When the American people celebrated the two-hundredth anniversary of their national independence in 1976, they still bore the wounds of the Vietnam War. Alienated from both their political leadership and their armed forces, they charged them with collusion in wasting lives and money against falsely exaggerated threats. Fifteen years later, the nation emerged the acknowledged victor in the strategic part of the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989–1991, the United States lost the only direct military threat to its own existence and that of its major allies: The members of NATO, Korea, and Japan. Three successor republics—Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan—still controlled the divided Soviet nuclear force, but they wanted to trade disarmament for economic assistance. The end of the strategic arms confrontation—a kind of nuclear Russian roulette—did not, however, solve the issue of nuclear proliferation by regional powers such as Pakistan and North Korea. Nor did it have any special relevance to the forty-some conflicts—most of them insurgencies or civil wars—that plagued a world whose national borders had been torn asunder by the two world wars and the end of European colonialism. The end of the Cold War did not provide easy answers to the traditional questions of American defense: “How much is enough?” and “Enough for what?”
Borrowing from the ancients, John F. Kennedy once observed that victory had a thousand fathers, but defeat was an orphan. The end of the Cold War represented the efforts of millions of fathers in the United States and its allied nations, but the Constitution and American tradition focus the paternity of international security policy on the presidency. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush and their advisers all supported the armed forces that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Congress, especially such key members as Henry Jackson, John Stennis, John Warner, Barry Goldwater, John Tower, and Sam Nunn, shared the victory. But in the end the exhaustion of the Russian people, the patriotic endurance of the national minorities in the Soviet Union, the rebelliousness of the member states of the Warsaw Pact, and the greed and moral poverty of the Communist party brought the Soviet Union down. Although the United States could find some comfort in its role in the demise of Soviet Communism, it could not claim that military strength alone had provided a new measure of national security. Nevertheless, its military renaissance in the 1980s provided a final, unanswerable challenge to the Soviet Union and essential reassurance to its allies that it would bear—the Vietnam War notwithstanding—the major share of the military burden for the defense of Western Europe, the Western Hemisphere, parts of the Middle East, and north Asia.
Talk about a “new world order” produced more unsettling questions about the use of military force than it answered. By 1993, in fact, the United States had not altered its fundamental strategy of nuclear deterrence and collective forward defense, only the level of forces required to sustain the strategy. Although the threat of Soviet intervention in regional conflicts had disappeared, the conflicts themselves had not diminished. The end of mutually canceling American and Soviet intervention indeed may have contributed to regional conflict by removing the threat of foreign action. The emerging threats stemmed from problems that stood outside the East-West confrontation, problems like the fusion of narcotics insurgency and Maoism in Latin America, Black nationalism in Africa, Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, and the economic and military resurgence of China and Japan. The approach to the twenty-first century did not look like the road to nuclear Armageddon, but it did not look like a smooth path to global peace either.
Coping with New Challenges
Making an electoral virtue of his foreign-policy innocence, President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977 convinced that he had a historic opportunity to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, prevent the loss of American lives in war, pursue détente with the Soviet Union, reduce defense spending, shift the burden of collective defense to America’s allies, and expand the power of moral suasion by applying a “human rights” test to diplomacy. When he left office four years later, Carter had abandoned the policies of the “peace phase” of his presidency. Buffeted by world events and the divided interpretations of those events by his advisers, Carter admitted that the Cold War had not ended and in so doing legitimized Ronald Reagan’s candidacy in 1980 and even cast serious doubts upon his own competence.
Carter’s management of national-security policy never reached the level of disaster his critics claimed, but it was most notable for its vacillation and moralistic amateurism. The Carter administration, reflecting the personal style of the president, managed to irritate and perplex in equal measure the American people, Congress, America’s allies abroad, and the Soviet Union—a sure formula for frustration. To be sure, the Soviet Union showed no willingness to defuse the global competition. Deterred in Europe, the Soviet Union actually pursued a policy of “horizontal escalation” preached by Communist radicals like Lin Biao and Che Guevara. In 1975–1976 the Soviets sponsored a Cuban military force for Angola, divided by civil war and already influenced by Congolese and South African intervention. Two years later the Cubans sent another army to Ethiopia to secure a Communist victory and to wage war with Somalia, an apostate socialist dictatorship. In the Horn of Africa alone the Russians dumped $11 billion worth of arms. The Soviets staged a coup against a Communist regime in Afghanistan in December 1979 and inherited a vicious guerrilla war waged by the Islamic tribes, who had refused to modernize according to the Leninist prescriptions decreed by the politicians in Kabul. Not a part of the pattern of socialist upheaval, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which brought Islamic fundamentalists to power, added another dimension of complexity to the world scene. So did the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia the same year, which seemed designed to not only displace the crazed regime of Pol Pot but also supplant Chinese influence with Russian sponsorship of the new, unified Communist Vietnam. The Carter administration proved to be singularly unlucky in the crises it faced, but it also managed to be the author of its own difficulties.
The Carter administration compounded its problems by launching a purge of the American covert operations groups and military Special Forces. Reflecting his Wilsonian assumptions about the innate evil of nations and governments, Carter wanted to reduce his own potential for sin by reducing his capability to sin. By depriving the CIA’s operations directorate of skilled personnel in the “Halloween Massacre” of 1977 and accepting a reduction of the Army Special Forces, Carter denied himself anything but a conventional military response to the knotty problems of terrorism and hostage rescue. Since the requirement for special operations and counterinsurgency did not go away, the Carter administration, whether by design or inattention, allowed such activities to be subcontracted to other nations, principally Israel and Argentina.
The first Carter defense policy reflected both post-Vietnam public opinion and the noninterventionism of the president, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and Vice President Walter F. Mondale rather than the confrontationist bent of National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, the most experienced and least ideological of Carter’s advisers, coped with both camps and tried to fashion programs that satisfied the divided counsel at the White House. When Carter took office, public opinion polls showed that Americans thought that defense spending was adequate, that the armed forces could perform their missions, and that Russia might have increased its military capability but did not intend to use its military for coercive purposes. The public thought that only nuclear deterrence and the defense of NATO justified military spending. Carter’s first two defense budgets reduced Ford’s projections for real growth in military spending; when modified by inflation, Carter’s proposed spending levels resulted in a slight decline in real authorizations and outlays. The administration managed its economies in a number of ways: Canceling the B-l bomber program, cutting the Navy’s shipbuilding plans, stretching out the costs of expensive programs like MX ICBM and tactical aircraft procurement, slowing the growth of military pay, and reducing operations and maintenance spending.
The administration based its initial strategic arms programs upon the assumptions of mutual assured destruction, for Carter was convinced he could use the SALT II negotiations to accomplish sharp reductions in the levels of nuclear weapons. This optimism was short-lived
In 1977, abandoning the Vladivostok Accords, the Carter administration proposed to the U.S.S.R. that each side make deep cuts in its MIRVed ICBM force. Since most of the Soviet strategic forces were ICBMs, this reduction would have borne most heavily on the U.S.S.R. Not surprisingly, the Soviets sharply rejected the Carter plan. Thereafter the administration returned to more traditional and modest plans to reduce the Russian counterforce first-strike potential. In June 1979, Carter and Brezhnev signed a second set of strategic arms control agreements, the SALT II treaty. Focused upon curbing the growth of warheads on MIRVed ICBMs, the “basic agreement” of seven years’ duration established tiered caps on all strategic systems: 2,250 on the total number of missile launchers and heavy bombers; a subceiling of 1,320 on all MIRVed missiles and bombers armed with air-launched cruise missiles; a subceiling of 1,200 on all sea-based or land-based MIRVed missiles; and a final limit of 820 on all MIRVed land-based ICBMs. A three-year protocol put temporary restraints on mobile ICBM and cruise missile development. SALT II’s parameters allowed the United States to complete its existing strategic modernization programs and placed a cap on the Soviets’ most menacing program, the deployment of heavy ICBMs with MIRVs in numbers and accuracy that might create a disabling first-strike capability.
The SALT II negotiations proceeded alongside an internal review of American nuclear strategy that produced force structure changes that were controversial but eventually strengthened the American negotiating position. Barely in office, Carter ordered a study that produced Presidential Review Memorandum 10 (June 1977), which then took on another half-life in studies of targeting and strategy that ended with the president’s endorsement of Presidential Directive 59 two years later. PD 59 found America’s strategic forces adequate but ripe for improvement. The concept of a countervalue, minimal deterrent position seemed less acceptable, since the Soviets might soon put at risk the American ICBM force and all land-based command and control installations. Carter wanted more emphasis on a “countervailing strategy” that would allow the United States to fight a nuclear war at various levels of intensity with greater flexibility in adding and omitting targets from the SIOP. Eventually, SIOP 6, the actual nuclear war plan, contained major, selective, limited, and regional targeting options; from 4,100 targets in 1960 the possible target list climbed to over 50,000. The nuclear planners (hardly a unified community) tended to believe that such a robust posture would strengthen deterrence in a crisis and encourage the Soviets to negotiate. Others thought force improvements served less peaceful purposes. In any event, PD 59 suggested that the United States desperately needed more deliverable warheads: MIRVs on ICBMs, MIRVs on SLBMs, cruise missiles launched from air, sea, and ground platforms, and bomber-carried short-range attack missiles and bombs.
The burden of the counterforce role fell upon the Air Force’s MX ICBM, a 95-ton missile capable of carrying ten MIRVed warheads. ICBM vulnerability and SALT II dictated that the Air Force design a mobile system whose numbers could be verified by the Soviets but whose location could not be determined for targeting. The result was a plan to shuttle 200 MXs among 4,600 different launching positions built on public lands in the western United States. Technically the solution had merit, but its cost and political liabilities made it vulnerable. In the meantime, the Navy pressed ahead with the Ohio-class submarine capable of firing twenty-four MIRVed Trident missiles, while the Air Force worked on an air-launched cruise missile for its aging B-52 bomber force. Neither of the latter programs, however, promised to enlarge counterforce capability until late in the 1990s.
