The Gulf War and “European Artillery”
By BG Creighton W. Abrams, Jr., USA-Ret., Executive Director
Ten years after the event is too soon to put the Gulf War into historical perspective, but more than enough time to begin losing track of some of the salient details experienced by those who fought it. Hence this article — before it is too late.
Almost forty years ago, there used to be a quotation attributed to GEN George S. Patton plastered on several classroom walls at the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, OK. The quotation read: “I don’t have to tell you who won the war. You know. The artillery did.”
Those words do not describe the field artillery of the Gulf War. Far from it. The predominant fires of the war came from the air, particularly the brilliant campaign planned and conducted by the U.S. Air Force and executed by a joint force of bombers, fighters, and guided missiles. If artillery can be said to have played a critical role, it was the air defense artillery, specifically the Patriot missile batteries, who played it. Whether or not they shot down as many Scud missiles as was originally claimed, they made a real psychological difference to the Israelis, whom we wanted to keep out of the war, as well as for the Allies.
So what, if anything can be said of the role of the U.S. Army field artillery, specifically the artillery of the VII Corps, which deployed mostly (but not entirely) from Europe, in the Gulf War? For starters, intelligence estimates were clear on two points: Iraqi artillery outranged the cannon battalions of the Allies, and there was plenty of it. Although most of it was towed, the Iraqis had demonstrated in the Iran-Iraq War that they were able to mass fires and were willing to use chemical munitions. This daunting prospect made the mission of counter-fire — the ability to eliminate the enemy’s artillery either preemptively or by rapid response to incoming fire — more important than ever, but also more challenging.
The other artillery mission, close support, was also going to be difficult. Given that the two U.S. Army corps — XVIII Airborne Corps in the far west and VII Corps just to their right — planned to outflank the Iraqi force, this “mother of all battles” promised to be a war of maneuver, the bane of artillerymen of the twentieth century. Supporting fast-moving, mechanized maneuver forces creates a dilemma — whether to move or to shoot. Shooting is what artillery exists to do, but keeping up with the battle requires movement. When the troops move hundreds of kilometers in 100 hours, as was the case in the Gulf War, the artillery does not fire very much. Afterwards, there was a huge amount of stockpiled ammunition that had to be packed and shipped home.
Because of the Iraqi artillery’s range and chemical threat, counterfire was deemed the most important mission. Enter BG Buster Glosson, the Air Force deputy commander in the Gulf War, who, in early January 1991, briefed the key VII Corps commanders on the air campaign, particularly the effort against Iraqi ground forces. It seemed self-evident at the time that the Iraqi artillery should receive a higher priority for targeting and destruction than other Iraqi forces. But it was not necessarily so.
Everyone, including General Norman Schwarzkopf and even officials back in Washington, had their own ideas of what targets should have the highest priority. Scud missiles, for example, consumed large numbers of sorties because they had the potential of dragging Israel into the war and risking the dissolution of the Arab-Western coalition. Communication facilities, chemical and biological weapons plants, bridges, and other targets also received high priority.
All we knew in VII Corps, especially VII Corps Artillery, was that we were not getting all that we wanted — eighty percent attrition of the frontline artillery. Even the bomb damage assessment (BDA) was problematical because intelligence analysts found it difficult to determine how much damage was being done. In some cases, the Iraqis would ignite oil drums and dummy equipment during air strikes to further confuse BDA experts.
Yet on the day the ground war began, 24 February 1991, VII Corps attacked into the teeth of significant amounts of enemy artillery, hardly a round was fired by the Iraqis. How was this possible? Simple. Throughout the six week air campaign preceding the ground attack, the Allies did virtually all the firing. Whether or not airpower was in fact destroying the enemy’s artillery, it had a significant psychological effect. The Iraqis were even afraid to turn on their radars.
