Interview with Desert Storm Air Boss

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June 1991


Conversation With Chuck Horner 

By Richard Mackenzie 


The Desert Storm "air boss" describes how the campaign was planned and fought.

Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, Central Air Forces commander, analyzed the performance of Air Force weapons, tactics, and personnel in Operation Desert Storm when he spoke with Richard Mackenzie at USCENTAF headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March.

Q: The success of the ground war seems largely due to the phenomenal success of the air war. Would you agree?

A: I think a lot of people have made that case. I'm not one to. I think you have to examine it. I go at it from a little different approach. I don't try to find the answer. I try to find what we did

right, what [the ground forces] did right, and how we worked together. I’d say the things that helped the ground war were [Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's] directions to us to take out armor and artillery. I think that was the key to [the ground forces'] low casualties. I think the success of the land war is because of initiative and maneuver and the way they did it. They worked together.

Q: Let's go back to the beginning. You arrived early.

A: August 5.

Q: I understand that, among the three or four generals here at the time, the only weapon was a pocket-knife.

A: [Lt. Gen.] John Yeosock [Commander of the Third Army] had it. I was acting for the CINC [Commander in Chief Schwarzkopf], and John, of course, headed the land forces. One night I said to him, "Jack, what have you got to defend us?" He pulled out his pocket-knife. That was it.

Q: Obviously the logistics, the buildup, and everything that followed worked. When you first started thinking about the possibility of conflict, of employing the Air Force, did you start thinking about strategic targets?

A: This goes back well before August. This goes back a year or so before August.

When General Schwarzkopf took over, he brought us in and we talked about what kind of military planning we should be looking at. Before, we had focused on a Russian invasion of Iran. That was the early 1980s, General Schwarzkopf said, "That's just not going to happen. Russia is a changed state. They have internal problems that will preclude them from attacking Iran. So what we need to do is look at other situations where our country may call upon us to function."

Iraq Could Cause Problems

The obvious potential was this huge military power called Iraq causing problems for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. At that time, we went back and studied the problem. [Around March 1990], I went to General Schwarzkopf and gave him a long briefing that I had coordinated with the Army, with General Yeosock. I had stopped by his headquarters in Atlanta. We looked at what kind of things would be important from an air standpoint if there were going to be a conflict in this part of the world.

At that time, we talked about Patriots defending against Scuds. We talked about how we would provide close air support to the Army in a very fluid desert maneuver battle. We talked about chemical weapons and how we could counter chemical weapons. Also during that time, we talked about attacking [Saddam's] war-making potential-strategic targeting, if you want to call it that.

We've been working this, from a theoretical standpoint, and I've been identifying the resources I would need to bring to the party if the party ever were to occur--in terms of command and control, in terms of types of airplanes, where you'd bed them down.

Now the Air Force had about $1 billion worth of prepositioned equipment. All this stuff was over here already--ammunition and fuel and things like that.

In July, we went to Florida, and we actually exercised a scenario very similar to this. We looked at working together with the Army and the Navy. The one thing we didn't exercise was working with the other nations. It was just too hard to conjure up how they would be involved.

Q: Who would have thought up the coalition?

A: We sat there and watched in wonder as Iraq built up on the border. I think most of us were convinced that nothing would come of it. We believed the Arab brethren would never attack one another and things like that. So when we were invited to come over here by the Saudi Arabians, we were immediately intent on deterring an invasion of Saudi Arabia or defending Saudi Arabia if deterrence should fail.

Thinking Ahead

At that time, I was over here as the acting CENTCOM commander for CENTCOM Forward while General Schwarzkopf was in the States, organizing the deployment and sending stuff over. We'd bedded it down. At that time, he asked the Joint Staff to develop target material, a list of targets, and that was sent over here about the second or third week of August. We took that information-there were between fifty and 100 targets nominated-- and we said, "OK. How would we strike these?" And we laid out a tasking order for that. About the third week in August, or the end of August, knowing the forces that were coming in, we were ready to conduct offensive operations. We had no guidance to do that, no mission to do that. That was just 'what-if" planning.

Q: You considered it just part of the job?

A: That's right. You think ahead. It became apparent that our deterrence was working. About mid-September, we had sufficient ground forces to defend Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack. When the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division got here, we were in pretty good shape.