The Carter administration also embraced its predecessors’ emphasis on NATO, but its own internal confusions and the influences of recession, inflation, and budget deficits restricted its initiatives. Carter’s first efforts at alliance leadership produced a significant victory, for in 1978 the NATO leaders pledged their nations to a Long Term Defense Program that would increase each ally’s real defense spending by 3 percent a year. For the United States the emphasis upon NATO drove conventional force modernization and provided some advantage to Army programs like the M-1 tank, the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, a new family of mechanized air-defense vehicles, new attack and transport helicopters, and advanced artillery and rocket systems capable of using precision-guided munitions. The administration also showed considerable energy in pursuing integrated interallied efforts for the interoperability, standardization, and rationalization of NATO’s forces and defense investments, but it accepted a concept of NATO defense that assumed a European war would last no longer than thirty days. Therefore it emphasized stockpiling munitions and equipment for only the six active Army divisions that it thought might fight in Europe in a crisis.
The Soviet deployment of a new mobile, MIRVed theater nuclear missile, the SS-20, forced the alliance to assess its own nuclear posture in Europe. The Carter administration’s first sortie into tactical and theater nuclear matters did not go well. In 1978 the administration approved the final development and deployment of a reduced-blast, enhanced-radiation warhead for American artillery. The “neutron bomb,” which was designed to cripple Russian tank formations while limiting blast-caused civilian casualties in West Germany, produced a political controversy that convinced Carter to defer the program just as the Allies accepted it. Embarrassed by its mishandling of the neutron bomb affair, the administration responded enthusiastically to the suggestion of West Germany’s Helmut Schmidt that NATO meet the challenge of the SS-20 by deploying its own new theater nuclear weapons. After complicated negotiations, the alliance in December 1979 agreed to a “two-track” policy to pursue a European nuclear-weapons pact with Russia while deploying two new mobile theater nuclear weapons, the Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missile and the ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). The 108 Pershing IIs would go into positions in West Germany, while the 464 GLCMs would be emplaced in Italy, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The two-track decision concerned the Russians; it also provided a new sense of purpose and alarm within the European peace movement, an alliance of people frightened of a nuclear Europe, religious pacifists, antinuclear romantics, and anti-American appeasers. Although the peace movement did not force abandonment of the plan, it did nothing to encourage the Soviets to negotiate a regional arms control agreement.
Carter’s conversion in 1979 to a more ambitious defense policy stemmed from developments outside Europe. Initially Carter believed that his policy of regional accommodation, human rights advocacy, and military restraint had improved America’s relations with the developing world. In the Western Hemisphere the administration signed a treaty with Panama that promised to end American domination of the Canal Zone and the canal itself by the end of the century, allowed the Sandinista rebels to topple the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, and applied sanctions against the authoritarian regimes of Brazil and Argentina. Finding the regime of South Korean President Park Chung-hee politically distasteful, the administration began to withdraw the one American division in South Korea. It ended the thirty-year-old U.S. alliance with Taiwan and formally recognized the People’s Republic of China. In Africa it sympathized with a negotiated settlement that brought black rule to Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia) and pressured South Africa to end its support for a white regime in South-West Africa (now Namibia). Along the southern rim of Eurasia the administration either did not act or moved with indecision and tardiness. Smarting from sanctions against its nuclear program, Pakistan flatly rejected offers of conventional military assistance. A revolution in Iran moved toward Islamic extremism in 1979 when the Carter administration first withdrew its support from the Shah and then failed to find a moderate alternative to the Ayatollah Khomeini. The seizure of American embassy personnel in Tehran and the abortive attempt to rescue them in April 1980 only dramatized the apparent American impotence.
In response to these setbacks the Carter administration first asserted that it would continue its minimalist defense policy and noninterventionism, but as early as 1978 the president began to make statements implying that his benign view of the world might be flawed. He first slowed and then canceled the troop withdrawal from Korea after both Japan and China questioned the wisdom of the plan. He then committed American troops to police the Sinai peninsula when the Camp David Accords of 1978 brought a separate peace between Egypt and Israel; to support the continuation of the peace process, Carter approved massive military and economic aid programs to both nations as well as tacit American military support. The administration, appalled by the Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran (November 1979) and the Russian intervention in Afghanistan (December 1979), announced that it now viewed the Russians as perfidious betrayers of détente. In fact, the administration was overtaken by public opinion, which had shifted to a more hostile view of Soviet intentions and a more positive view of increased defense spending. At the end of 1979 Carter finally submitted budget requests that represented real increases in military spending. Most of the increases were targeted at a specific problem, the increased American commitment to the Persian Gulf region.
In its last year in office, the Carter administration initiated a crash program to improve its search for two Middle Eastern goals: An end to the Israeli-Arab wars and a remedy for Iran’s collapse as the policeman of the Persian Gulf. Both goals had a common theme: To prevent an increase of Russian influence in the region. As the “Carter Doctrine” announced in January 1980, the United States would not accept Soviet-supported revolutionary change in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf. Arms assistance to Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia increased, but the administration did not depend upon surrogates alone. Instead it announced the creation of a new headquarters, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), which had authority to call upon more than 200,000 troops from all the services for Persian Gulf contingencies. Obtaining rights to the Diego Garcia atoll in the Indian Ocean, it developed the base into a major air installation and anchorage for seventeen preloaded merchant ships designed to support the initial commitment of RDJTF units. In addition, the administration sought additional base access in Egypt, Kenya, Somalia, and Oman. Equally symbolic of its new attitude toward the Soviet Union and its late response to public opinion, the administration withdrew the SALT II treaty from Senate consideration, but it pledged to respect the treaty’s limitations as long as the Russians did too. Nevertheless, the eleventh-hour return of the Carter presidency to traditional pre-Vietnam defense concerns did not save it from a stunning rejection by the voters in November 1980.
The Reagan Rearmament
Although he had served in the Army Air Forces of World War II, for which he made training films, Ronald Reagan, former governor of California and the darling of Republican conservatives, had no special insight into America’s defense problems. Instead, he had a deep intuition that the world respected military force and that the American people wanted an assertive foreign policy. His sweeping electoral victory over an incumbent Democratic president gave him—at least as he saw it—a mandate to rearm the armed forces. He entrusted this task to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, a World War II veteran from the staff of Douglas MacArthur and an experienced government manager from service in Washington and Sacramento. Weinberger became the Pentagon’s chief cheerleader, a foreign-policy activist who rivaled Reagan’s two secretaries of state, and a dogged foe of any congressional attempt to challenge the administration’s defense budgets. His principal allies (although not always consensual ones) for defense spending were Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Policy) Richard Perle. Weinberger’s influence grew in part because he faced no dominating national security adviser in the White House, where Reagan used five men of modest talents and political skill until he appointed his sixth, General Colin L. Powell.
The Reagan administration based its defense planning on the most demanding criterion: Preparedness for a sustained nuclear or nonnuclear war with the Soviet Union and its allies. Since the Russians could exercise military power on a global scale, the United States must be prepared to be equally capable, with a special emphasis on naval and air forces. At a minimum, as Weinberger stated, the United States had to defend its interests in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, and north Asia, and “ . . . our long-range aim is to be capable of defending all theaters simultaneously.” As stated in National Security Decision Document (NSDD) 238 (1981), the United States needed far more military capability outside of the NATO central front. As refined in NSDD 32 (1981), the strategic approach included greater reliance on Allied participation and military assistance, more conventional-force investments and forward deployments, and the addition of Latin America as a crisis region. The president also called for active support of anti-Communist insurgencies wherever they could be found. For example, the “Reagan Doctrine” declared support for the anti-Sandinista guerrillas (contras) waging war in and around Nicaragua; for the Afghan mujahideen tribesmen then killing Russians and Afghan Communist troops; and for four other insurgencies. Reagan had nothing less in mind than a fusion of Ike’s rollback and New Look with JFK’s flexible response.
Reagan understood that his strategic grand design required grand budgets. Communicating his proposals with a relaxed, jocular militancy that soothed his constituents and frightened the rest of the world, the president proposed and Congress accepted—without major alteration—six years (fiscal years 1980–1985) of increased defense spending, the longest sustained peacetime investment in the armed forces in the twentieth century. The annual increases averaged 7.8 percent. The authorizations in this honeymoon represented a 56 percent increase over Carter’s last defense budget, itself an increase over the previous year. Although computations of defense spending are often exercises in creative accounting, the Reagan administration probably spent about $2.4 trillion on the armed forces, of which an estimated $536 billion represented its own increases over the previously projected or estimated budget trends of the decade. Its largest single-year budget (1985) was $296 billion.16 In investment terms, the largest increases went into force modernization, improved readiness through maintenance and training, and increased military pay and allowances. The structure and personnel levels of the armed forces changed little. Most of the seventy-four ships added to the fleet by 1987 came from keels laid under earlier authorizations, but John Lehman launched them with claims that they were the first addition to his 600-ship navy. Not until 1986 did Congress force a cut in Reagan’s string of growth budgets, and even then the outlays of previous defense budgets keep annual defense spending close to $300 billion a year.
The Reagan administration placed the military competition with the Soviet Union at the center of its strategic vision and as the rationale for its defense buildup. The administration benefited by signs of the impending fall of the Soviet Union, forecast by a succession crisis when Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982. Two more Soviet presidents died in office before Mikhail Gorbachev took power in March 1985. Another sign of the times was the declaration of a martial-law government under General Wojciech Jaruzelski in rebellious Poland in December 1981. Under the “Brezhnev Doctrine” the Red Army itself should have cowed the Poles, but Moscow, stunned by protests from the United States, Western Europe, and Pope John Paul II, stayed its hand. The lesson did not go unnoticed throughout the Warsaw Pact. Nevertheless, on the surface the Soviet Union, whose own defense budget appeared to be growing each year, had not surrendered its momentum in the arms-modernization competition. The Reagan administration believed that only military strength and the will to use it would prove the crucial instruments of global and regional efforts to stop Soviet expansionism. To stabilize strategic deterrence—its short-term goal—the administration accelerated the SSBN and cruise missile programs and revived the B-l bomber. The MX ICBM was a knottier problem. The new administration wanted the new missile, but the Carter basing plan was strongly opposed by Reagan’s political allies. Advised by a presidential commission, Reagan eventually decided to deploy 100 MX ICBMs in existing fixed silos, thereby acknowledging congressional dismay at all the mobile basing schemes being investigated by the Air Force. Reagan’s cautious approach to arms control negotiations with the Soviets suggested that the anti-Communist hardliners in the Defense Department had control of strategic policy; yet the administration also extended the commitment to live within the SALT II restrictions.
