ARLINGTON, Va.– It was the largest mobilization of the National Guard since the Korean War 40 years prior, and the first large-scale combat mobilization for the reserve component since the Vietnam War. This month the National Guard reflects on the more than 75,000 Guard members who were mobilized or deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm, which began 25 years ago.
Offensive air operations involving the National Guard began Jan. 16, 1991, when pilots from the New York and South Carolina Air Guard took part in the first waves of the conflict, which resulted from the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi army. By late February, more than 62,000 Army Guard Soldiers from 398 units had mobilized with more than half of them serving in the Persian Gulf.
Guard units also took part in the ground offensive that ended Feb. 28, but helped with the task afterwards of securing and cleaning up Kuwait, which had been devastated by months of Iraqi occupation and the Allied air and ground offensives. Both Army and Air Guard units began returning home in April and by the end of September 1991, only a handful of Guard units remained overseas. The impact of its role, however, would have lasting effects for the National Guard.
Air Guard in supporting roles
Desert Storm was the first time in Air National Guard history where most who mobilized or deployed were from non-combat and non-flying units – units like medical squadrons, security forces and firefighters, said David P. Anderson, director and chief historian with the Air National Guard History Office.
“Some went overseas and some stayed home to back fill, or they went to Europe to back fill active duty units that were leaning forward,” Anderson said, adding the Air Guard mainly provided airlift, air refueling and special operations capabilities during the conflict. “We also had two fighter squadrons and a reconnaissance squadron that went over,” he said.
In total, Anderson noted, 12,404 Guard Airmen entered federal service during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Of that number, 5,240 deployed to Southwest Asia while another 6,264 served in the continental U.S. The remaining 900 were assigned to Europe and other overseas locations, he added.
“Initially, Air Guard volunteers had concentrated on airlifting as well as flying air refueling, reconnaissance, tactical airlift, and special operations missions,” Anderson said. “The early surge of volunteers helped the Air Force meet its operational commitments while the President built political support for his Persian Gulf policies.”
Regardless of their mission, Air Guard units went out the door trained and ready to go, thanks in large part to the Total Force concept, said Anderson.
“Desert Storm not only validated the Air National Guard’s relevance as a member of the total force, it validated this entire Total Force policy where the training and the equipment of all the organizations was supposed to be on par. Desert Storm was the first time we demonstrated the Air Force’s ability to send all three components into combat,” he said.
Air Guard members also served in support roles outside of the Persian Gulf to meet the needs of the Air Force, who had pulled personnel from Europe to serve in the Gulf.
Several Air Guard members deployed as individuals and not as units, which is an interesting element of Desert Storm, according to Anderson.
“We always expected to go as a unit,” he said, “but we were sending individuals or a group of individuals, plus the equipment, to meet whatever requirements were asked for.”
Many of those individuals volunteered as well, said Anderson.
“Volunteerism, or the ‘silent call-up,’ allows for the flexibility to fill the short-term needs wherever they are needed,” he said, noting it is a common practice even today. “It gave a lot of flexibility to not only the warfight, but also the individual.”
Looking back, Anderson credits much of how the Air Guard operates today with the Total Force policy and volunteerism that began in the early '70s.
“I think the active duty Air Force and the Guard have always had a really good relationship,” he said. “When we arrived for Desert Storm, they saw that we were showing up and ready to go,” he said. “We went over there, we integrated with the active duty forces and operated without any hiccups.”
Anderson credits the tremendous performance of the Air Guard then with how much the component is relied upon today.
“As a result, you’re now seeing more and more Guard units being deployed and tasked to do these real-world operations.”
The Army Guard contributed
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Army made clear its plans to incorporate the Army Guard, which stood ready, into the warfight.
“The word went out and states immediately put people on orders because they knew something was coming,” said Army Lt. Col. Jeff Larrabee, the chief of historical services at the National Guard Bureau. “We were just in the process of getting ready, not knowing what was happening, but that there was probably going to be a need for the forces.”
Larrabee said much like the Air Guard, the Army Guard provided some combat arms units, but primarily provided combat support units.
“Army Guard units deployed included two field artillery brigades, engineers, hospitals – a lot of logistics types – military police and some transportation units,” Larrabee said. “They were all heavily engaged and integrated into the regular forces, whether they were supporting U.S. or allied divisions.”
What was needed, according to Larrabee, was artillery.
“The Army did have a need for corps artillery, non-divisional, heavy, eight-inch stuff, which the Army Guard had a lot of,” he said. “We also had a Multiple-Launch Rocket System battalion in the Guard – there were only three in the Army at the time – and all of those participated in Desert Storm.”
Like the Air Guard, the Army Guard changed too. That change began in August 1990 when the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait and the U.S. began the buildup to Desert Storm.
“I think the biggest thing – you probably won’t see this written down anywhere – is that it changed the training dynamic because it was happening at the end of the fiscal year and the end of the annual training period. Some units were actually at annual training at the time and suddenly it injected a higher level of seriousness,” he said.
“It was huge for the Guard as a whole,” Larrabee added. “As part of the Army and as part of the Air Force, it validated the Total Force concept.”
Desert Storm not only validated the Guard and the total-force concept, it changed the perception of the Army Guard.
“The fact that we were mobilized in large numbers and performed effectively as part of the Army helped to change the perception of the Guard from the Vietnam era,” Larrabee said.
The American public was also seen as the driving force behind much of that perception change, he continued.
“There were very public ceremonies and sendoffs … and a huge public awareness of the supposed threat that the Iraqi army posed. Everyone was keenly aware of what we thought we were up against, but the fact that we mobilized so many Guard members from across the country characterized the difference between the Gulf War and Vietnam.”
It also led to more consistent use of the Army Guard, which led to higher readiness and a better posture when 9/11 occurred and beyond, Larrabee said.
“Desert Storm changed the Army’s thinking and focus on how they were going to use the Guard and Reserve in the future. It changed the training dynamic in the ‘90s and how we thought about unit prioritization. There was more empowerment of the Guard as a whole.”
Looking back, Larrabee observed, the National Guard finds itself repeating history.
“The timing is right to remember Desert Storm,” he said, “because as the U.S. military is downsizing again, we’re facing a lot of the same questions, like ‘how do we get the best defense for the U.S.?’ That was the big question in the 1990s. The Guard’s performance during Desert Storm ensured that the Guard was going to be part of the answer.”
By Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Darron Salzer