Then we worked hard at developing an offensive air campaign. I had the luxury of doing that [since] I had the [first] mission taken care of, that of deterring and defending. I created a group under [Brig. Gen. Buster C.] Glosson, . . . It was his job to build upon the fundamental goals that the CINC laid out for us. The CINC defined the overall campaign, and we took the air portion of that campaign, such things as getting control of the air. That was first and foremost, because then you're allowed to do all other things. Other things would be to destroy [Saddam's] long-range offensive capability. That would include the Scuds, [Iraq's] research and development production, their warheads, chemical production, and nuclear/biological production and storage. We would isolate the leadership from the battlefield--that's communications.

You have those overall goals, and you develop targets that support that. Essentially, that was inherent in the targets we had already worked up.

We continued to probe and seek and refine, and [the list] grew to about 350 to 400 targets. As we added forces over time, we compressed the time the campaign would require. Meantime, of course, the Army was also doing similar planning. We developed what we would do to the [enemy] forces in the field, the Republican Guard kind of being a strategic target, the Army in the field having to be addressed in light of what the ground campaign looked like, which units you attack based on what the ground guys plan to do.

The whole campaign fleshed out: strategic in detail, ground in terms of destroying certain aspects-artillery and armor-which really never changed. And, obviously, isolating the battlefield. We did not want the Republican Guards to run away early in the campaign. We wanted them to stay fixed, so we could destroy them [where they were].

They obliged, surprisingly. We didn't think they would. General Schwarzkopf was very concerned about them decamping and going back to Baghdad or spreading out. Fortunately, they stayed nicely grouped up for us.

No Idea of Airpower

Q: They just didn't seem to know what was coming?

A: Two things worked against the enemy. One is that Saddam decided to maintain absolute control, and he is obviously a very sorry soldier. He doesn't have a clue.

Second, there is no doubt in my mind that they had no idea what au-power is. We flew in one day as many sorties as [Saddam] faced in eight years of war with Iran. He had no air experience. There was nobody to teach him. He used his own air force so poorly.

Q: Had he used his air force, such as it was, could it have been more difficult for you?

A: Yes. You could say that about any element of his military forces, except maybe the Scuds, which he used about as well as he could under the circumstances. Any of my captains could have run his air force and caused much more trouble than he did. They wouldn't have prevailed. Instead of a six-week war, it might have been a twelve-week war, or a four-month war.

Q: All Iraqi military decisions have to be approved by Saddam himself.

A: We knew that right from the start. One of his principal weaknesses was centralized command.

Q: We've seen the bomb going down the air shaft. That was the F- 117. It played a huge role in the air war.

A: It did. The A-10s and the F-16s did a lot of work that was not really heralded. They basically kept pressure on Saddam during the daytime. He could not move his forces. He just had to sit there and absorb punishment during the daytime. The F-117s, F-111s and F-15Es gained a lot of positive notoriety because the taping system allowed you to see what they did. They were very, very efficient. You'd send a -117 out and it would kill one or two targets, bang. That was it-every night. In past wars, that would have taken several days of bombing by a whole armada. You saw the building take the one 2,000-pound bomb. To take out that building in World War II would have taken a raid of B-17s-- 150 or 300 airplanes. That's the benefit you get out of the precision weapon. Furthermore, the -117 strikes anywhere at will. There is nothing to stop it.

Q: What types of targets did you use the F-l 11 for?

A: The -117, the -111, and the F-15E and, to some extent, the F-16 LANTIRN aircraft all did much the same work. They were most useful against hard-point targets, bunkers, aircraft shelters, bridges, the things you saw on television. . . . They were very efficient. We did adapt the F-15E with 500-pound bombs to hit individual tanks. They would go out and take out 100 to 200 tanks a night. We called it "tank plinking."

Q: That's rather a quaint term.

A: Fighter pilots do that. At first, General Schwarzkopf asked us to name it something more "combat," like "tank busting." Of course, whenever you tell tighter pilots to do something they do exactly the opposite. "Tank plinking" became the preferred term.

A-10s vs. F-16s

Q: Did the war have any effect on the Air Force's view of the A-10?