The issue of strategic defense proved to be the linkage between accelerated nuclear deterrent programs and continued arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Reagan himself found the idea of protecting American cities emotionally appealing and politically congenial, but his advisers thought in more limited terms, using strategic defense either as a SALT bargaining chip or as a more limited point defense system for American missile, submarine, and bomber bases. Although the ABM Treaty seemed to outlaw strategic defense in the name of mutual assured destruction, Reagan ordered the Joint Chiefs to give the matter more attention. He embraced a phrase from a JCS briefing: “Wouldn’t it be better to protect the American people than avenge them?” In a major speech in March 1983 he announced his “Strategic Defense Initiative,” or SDI, a major program for defense against Soviet ballistic missiles. Reflecting a popular movie of the time, the program became “Star Wars,” even though its space-based elements were far from intergalactic. Nevertheless, the Pentagon established a Strategic Defense Initiative Office with its own budget, tripled to $3.1 billion by 1986, and authority over the separate ABM military programs then in existence. These programs investigated the application of nuclear, laser, and kinetic energy systems against missiles as well as the requirements for acquiring targets in the various stages of missile flight.
Although it gave the rhetorical “back of the hand” to its domestic critics, who favored a nuclear freeze, the Reagan administration continued strategic weapons negotiations with the Russians and labeled its own program the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). Its first proposals clearly showed just who would be reducing—the Soviet Union. A “deep cuts” initiative in 1982 proposed that each side settle for 850 ICBMs and SLBMs limited to 5,000 warheads, a formula that would have eliminated 3,670 Russian ICBM warheads but not one American warhead. The Russians wanted something in return, of course, and that “something” was a limitation on cruise missiles and SDI. The United States then focused on another program, Soviet vehicle and rail-based mobile missiles. The Russians argued that American SLBMs in the Ohio-class submarine and D-5 missile programs would soon give the United States an invulnerable first-strike option, an overoptimistic estimate. Despite the jockeying, Reagan and Gorbachev brought some temporary hope when they agreed at a summit meeting in Iceland (October 1986) to a formula cap of 1,600 strategic nuclear delivery systems of all kinds and a ceiling of 6,000 warheads. The negotiating then focused on SDI, on which the administration held fast. Gorbachev rejected any arms control agreement that excluded SDI, and the talks collapsed. As a result, strategic nuclear programs remained a political issue that Reagan could not ignore.
Enjoying unusual rapport with his counterparts in Great Britain, France, and West Germany, the president pressed his NATO allies toward greater defense spending of their own and the completion of the GLCM-Pershing II deployment program. He especially endeared himself to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by overruling Secretary of State Alexander Haig in the Falkland Islands crisis of 1982. Risking alienating the Latin American conservatives, Reagan ordered the American military to provide intelligence and logistics support to the British joint task force that recaptured the islands from Argentina. A newly assertive and rearmed U.S. Army and Air Force pushed their European counterparts toward a concept of high-technology deep battle in which all elements of the Warsaw Pact would be attacked simultaneously. NATO accepted “AirLand Battle” doctrine in 1985, impressed with the revival of America’s NATO forces and the implied relief from their own expensive modernization programs. The Europeans also nudged the administration forward on theater nuclear force negotiations and a conventional forces treaty.
The theater or intermediate nuclear weapons negotiations began in November 1981 and ended with a treaty in December 1987 after a predictable series of stops and starts. As in other negotiations with the Soviet Union, the American team, in this case led by the expert and venerable Paul H. Nitze, had to cope with double-dealing in Washington and second-guessing in NATO. The Russians waited for their opponents to self-destruct in the diplomatic sense and sign a treaty that would give the U.S.S.R. advantages it could not win in an arms competition. Reagan, however, placed the Soviets on the immediate defensive by suggesting the total abolition of all intermediate-range nuclear weapons deployed by both the Americans and Russians in Europe. Such a proposal, however, excluded British and French forces—as well as nonmissile-delivery systems—and was vague on how much of the U.S.S.R. actually lay within Europe. The Russians recoiled and fought a delaying action for four years in the hope that the European peace movement would force cancellation of the GLCM and Pershing II deployment program. But the NATO governments persisted and deployed the American systems, and a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, accepted the political-strategic reality that he could not disarm France and Great Britain. Although Nitze himself fell victim to bureaucratic machinations, the ultimate treaty reflected his recommendation to ban all American and Russian short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in Europe. Even more impressive was a provision for on-site inspection of the missiles’ destruction in both the Soviet Union and the United States.
Outside the central strategic relationship with NATO and the Soviet Union, the Reagan administration proved as aggressive as its rhetoric. In Latin America and the Middle East it joined in battle with an assortment of revolutionaries, Soviet-sponsored governments, Iranian Islamic fundamentalists, Filipino rebels, Arab nationalists, terrorists, Lebanese sectarian militias, and African socialist governments. In action the Reagan Doctrine proved a mixed blessing and left a mess for subsequent administrations to clean up. In the broadest sense the war on Communist revolution produced greater relative success in Latin America, the least benefit in the Middle East. In Central America the administration inherited one insurgency in El Salvador and created another in Nicaragua, defining its enemy in both cases as vicious revolutionaries under the spell of Cuba and the Soviet Union. The Sandinista government in Managua, Nicaragua, solidified its power in 1980 and 1981 with hard-core commandantes, most noticeably Daniel Ortega. Nicaraguan resisters fled into Honduras and Costa Rica and looked for aid from the military regimes in Panama and Honduras. The Reagan administration charged to their assistance, either with direct aid and action through the Central Intelligence Agency or via intermediate nations like Panama, Honduras, Argentina, and Israel. At the same time American civilian and military advisers assisted the Salvadoran government, under siege since 1979 from the Frente Marti Liberacion Nacional(FMLN). Newly established American bases in Honduras supported both wars, and the U.S. Army held maneuvers along the Nicaraguan border to intimidate the commandantes.
The American military action in the Middle East did not fall neatly within the Cold War politics of the Western Hemisphere and proved extremely frustrating. Two major regional traumas fused the issues of the security of Israel and the menace of Islamic fundamentalism. Few could match the zeal of the Iranian Shi’a revolutionaries, who were dedicated to overthrowing the Syrian and Jordanian governments by subversion even while they fought off the even more-hated Sunni Iraqi armies directed by Saddam Hussein, the most vicious tyrant in a dangerous region. The war between Iran and Iraq was one reality, and the Iranian sponsorship of terrorist organizations a piece of that war. The other flashpoint was the civil war in Lebanon, which had begun again in 1975; as the Christians, Sunni Arabs, and Druze hill tribes weakened each other, they created a power vacuum for the Palestinian guerrilla movement and Iran-backed terrorists and gangs (known as Hezbollah or “Party of God”) to set up business in Lebanon. Syrian forces shifted west into Lebanon to guard the Beka’a Valley and the Palestinians. In the spring of 1982 the Israeli Defense Force drove into Lebanon against the Palestinians and waged a lightning campaign all the way to Beirut. As part of an international agreement, the United States sent a Marine expeditionary unit (about 2,000 officers and men) to police a ceasefire and expulsion agreement that sent the surviving Palestinians into exile in September 1982.
In less than a month, however, the Marines returned to back American efforts to prevent the collapse of the Lebanese government and army, dominated by the Christians, after terrorists assassinated President Bashir Gemayel. Rival factions correctly determined that the Americans, who could fire only to protect themselves, had actually chosen sides. Druze and Shi’a militia units put the Marines stationed at the Beirut international airport under sporadic fire, which took Marine lives. In August and September 1983 the situation deteriorated rapidly with the withdrawal of the last Israeli forces around Beirut. Swayed by the influence of presidential envoy Robert C. McFarlane, the local American commanders (no one was in complete charge) agreed to discourage the Druze and Shi’as with Lebanese artillery and U.S. Navy shellfire. In the early morning of October 23, 1983, a truck-carried bomb exploded underneath the airport office building holding the Marine ground-force headquarters; in the blast and collapse 241 men died, 239 of them Americans and 220 of them Marines. The disaster caused a crisis within the Reagan administration that eventually led to withdrawal in February 1984.
The battle, however, continued in Lebanon and elsewhere, for the Reagan administration turned to airpower to awe its enemies. The first incident occurred in August 1981, when Navy jets shot down two Libyan interceptors over the Gulf of Sidra, the result of an American initiative to challenge Muammar Gaddafi’s definition of “national” waters and airspace. The second air foray found Navy jets in action against Palestinian terrorists (murderers of a handicapped American Jewish tourist) who had boarded an Egyptian chartered airliner bound for Tunisia. On October 10–11, 1985, Navy F-14s, supported by an Air Force armada of intelligence and refueling aircraft, forced the airliner down on Sicily, and the terrorists passed into the hands of Italian judicial officials.
The terrorist war in the Middle East, however, escalated as various Palestinian and Iranian factions (with European allies) vied for fame and fortune with bombs and guns. Terrorist attacks and hijacking incidents doubled in 1983–1985 and produced 2,000 casualties, half of them Americans. In NSDD 138 (April 1984), the president approved a military and clandestine war on terrorists. In January 1986, convinced that Gaddafi was the most prominent and certainly most vocal of the terrorist sponsors, Reagan ordered increased air operations along the Libyan coast. In April the Navy easily defeated a forlorn attack by Libyan gunboats on a carrier task force, but the terrorists struck back by destroying an airliner bound for Athens and bombing a disco in West Berlin, killing and wounding American soldiers and their friends. Intercepted communications clearly linked the terrorists to Gaddafi, so Reagan ordered a massive air strike by Air Force F-111F bombers and Navy carrier aircraft on high-value political and military targets in Tripoli and Benghazi on either end of the Gulf of Sidra. With the loss of one aircrew (two men), the strike force devastated its Libyan targets, mostly military bases, and caused around 200 casualties. The administration believed it had dampened Gaddafi’s enthusiasm for terrorism and demonstrated that it would not allow the Beirut fiasco to weaken its will.
