20 years after operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm: Vets say tanker contribution 'is what made the air war work'

A KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a U.S. Navy fighter during air operations for Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. (Department of Defense Photo)

A KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a U.S. Navy fighter during air operations for Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. (Department of Defense Photo)

A boom operator for a KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a B-52 Stratofortress during air operations for Operation Desert Storm in February 1991. (Department of Defense Photo)

A boom operator for a KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a B-52 Stratofortress during air operations for Operation Desert Storm in February 1991. (Department of Defense Photo)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- In August 2009, a panel of retired Airmen relived their experiences in the "largest air refueling operation in history" for operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm as part of the "Tanker Living Legends Speaker Series" at Scott AFB.

As nearly 100 Airmen listened in, the panel of four retired Air Force officers discussed their experiences as if they were still there on the front lines directing tankers like the KC-135 Stratotanker and the KC-10 Extender and their crews to the next refueling point for the Desert Storm air war over Iraq.

The panel included retired Lt. Gen. Pat Caruana, retired Brig. Gen. Kenneth Keller, retired Col. Dennis Carpenter and retired Lt. Col. Scott Hente. All four played a key role in managing more than 300 tanker aircraft and their sorties for the operations.

"Without the phenomenal tanker support we had for the war, we could not have accomplished what we did," said General 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.

Getting the order
In August 1990, Saddam Hussein's military forces from Iraq invaded and then annexed the nation of Kuwait. "A ploy to boost Iraq's sagging economic position by raising oil prices, the invasion sparked both condemnation and action from the leaders of other nations," according to "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime: An Illustrated History of the Military Airlift Command, 1941-1991."

Within days of the invasion, President George H.W. Bush formed a coalition of nations to oppose Iraq's aggression and at the same time began Operation Desert Shield on Aug. 7, 1990. 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.

"At the time, Saddam had a 1.1-million-man army, 7,000 tanks and 700 fighter aircraft and they crossed the border (and invaded)," said General 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. "No one had a clue what he was intending to do. It was expected they would attack Saudi Arabia. As a matter of fact, (Iraq) had nine and a third divisions lined up on the Saudi border."

General Keller said once the deployment order was given on Aug. 7, 1990, by the National Command Authority, they had a lot of work to do and tankers played an integral role in getting forces and aircraft to the deployed theater of operations.

"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. "So we pushed tankers into that area to build that (air) bridge."

Building the "air bridge" spanned not just across the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, it also included building the same capability across the Pacific Ocean to move B-52 Stratofortresses to Andersen Air Base, Guam.

"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.

From a 'shield to a storm'
As the build-up for combat operations continued, a main base of tankers was established in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. There, Colonel Carpenter took command of the 1709th Air Refueling Wing. Under his command were 76 tanker aircraft, 126 aircrews and more than 2,000 maintenance personnel. To date, AMC history shows the 1709th is the largest tanker wing ever assembled.

"The first night I got there and assembled the aircrews, I asked them if any one of them had flown a combat mission before," Colonel Carpenter said. "Not one of them raised their hand."

When Operation Desert Storm commenced at 3 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1997, tankers were flying missions never seen before. There were KC-135A and KC-135E Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders refueling fighters and bombers in preparation for the first strikes into Iraq.

"I can remember we had tankers refueling F-15s at 3,000 feet right before the operation began," General Caruana said. "They were flying low to avoid radar."

"It was an incredible adventure those first couple of days," Colonel Carpenter added.

Colonel Hente served on General Caruana's staff for both Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He was the chief architect for the refueling plan for Desert Storm including the plan for the first 48 hours of the air war. "That was the most intense and compressed air refueling operation in history," AMC historians say.

"It became apparent early on that air refueling would become a critical component of the air campaign," said Colonel Hente, who also flew 10 combat missions for Desert Storm. "At any given time there were hundreds of tanker sorties in the air in the opening days of the conflict."

On the opening day of Desert Storm alone, the 1709th ARW's planes and crews flew 103 missions. By the end of the 39-day air war, the wing flew more than 3,500 sorties, piling up more than 17,500 flight hours and offloading 242 million pounds of fuel.

"Targets were constantly being added and more and more assets were being flown into the theater," Colonel Hente said. "As a planner, we had to constantly adjust the air tasking order for our tankers to meet the needs being presented to us."

General Caruana said the amount of air traffic was so busy, they had to make special arrangements to keep up in some cases. "We even had to put some of our planners airborne to coordinate the tankers because of the amount of air traffic," he said.

Success largely due to tankers
Looking back, General Caruana said the KC-135s and KC-10s did more to help win the war than just provide 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."

According to AMC History, Gen. Hansford T. Johnson, MAC commander at the time, compared the first few weeks of deployment effort to airlifting a small city. "We've moved, in essence, a Midwestern town the size of Lafayette, Ind., or Jefferson City, Mo. In addition, we've also moved the equivalent of all their cars, trucks, foodstuffs, stocks, household goods and water supply," General Johnson was quoted as saying in the MAC history book.

General Caruana said the ability to move that much cargo and people so quickly was in part due to the tankers ability to refuel and haul cargo. "With all the tankers we had in place, we were very successful in funneling supplies into theater," he said.

Lessons learned
All of the panel members had some lessons learned from the conflict. General Caruana said they were "breaking new ground" in many areas of air refueling and at the same time overcoming obstacles on a daily basis. He said everything that was accomplished successfully was largely due to the people, from the top down, who won the war.

"Quality leadership in the right place can overcome almost all challenges," General Caruana said.

Colonel Carpenter said, "Our command relationships and our quality leadership throughout (the conflict) were outstanding. When there are lives at stake, there are amazing things that can happen. That's because of the people."

General Keller noted the contributions of Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard Airmen were also crucial to overall success. From AMC History, Gen. Merrill A. McPeak -- the Air Force chief of staff during both operations -- said, "The tanker contribution to Desert Storm is what made the air war work."

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