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Operation Desert Storm: 25 years later, AMC doing more with less

Timeline of Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm key events. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Master Sgt. Franz Chenet)

Timeline of Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm key events. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Master Sgt. Franz Chenet)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (AFNS) -- Iraqi forces attacked Kuwait Aug. 2, 1990, setting into motion a massive military response from a coalition of nations to protect Saudi Arabia from invasion with Operation Desert Shield. After Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw from Kuwait, Desert Shield gave way to Operation Desert Storm Jan. 17, 1991, and soon concluded with a ceasefire at the end of February.

Twenty-five years later, Mobility Air Forces are continuing to fuel the fight and provide airlift with most of the same airframes the Air Force used during Desert Storm.

Jan. 17 marks the 25th anniversary of the total force performing the most rapid airlift movement in history. Nearly 472,800 people and approximately 465,000 tons of cargo were deployed to the Persian Gulf in eight months.

The buildup

Airlift and air refueling enabled the rapid arrival of the first U.S. forces in Desert Shield. Two F-15 Eagle squadrons from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, arrived in Saudi Arabia on Aug. 7, 1990.

Military Airlift Command launched its first airlift mission that day as well, a C-141 mission from Charleston AFB, South Carolina, carrying airlift control elements.

Within the next 24 hours, ALCEs were in place in Saudi Arabia to manage the airlift flow. The ALCE personnel and cargo were carried on 37 C-141s, 10 C-5 Galaxies and 10 C-130 Hercules missions. U.S. Transportation Command completed the largest unit deployment ever via air with 412 strategic airlift aircraft. From Aug. 8-26, the Strategic Airlift Command airlifted the 82nd Airborne Division to Saudi Arabia while simultaneously moving the 101st Airborne Division from Aug. 17-25.

In a little more than two months, the XVIII Airborne Corps, consisting of an airborne division, an air-assault division, two heavy divisions, an armored cavalry regiment, and the requisite array of combat support and combat service support assets, deployed. The arriving inventory included more than 120,000 troops, 700 tanks, 1,400 armored fighting vehicles, and 600 artillery pieces.

Not long into the operation, a lack of spare parts impeded the buildup to Desert Storm. To help cope with priority deliveries, TRANSCOM established a special code 9AU and an airlift system to support. On Oct. 30, 1990, Mobility Air Forces began a special airlift operation called Desert Express to provide daily delivery of spare parts considered absolutely crucial to the war effort.

This was a new concept of airlift operations, which involved C-141 deliveries from Charleston AFB to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. With a stop for refueling, the journey took about 17 hours one way, according to a document titled "So Many, So Much, So Far, So Fast: United States Transportation Command and Strategic Deployment for Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm."

On Dec. 23, the airlift sustainment backlog peaked 10,300 tons. On Feb. 13, USTRANSCOM began flying a second C-141 flight per day to tackle the backlog until it was discontinued May 20, 1991. By the end of the war, Desert Express flew nearly 135 missions.

Operation Desert Storm

Directed by USTRANSCOM, the Military Airlift Command managed the Desert Shield/Desert Storm strategic airlift. MAC’s active-duty force joined with MAC-gained aircraft and crews from the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard to make up a total strategic airlift force.

The "surge" of total force and the first activation of the Civilian Reserve Airlift Fleet was essential to the Desert Shield/Desert Storm success. There were 12,894 strategic airlift missions during both operations.

Commercial airline augmentation was also crucial to the airlift effort. The Civil Reserve Air Fleet was activated for the first time during Desert Shield/Desert Storm and flew 3,309 missions.

Altogether, commercial aircraft delivered 321,005 passengers and 145,225 tons of cargo, including 64 percent of passenger movements, according to the USTRANSCOM historical document.

On the military airlift side, the C-130 supported intra-theater needs and is credited with 1,193 tactical airlift missions. More than 145 C-130 aircraft deployed in support of Desert Shield/Desert Storm. The C-130s flew 46,500 sorties and moved more than 209,000 people and 300,000 tons of supplies within the theater.