But this inconclusive use of military force in the Middle East led to cascading complications, some of which contributed to the Reagan administration’s disarray in its second term, but the president could claim at least one unambiguous triumph: the liberation of Grenada in October 1983. An impoverished island jewel of the Lesser Antilles, Grenada had traded British colonial status first for autocracy, then revolutionary socialism under a local demagogue, Maurice Bishop. Unhappy with his personalist rule, his associates slaughtered Bishop and his revolutionary court on October 19 with the tacit approval of their East European and Cuban political and military advisers. Encouraged by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and the resident Crown governor-general, the Reagan administration ordered a joint amphibious and airborne assault on the island on October 25. Although the United States eventually put 6,000 servicemen on the island, the burden of the six-day campaign, which cost the lives of nineteen Americans and about seventy Cubans and Grenadian soldiers, fell upon five battalions of Marines, rangers, and paratroopers. The Americans fought with scanty intelligence, rules of engagement that inhibited the use of artillery and air support, and helter-skelter planning and interservice coordination. Part of the difficulty was the speed with which the operation developed; another was the high priority placed upon the rescue of several hundred American students attending a medical college on the island. Although the Grenadians rejoiced in their rescue from a police state, the armed forces endured much post hoc criticism of their special operations performance, their communications, and their joint cooperation. The Defense Department’s rough treatment of the media during the affair did not help. No one, however, could fault the ardor and technical skill of the American servicemen in Grenada, for they had performed admirably in a tactical situation of unusual confusion and uncertainty.
The Enemy of My Enemy
As quickly as the national consensus had emerged in the late 1970s for a more militant foreign policy and greater defense spending, the Reagan rearmament stalled in 1986–1987 and tailed off through the presidential election of 1988. Defense authorizations no longer showed real growth but declined by an average of 3 percent a year after 1985. Cash from prior authorization years, however, kept defense outlays around the $290 billion level. Public opinion polls showed that the public now thought that defense spending was too high or about right, not too low. Several domestic political developments combined to force Congress to quit accepting the administration’s projected expenditures on defense. The most ominous problem was the national debt, which doubled between 1980 and 1986, and debt service payments, which tripled in the same period. Even though the administration and Congress cooperated in cutting domestic spending 21 percent, neither had any taste for reducing the retirement and health-entitlement programs that touched the entire electorate or for cutting obvious or hidden subsidies to powerful economic lobbies. In 1985 Congress passed the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, which required a plan to reduce the growing annual deficits or forced mandatory budget cuts. Since the defense budget represented the single largest budget item that could be easily cut, military spending became an obvious target.
These pruning instincts received timely encouragement by a series of revelations in 1981–1986 that the Pentagon and its defense contractors had reached new heights of waste, fraud, and abuse in the procurement process. Defense inspectors, military officers, and media muckrakers discovered toilet seats, coffee pots, and hammers priced at many times their commercial value. Part of the problem was Defense Department accounting, which required that overhead or indirect costs be apportioned to every purchased item, hence creating $430 hammers. Another difficulty was that the military wanted toilet seats and coffee pots that could sustain the stresses of military operational use, no doubt exceeding some reasonable requirements. The major problem, however, was that defense contractors, especially aircraft manufacturers and shipbuilders, wanted to protect themselves from future hard times both by making large profits and by funding plant modernization. As subsequent investigation showed, several prominent defense contractors had crossed the line into illegal profiteering, but Defense management practices had been so regulation-bound and ineffective that the department shared the blame.
The tides of influence in Washington shifted away from the hawks. In the 1986 elections the Republicans lost control of the Senate and thus much of their leverage on behalf of Reagan’s defense program. Internal reforms in congressional procedures tended to work to the benefit of those senators and representatives who wanted a pause in defense spending; rules, deaths, and retirements in the Budget and Armed Services Committees put doubters in power. Moreover, the coldest Cold Warriors around the president began to disappear; by 1987 Weinberger, Lehman, and Perle had left government, and William J. Casey, a true Machiavellian director of the CIA, had died. Congress once again exercised its powers to shape defense policy; for example, it forced the Department of Defense to establish an assistant secretary’s office to supervise special operations and low-intensity conflict policies and established a Special Operations Command (headed by an Army general) to pull together separate service activities. Within the executive branch, subtle shifts of power occurred. At the White House, James A. Baker III, a friend of Vice President George Bush, replaced Donald Regan as chief of staff and formed an alliance with Secretary of State George Shultz, whose job he then assumed in the next administration. The White House–State Department alliance reduced the influence of the Department of Defense, headed after 1987 by Frank Carlucci, an able Washington operative but no political giant. The National Security Council staff under Rear Admiral John Poindexter stumbled toward self-destruction.
The erosion of the White House’s mastery of international security politics at home and abroad stemmed in part from Reagan’s willingness to give his subordinates wide latitude and de facto powers that either skirted the fine line of illegality or crossed it in defiance of congressional injunctions. One limitation was self-imposed: A promise not to trade with terrorists for the lives of hostages or other victims. Yet the administration did exactly that, though too late to save the lives of its CIA station chief in Lebanon or, later, a Marine lieutenant colonel working with the United Nations supervisory team. In 1984 or 1985 the Reagan administration opened secret negotiations with Iranians who claimed to have influence with the Hezbollah terrorists who held nine Westerners (five Americans) kidnapped in Beirut and its environs. These Byzantine contacts opened a conduit of arms sales to the Iranian armed forces, starved for antiair and antitank weapons and spare parts in their war with Iraq. The arms sales, however, did not proceed directly but through a series of middlemen, some with links to Israel, whose interest in aiding Iran could be measured by Iran’s enemies, Iraq and Syria. Whatever weapons that left Israeli stocks could then be replaced from the United States. Impoverished Egypt could provide Iran with Russian weapons from its dated military inventory with Saudi Arabia as the banker; some of these weapons went to Iran, many more to Afghanistan. Although this bit of ordnance legerdemain might have been only unwise and disingenuous, a further complication ran against a direct congressional prohibition: That of arms transfers to the Nicaraguan contras. Managed by Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, an NSC staffer in the confidence of Bill Casey, profits from arms sales to Iran then flowed to the contras—with some large rake-offs by more middlemen, Americans and others. First exposed by the Iranians in 1987, the Iran -contra affair did not produce much law enforcement, but it did put the administration on the defensive.
Unlike the Carter administration, the Reagan administration did not fall prey to its fears and gaffes, largely because it could see progress in several important commitments in 1986–1988. Relations with the Soviet Union showed the most improvement, largely because the seeds of self-destruction had taken root in the Russian empire. By 1988 the Russians had largely conceded defeat in the Third World and along the rim of the “evil empire.” Gorbachev announced that Russian troops would withdraw from Afghanistan; the Cubans started home from Angola, Ethiopia, and Namibia. Civil unrest in late 1989 shaped nationalist politics in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, as well as in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, which overthrew their Communist regimes. The Romanian Communist regime then collapsed in bloody counterrevolution, and no Russian troops rushed to save that government or any other. Outside the Soviet orbit separatism began to divide Yugoslavia into warring republics of mixed ethnic and religious allegiances. Police states of greater or lesser viciousness faded away in the Philippines, South Korea, Haiti, Chile, and South Africa. After some dissembling the Soviets announced a unilateral reduction of their Warsaw Pact forces and took greater interest in the conventional arms reduction talks for NATO and the Warsaw Pact; the Russians seemed prepared to trade off their own divisions for NATO reductions on a surprising 5:1 ratio. Despite ups and downs, the war against the FMLN in El Salvador showed some hope, especially after the election in 1984 of a legitimate civilian president, Jose Napoleon Duarte. In Nicaragua anti-Sandinista sentiment rose, some attracted to contra guerrilla warfare, more dismayed by the commandantes’ wretched economic management.
The Middle East situation proved the most intractable in the waning days of the Reagan administration, but the president did not shy from additional military action. The Israeli connection worsened since hard-liners refused to negotiate with any Palestinian group, domestic or in exile, and a program of settlement (spurred by Jewish immigrants from Russia) marched into the “occupied territories” west of the Jordan River. The Palestinians, however, struck back with the intifada, a civil insurgency that confounded the Israeli police and army. Syria, however, limited its own intervention to exercising influence in Lebanon, where the Muslims slowly grasped power. The United States tried to keep the situation stable with accelerating economic and military assistance to Israel and even greater commitments to Egypt. It also supported UN resolutions demanding that Israel not annex territory it had held since 1967 and that it negotiate some peaceful solution to the Palestinian problem.
Diplomatic crises with Israel and angry bouts with terrorists and their patrons did not exhaust American travails in the Middle East. The Iran-Iraq war only enmeshed the Reagan administration in deeper commitments in the region, especially with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. To the degree that the United States had a favorite in the Iran-Iraq conflict, it was Iraq, which received Western military assistance while Iran did not (officially). But Iraq hardly looked like a constant friend. Its armed forces and those of Iran attacked oil tankers and other neutral ships in the Persian Gulf as early as 1981, and by 1987 those attacks, the majority by Iraqi warplanes, totaled 451. The attacks menaced oil shipments to the West and Japan from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. From a long-term perspective, Saudi Arabia appeared to be the logical (and wealthiest) successor in the pro-Western regional role that Iran had played until 1979. For the Saudis, money talked, and Americans generally liked the message. First, the Saudis had some leverage over Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and through them on the Palestinians, and Saudi diplomacy and money supported negotiations and moderation. Next, the Saudis provided money and military assistance to the Afghan rebels; with the bombing death of Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq in 1988, probably at the hands of dissident Pakistanis, the United States needed additional influence from a Muslim ally to keep Pakistan secure as a base of operations against the Russians in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Saudis could and would spend money—some $22 billion between 1981 and 1990—on American arms. In addition, the Saudis allowed the United States to spend the profits from arms sales on base construction in Saudi Arabia. By 1990 Saudi Arabia had the base capacity for an air force five times larger than its own. Project PEACE SHIELD (1985) gave it an air control and defense system that rivaled those of NATO. Its modern port facilities could handle shipping well above commercial needs. To keep the alliance with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait secure, the United States government believed it could not let the 1985 surge in incidents in the Persian Gulf go unanswered.
