey by sea from the US to Saudi Arabia and in the case of some ships the amount of time was lengthened by these issues.
On C+15 President George H.W. Bush authorized the first call up of Reserve Component personnel for active duty. This first activation of reservist was mostly for support units to aid in logistical operations underway in the US and Saudi Arabia. 48,000 reservists made up the initial activation but that number would increase steadily as time went on.
A flurry of diplomatic activity was going on during this time period too. The United States was rapidly building a diverse coalition of nations opposed to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Pledges of military assistance were coming from traditional allies such as Great Britain and France, as well as from Arab nations like Egypt and even Syria. The danger of Saddam Hussein gaining control of Saudi Arabia was apparent to nearly every nation in the world and those that could provide assistance in one form or another did just that. The United Nations was not idle or playing a secondary role either. On C+18 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 665 authorizing a naval blockade to enforce the embargo against Iraq. The world was uniting against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, with the exception of a handful of nations. The invasion of Kuwait, the detention of foreigners, and the prospect of Iraq controlling a large portion of the world’s oil had galvanized the world community to action. Decisively, the tide was turning against Iraq on the diplomatic front.
But if the Iraqi army came south into Saudi Arabia, diplomacy and UN resolutions could not stop them. All that stood between Iraq and regional hegemony was the buildup of US military power in the Saudi desert and if had hostilities kicked off between 18 and 25 August the end result would still have been very much in doubt.