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Help From Above in the Desert: Scott AFB & the Gulf War, 1990-1991 Part 1: DESERT SHIELD

  • Published
  • By by Kris Matthews
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

The second half of 1990 was a very busy time for Scott AFB.  The aeromedical evacuation system structure changed, with three of the four 375th Military Airlift Wing’s AE squadrons being realigned to the parent wings at their home base.  Air Force Communications Command was downsizing from a major command to a field operating agency, which saw the 1974th Communications Group brought to the 375th Military Airlift Wing and redesignated as the 375th Communications Group.  The Staff Judge Advocate office was moved from the 375th Combat Support Group (currently Mission Support Group) to the wing staff.  Scott’s C-21s were regularly rotating to Howard Air Base, Panama to provide distinguished visitor airlift; Scott’s C-9As were flying 300-400 patients around the continental United States each day.  Six C-29s were coming to Scott as the 2467th Facility Checking Squadron was realigning under the 375th.  A major earthquake was even predicted to hit the area in December 1990; although it did not come to pass, the preparation for it understandably added to the base’s workload and stress.  On top of all that were the routine operations, training, inspections, and more that occupied Team Scott’s time.

A Madman Emerges

Life at Scott was already hectic enough on 2 August 1990, when Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein invaded his resource-richer but militarily-weaker neighbor, Kuwait.  Having recently emerged from a long, bloody stalemate with Iran that both sides would declare as a victory, Hussein faced mounting financial woes as a result of the war, including a $14 billion debt to Kuwait.  Hussein also claimed that Kuwait exceeded the crude oil production quota set by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was driving down global oil prices and intentionally caused Iraq more financial stress; Hussein claimed this was Kuwait waging “economic warfare” against Iraq.  In a foreshadowing of current events in Europe, Iraq claimed that Kuwait had traditionally been an Iraqi territory until the Western powers carved up the Middle East after World War I, therefore Iraq would be justified in annexing it.  In late July, Iraqi forces began a massive buildup along the Iraq-Kuwait border, which culminated in the 2 August invasion, a combined arms operation including armor, airpower, infantry, special operations, and four divisions of the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard. 

Kuwait quickly fell, and the world expressed anti-Iraq sentiment, including countries that had been aligned with Iraq.  The day after the invasion began, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the invasion and demanding Iraq immediately and unconditionally withdraw from Kuwait, with UN sanctions on Iraq soon following.  US President George H.W. Bush told reporters “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” He also announced that while the US would move forward with diplomacy, military options were being considered as well.

Another global concern was that Hussein would not stop at Kuwait, and that neighboring Saudi Arabia was also at risk of invasion as it had loaned $26 billion to finance Iraq’s war against Iran.  If Iraq successfully conquered Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein would be in control of 65% of the world’s oil.  As the Iraqi saber-rattling against the Saudis began after the defeat of Kuwait, President Bush invoked the doctrine set by previous President Jimmy Carter, which stated that the US would respond with military force, if necessary, to protect its interests in the Persian Gulf.  The Carter Doctrine had emerged as a response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.  On 7 August, Saudi monarch King Fahd asked US Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney for military assistance.  The buildup of forces to prevent Iraq from crossing the Saudi border began, codenamed Operation DESERT SHIELD.

Team Scott Enters the Fight

As the Middle East had been an area of concern for quite some time, Military Airlift Command had been exercising the ability to support the mass deployment of US forces there throughout the 1980s via the BRIGHT STAR exercises, which were large-scale military training missions conducted in Egypt.  With DESERT SHIELD in full swing, this finely honed capability was put into play by the Mobility Air Forces, moving over 200,000 US troops and their equipment into the region.  General Merrill McPeak, then-Chief of Staff of the Air Force, compared it to conducting the equivalent of the 65-week Berlin Airlift every six weeks.  Scott was no exception, tasked with mission support, facility checking, operational support airlift, and medical services. 

Most Team Scott Airmen deployed to the Persian Gulf were assigned to the 1630th Tactical Airlift Wing (Provisional), more commonly known as the 1st Desert Airlift Wing (1 DAWg).  The earliest 375th MAW assets deployed were 175 mission support personnel tasked to provide food service, ground transportation, administrative support, religious support, base construction, and ground defense.  The first several months of DESERT SHIELD were spent building tent cities around airfield runways to support the massive amounts of troops deploying in daily.  Chaplains and Services personnel worked hard to provide a schedule of activities to occupy Airmen off-duty and boost morale.

Scott Medical Center (currently known as the 375th Medical Group) deployed 122 members, including its commander Colonel Paul Carlton, Jr., to operate a 250-bed field hospital in Saudi Arabia.  Those deployers were backfilled at Scott by reservists.  The deployed medics were soon tasked to expand it to accommodate over 1,000 patients, making it the largest hospital in the war theater.  Throughout the deployment, the hospital performed 46 surgeries, including appendectomies and hernia repairs, along with more common injuries such as broken bones, eye injuries from blowing sand, dehydration, snake bites, and scorpion stings.  Fortunately the hospital’s massive capacity was not needed, and they only treated about 100 patients during the war.  Colonel Carlton reported that one of the biggest challenges his troops faced was fighting off boredom, but kept it in perspective: “What a delightful thing that is for a medic,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a telephone interview.

Scott’s flyers were sent to support the defense of Saudi Arabia as well.  C-21A and C-12F aircrews moved US and coalition leaders around the world and within the area of operations.  The newly-assigned C-29s of the 1467th Facility Checking Squadron flew 636 hours during DESERT SHIELD, ensuring that the airfields supporting military aircraft and the Civil Air Reserve Fleet had operational and calibrated navigational systems.  “Our big objective is to line up the navigation system; that means checking the reception and accuracy,” said Major Gene Miller, chief of the Flight Inspection Management Division at Scott.  These missions included Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Diego Garcia, and Oman.  Over 90% of the airfields had incorrect data that impacted air operations.  In some cases, crews would have to land and deplane to verify latitudes and longitudes with a handheld Global Positioning System receiver.

Some airfields didn’t have these aids at all, making them usable only in daylight; the installation of the systems would make them operational 24 hours a day.  These navigational aids were vital as the strong shamal winds blew over the region, cloaking airfields in the dense clouds of sandstorms and resulting in extremely restricted visibility.   “What we did initially is bring all the bases being used for strategic flow up to instrument capability.  In other words, when the weather got bad, they had instrument landing capability,” said Lieutenant Colonel Rici Johnson, 1467th FCS commander. 

The UN Security Council passed another resolution in late November 1990: Saddam Hussein had until 15 January 1991 to completely withdraw Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.  The days and weeks passed by with no movement by the Iraqis, and as the deadline arrived, the US-led coalition made good on the consequences of ignoring the ultimatum.  This would lead to one of the most dominant military performances in history.