Early in 1987 the United States Navy, soon joined by special-operations air-ground units from the Army and Marine Corps, moved into the Persian Gulf in combat strength. Rather than its small normal patrol force, the Navy’s task forces in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea increased to thirty warships, among them carriers and battleships. The mission was to ensure free passage for Kuwaiti tankers, some of which were switched to American registry. The Navy launched retaliatory attacks on Iranian ground-based missile sites, missile gunboats, and minelayers. In 1988 it easily destroyed much of the Iranian gunboat navy and extended its attacks to nautical guerrilla bases on Iranian oil platforms in the Gulf. An omen for the future, the worst loss came from an Iraqi aircraft that fired two Exocet missiles into the frigate Stark, killing thirty-seven and wounding twenty-one American sailors. The most annoying effort the Iranians could mount was seeding the Gulf with floating mines, which took their toll on the tankers and one Navy frigate. The Navy admitted that its mine-clearing capabilities had limitations, a traditional lament that had not been acted on since World War II. The Navy also discomfited the administration when an advanced-technology air-defense cruiser, Vincennes,accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 passengers. Frustrated in its ground war and concerned about the American intervention, the Iranian government accepted a UN-negotiated ceasefire in July 1988. Palestinian radicals with Iranian assistance, however, extracted their warped idea of revenge, blowing up Pan American Flight 103 over Scotland in December 1988. The violence in the Middle East had not ended; even the death of the charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini the following year did not end the fear that Iran would overthrow its Arab foes in the cause of a purified form of Islam.
Although the Reagan administration had barely dodged some real and political bullets foreign and domestic, the president had reason to believe that he would depart office leaving the American military “standing tall” and in the hands of his former vice president, George H.W. Bush, an easy winner in the presidential election of 1988 over a liberal Democrat, Michael Dukakis. The central strategic relationship with the Soviet Union showed several signs of improvement. The INF treaty, ratified by Congress in 1988, had created a favorable momentum for more START negotiations and NATO-Warsaw Pact conventional-forces reductions discussions. Symbolizing the new spirit of détente, American and Russian defense and military officials began visiting each other’s military forces.
Real defense spending had fallen off by 10 percent in 1986–1989, but from levels so high that the services and defense industries had thus felt only slight pain. In 1988 the administration finally admitted it had a problem and actually submitted a “no real growth” budget, with much of the savings to come from reducing commitments to strategic weapons and shipbuilding. The MX missile program came to a halt with fifty, not two hundred, missiles and not a mobile one among them; the complementary program for a smaller, mobile missile—“Midgetman”—still existed, but only in the talking stage. The B-1 bomber program halted just short of 100 aircraft, overtaken in Air Force enthusiasm by the B-2, a flying wing with radar-deflecting or “stealth” characteristics. The Air Force, more or less in secret, already had a stealth attack aircraft, the F-117A.
For all the ominous predictions about a major collapse in the political support for defense spending and high-tech weapons, the armed forces had every reason to view the future with modest optimism. Uniformed personnel strength stood stable at 2.1 million, and the officer corps, career enlisted force, and first-termers all looked outstanding by every measure of skill, commitment, and trainability. All the services had virtually rearmed themselves in the 1980s, even though they all had much-coveted weapons, aircraft, and vehicles still in the development stage. Serious training and crisis deployments had given the military valuable experience. A much heralded congressional initiative, the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act (1986), demanded that the services educate their officers and train their forces for more effective joint operations.
In January 1989 Ronald Reagan snapped off one of his best Hollywood salutes and rode off into the sunset—aboard a Marine helicopter and Air Force One—to retirement in California. The armed forces had given him one last present: two Libyan MiGs shot down on January 4 over the Gulf of Sidra. To the degree that enhanced military capability had relevance to American foreign policy and an unsteady pattern of international relations, Reagan had certainly left the defense establishment more capable than he had found it. Unfairly portrayed by his critics as a pliable Washington functionary whose ambition consistently outstripped his performance, George Bush, a former Navy pilot who had seen real Japanese bullets in World War II, assumed the role of commander in chief and immediately plunged into a maelstrom of crises. The results could only have bedazzled the most imaginative writer of Washington political novels or the high-tech “shoot-’em-ups” that had become so fashionable in the 1980s.
The Bush Administration Confronts Regional Crises
Like deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car, the Bush administration, much of Congress, and the American armed forces found themselves barely able to respond to the rush of events that marked the end of the Cold War in 1989–1991. The administration’s policy immobility had nothing to do with its human talent. The president himself, who continued to dodge charges that he was a collaborator in the Iran -contra affair, had been an important participant in national security affairs for almost twenty years. Secretary of State James Baker had eight years of hard service in the Reagan administration. And although Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney had no special experience in defense matters and had dodged military service in the Vietnam era, he proved a quick learner, an aggressive advocate for the military, and a political realist, a quality he had learned as the chief of staff of Gerald Ford’s White House organization. The national security adviser, retired Air Force Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, had served Ford in the same role. Admiral William Crowe, a cerebral submariner with a Princeton Ph.D., served out his term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then turned the empowered position over to General Colin Powell, who became the first Army ROTC graduate, youngest, and first African-American to hold the post. More relevant, Powell had ample Washington experience in the White House and on Caspar Weinberger’s staff, as well as a respectable record as a field soldier in Vietnam and Europe. The political appointees on the National Security Council staff, in the State and Defense Departments, the CIA, and other organizations with national security responsibilities were also strong on experience and public-service commitment. Their intellectual preparation and political savvy, however, would be sorely tested in the next four years.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact came in a rush, with the first erosion of Soviet power most dramatic in the Baltic republics, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Leading the revolt, in late 1989 the East Germans destroyed their Communist leadership and security organizations in a mass revolt that bullets could not stop. The Berlin Wall and the fence that marked the “Iron Curtain” came down, and in November 1990 the Warsaw Pact dissolved as a military alliance amid cries of “Russians Go Home!” NATO scrambled from its fortieth-anniversary celebration in 1989 to participating in the negotiations the following year that produced a unified Germany in September 1990, which became a member of the alliance. The Bundeswehr painted Iron Crosses on Russian-made combat vehicles and moved to the Polish border, which the Germans pledged to respect. Gorbachev, with American encouragement, struggled to survive. He pledged political liberalism and capitalism at home and presided over the official dissolution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in early 1990. He signed a conventional-forces agreement in November 1990, and a START agreement in July 1991. In August 1991 a cabal of Russian party and military leaders staged an unsuccessful coup that folded (despite the fact that Gorbachev was held captive) because the Russian army and security services would not fire upon the thousands of enraged comrades who rallied to Boris Yeltsin, newly elected president of the semi-autonomous Russian republic. The anger of 1917 had returned to Russia, but this time the Bolsheviks were not the beneficiaries. By the end of 1991 the Soviet Union had passed into the dustbin of history, replaced by a commonwealth of independent states whose loose unity was soon more honored in the breach than in the observance. The rest of the world watched with wonder.
The Bush administration, hectored by the Democratic majority in Congress and nudged by its NATO allies, began to review the uncertain international security environment in 1989. The following year it admitted that its defense plans, which projected a return to real growth budgets, had been overtaken by events. In 1990 Congress ordered a 13 percent reduction of defense spending over the next five years. Bush then proposed a modest and phased reduction of the armed forces that might cut active operational units, especially those assigned a NATO role. The administration accepted a postponement of varied NATO nuclear and conventional modernization plans and a reduction of allied defense spending on the order of 4.7 percent a year, pleading that murky developments outside Europe precluded unilateral disarmament, already underway in the remnants of the Soviet Union. Under the guidance of General Powell, the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up an array of plans to cut spending and reduce the force structure as much as one-third, the most dramatic adjustment since the beginning of the Cold War. The individual services found these reductions unimaginable, since the most dramatic effect of such cuts would be the end of quality recruitment and the draconian release of career officers and noncommissioned officers in order to produce a force as small as 1.8 million.
Ever skeptical that the rash of democratization and demilitarization would usher in a “new age” military, the armed services did not have to wait long for new missions. Continued chaos in Lebanon and an abortive popular revolt in China in 1989 did not produce U.S. military intervention, to no one’s dismay except the Lebanese and the Chinese reformers. In the Philippines, Corazon Aquino survived with American military assistance both the insurgency of the Communist New People’s Army and rebellion in her own armed forces, but she lost the popular mandate to former general Fidel Ramos. Nationalism, Filipino greed, and a volcanic eruption in 1991 drove the Americans from their Subic Bay naval base and Clark air base, but this retreat from empire had little meaning in the grand rearrangement of American forward deployments. With existing bases in Korea, Japan, and Guam, the military could still maintain an adequate presence in the western Pacific.
The Central American War (1979–1992) had provided the Reagan interventionists with their greatest victory at a bearable cost in American lives: Fewer than 100 in over a decade. The central strategic challenge was to isolate the Salvadoran insurgents from external aid from Nicaragua, Mexico, and Cuba, the latter a conduit for Soviet arms and American weapons shipped from Vietnam. Using bases in the Canal Zone and a new base structure in Honduras, U.S. air and naval forces basically blockaded Nicaragua, which had no land border with El Salvador. Honduras provided a sanctuary for U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency forces. The permanent U.S. military presence, Joint Task Force Bravo, never numbered above 6,000, but U.S. Southern Command rotated “exercise forces” of up to 10,000 in and out of Honduras, which reduced Nicaraguan overland supplies to the FMLN and protected the counterinsurgents.
Without the expansion and concurrent reform of the Salvadoran armed forces, the interdiction of supplies to the FMLN from abroad could not alone defeat the insurgency. Members of Congress, outraged by human rights abuses (real enough) by the Salvadoran army and police, curbed some funding and restricted the members of Military Group El Salvador to fifty-five. The U.S. Army-Marine training mission sent teams to six different regional commands, enough to retrain six different battalions. The key to success in improving the Salvadoran security forces rested on the use of Honduras to train Salvadoran battalions, which fell into the hands of 180 trainers with $8 million per battalion to execute an eight-week program. The same training teams, built around Special Forces soldiers who spoke Spanish, trained the Nicaraguan contras, a coalition of expatriates and oppressed Miskito Indians, who then mounted operations against the Sandinistas. Big dollars also work wonders in small countries. Financed by the U.S., the Salvadoran armed forces increased from 11,000 to 56,000—and cut rural atrocities and corruption. Military and economic aid to Central America was $3.7 million in 1979 but increased to $200 million a year by 1985. Aid to Honduras and El Salvador between 1980 and 1990 topped $1 billion.