A: No. People misread that. People were saying that airplanes are too sophisticated and that they wouldn't work in the desert, that you didn't need all this high technology, that simple and reliable was better, and all that.

Well, first of all, complex does not mean unreliable. We're finding that out. For example, you have a watch that uses transistors rather than a spring. It's infinitely more reliable than the windup watch that you had years ago. That's what we're finding in the airplanes.

Those people . . . were always championing the A-10. As the A-10 reaches the end of its life cycle-- and it's approaching that now--it's time to replace it, just like we replace every airplane, including, right now, some early versions of the F-16.

Since the line was discontinued, [the A-10's champions] want to build another A-10 of some kind. The point we were making was that we have F-16s that do the same job.

Then you come to people who have their own reasons-good reasons to them, but they don't necessarily compute to me-who want to hang onto the A-10 because of the gun. Well, the gun's an excellent weapon, but you'll find that most of the tank kills by the A-10 were done with Mavericks and bombs. So the idea that the gun is the absolute wonder of the world is not true.

Q: This conflict has shown that?

A: It shows that the gun has a lot of utility, which we always knew, but it isn't the principal tank-killer on the A-IO. The [Imaging Infrared] Maverick is the big hero there. That was used by the A-10s and the F-16s very, very effectively in places like Khafji.

The other problem is that the A-10 is vulnerable to hits because its speed is limited. It's a function of thrust, it's not a function of anything else. We had a lot of A-10s take a lot of ground fire hits. Quite frankly, we pulled the A-10s back from going up around the Republican Guard and kept them on Iraq's [less formidable] front-line units. That's line if you have a force that allows you to do that. In this case, we had F-16s to go after the Republican Guard.

Q: At what point did you do that?

A: I think I had fourteen airplanes sitting on the ramp having battle damage repaired, and I lost two A- 10s in one day [February 15], and I said, "I've had enough of this." It was when we really started to go after the Republican Guard.

Initially, much of the air assets were devoted to strategic targets, to make sure we got those down, while we were also hitting the frontline forces. As we killed off the research and development stuff-storage, those kinds of targets-we brought more and more assets into the Kuwait Theater of Operation. We really started heating the battle up in the KTO.

Q: General Schwarzkopf said that he didn't care to kill the Republican Guard; his goal was to break its will.

A: He never emphasized the killing of people. I think that is personally abhorrent to him, as it is to most of us. It really didn't serve any purpose other than to ensure hatred in the postwar era. What we had to do is destroy the enemy's capability to inflict casualties on us. Since we were fighting tanks, the way you do that is destroy tanks and artillery. I think we were very successful at that.

Avoiding Civilian Targets

Q: In that vein, you clearly avoided civilian areas. But what about the notorious bunker incident? What do you feel now, looking back?

A: The story that has been told all along is the true story. The bunker was a military target. It was being used for military purposes. It was one of several that were targeted and struck. The only thing I could think of while I was trying to figure out what happened was [that Iraqi military] guys on the third floor down [in the underground bunker] had probably brought their families in. It's a horrible tragedy. Somebody said, "You failed to know they were in there." The answer is, "We just don't know everything."

Q: You're not watching it twenty-four hours?

A: It's just that you are always dealing with less than perfect knowledge. If we had perfect knowledge, I probably could have defeated him with one bullet.

Q: Was the bunker incident frustrating to you? The inability to release peripheral intelligence that would have proved conclusively that you were telling the truth?

A: Not particularly. I understood the outcry from the press. Just as I don't overreact to favorable news, I don't overreact to criticism.

The concern would come if the President or the Secretary of Defense had overreacted to the criticism. I'm sure they thought it was a tragedy, but we never received any attempt to limit what we did with regard to operations.

Everybody recognized it was unfortunate, but it had very little impact on the conduct of operations.

Q: It didn't slow you down at all? It didn't make you think twice?

A: You see, we'd been thinking about that all along. Thinking twice wasn't appropriate. We would scrupulously look at attack axes. We'd look at the target. We discounted some targets because of proximity to civilian areas that were likely to suffer damage. We discounted some targets because they were near antiquities. Saddam learned that very quickly. He started tiring Scuds out of residential areas. There's an infamous picture of two MiG-21s parked by a temple.

