How US special-operations forces helped the US military win its first post-Cold War victory
An Iraqi T-55 main battle tank burns after an attack by the British 1st Armored Division during Operation Desert Storm in February 1991. CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images
When the threat from the Soviet Union diminished in the early 1990s, a new challenge arose for the United States in the Middle East.
The first Gulf War was a textbook of conventional warfare, but there were a number of special operations that contributed to victory.
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Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the US military shifted its focus from Russia to the Middle East.
In August 1990, Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait, sparking an international crisis that would end six months later with the defeat of Iraq by a US-led coalition.
Though considered the textbook of conventional warfare, Operation Desert Storm has been fraught with special operations.
Let's get into the fight!
Delta Force personnel in plain clothes guarding General Norman Schwarzkopf during the First Gulf War in 1991. Staff Sgt.Dean W. Wagner
The first and greatest hurdle for US special forces was to go into battle.
Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, the four-star commander of the US Central Command and military leader of the war, viewed unconventional war units with skepticism.
Initially, Schwarzkopf was adamant about special forces, which played a significant role in the conflict - although he accepted some Delta Force operators as personal bodyguards.
Conversely, his deputy, British general Sir Peter de la Billière, immediately called the Special Air Service (SAS) in which he had served and commanded and the Special Boat Service (SBS). The SAS and SBS, the British equivalents of Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, offered unconventional war options to the war effort.
In the meantime, after some conviction by the White House and the joint chiefs of staff, Schwarzkopf relaxed his policy without command.
Here is a brief breakdown of the notable surgeries they performed.
US Army special forces
Members of the U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 525. Courtesy photo
The Army Special Forces operators set up observation posts on the Saudi-Kuwaiti border to monitor Iraqi movements. Special Forces teams also conducted prisoner abduction operations to provide the coalition with more human intelligence, perhaps the most valuable form of information.
One team, Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 525, was compromised when Iraqi boys discovered its members conducting a special reconnaissance operation 150 miles in Iraq.
Alpha 525 decided not to kill the cubs and instead tried to flee and evade. In the hours that followed, the Iraqi army overwhelmed them almost several times. The Green Berets were only able to escape because of their disciplined marksmanship and close range support.
Special Forces teams also conducted Foreign Internal Defense (FID) by training allies and partner forces. While not as shiny as raids and ambushes, FID was the key to victory as it brought coalition units up to date and was the glue that held the multinational forces together.
Green berets, embedded in coalition units, also served as links, mainly between coalition units and U.S. aircraft, and were known as air support.
British Special Air Service and Special Boat Service
British infantry during Operation Desert Storm. British Army / Crown Copyright
British special forces played an important role in the military build-up during Operation Desert Shield and during the combat in Operation Desert Storm.
In addition to their US counterparts, SAS and SBS operators searched for SCUD missiles in the Iraqi desert and carried out special reconnaissance work along the Saudi-Iraqi border and in Iraq.
SBS operators also carried out a publicly known attack on the British embassy in Kuwait City that the Iraqis had captured.
They also took part in a lesser-known operation on the outskirts of Baghdad in which almost a full squadron of SBS operators, accompanied by some American commandos from a Tier 1 signal reconnaissance unit, tracked the Iraqi army's underground fiber optic communications network. Saddam had used the network to communicate with his SCUD mobile launchers in the desert.
The joint commando was retracted by two special operations Chinook helicopters and spent nearly two hours on the ground digging for the cables. Towards morning the operators succeeded in locating the cables and explosives them, destroying them and thwarting Saddam's communication with his most dangerous weapons.
US Navy SEALs
Members of Navy SEAL Team 8 and French Commandos hang from a special patrol induction / evacuation cord attached to a CH-46D helicopter as part of an exercise during Operation Desert Storm in February 1991.
Navy SEALs conducted special reconnaissance operations along the Iraqi and Kuwaiti coasts to gather intelligence on Iraqi movements.
In the first hours of the ground war, SEALs carried out diversionary attacks on the coast to mislead the Iraqis that a large-scale amphibious operation was imminent. The diversion - aided by the presence of U.S. battleships - worked and enabled coalition ground forces to come out of the desert in the opposite direction and overwhelm the Iraqis.
SEALs conducted Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations in the Persian Gulf and frequently attacked suspicious ships. A SEAL element from SEAL Team 2 went ashore to destroy a Tomahawk missile that did not detonate to prevent Iraqis from getting the technology.
A SEAL train was also one of the first US units to invade Kuwait City during its liberation.
US Army Rangers
A battalion of rangers was sent to Saudi Arabia as a rapid reaction force for the Tier 1 units.
The Rangers should also assist Delta Force when it conducted a hostage rescue operation in Iraq or Kuwait to rescue one of the hundreds of Westerners Saddam had captured during the invasion and held as human shields.
The Rangers also raided a telecommunications tower near the Jordan-Iraqi border, destroyed it and arrested several prisoners.
US Air Force Commandos
A pararescueman meets a Navy F-14 pilot during the first successful search and rescue operation of the Gulf War on Jan. 21, 1991. Air Force Special Operations Command
Air commandos usually don't get as much publicity as their siblings, because mostly pararescuemen, combat controllers, special operations weather technicians (now special reconnaissance operators), and Tactical Air Control Party aviators are part of other special operations units than individuals.
During Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Air Commandos mainly saw action taken with Delta operators in the hunt for the SCUD missiles. But they also did some traditional Air Commando chores.
A pararescue unit carried out the war's first rescue operation on January 21, 1991 after a Navy F-14 cat was shot down in Iraq. An MH-53J Pave Low special operation helicopter carried the team behind enemy lines to rescue the pilot, even though the F-14's radar officer was captured.
But not all missions went well. During the Battle of Khafji, in a Saudi city near the Kuwait border, an AC-130H Specter gunship was shot down by a portable Iraqi surface-to-air missile, killing its 14 crew - the greatest loss of life in a single one Incident in the history of the Air Force Special Operations Command.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a special operations defense journalist, a veteran of the Greek Army (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army Headquarters) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.
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Norman Schwarzkopf Jr.
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