The Central American War never excited widespread domestic opposition because of regional disinterest and the lack of American military deaths, fewer than fifty in a decade from all causes. Polling in 1982 showed that Americans disapproved of intervention, but they did not know who the United States supported. Over time and at the cost of 75,000 deaths, the FMLN shrank to below 5,000 guerrillas, although it could make spectacular raids. Rightist “death squads” with ties to the Salvadoran security forces and the ARENA political party of ex-Colonel Roberto D’Aubuisson confused the effort to pacify the countryside by massacring suspected guerrillas or moderate reformers, including Catholic Church leaders. Under American pressure an elected, reformist government gradually purged the military. The first break came in Nicaragua. With 25,000 deaths and eroding power in the rural areas, the Daniel Ortega regime agreed to supervised elections in 1990 if the United States would stop backing the 12,000 armed contras. To his surprise, Ortega lost the election to a political widow, Violeta Chammoro, a woman of impeccable nationalist-reformist credentials. After two years of negotiations, the FMLN, stripped of foreign aid, agreed to disarm (slowly) and enter the Salvadoran electoral system. In 1992 the war faded away, and the Central American states began to demobilize.
Manuel Noriega of Panama and Saddam Hussein of Iraq made the case that the United States still required combat-ready armed forces of wide capabilities. After the death of his patron, General-President Omar Torrijos, in an air crash in 1981, General Noriega, chief of intelligence of the Panamanian defense forces and an addict of money, sex, and voodoo, used his management of violence and graft in the security establishment to create a de facto dictatorship behind a facade of constitutionalism. While maintaining a relationship with the American intelligence establishment through his usefulness in the anti-Communist crusade in Central America, Noriega also developed ties with Fidel Castro and Latin American drug-dealers, who found Panama a useful entrepôt for arms, money, and drugs. Ignoring a free election in May 1989 that had defeated his candidate, abusing Americans in Panama, and winking at the police murder of a Marine officer, Noriega challenged the United States to do anything and even declared war. Outraged, President Bush in December 1989 ordered the execution of Operation JUST CAUSE, the largest military posse in recent memory, which was organized to serve a Florida indictment against Noriega for drug-dealing. Launching a major joint operation from bases in the Canal Zone and the United States, 26,000 American troops ruined the Panamanian defense forces in an eight-day (December 20–28, 1989) campaign and cornered Noriega in the residence of the Papal Nuncio, where he surrendered. JUST CAUSE showed that the armed forces could do a Grenada-type operation with much greater deftness. The real victims of the battles in Panama City and Colon were Panamanian civilians, caught in gunfights and fires and victimized by the gangs of thugs and released prisoners that Noriega called “dignity battalions.” Losses for the Panamanian military ran to 314, with civilian deaths calculated between 200 and 300. American losses were 23 killed and 322 wounded. The level of physical destruction, designed and accidental, caused a postinvasion crisis, and there is little question that arrangements for public security and civilian affairs operations could have used more attention. Nevertheless, JUST CAUSE could be reckoned a success.
Operation DESERT STORM: The Road Not Taken
On August 2, 1990, the very day when President Bush announced a plan to focus defense planning on regional conflicts, the Iraqi mechanized divisions of Saddam Hussein plunged across the border of Kuwait and in six days eliminated conventional military resistance against an outnumbered and uneven Kuwaiti defense force. On August 8, with his crack Republican Guard divisions closing on the border of Saudi Arabia, the Iraqi dictator declared the “lost province” of Kuwait annexed to Iraq. Saddam Hussein condemned the Kuwaiti ruling family, the al-Sabahs, for mistreating foreign workers and supporting Iraqi dissidents; however, for Saddam the invasion represented primarily a financial coup de main that would place Kuwaiti oil in Iraqi hands. It was a desperate attempt to increase the oil revenues that he needed to pay his war debts, rebuild his army and air force, pacify his core Sunni Muslim supporters, pursue his grandiose plans to build nuclear and chemical strategic weapons, and replace the now-lost largesse from the Soviet Union and the anti-Iranian Western nations. The Iraqi conquest of Kuwait also put Saudi Arabia at risk; the loss of the Saudi kingdom would have created a global oil crisis and destroyed for the second time in a decade the American effort to develop a rich Islamic partner in the Middle East. (Egypt met the religious test but not the prosperity standards.) An unchallenged Iraqi victory there would have increased the danger to Israel and to every established Arab regime in the region. Despite the gnawing suspicion that American diplomacy had appeased rather than warned Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration quickly rallied, and on August 5 the president declared that he would wage war if necessary to restore Kuwait’s independence.
The American-led coalition of twenty-four nations that won the Gulf War by March 1991 did not spring to arms automatically or easily, and to a large degree the Bush administration earned the dramatic military victory in the face of considerable political odds. The first challenge was to persuade the Saudi ruling family, led by King Fahd ibn Abdul-Aziz, to permit American troops to come by the thousands and inundate a highly structured, traditional Muslim society with young Westerners, including female service personnel. After some debate the ruling elders of the House of Saud admitted that the Iraqi army posed the greater danger and pledged their full cooperation to Bush’s envoy, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, on August 7, 1990. A key American ally in the negotiations was Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the ambassador to Washington. The first diplomatic victory forced more frenetic international activity to isolate Iraq and muster overwhelming power to protect Saudi Arabia and, eventually, persuade Saddam Hussein to bring his army home. The United States used the United Nations as a major forum for coalition diplomacy, and between August and November 1990 the United Nations called for several kinds of sanctions to free Kuwait. Ultimately, the UN Security Council authorized the use of force to defeat Iraq if it did not withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991.
Using the United Nations to give the rescue mission international legitimacy did not solve all the difficulties that faced Secretary of State Jim Baker. One major task was to prevent the Soviet Union, staggering but still potent, from providing any military assistance to Iraq or attempting to mediate a separate peace settlement. Although the Russians played coy, Gorbachev again bowed to reality and stepped to the sidelines in January 1991. In addition, Baker had to tolerate all sorts of instant peacemakers, foreign and domestic, whose futile exertions were cleverly encouraged by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
Iraq entered the confrontation with several frightening trump cards. It held over 2 million foreign nationals hostage, about 8,000 of whom came from the United States, other NATO nations, and Japan. Iraq also had a chemical and bacteriological warfare capability, and Western intelligence knew that its nuclear weapons program had advanced to a dangerous stage. These “weapons of mass destruction” made the potential targets determined to eliminate them. The United States, however, did not want one of these target nations, Israel, to join the coalition since its commitment would give Saddam more credibility when he called for holy war and radical rebellion by the Arab masses against “pro-Israeli” Arab governments. King Hussein of Jordan, in fact, tilted toward Iraq, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt waffled, for both faced real internal threats. It became essential to keep Israel out of the war; otherwise, Baker feared, his Muslim partners would leave the Western coalition.
In addition to ensuring that some nations would not participate, American diplomacy recruited a true international force—and not one bought with American dollars. Twenty-three other nations contributed air and ground forces of some kind, ranging from full divisions to medical and chemical warfare teams. Twenty-three navies participated in operations in the Middle East and Mediterranean as well as eleven different air forces and twenty-two different armies. Turkey made a major contribution outside the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO) by massing its forces on Iraq’s northern border to produce a second front, and it opened its air bases to U.S. Air Force units. The military units from NATO countries fit easily into a system of coalition command, but to recognize Saudi participation and Arab sensitivities, the ground units of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman) remained under the command of Saudi Lieutenant General Khalid ibn Sultan rather than the formal coalition theater commander, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, U.S. Army and commanding general of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the successor of the RDJTF. Outside of General Khalid’s command, the largest Allied contingents were a British armored division and a French light armored division. Showing many flags along the “line drawn in the sand” did not exhaust American diplomatic goals; unlike the purchased Allied participation in Korea and Vietnam, the United States wanted some help—a great deal of help—with the direct costs of the war, estimated later at $100 billion from the treasury of the United States. The “United Fund” for the alliance reached $54 billion pledged and paid after the war’s end; outside of the Gulf Cooperation Council the largest donors were Japan, Germany, and Korea. Other nations provided base rights, services in kind, relief funds, and subventions to the cause.
The Bush administration’s successful diplomacy helped provide domestic political legitimacy to the intervention. The tides of support and reservation ebbed and flowed through Congress, the national media, and the public; approval of Bush’s early actions slipped away as August cooled into October, for serious questions arose about the nature, scope, and duration of the commitment. In November 1990 one national poll found that the public could muster a majority for only one reason to attack Iraq: To destroy its nuclear weapons. Only about one-third favored restoring the Kuwaiti government or protecting Middle East oil. Foreign policy gurus of both political parties clucked over the dangers of an extended ground war, the Iraqi use of nuclear or chemical weapons, and the danger of alienating the Arab world forever. Not until January 12, 1991, did Congress vote its support for the war, 52–47 in the Senate and 250–183 in the House. Another concern was the fate of the Western hostages, but Saddam Hussein, in one of several major miscalculations, released them in December. Calls for peaceful negotiations came from virtually every European capital, influenced by Iraqi threats of terrorism and Saddam’s demand for a final Palestinian solution. Whipsawed between his instinct to lead a crusade against Saddam Hussein and his craving for public approval, George Bush himself swayed in the breeze, but he had already set in motion a military juggernaut that he feared he would have to use to free Kuwait, if only in order to restore world confidence in America’s will to use force.
Dubbed Operation DESERT SHIELD, Central Command hastily patched together a rump version of a Middle East contingency plan (1002–90), and on August 7 the first F-15s landed in Saudi Arabia, followed by transports bearing the ready brigade of the U.S. 82d Division (Airborne). Their mission was simple: deter or stop an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia. Only eight weeks later would Schwarzkopf’s subordinate commanders feel certain they could accomplish this task. When the DESERT SHIELD deployment began, General Powell and the Joint Chiefs believed they would need four months to get an adequate force of 250,000 into the KTO and its relevant waters. Moving troops stretched Transportation Command’s air fleet beyond capacity, and civilian charter carriers had to fill the breach. Before the war ended aircraft had moved almost 500,000 troops and almost 600,000 tons of supplies to the Gulf.
But the logistical foundation of a high-technology foreign war, especially one using mechanized and airmobile ground forces, must move by sea. Fewer than 3,000 troops (mostly drivers) came by sea, but ships brought 3.4 million tons of supplies and equipment and 6.1 million tons of fuel. Unlike similar buildups in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, adequate port facilities awaited the vessels; unlike World War II, no lurking submarines took their toll. Even with a decade of preparation, the logistical basis for a major air war, especially the stockpiling of fuel and ordnance, required mighty labors. Improvisation and extemporized organization—including vast contracting to Middle Eastern businesses—became the order of the day and transformed the Saudi kingdom into a military bazaar. In the meantime Schwarzkopf’s principal forces fell into place—or, rather, drove out into the desert: the Army’s 82d Division (Airborne), 101st Division (Air Assault), and 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized); and the I Marine Expeditionary Force, an integrated air-ground team of one mechanized division and one tactical aircraft wing of fighter-bombers and helicopters. Air Forces Central Command under Lieutenant General Charles Horner, a joint and combined air component based on land and abroad carriers, had 600 Air Force combat aircraft of eight types and the Navy three (soon four) carrier groups available. Total allied air strength in the theater in September 1990 was over 1,200 planes.