Q: Let's talk about the great Scud hunt. For a militarily ineffective weapon, that missile made you spend an inordinate amount of time chasing it down.

A: Sure. It had tremendous psychological impact on the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and it was a threat to Bahrain.

We spent a great deal of effort on eliminating the Scuds or at least inhibiting their operations. We were blessed in that the failure of Saddam's air force gave me extra assets that I would otherwise have had to use for bombing airfields, orbiting in Combat Air Patrol, and things like that.

Fortunately, it didn't constrain our overall operation. But we certainly employed many, many more assets toward keeping the Scuds inhibited than we originally thought we'd have to.

Q: Than would normally make sense?

A: If you did a military equation, yes. But there is a point that you shouldn't miss. Any country nowadays has the capacity to put another country in strategic jeopardy. If, psychologically, you combine the Scud with chemicals. . . . No, the Scud is World War II level. Let's take something from the 1960s, Atlas, [for example]. If you put chemical weapons on it, it doesn't make it a good military weapon, it makes it a hell of a psychological weapon to civilians.

If you put on some kind of nuclear device, suddenly anybody can be a world power. It's going to affect the way we approach international security arrangements. I think that, if one country sees another country developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, they will take a far more serious view of it than they would have.

Q: This is war by terrorism?

A: In a form.


Q: What's your assessment of the Joint STARS performance?

A: It's in research and development testing. It worked very well. It does for the ground picture what AWACS does for the air picture. It allows you to see what the enemy is doing in terms of movement, in terms of massing.

Q: Was it originally in your planning?

A: No. The reason it came here, quite frankly, is that part of its research and development testing involved a demonstration in Europe. They had taken two prototypes to Europe and had flown them to see how they'd work. They worked tine. So somebody said, "Since it worked in Europe, why not try it down here?" We didn't do testing. We brought it over and used it.

Q: Was that a pleasant surprise?

A: Let's put it this way: It was reasonable to expect that it would work. It was also reasonable to expect that we would have Ph.Ds. maintaining it, which I'm sure was the case. So it was not an operational system that we flew, but it was a system that worked and provided the information we wanted.

Q: Was there something that you wanted but did not get?

A: We wanted field jackets made out of [desert camouflage] material. They never got here.

Fortunately, we fought the battle in the cool time of year. But I have long been trying to get lightweight chemical gear. If we had fought in the summer and we had had an actual chemical environment, it would have been a problem. Our chemical gear is built for Europe. The heat stress would have been very high.

There's no reason to have that kind of heavy protective garment. In theory and probably in practicality, we could have met the threat with much lighter gear. That's one thing I wanted. I had all the weapons I wanted. We didn't have all the weapons we wanted prepositioned. . . . that's fine, we brought a lot of things in.

Q: Any other pleasant surprises?

A: We had a-pleasant surprise with the Global Positioning System. This was the first time we had used it. The forward air controllers really liked it. They were out in the middle of this trackless desert where the maps actually looked like this bare table. There is no relief on the map. Everything is the same, so it's very difficult to know where you are, and that's important if you're a forward air controller.

Q: Explain how GPS played into the operation.

A: It's a series of satellites. First, you receive a time signal from them. Since the system knows where the satellites are, it can measure the time distance, and it says, "OK, here's where you are." It reads out your latitude and longitude. If you want to go to another place, you type in the "lat" and "long" and it will say, "OK, steer this course for so many miles."

High Safety Rates

Q: Your safety record has been described as "absolutely amazing."

A: Yes. We have a good safety record. We had some accidents, obviously, when we first got here. Everyone was concerned. You never are pleased with anything other than perfection.

From a realistic standpoint, you know that if you're practicing to survive in combat, you're going to have some accidents. We normally use about three [accidents] per 100,000 [flying] hours as a guideline. If you're getting less than three, your training is probably not as challenging as it might need to be. If it gets above three, then you're . . . getting into resource expenditure you can ill afford.

Q: What was your rate?

A: We never got a full year of flying, so we don't know. I would say it was probably around that number.

Q: On one side or the other?

A: It depends. We had two three accidents right off the bat, so that put us high on the curve. When people got used to the environment and what we were practicing for, boom, it dropped way down.

