Reflections on the First Gulf War, 1990–1991
HMAS Brisbane, Adelaide, Success, Darwin and Sydney rendezvous for a handover in the Gulf of Oman

The catalyst for the Gulf War was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 1 August 1990. After condemning the invasion and demanding Iraq’s withdrawal, the UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions. The Security Council also authorised states with maritime forces in the area to ‘use such measures as may be necessary’ to ensure strict implementation of the sanctions as they related to shipping and trade. To assist in this, the Hawke government deployed HMA Ships Success, Adelaide and Darwin from Sydney, basically over a weekend.

As a hot war became more likely, HMAS Brisbane and HMAS Sydney were readied to replace the first ships and they commenced deployment to Operation Damask on 12 November 1990 after an extensive enhancement package and operational workup. They entered the area of operations in the Gulf of Oman on 3 December 1990 in company with Success, which had remained from the first deployment. They then entered the Persian Gulf itself on 16 December.

Within the Persian Gulf the Allied battle force was tasked with sea superiority, counter-air, maritime interception and offensive strike operations. Joint combined operations of this type with multinational naval forces required a high degree of air deconfliction and coordination. Throughout operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, more than 14,000 sorties were flown by carrier-borne aircraft within the gulf without a single blue-on-blue engagement.

It’s sometimes forgotten today that the Iraqi order of battle could have inflicted a large pre-emptive strike against coalition naval forces. The Iraqi air force comprised around 1300 aircraft at the time of the invasion of Kuwait. Of these, 817 were fighters or fighter-bombers and 14 were dedicated bombers. Many of these were obsolete, however modern, technologically capable aircraft included 83 Mirage F1 EQ5s and EQ6s that had Exocet missiles; there were also some modern MiGs.

Before 11 January 1991 the first carrier to arrive, USS Midway, had conducted operations predominantly in the Gulf of Oman. In late 1990 she operated twice in the southern Persian Gulf for periods of about one week. Then other carriers and their battle groups arrived, ending with four carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf and two in the Red Sea. The carriers operated within the Persian Gulf in areas that were approximately 60 nautical miles long and 20 nautical miles wide, which was based on the prevailing wind direction. These areas moved progressively up-threat towards Iraq as hostilities progressed.

The way the Americans did this was really impressive. This has stood with me for the past 33 years. The US Navy knows carrier operations and just how effective and versatile carrier-based air power is in a range of circumstances.

Based on commonality of equipment and ease of RAN-USN integration, Brisbane and Sydney had responsibility for the more crucial north and north-westerly screening sectors of the carrier operating area in the weeks leading up to, and throughout, the six weeks of hostilities. Assignment also included the sector known as the Zagros Mountains Gate Guard, in which ships were tasked with guarding a radar shadow zone down to the Iranian coast. Brisbane and Sydney patrolled to within 15nm of Iran while carrying out this duty, which ensured a high degree of alertness, especially given the uncertainty raised by the migration of so many Iraqi aircraft into Iran in late January and early February.

Iraq made several attempts to attack the maritime force. There were some significant ships in the gulf. Mines were a substantial threat. Iraq laid extensive minefields around Kuwait; 2000 mines were laid. Many were laid as free-floating mines.

Brisbane and Sydney were used mostly as escorts for the carriers. Due to the threat of drifting mines, Brisbane would cruise up-threat, which was essentially up-current, during daylight hours then slowly move or drift down with the current at night. At least three mines were detected and destroyed within 1000 yards of Brisbane. Replenishments at sea of fuel and provisions occurred about every four days.

The ships spent about 55 days at sea non-stop with crews continuously on defence watches. The replenishment oiler, HMAS Westralia, replaced Success as the Australian ship in the coalition replenishment group midway through the war.

The impact of maritime power and force projection in the first Gulf War should not be underestimated. Naval forces facilitated an immediate diplomatic and political response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait by economic blockade, transported the vast majority of land forces and their equipment to the area of operations and then provided significant naval gunfire support and offensive strike with carrier-borne aircraft and cruise missiles.

At the height of the conflict, six aircraft carriers, two battleships, 15 cruisers, 67 destroyers and frigates and more than 100 logistics, amphibious and smaller craft were involved. These forces were drawn from 15 nations and deployed more than 800 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft.

The Gulf War was an excellent example of the contribution that maritime units and maritime power can make. This was a multi-faceted hot war with air, sea and mining threats. It demonstrated the importance of having meaningful three-dimensional air warfare capability, something the RAN gave away afterwards, leading to a 20-year gap. It also demonstrated the role of organic sea-based air.

The increase in capability gained by having both sea- and land-based air working together was evident. The absence of one or the other as a force option would have led to a diminished outcome. Similarly, gaining air and sea control in the Indo-Pacific against a determined adversary at distance without mobile sea-based air power would be extremely difficult if not impossible. Sea-based air power does not require diplomatic agreements or the need to build and supply static land-based airfields. The impact of local weather events, defects and the vagaries of communications at distance are all minimised.

The Gulf War, like every conflict at or from the sea over the past 100 years, proved the value of mobile sea-based fixed-wing air power, yet in Australia it is essentially gospel that, as an island nation, we have no need for this capability and can rely solely on static land-based fixed-wing air power or, in its absence, missile defence and missile strike.

Australia lost sea-based fixed-wing air power 42 years ago. Indeed, when it gets a nuclear submarine capability, Australia will be the only country with that form of sea power but not fixed-wing carrier aviation.

This article seeks to prompt a reflection on the complexity and nature of RAN and allied operations at sea in the gulf 33 years ago and its lessons for today and the future. If the Gulf War taught us anything, it was that all aspects of maritime power—air, surface and undersea—may be required at very short or even no notice. We have good plans for surface and undersea warfare but in air power at distance we remain sadly and cripplingly deficient.