Secondly, once the bombing began, VII Corps ground forces were free to launch whatever projectiles they might have available, provided they did not interfere with the air campaign. Thus a succession of artillery raids, conceived in Germany during the planning phase by the VII Corps Artillery Deputy, COL Ray Smith, began on 7 February and continued until the opening of the ground war. In these raids, a battery or battalion or even multiple battalions would move forward to preselected positions near the enemy, fire a predetermined amount of rounds at selected targets, and move quickly back to avoid counterfire. These raids not only kept pressure on the enemy, but also afforded great live fire training, particularly gunnery and movement, which would be needed later to support the ground attack.
Not interfering with the air campaign sometimes proved to be a problem. When the Air Force asked the Army to take out an Iraqi SAM site, the only weapon which could reach it was the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which was moving west with the rest of the VII and XVIII Corps units on the Tapline Road. Nevertheless, the mission data was sent to the ATACMS battery, which pulled off the road and moved to a firing point in classic “hipshoot” style, only to be forced to wait six hours until the Air Force determined that the high trajectory of the ATACMS would not put any aircraft at risk. Finally, on 18 January 1991, barely a day into the air campaign, A Battery, 1-27 Field Artillery, launched its missiles, decimating an SA-2 site and becoming the first VII Corps unit to fire in anger since World War II.
Most of the VII Corps artillery raids were conducted in the 1st Cavalry Division sector, which was just east of VII Corps and centered on the Wadi Hafir Al Batin. A deception plan called for the 1st Cavalry to make it appear they were launching the main attack up the Wadi, whereas the real attack would be well to the west. The artillery raids conducted in the 1st Cavalry’s sector aided the deception plan, but also placed a significant burden on the division’s artillery, commanded by COL Jim Gass. They were more than up to the task and planned many raids, including several multiple battalion raids and one that was conducted in support of an attack helicopter feint. That feint, launched at 0200 to insure minimum visibility (which AH-64 Apache helicopters thrive on), required COL Gass and his staff to coordinate a battalion of Apaches and five battalions of artillery. The feint and supporting fires, executed meticulously, were also a rehearsal for deep attack strikes to be conducted once the ground attack began.
In the final week of the artillery raids, targeting was improved by redirecting the few unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) controlled by VII Corps and flying them over close-in Iraqi forces. This valuable intelligence allowed the raids to focus more and more on enemy artillery, including artillery in the area where the 1st Infantry Division, anchoring the right flank of the VII Corps, would conduct their breach of Iraqi minefields.
However, by the last day before the ground attack was to begin, on 25 February, some thirteen Iraqi artillery batteries still needed to be attacked. When the VII Corps ground attack was moved up one day to 24 February, the Iraqi batteries were included as targets in the artillery preparation, which was executed by the preponderance of the artillery assigned to VII Corps, but planned entirely by the 1st Division’s Artillery, commanded by COL Mike Dodson.
The artillery preparation, after the numerous artillery raids and weeks of air strikes, appears to have been the coup de grace that silenced the Iraqi artillery in range of VII Corps’ initial ground attack. One of the enemy artillery units eliminated was the 48th Infantry Division Artillery Group. After the war, the group’s commander stated that they lost seventeen of one hundred guns to the air campaign, but lost the other eighty-three to artillery fire and most of it to a thirty minute artillery preparation on the first day of the ground attack.
One reason for those effective fires had to be the Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM), which would saturate targets with two kinds of bomblets. Those bomblets were considered so lethal and so dangerous that they Army did not have a range anywhere in the world where the munitions could be fired for training.
One of the units firing preparation on February 24 was a National Guard field artillery brigade, the 142d from Arkansas and Oklahoma, assigned to VII Corps Artillery. Therein lies a saga. When the 142d Field Artillery Brigade mobilized in November 1990 at Fort Sill, they asked me for one favor — that when they arrived in theater, they be given a real mission. They arrived in Saudi Arabia in mid-January, more than a month before the ground war started, but without their howitzers. These did not arrive until 22 February. We helped them install their radios, which also arrived late, and the next day, 23 February 1991, the 142d conducted an artillery raid to check out their gunnery, after which they were pronounced ready. On the following day, they supported the artillery preparation into the breach, and the day after that moved out in support of the British 1st Armored Division.