Q: What about the US deaths from friendly fire?

A: It is a worthwhile point to discuss, because it's something we pay a lot of attention to. We had three incidents that I know of. There may well have been more. On the night of Khafji, we had an A-10 shoot a missile that hit a Marine armored vehicle and killed some guys.

I don't know whether it was misidentification of the target or the missile did what we call a "hardover." If you look at the [pilot's] video clip, he is locked on to a target at the end of [an enemy] column. The Marines were raiding the "V" to hit the lead vehicles. It's probable that the missile came off, the seeker head locked down, and the missile [did a forty-five degree turn] and got a one-in-a-million BB shot.

Q: He was locked onto another target, however?

A: Yes.

Q: An enemy target?

A: Yes. I tend to believe that, but we have no way of knowing.

Q: The others?

A: The second was [a fighter-bomber attack] on a Marine column. The allied aircraft dropped [cluster bombs] on them. That would be misidentification because they're ballistic weapons. That happens.

Then we had an A-10 hit a British vehicle. In that case, it was a failure in command and control. The forward air controller was a British guy. The [US planes] had taken off, and they came on station. They were cleared to a crossroads with a police station or a border post or something.

So the FAC cleared them, and he said, "We do not have any friendly forces within 4,000 meters, four kilometers of your location." So the US pilots . . . saw this column in the north coming in, and they shot at them. In fact, it was British people.

Q: What had you done to guard against that happening?

A: We had a whole series of measures designed to preclude these kinds of things from happening. It's a very high-level concern. We have books written on the subject. We have all sorts of measures.

For example, I had more than 2,200 Air Force people on the ground up north with various units. Their two purposes were to coordinate air and ground operations and to preclude this blue-on-blue from occurring. Plus we have all kinds of rules. This was discussed early. I discussed it with [General Schwarzkopf] because I said we would probably fight alongside allied forces. While we understood our procedures, because we practice them all the time-daily in exercises and on the ranges at the forts in the States -we don't practice with, say, the Saudi Arabian Army.

That's when we first talked about things like colored panels, and you've seen the inverted V painted on everything. It goes well beyond airplanes, to TOW missiles and tank guns and that kind of stuff.

Q: Pilots who worked the battle of Khafji spoke openly of problems.

A: After Khafji, we realized it was an extremely difficult task. A lot of these systems like the LANTIRN and the Maverick are relatively new to the inventory, so we don't have a lot of experience practicing with these devices in joint exercises. When the war started, we looked at putting things like infrared flashers and stuff like that on vehicles. We never really got a chance to develop additional measures like that.

The main thing we did was talk to the guys and say, "If in doubt, don't drop." That's what it amounted to.

[Friendly fire is] a terrible thing. Of course, the guys feel very badly about it. But I would imagine there are infantrymen who got shot by their own infantrymen.

Q: But measures were pretty much limited to the colored panels and the inverted Vs?

A: The fundamental system is the support coordination line. It is generally out to about the limit of friendly artillery. Anything inside that line has to be controlled by a forward air controller. That is how the pilot operates. He can't drop [ordnance] unless he's cleared by a forward air controller, except in an emergency. Under these rules, the Army assumes responsibility for where the ordnance lands. Outside the fire support coordination line, the flight leader is allowed to attack any target within the general rules of engagement.

Managing Air Traffic

Q: Managing the air traffic, of course, was a mammoth task.

A: A big job. We were helped greatly by computers. What you do each day is build an air tasking order. A portion of that order has to do with airspace management. I managed airspace for the theater along with the Saudis.

We put in every sortie by time, by altitude, and by location to get them up to the battle. To deconflict that, the computer sits there and matches all that information. It would take days to do it yourself.

Once aircraft get into the battle area, they're deconflicted in the planning process by the area they're going to. Over the Army, we deconflict them using forward air controllers.

In the current operations tactical air control center, you have the same computer. Say a pilot decides to hit this hot target over here. He calls it in, we enter it in the computer, and we see if there's any conflict. If there is, we just make whatever adjustments need to be made in order to deconflict it.

