The Gulf crisis of 1990 and 1991 illustrates the extent to which military aviation dominates the conduct of modern war. During the weeks and months following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Lockheed C-130 Hercules, C-141 Starlifter, and C-5A Galaxy aircraft transported combat and support troops and equipment and supplies into the Middle East. Lockheed F-117 stealth fighters launched Operation Desert Storm early on the morning of January 17, 1991, with devastating attacks on Iraqi communications centres and command posts.
Throughout the air campaign, coalition forces maintained an umbrella of reconnaissance and electronic countermeasures aircraft over enemy territory, disrupting Iraqi communications, identifying targets, and directing air strikes. Ship- and air-launched cruise missiles struck pre-selected targets. F-15C Eagles and US Navy F-14 Tomcats maintained air superiority, while F-16 Falcons, F-18 Hornets, and British and French Jaguars attacked air defence installations. B-52G bombers attacked front-line troop emplacements. F-15Es, F-111Fs, A-6E Intruders, and RAF Tornadoes struck Iraqi air fields, missile sites, and other key targets. Pilots of the Kuwaiti and Saudi air forces, operating Northrop F-5Es and Mirage F-1s, played important roles in the air campaign.
Operation Desert Storm concluded with a classic air-ground advance against Iraqi troops. Reconnaissance aircraft reported enemy troop positions and movements to coalition ground forces. Advancing troops were supported by helicopter gunships and specialized ground-attack craft, such as the Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II. Close air support cleared the way for the infantry and armoured units that drove the enemy from Kuwaiti territory in only four days.
The application of air power in the Gulf War was by no means perfect: precision-guided weapons did not always strike their intended targets, mobile missile launchers proved difficult to locate, and human error led to a tragic loss of life from so-called "friendly" aerial fire. Nevertheless, Operation Desert Storm underscored the critical importance of air power.
The latest military aircraft can intercept enemy intruders, or deliver powerful guided weapons with extraordinary precision. Continued improvements in aircraft design, propulsion, and control systems may result in levels of performance beyond the tolerance of a human pilot.
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