The C-141 was called the "workhorse" of Desert Shield/Desert Storm, according to the USTRANSCOM document. It flew 8,536 strategic airlift missions, followed by the C-5 with 3,770; the KC-10 with 379 and the C-9 with 209. The C-141 and C-5 accounted for 361,147 tons, or 66 percent of the cargo airlifted in support of the Gulf War.

Gen. Hansford T. Johnson, the MAC commander at the time, compared the first few weeks of deployment effort to airlifting a small city.

"We moved, in essence, a Midwestern town the size of Lafayette, Indiana, or Jefferson City, Missouri," Johnson was quoted as saying in the MAC history book. "In addition, we've also moved the equivalent of all their cars, trucks, foodstuffs, stocks, household goods and water supply."

The Strategic Airlift Command led refueling missions during Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

"Once the deployment order was given on Aug. 7, 1990, tankers played an integral role in getting forces and aircraft to the deployed theater of operations," retired Air Force Gen. Kenneth Keller, the former SAC director of operations, said during a 2009 AMC Tanker Living Legends Speaker Series.

Seven B-52Gs from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, dropped the first bombs to initiate Operation Desert Storm Jan. 17, 1991. The bombers launched 35 conventional air launch cruise missiles, flew 14,000 miles for more than 35 hours without landing.

These were the first combat sorties launched for the liberation of Kuwait in support of Operation Desert Storm, and it marked the longest combat sortie flight totaling 14,000 miles in 35 hours and 24 minutes. This mission required multiple four inflight refuels outbound and four returning, according to the Air Force Global Strike Command.

"Without the phenomenal tanker support we had for the war, we could not have accomplished what we did," retired Lt. Gen. Patrick Caruana said in the Tanker Living Legends Speaker Series. Caruana was the U.S. Central Air Forces' air campaign planner and commander during Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

Tankers flew 4,967 sorties and off-loaded more than 28.2 million gallons of fuel to 14,588 receivers during the 132 days of Desert Shield buildup, according to the Air Force History Office document "Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling." The 43 days of Desert Storm included 15,434 sorties and dispensed 110.2 million gallons of fuel to U.S. and allied aircraft.

"Desert Shield and Desert Storm demonstrated the U.S. Air Force's capability to respond to crisis and contingency situations in times of intense demand with limited resources," said Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, the AMC commander. "Today, Headquarters AMC planners evaluate these operations to determine more efficient methods of providing rapid global mobility and enhance AMC's agility."

Evolution of Air Mobility Command

Following Desert Storm, SAC and MAC merged to form Air Mobility Command. One constant through the years is the demand for rapid global mobility through aeromedical evacuation, airlift and aerial refueling. Today, AMC is meeting high demands with a smaller force and older fleet.

In the past 25 years, AMC retired the C-141B/C and the C-9A; made improvements to current airframes, C-5, KC-135 Stratotanker, C-130 and C-17 Globemaster III; and adopted a new airframe, the KC-46 Pegasus.

Mobility Airmen are off-loading more fuel now in support of the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant than what was offloaded when U.S. forces were on the ground in Iraq, operating with only 27 percent of the KC-135 fleet size originally assigned to AMC in 1992.

During 2010, at the height of Operation Enduring Freedom, Mobility Air Forces moved 856,208 short tons of cargo -- the most in OEF history, compared to 543,548 short tons moved in the Gulf War. That same year, AMC had 429 aircraft assigned, less than half of the number of aircraft assigned at its inception in 1992.

"For the past 25 years since Desert Storm and Desert Shield, the (United States) has been in a state of continuous conflict," said Terry Johnson, the Air Mobility Command’s air, space and information operations deputy director on Scott AFB, Illinois. "As we come out of Southwest Asia and shift from a constant state of continuous conflict, (Air Mobility Command's) focus needs to return to maintaining readiness especially after a period of fiscal austerity.”

Today, there’s one Mobility Air Forces departure every 2.8 minutes, every day, 365 days per year.

"The Air Force puts the 'rapid' in global mobility," Gen. Everhart said. "AMC is still required to support an increasingly demanding operations tempo while preserving the capability to surge if called upon. Without our total force and Civil Reserve Air Fleet partners, surge operations would be almost impossible."

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