The most important piece of technology on the Allied side may have been the nonlethal GPS. It did not just tell us where we were, it did so in terrain where the other side had no idea where they were. It also gave us a time piece — the artillery consistently used the GPS to time their Time on Target (TOT) missions and anything else that required synchronization. But even more amazing about GPS is that before August 1990 very few of us had ever heard of it, let alone knew how to operate it. In that short period of six months, from August 1990 to February 1991, the entire force, almost half of the Army, learned what GPS was good for, how to operate it, and even how to jury-rig it (mostly to avoid using batteries)–all without any formal training.
Another phenomenon was the operationally ready (OR) rate of the major pieces of equipment — the tanks, fighting vehicles, howitzers, MLRS, helicopters, and trucks of all kinds. Granted, almost every spare part the Army owned seemed to have been shipped into the theater. All these parts, however, were shipped in thousands of containers, and finding the right parts was often a difficult task.
Despite this, the OR rate remained high — over ninety percent for most equipment — before and during the ground war. Part of the reason for this high rate was because the logisticians began looking for and finding some of these parts. But the real reason is that maintenance had become a part of the ethos of all those great young soldiers and leaders the Army recruited and developed in the previous 10-15 years. VII Corps had literally thousands of soldiers and leaders who knew how to take care of their equipment and took great pride in that ability. Among them were hundreds of mechanics, parts specialists, and logistics officers who were skilled at diagnosing, finding parts, and making repairs. When all of these pieces of the maintenance machine were confronted with the prospect of combat, the impossible was possible — even in the desert, at the very end of a very long supply line.
For the field artillery, particularly field artillery with a serious counterfire mission, the other indispensable technology was the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS). This system locates itself, aims itself (after you tell it where the target is), moves with the speed of its Bradley chassis and engine, requires a crew of only three (in a pinch, two or even one), and can launch twelve rockets, with over 5,000 bomblets, more than 30 km (18 miles) at twelve different targets in about a minute. A battalion of twenty-seven launchers can launch 140,000 bomblets in that same minute, and did so on more than one occasion. Artillerymen, none of whom had ever seen an MLRS battalion TOT, were as much in awe of the trajectories and destructiveness of the MLRS in the Gulf War as anyone. The MLRS was the weapon of choice for counterfire, artillery preparations, and artillery raids.
Between the two Army corps deployed to Saudi Arabia, there were forty battalions of tube artillery (mostly 155 mm), and just six of MLRS. Sometime in December 1990, we decided to use a point system to keep track of how much artillery was available to support a unit or mission. Because of its range, mobility, and firepower, an MLRS battery received a full point. The same point went to an entire battalion of medium to heavy (155mm or 8 inch) howitzers or three battalions of light (105mm) howitzers. Thus when the VII Corps Commander directed that most of the Corps’ artillery, including the artillery assigned to the divisions, would fire in support of the breach conducted by the 1st Infantry Division, we counted points, not battalions.
Supporting the breach with most of the artillery and then being able to send the VII Corps Artillery units out to support the maneuver forces was a challenge. To the west of the breach were three major elements: the 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment in front; the 1st Armored Division behind it and to the west; and the 3d Armored Division also behind it but to the east. On the right side (east) of VII Corps were the 1st Infantry Division, who would pass through the breach, and form the right flank of VII Corps. Initially, the weight of the artillery would support these two maneuver elements on the right.
Of the four brigades of the VII Corps Artillery, one, the 42d Field Artillery Brigade from Germany, stayed with the 3d Armored Division, but was able to fire into the breach from the flank. Another brigade, the 210th, also from Germany, started with the 2d ACR, out of range of the breach, and stayed with them until two days later, when the 1st Infantry Division passed through the 2d ACR and picked up the 210th along the way. The third brigade, the 75th FA Brigade from Fort Sill, started in support of the 1st Infantry Division, moved through the breach, and caught up with the 1st Armored Division two days later. The 1st Armored Division could afford to wait because they started with an entire MLRS battalion — their own TO&E battery plus two batteries from the Corps Artillery — to call upon. The fourth brigade was the aforementioned 142d. They supported the breaching operations and then passed through to support the British 1st Armored Division for the duration of the ground war.
