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News > Feature - 20 years after operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm: War veterans recall how air mobility affected operations success
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20 years after operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm: Airlift effort was compared to ‘moving a small city’
Marines headed to support the coalition forces participating in Operation Desert Shield board a commercial aircraft chartered by the Military Airlift Command in September 1991. (Department of Defense Photo)
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 Air Force Historical Studies Office: Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm
20 years after operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm: War veterans recall how air mobility affected operations success

Posted 3/28/2011   Updated 3/28/2011 Email story   Print story


by Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
Air Mobility Command Public Affairs

3/28/2011 - SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill.  -- Between the start of Operation Desert Shield and the end of Operation Desert Storm more than 20 years ago, tens of thousands of U.S. military members made their way to Southwest Asia to build-up, and then prosecute a war.

Along the way, many of the veterans of both operations were affected by air mobility. They may have flown to Southwest Asia on a military airlifter like a C-5 Galaxy, C-141Starlifter or C-130 Hercules. Or, they may have gone there on a civilian plane chartered by the military through the U.S. Transportation Command via the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which historically, both operations marked the first time CRAF was used.

There is also the air refueling piece of air mobility that carried the "building of an air bridge" for Operation Desert Shield and was key to the air war campaign in Operation Desert Shield. In whatever aspect they were affected, one thing is for sure - those veterans say air mobility was one of the main reasons the war was won.

An AGE Airman recalls
"I flew in and out on contracted civilian aircraft for the war, which was surprising," said retired Master Sgt. Roger Drinnon, a Desert Storm veteran who served as an aerospace ground equipment craftsman during the war. "I now realize the important role civilian airlines play in moving military passengers to and from certain areas of operations."

Mr. Drinnon now works for Headquarters Air Mobility Command. He noted that although as an AGE Airmen in the early 1990s he worked on fighter aircraft, he never doubted the power air mobility played in winning the conflict.

"I was deployed to the 4404th Composite Wing (Provisional) in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia," Mr. Drinnon said. "I was a proud AGE maintainer, and I stayed in Khobar Towers. At the onset of both Shield and Storm, our combat AGE team prepped a lot of equipment to be moved later by mobility aircraft. I recall how strict the joint inspections were and how important it was to have the equipment really clean. The loadmasters rightly wanted to keep the aircraft free of oil, hydraulic fluid and other potentially hazardous materials."

Once deployed, Mr. Drinnon said his AGE mission flowed successfully thanks to mobility airlifters bringing the parts they needed.

"I really appreciated getting the parts we needed to keep our AGE mission-capable," Mr. Drinnon said. "As we deployed with a limited number of equipment, each piece of AGE was critical in getting aircraft off the ground on time -- especially some of our gas-turbine compressors. Of course, we had some supply bins in place with typical parts needed, but we still needed the reach-back for critical parts that failed incidentally in a very hot, sandy environment."

Bomb loader turned aerial porter
In a news report from the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia, air transportation craftsman Tech Sgt. Ron Brown remembered his service during Operation Desert Storm when was a weapons loader on B-52 Stratofortress bombers.

"I had just graduated tech school right before Iraq invaded Kuwait," Sergeant Brown said in the report. "Our base was looking for people to volunteer for deployments. There were two of us from my unit that went."

In his movement to the deployed theater of operations, the report shows Sergeant Brown's first stop was at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., where he hopped on a military flight to Moron Air Base, Spain. Then on Jan. 17, 1991, Sergeant Brown's group packed up its operation at and flew again to Jeddah AB, Saudi Arabia, thanks to air mobility.

Twenty years after his participation in Operation Desert Storm, Sergeant Brown was serving again in Southwest Asia as an air transportation Airman deployed from the 302nd Airlift Wing's 39th Aerial Port Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. Being deployed 20 years later brought a lot of perspective to Sergeant Brown.

"It means a lot to me to see Kuwait enjoying 20 years of liberation," Sergeant Brown said. "I played a role in that, not a big one but I did do my part, and it's interesting to see what they've gone through and how they're still trying to be a model for the Middle East."

Don't forget the tankers
In the air refueling community, retired Brig. Gen. Kenneth Keller, who served as Headquarters Strategic Air Command Director of Communication and Control and for two months of Desert Shield as the headquarters director of operations, said the tanker community was ready immediately after the order was given to deploy to Southwest Asia in August 1990.

"When we were first pushing fighters in to the theater of operations, there was no refueling capability in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea," General Keller said in an August 2009 interview. "So we pushed tankers into that area to build that (air) bridge." Eventually, the tankers and the Airmen involved with them had operations flowing.

"We said, 'Let's build an aluminum cloud' with all those tankers we had," General Keller said. The beddown of 300-plus tankers across the globe included getting tankers into 10 bases in the area of responsibility. "Additionally, we had more than 100 tankers operating out of the U.S. European Command area of operations," General Keller said.

History shows that during Desert Shield, tankers flew 4,967 sorties and 19,700 flying hours. Additionally, those tankers off-loaded more than 28.2 million gallons of fuel to 14,588 receivers.

The operations changed the Air Force
Mr. Drinnon noted the operations of 20 years ago started a cycle of changes in the Air Force leading to today's expeditionary deployment structure.

"We still fought conventionally back then, employing kinetic operations to systematically paralyze the enemy's military capabilities," Mr. Drinnon said. "Airlift and aerial refueling were obviously essential to these operations, which were rapid and decisive, militarily speaking.

"After Desert Storm, we as a nation got involved in protracted operations where conventional and kinetic warfare became viewed as too blunt of an instrument to employ," added Mr Drinnon, who now has a masters degree in military operations. "Over time, I've witnessed a shift to prolonged, increasingly non-kinetic operations requiring sustained logistics. With this shift in how the military is employed, airlift and aerial refueling aircraft become a much higher priority in military operations. Mobility aircraft enable the military persistence required to be successful in these prolonged operations."

Retired Lt. Gen. Pat Caruana, who served as a U.S. Central Air Forces' air campaign planner and commander directing strategic forces in Saudi Arabia for both Desert Shield and Desert Storm, also said in 2009 that success of the operations also came largely at the capabilities of using tankers for more than just air refueling.

"The KC-10s were providing a majority of the airlift, especially early on," he said. "The operations were also a frontrunner in using the KC-135 as an airlifter as much as a tanker."

After more than four years of working for AMC now, what air mobility and the Airmen who deployed for the operations did to win the fight is "unforgettable."

"Desert Storm was not only an illustration of the importance of mobility aircraft in expeditionary operations, it also was a demonstration of the effectiveness of airpower overall," Mr. Drinnon said. "Also, we as Airmen can look back on Desert Storm with pride for the role our service played in this historic operation."

(Editor's note: This is the third in a series of three articles highlighting the accomplishments of mobility Airmen during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm more than 20 years ago.)

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