As the diplomats pulled and the logisticians hauled, the Bush administration looked into the future in October–November 1990 and saw no easy light at the end of the sandstorm. A dictator with no significant internal opposition (at least no one who could kill him before he killed them), Saddam Hussein believed time was on his side. His own forces redeployed to defend Kuwait, regular army divisions were sent to the Saudi border to hunker down in elaborate sand fortifications and barriers, the crack mechanized Republican Guard divisions deployed as a mobile reserve west and north of Kuwait City. Estimates of Iraqi divisions in the KTO ran as high as thirty-six divisions, with 400,000–450,000 troops and 4,000 tanks. (Although electronics intelligence and photo reconnaissance could provide order-of-battle information, it could not gauge morale, training readiness, or the actual numbers of effectives, only “bean counts” of equipment and unit identifications.) From a coalition perspective, the Iraqis looked formidable, especially if they used their estimated 3,000 artillery pieces to spray the front with poison gas. Economic sanctions against Iraq took their bite in September; oil no longer left Iraq and few goods (including food) came in by air or sea. The economic embargo became a naval blockade. The coalition navies patrolled the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, especially the latter, since Iraq tried to slip supplies through Aqaba, the historic port of timorous Jordan. The navies challenged 7,500 merchant ships, conducted 964 boardings, fired 11 warning shots, and forced 51 ships to divert, with 90 percent of the incidents in the Red Sea. The economic war had, however, no appreciable impact on Saddam Hussein’s will or his army’s capability.
In early October the president asked whether the Joint Chiefs or the Central Command had an offensive plan for the liberation of Kuwait. The answer was “not quite,” although Cheney, Powell, and Schwarzkopf had discussed the option. They assumed that any offensive campaign would involve a massive air action, surpassing the scale of LINEBACKER operations in Vietnam in 1972; they also thought some ground campaign would be necessary but paled at the possible casualties. In fact, no senior military officer showed much enthusiasm for a ground attack. Nevertheless, Central Command tried its hand at some preliminary plans utilizing the force that would be on the ground in December and produced concepts that looked more like the Battle of the Somme than Patton’s drive across France in 1944. The problem was clearly the numbers and structure of the existing forces, so light and amphibious that any ground campaign would have to hug the coast. No matter how the joint planners struggled in Washington or Saudi Arabia, they could not produce an option of quick victory and light casualties unless the United States doubled its forces in the KTO. On November 8 Bush announced he would increase the American forces in order to create an offensive capability. The Joint Chiefs knew the numbers: Two heavy divisions and an armored cavalry regiment of the U.S. VII Corps would leave Germany for Saudi Arabia and draw into its structure two more heavy divisions from the United States, the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) and the 1st Cavalry Division (Armored). The Marine Corps would add another division to the I MEF and place a second amphibious brigade in the Gulf. The Navy would roughly double its ships in the area, and the Air Force would increase its operational squadrons by about one-third. The allies would also enlarge their committed forces.
The expanded size of DESERT SHIELD forced Bush to face a serious popular test of his commitment: the mobilization of military reservists for extended active duty that might last as long as two years. The first call in August brought 40,000 reservists to active duty; three more calls from November until January brought the number of activated reservists to 227,800, and an additional 10,000 volunteered for active duty. Though facing income losses and job insecurity, the reservists rallied to the colors, and 46 percent of them eventually served in the KTO. Moreover, the mobilization of reservists from all the services dramatized both the enduring strengths and weaknesses of the Total Force program. Three Army National Guard armor and infantry brigades could not meet deployment standards without additional intensive training and never reached the Gulf. Almost half of Army active-duty and reserve medical personnel could not meet deployment standards, and about one-fifth of all reservists proved unfit by training, physical condition, employment, or dependency. The active force faced a major problem of the “new age” military: About 25,000 service personnel could not deploy unless they made arrangements for others to care for their children. On the plus side, reservists of all the services and levels of military experience, from Vietnam veterans to high-school youths, fell in and soldiered alongside their active counterparts. Reserves provided the muscle of the logistics organization. Air Force reserve personnel became indistinguishable from their regular counterparts, and Army National Guard artillery and engineer battalions served with distinction in combat. as did the Marine reserve battalions augmenting the I MEF. On balance, the Total Force program worked at both the political and operational levels.
As DESERT SHIELD Phase II flooded Saudi Arabia with additional forces, military planners in Washington and Riyadh created the broad concepts for an offensive war against Iraq, working under the political guidance of Cheney and the strategic vision of General Powell, Air Force Chiefs of Staff Michael Dugan and Merrill McPeak, General Schwarzkopf, and General Horner. Representatives from the Navy and Marine Corps provided their expertise on Schwarzkopf’s and Horner’s staffs, but the naval services were not satisfied that real “jointness” characterized the planning. In any event, the planners all assumed that an offensive campaign characterized by speed of decision and tolerable casualties required an enormous air offensive. Although relatively untested by Iran, Iraq’s air-defense system looked formidable: A Soviet-style, highly integrated system of 1,000 aircraft (protected in concrete bunkers), 7,000 antiaircraft guns, and 10,000 antiaircraft missiles, all linked with redundant radar systems and communications nets. Clearly, this system would have to be defeated, but it could not have high priority alone. The Iraqis also had an estimated 600 Scud missiles, mobile and fixed, capable of hitting targets as far away as Tel Aviv and Riyadh; these missiles could carry chemical and biological weapons as well as high explosives. The air planners also planned to strike Iraq’s fixed political and military headquarters, its arms factories (including suspected nuclear weapons facilities), its military bases, and its communications-electrical power systems. The planners envisioned a thirty-day campaign that would start with a “strategic” air war on Iraq proper, then shift to the Iraqi forces in Kuwait. If a ground campaign proved necessary, air attrition would pave the way.
With their memories of the frustrations of the Vietnam War, the air offensive planners envisioned a bold strike, of an intensity dictated only by the plans, the weather, the air forces capability, and the enemy, not by the media or by political irresolution. One way to ensure this operational freedom, which would exploit tactical and technological surprise, was to destroy the targets (some 400 sets in the air war plan) with a minimum loss of civilian lives. This requirement meant that Iraq’s air-defense system had to be overwhelmed, so that the coalition bombers could use their new-generation precision-guided munitions without annoyance. Untested in real war since 1975 but trained and exercised throughout the 1980s, the massed air forces (2,600 aircraft, 1,900 of them American) had resources not fully appreciated by their own users, let alone the Iraqis. The aircraft and munitions themselves had been electronically mated with their targets with new precision, based on terminal guidance systems that gave precise thermal or visual aim points. The strike aircraft could find their targets under the direction of airborne air control (AWACS) and airborne ground target acquisition (JSTARS) systems, and they could be assisted by a fleet of aerial refuelers and electronic war aircraft. Teams of aircraft were prepared to hunt out and destroy all air-defense radar systems, assisted by Air Force and Army special operations helicopters. The major new capability was the F-117A Stealth attack bomber, whose radar-defeating characteristics made it invisible at night. To its own air capability the U.S. Navy added the Tomahawk cruise missile, also capable of precision attacks and terrain-following navigation right to the sites of Iraqi guns.
Under General Schwarzkopf’s direct prodding, ground war planning produced a scheme of maneuver for the liberation of Kuwait and the ruination of the Iraqi armies deployed south of the Euphrates River. The key to the plan appeared obvious. Most of the main effort would come through Iraq itself. A fast envelopment by the armored VII Corps would sweep into the area between the Iraqi city of Basra and Kuwait from the desert and oil fields to the west. The VII Corps would deploy one armored cavalry regiment, one mechanized infantry division that would breach the border defenses, and four armored divisions (one British). To protect the VII Corps’ western flank, the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps would conduct air-mobile and mechanized operations all the way to the Euphrates River, where it would interdict the highway-and-bridge complex that led to Baghdad. This corps was composed of the French 6th Light Armored Division, the 101st Air Assault Division, the 82nd Airborne Division, the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), and a second armored cavalry regiment. To fix the forward-deployed regular divisions of the Iraqi army, which would let VII Corps destroy the Republican Guard unmolested, two offensives would cross the Kuwaiti border and drive directly for the capital. The first was an all-Arab corps directed by General Khalid, the second (and nearest to the coast) the I MEF of two divisions (plus an Army armored brigade) and aircraft wing. Two Marine amphibious brigades remained at sea to provide at least a diversion, perhaps a seaborne assault. In place without refinements in November, Schwarzkopf’s plan required tactical surprise, plenty of air support, and logistical labors worthy of Hercules.
Schwarzkopf and his subordinates prudently remained cautious about the prospects of the ground campaign, stressing the formidable nature of the Iraqi defenses in Kuwait. In fact, they remained concerned about gas attacks, but their private appreciation of the Iraqi army changed with accumulated intelligence evidence collected by technical means and human sources. Such terms as “veteran” shifted to “war-weary” and “crack” to “ill-trained.” About two weeks into the air war, three Iraqi mechanized brigades attacked screening Marine and Arab reconnaissance forces at Khafji. All three spoiling attacks collapsed in flaming destruction under Allied ground and air counterattacks; Iraqi performance and POW interviews painted a picture of an Iraqi army fading under air bombardment and the prospect of an Allied offensive. On the other hand, Schwarzkopf worried about the uncertain levels of air destruction being meted out to the Republican Guard and the possibility that the Iraqis would curl back into Basra and Kuwait City and conduct a protracted urban defense, some sort of Arab Stalingrad in which his armored forces would be checkmated and his infantry exposed to heavy casualties.