Because VII Corps expected to employ a sixth major maneuver force, the 1st Cavalry Division, which began the war as GEN Schwarzkopf’s reserve, we intended to provide them with additional artillery support when they were committed. The Corps plan called for the 1st Cavalry to be committed on the left flank of the Corps, somewhere in the vicinity of the 1st Armored Division, they brought with them a little extra something, the MLRS battalion from the 142d FA Brigade.
The plan called for the 142d’s MLRS battalion to fire in support of the breach and go through it with the 75th Brigade to catch up with the 1st Armored Division. Around 1200 on 26 February, roughly forty-eight hours into the ground war, we learned that VII Corps now intended to commit the 1st Cavalry on the right flank of the Corps. Getting the MLRS battalion repositioned meant finding them, clearing their reassignment with the 1st Armored Division commander, and telling them where to find the 210th FA Brigade, who were near the right flank of VII Corps. The good news is it only took a couple of hours to get the battalion pulled out of the 75th FA Brigade and moving it in the right direction — an impossible task if VII Corps had been travelling on roads, but easy in the wide open desert. The bad news was that they were about to be refueled by their brigade, but had to leave before that could happen.
But they made it to the 210th FA Brigade by nightfall. Around 0100 on the next day, 27 February, we learned that the 1st Cavalry Division was going to the left flank of VII Corps as originally planned. We called the battalion and told them the bad news. Not a problem, they said. They requested a grid (location of where to find the 1st Cavalry Artillery), a time, and a frequency. They arrived at the grid, after once again crossing the Corps’ sector, by 1200, but badly in need of fuel. The 1st Cavalry readily proved it.
Although the Iraqi artillery did not fire back during the 1st Infantry Division’s breach on 24 February, they did fire when VII Corps attacked Republican Guard units on 26-28 February. The response was routinely rapid and lethal. The Firefinder (Q37) radar would pick up the incoming trajectory, compute the point of origin, and pass the targeted grid location to the fire direction center. Accurate, devastating fires, usually from the MLRS, would arrive at the Iraqi positions within a very few minutes. Before MLRS and GPS, that kind of response would have been almost inconceivable on a highly mobile, desert battlefield where surveyed positions for the radars and firing units had once been unattainable.
The Gulf War was a demanding battlefield on which to measure the attributes of the U.S. Army field artillery: both Corps moved great distances; the enemy had a significant range advantage; and there was plenty of air power to provide close support. For the ground forces, the real kings of lethality were the maneuver units, armed with Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Apache attack helicopters. About the latter: the VII Corps, deep attack (Apache) battle captain was the Corps Artillery Commander, who was initially reluctant to launch those magnificent aircraft and crews into an unknown enemy air defense environment. Finally, however, after two nights of chomping at the bit, the 11th Aviation Brigade, commanded by COL Johnny Hitt, was launched, twice during the night of 26-27 February 1991, with devastating results against the enemy forces.
So what can be said for those “European” artillerists, including those from Kansas (1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley), Texas (1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood), and Arkansas and Oklahoma (142d FA Brigade), in the Gulf War? They won their counterfire battle, hands down, by using what was available. Outranged by the enemy, they got help from the Air Force to help level the playing field, then used raids and UAVs to finish the initial job. When the Iraqi artillery finally spoke, they were quickly silenced by the radars and MLRS.
The “Europeans” also improvised — mostly within the 30-45 days prior to the ground war. Many of them deployed from an overseas area and left their families “over there,” where they were well cared for by the communities of U.S. Army Europe. They benefitted from the expertise and help of the 1st Cavalry Division in Saudi Arabia and III Corps Artillery, who came to Germany from Fort Sill to brief on a plethora of subjects. They learned how to do desert formations, use GPS, and fire DPICM accurately. They compressed a three-hour artillery preparation (into the breach area) into thirty minutes on two hours notice. They successfully fired the first Copperheads (laser guided cannon projectiles) in combat. They brought their own parts and horse-traded for others. When the tanks and Bradleys moved, they moved with them, so that they would be there when needed. They did in fact function as part of the combined arms, joint, multinational team.