By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communications and Outreach Division
After World War II, the U.S. Navy was the undisputed leader on the world’s oceans. Still, U.S. military leaders recognized the importance of partnerships as a force multiplier and as a way of openly displaying solidarity with other nations. Just two score and five years after the Japanese surrender, the philosophy of military partnerships would be put to the test and emerge with stunning success when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s troops invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, 1990.
Because naval forces were on station and ready, and thanks to maritime partnerships, the U.S. and her allies were able to quell Iraq’s invasion at the borders of Kuwait and maintain freedom of the seas in the area.
It was Aug. 7, 1990 when President George H.W. Bush committed U.S. forces to Operation Desert Shield for the protection of Saudi Arabia, five days after Hussein sent troops into Kuwait.
The U.S. Navy and her partner navies were ready for business. The ships of Joint Task Force Middle East, a legacy of U.S. Navy presence in the region since 1949, were placed on alert at the time of the invasion by the Department of Defense. Battle groups led by aircraft carriers Independence (CV 62) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) cruised in from the Indian Ocean and Eastern Mediterranean to take up positions in the Gulf of Oman and Red Sea, respectively. Desert Shield was the start of the largest, fastest strategic sealift in history at the time, with more than 240 ships carrying more than 18.3 billion pounds of equipment and supplies to sustain the forces of Desert Shield and eventually Desert Storm.
Maritime superiority and forward deployment gave the U.S. another edge during the beginning days of Desert Shield. Such control of the seas, backed by experience, provided leadership for the 23 nations whose naval forces participated in the operation. The ability of the U.S. Navy to operate effectively with so many maritime partnerships was built by more than 40 years of close cooperation with NATO navies and other allies. Familiarity with the geography and those crucial maritime partnerships were gained through a continued presence in the Gulf, which demonstrated the U.S.’s military and political staying power in the Middle East.
Common interests among the maritime partners allowed allied naval forces to implement and sustain United Nations trade sanctions against Iraq immediately after they were imposed, severing Hussein’s economic lifeline while assuring safe and secure commerce on the world’s oceans.
“By established rule and justice, the determination (of rights and responsibilities) belongs primarily to those immediately on the spot, in actual possession,” believed legendary naval historian Rear Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan about the need for mobile maritime forces.
Low-key but close military ties with friendly Arab states, developed during four decades of maritime partnership operations in the region, helped pave the way for the quick introduction of U.S. ground and air forces into Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
That type of partnership-building was a sentiment shared by Mahan, who actually coined the term “Middle East” in 1902. “Naval force has the quality of mobility which carries with it the privilege of temporary absences; but it needs to find on every scene of operation established bases of refit, of supply, and in case of disaster, of security.”
Multinational naval cooperation was demonstrated in many warfare areas in the weeks and months that followed Bush’s commitment, but was most evident in the joint maritime interception campaign. Enforcement of United Nations sanctions weakened Iraqi forces prior to Desert Storm and imposed a heavy burden on Iraq’s economy. Through April 1991, more than 9,200 merchant ships had been challenged, and more than 1,200 boarded for inspection by the U.S. and her maritime partners. Countless ships were deterred from on-loading Iraqi oil and other products for export. The impact of the embargo was clearly felt by Iraqi soldiers in the trenches, eroding their morale that no doubt saved coalition lives after their quick surrender once ground combat began.
As demonstrated by Desert Shield, the future is maritime partnerships, where the world’s navies must be able to come together quickly for common interests and to secure the world’s oceans. After five months of diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions failed to get Hussein out of Kuwait, when Desert Storm began it unleashed a massive joint and combined force with Naval and allied forces playing an essential role providing carriers for air strikes and cruisers, destroyers, battleships and submarines launching a combined total of 288 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Naval forces literally eliminated Iraq’s navy and within 100 hours of the beginning of ground battle, Iraq’s troops had surrendered.
Then Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Carlisle Trost, a proponent of maritime partnerships working together on common interests, wrapped it up with a quote in the May 1990 Proceedings magazine: “When a crisis confronts a nation, the first question often asked by policymakers is: ‘What naval forces are available and how fast can they be on station?’”
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