When the last flurry of peacemaking faded, President Bush ordered the implementation of DESERT STORM on January 15, which brought the beginning of air operations two days later. The ground offensive started on February 24, and the war ended with a coalition victory and ceasefire on February 28. The Kuwaitis regained their ruined country under a blanket of black smoke, the product of hundreds of flaming oil wells sabotaged by the fleeing Iraqis. Some American troopers washed their Bradley fighting vehicles with the water of the Euphrates, and all looked in wonder at fields of destroyed and abandoned Iraqi tanks and mechanized vehicles. Variously predicted at between 1,000 and 5,000, American deaths were so light that they became individual tragedies, not organizational traumas. The Air Force lost 20 dead in battle, 6 in other deaths in prewar training and in thirty-nine days of fighting. The Army and the Marine Corps suffered 122 battle deaths (35 to friendly fire) and 131 noncombat fatalities. The Navy lost 6 sailors in action, 8 to other causes. And 15 American servicewomen died in the war, twice the number killed in seven years in Vietnam. The Allied forces of 254,000 suffered 92 combat deaths and 318 wounded. The damage to the Iraqi armed forces in terms of effectiveness was decisive. Only one-quarter to one-third of its ground, air, and naval forces survived the war, but this force proved adequate to keep Saddam Hussein in power in the face of Kurdish and Shi’a rebellions in 1991. Despite disturbing television pictures of charred vehicles, Iraqi casualties did not represent a slaughter of the innocents. Saddam’s government gave one estimate of around 20,000 dead, of whom 1,000 were civilians. Careful counting placed Iraqi losses at around 10,000 military dead and perhaps 2,000 civilians, 300 of them killed by a single bomb in a command-and-control bunker. The coalition forces accepted the surrender of perhaps 86,000 Iraqi soldiers, which proved to be almost half of the effectives in the KTO in February 1991. The survivors had retreated or deserted, not perished in the “mother of all battles.”
Although the air campaign did not fulfill all its expectations, it ruined the organizational and technical foundations of Iraqi strategic military power, for the bombing of Iraq’s air-defense system and military infrastructure came close to meeting General Horner’s objectives. The Iraqi air force perished in the air (42 planes and helicopters), burned on the ground (81), or fled to Iran (137); the rest sat out the war in their bunkers. Varied attacks by night and day at different altitudes and different directions by B-52s, F-117As, F -111Fs, strike versions of the F-15 and F-16, and Navy and Marine A-6s and F/A-18s gave the Iraqi air defenses unsolvable dilemmas, compounded by the secret use of pilotless drone decoys and Tomahawk cruise missiles. Coalition aircraft flew more than 116,000 sorties, 41,000 of which dropped ordnance, at a cost of only 52 fixed-wing aircraft from combat (37) and operational mishaps (15). Of the actual strike sorties, 23,000 fell on the Iraqi army in the KTO; the remaining 18,000 hit targets in Iraq that might be called “strategic.” The combination of high pilot experience, sophisticated planning, electronic warfare, advanced technology aircraft, state-of-the-art avionics, and precision-guided munitions gave tactical air warfare a new dimension of effectiveness.
The air war did not proceed as planned or with predictable results, and the distractions annoyed Schwarzkopf. CENTCOM wanted more sorties flown against the Iraqi army in the KTO, not against hard targets around Baghdad that had little bearing on the ground war to come. The Iraqis posed a strategic challenge by launching almost 400 SS-1 Scud B ground-launched ballistic missiles at targets in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Israel, January 15–17, 1991. An advanced missile developed by the Soviets on the technology of the German V-2, the Scud B had a range of 400 miles, traveled at hypersonic (Mach 2) speed, and carried a one-ton explosive warhead. It could also carry chemical weapons, as it had against the Iranians (50,000–100,000 estimated casualties from all kinds of chemical weapons), and Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” fell to the control of General Ali Hassan al-Majid, notorious comrade of Saddam Hussein and known as “Chemical Ali,” the scourge of Iranians, Kurds, and dissident Shi’a. The Iraqi Scud B was mobile, on a truck-like transporter-erector-launcher (TEL), but it still took at least thirty minutes or more to take on its liquid fuel. Nevertheless, the Scud B attacks threatened to draw Israel into the war and unnerve the Arab allies, both potential calamities for the coalition. Air defense suddenly took priority over the air offensive and continued throughout the war.
The defense against the Scuds fell to a U.S. Army brigade armed with the MIM-104 (GE) Patriot, a ground-launched air-defense missile first deployed in 1985 and thus untested in combat. The Patriot, also supersonic, could reach targets 100 miles away and as high as 74,000 feet. Guided by radar, it carried a high-explosive fragmentation warhead designed to kill Soviet aircraft and tactical missiles. Because it flew at twice the speed of the Patriot’s intended targets, Scud B (or al-Hussein) presented problems for Patriot’s computer software, guidance systems, and warhead. The Scud’s flight speed made a late intercept explosion an uncertain method of destruction. The Patriot’s pattern of deployment also focused on critical military facilities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies.
In the first week of the Gulf War the Iraqis fired eighty-eight Scud Bs at targets in Israel (42), Saudi Arabia (43), and Bahrain (3). Twelve Scuds fell on Israel before a Patriot battalion deployed there in the emergency. Patriot radars identified and tracked the other seventy-six Scuds and calculated their flights to the likely targets. Forty-seven Scuds seemed bound for critical targets, and Patriots streaked off for the intercept, forty-five of which may have been successful. Nevertheless, forty-two people died from Scud attacks, six in Israel. Twenty-eight Army personnel died and ninety-eight fell wounded in one Scud explosion in a warehouse billet-workplace in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on February 25. In this one (and dramatic) incident, the Patriot’s target acquisition software had eroded from extended use, an unanticipated effect. This episode enhanced the impression that the Patriot could not be judged a leak-proof defensive weapon. The growing analysis showed that of the 158 Patriots launched, the “hits” had not necessarily destroyed the Scuds. Half the Scuds had destroyed themselves within flight because of poor engineering. While the Army overcame the Patriot’s warhead and software problems, CENTCOM used fifty tactical aircraft and U.S. and British special forces to conduct the “Great Scud Hunt” in Iraq’s desert wastelands. In the desert the spotter teams searched for Scud TELs, and the allied air forces sent 2,400 sorties against potential sites with limited success, but the strikes kept the TELs on the run or hidden in caves. General Schwarzkopf understood why General Horner had to divert strikes from Iraqi armor and artillery, but he did not like the distraction. Fixing the Patriot became a postwar priority.
Another air war problem was the question of targeting and civilian casualties. Although Washington did not alter the air plans much, it did intervene to stop missions in the Baghdad area for fear of bad publicity (from the American media inside Iraq) about civilian bombing deaths. Although the armed forces had developed criteria they believed met moral and legal tests of “innocence” for civilians, military commanders could not always persuade civilian leaders that Iraqi politicians, police, technocrats, and weapons engineers had forfeited noncombatant status. When in doubt, the air planners lost political and psychological targets. The war ended, however, before the problem reached Vietnam-era levels of dissent.
With confidence born of hard training and immense fire support, Schwarzkopf’s four-corps army (with two corps designated as U.S. 3rd Army) rolled into action in the early hours of February 24 and halted in victory 100 hours later. On paper the Iraqi army facing them numbered fifty-one divisions (eight of them Republican Guard), but only seventeen of them were truly mobile. The rest were committed to the belt of defenses between the border and Kuwait City and across the mouth and eastern edge of the Wadi al-Batin, a broad depression that the Iraqis believed the Americans would use for a short envelopment just north of Kuwait City. Seven divisions guarded the coast from the embarked Marines. Intelligence analysts now suspected that the Iraqi divisions totaled much less than their nominal strength of between 400,000 and 500,000, and that their equipment had been hard hit by Allied air attacks and a lack of maintenance; nevertheless, the defensive barriers, surviving artillery, and a decently handled force of 200,000–250,000 Iraqis could still inflict worrisome casualties, especially with chemicals. The Allies did not enjoy numerical superiority.
The first attacks, however, dramatized American military prowess, as most of the breaching operations progressed ahead of schedule with few casualties. Suppressing artillery fire and engineering vehicles allowed the troops to destroy the ditches, fortifications, walls, and tank traps; mines proved, as always, the real problem. Since I MEF and the 1st Infantry Division had both started the mobile phase of the operation—accompanied by the western sweep of XVIII Corps—Schwarzkopf ordered VII Corps and the Arab divisions to start the envelopment eighteen hours ahead of schedule. Despite some serious but small battles with elements of four Republican Guard divisions, the coalition armies swept forward amid cold, rain, oil smoke, and inhospitable terrain. Close air-support aircraft, mainly Air Force A-10s, Marine AV-8s, and Army helicopters, cleared the way, but much of the margin of victory came from Allied heavy artillery and mobile rocket batteries. The U.S. VII Corps, however, did not close the trap on the Republican Guard, being slowed by tank refueling (every three hours), fear of friendly-fire casualties (e.g., seventeen of twenty destroyed Bradleys), and an inordinate concern for an orderly advance. What should have been a speedy pursuit remained a careful attack. When the shooting stopped Saddam Hussein had salvaged enough of his army—most of four Republican Guard divisions and the refuse of the regular forces—to remain in power.
Some Americans, military and civilian, soon wondered if the Bush administration had not started its celebration too soon. Although Iraq accepted the draconian terms of disarmament, reparations, and compensation imposed by UN Resolutions 687 and 688 (April 1991), Saddam Hussein blocked international inspection of his remaining facilities (especially those with nuclear and chemical-weapons potential) and searched for ways to escape the still-binding economic sanctions while he rebuilt his security forces, at least for suppressing internal rebellion. During the war the American public would have supported a campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but a wider war and a partitioned Iraq did not appeal to the European and Arab Allies. One consideration was that a destroyed Iraq could play no future role in containing Iran. Such realpolitik also exposed thousands of Kurds and Shi’as in Iraq to death and exile. The best the Allies would do was to provide them with relief, and Operation PROVIDE COMFORT in 1991 protected and fed nearly 60,000 Kurds. Iran welcomed Shi’a refugees.
The Persian Gulf War demonstrated that the United States armed forces could fight and win one type of conventional war far from its own shores—as long as the enemy chose to fight like a Soviet surrogate and allowed itself to be isolated from meaningful external aid. In a strategic sense, the war showed that Russia could not help its protégés, even those close to its own borders. One analyst remarked that the war proved that the United States could win where there were no trees. In an operational sense the Americans showed that they had the skill, leadership, training, equipment and doctrine to prevail—if allowed to execute their own plans within predetermined strategic goals. George Bush asserted that the Gulf War showed that America had put the ghost of Vietnam behind it. Two years later the more general judgment was that the United States should put the ghost of the Gulf War behind it too.