We are always deconflicting air-space. To implement that, we have the AWACS aircraft, which has a total view of the battlefield. I can sit here and view the air situation from the surface up, over the entire country of Iraq.

I didn't do anything with the information, because that would have been micro managing the forces.

Q: Like the days of President Johnson picking targets in the Vietnam War.

A: That was a disaster.

Q: Did that have an impact on you?

A: I saw it happen in Vietnam. That's why it didn't happen here. Many of us came through the same experience in Vietnam and saw all the gross errors in the operation there and vowed it would never happen again. Just like I wouldn't talk to [General Schwarzkopf] at night about battle-damage assessment, and he would never talk about body counts.

First of all, it's macabre. Second, the next day it's "What have you done for me so far?" It just gets worse and worse. You can have good days and bad days. What we talked about was how things were going in general and what needed to be done. He would tell us what he wanted done, and we would go out and implement that.

Q: So the discussions were general?

A: We had six weeks, five and a half of which were air war, and half a week was ground war. So it was generally me and the CINC with all the other guys watching.

The last thing we did each night was brief him on what we were going to do the next day, what targets we were going to hit. I can't remember his making any major adjustments. Obviously, his intelligence guy would get with him during the day and get with us.

Q: How soon in the war did you feel that you'd shattered Saddam Hussein's Baghdad infrastructure?

A: We more or less had sort of a timetable. I made sure that we generally stayed on the timetable.

We had things working for us, such as a lack of the need to hit airfields. We had things working against us. The weather was much worse than we had anticipated. And the Scuds.

We generally stayed on a reasonable schedule. It wasn't that we had to have this many buildings destroyed by this time. It was that we felt we would have about half of the research and development functions killed by a certain date. For example, we hit the storage areas first so they couldn't be used against us, then hit the production so [the Iraqis] couldn't replenish the storage, and then hit the research and development facilities for the long-term implications.

No Nintendo War

Q: On television, the war had a kind of Nintendo image. Have you given any thought to that?

A: I'm sure it was fascinating to people. It made great television. You've got to remember, too, that I was isolated from much of the press. I spent my time fighting the war, not watching CNN. I would occasionally get glimpses of it. I did sense from some of the questions I'd get asked that people were thinking of war in sterile, mechanical, technological terms, when I was thinking of the guys going through this hail of lead, having surface-to-air missiles shot at them, and having the sweat running down their necks.

It may have a long-term negative effect of making war seem antiseptic. It is not. It is pain, it is suffering, it's fear and death and destruction. It's bad, bad -- all bad.

I guess we all should beware of the attitudes that this kind of antiseptic display of combat gives us. It might make nations think that war is like a Super Bowl.

Q: Is there an additional point that you would like to make?

A: I would like to make a point about the excellence of the young people who fought this war. It was a piece of cake because of them. I didn't have any problems. My [mission was to] satisfy the CINC, which I could do. If I needed an airplane loaded, it got loaded. If I needed bombs delivered, they got delivered. If I wanted to move a squadron from Base A to Base B, it happened.

The airplanes stayed in commission. Over ninety percent of the time they were ready to fly. A normal, reasonable number for this type of activity would be sixty or seventy percent. These guys would not allow the airplane to get broken.It's a function of their training, which is superb. It's a function of the equipment, which is great and lends itself to this kind of stuff. Even more, it's a function of their selflessness. They just jumped in and did whatever needed to be done, didn't question, didn't have to be urged. Leadership was strictly telling them what was needed, not exhorting them to do it.

As the guy said, it's great to be out there being pushed around by such a mob.

Q: Was there any great disappointment?

A: Every loss hurt. And what the Iraqis did to the Kuwaitis was outrageous. I've talked to some of the people who escorted the allied POWs home. I learned that some of the POWs were treated very savagely. Not all; some of them. That was very, very painful.

Q: Was the difference based on who happened to capture you?

A: Yes. The Republican Guard and the secret police were outrageous in their behavior. The regular army tended to treat our people reasonably well. I was surprised at the Republican Guard. I tended to think of them as regular army, but I guess they really aren't.

Q: They're monsters.

A: They really are.

Richard Mackenzie covered the Persian Gulf War for Insight Magazine. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, "The Afghan War," appeared in the September 1988 issue.

Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner