Every Airman a Warrior

Photo: F-35A Lightning II’s from Hill Air Force Base returned to Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, to rejoin the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing on Nov. 16, 2019, for their second combat deployment. (Tech. Sgt. Joshua Williams/Air Force)

Feb. 11, 2020
By Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, USAF (Ret.)

Thirty years ago this summer, Saddam Hussein invaded his peaceful neighbor Kuwait, setting the stage for the first Gulf War. In response, the United States launched Operation Desert Shield, soon followed by Operation Desert Storm, restoring Kuwait to its rightful leaders and destroying Saddam’s army in the process. 

Over more than seven weeks of continuous combat operations in January and February 1991, U.S. Air Force Airmen, both in the air and on the ground, fought a tough and winning fight, aided by smaller aviation arms of the Navy, Marine Corps, and our international partners. In an incredible and lethal assault, these Airmen disabled some 750,000 Iraqi fighters and their weapons systems and largely destroyed their will to fight. In singularly dangerous missions, Airmen dueled with the most modern and advanced surface-to-air missiles of the day, including SA-3s and SA-6s, and flew directly through radar-guided 23mm and 37mm anti-aircraft artillery.

Amazingly, this part of the war is too easily forgotten. Instead of remembering and recording a six-week air assault campaign, the 100-hour ground war that followed is what is remembered. This was a rout of historic proportions, no doubt. But it was made possible only because of the incredible damage unleashed by airpower in the weeks beforehand.

Our nation does this history a grave disservice when it ignores the selfless courage of combat aviators, thirty years ago and today. Just as committed as their airborne comrades, the irrepressible Airmen teammates on the ground, braved dangerous contested battlespace and the threat of Iraqi SCUD missiles to set the conditions for an overwhelming allied victory with minimal casualties on the ground.

I was there. My squadron was among the first to arrive in theater in August 1990 after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and we were there in January and February as we drove his forces out again. The Airmen in my squadron and wing were in a tough fight weeks before the triumphant ground assault began, and we were overhead killing the enemies of our U.S and allied ground forces throughout those 100 hours. Indeed, our Airmen have been there ever since, providing lethal combat power in the Middle East for nearly 30 years since the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.

Today, new generations of Airmen remain engaged in a tough fight from the bases of Desert Storm in places like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE, and among them are the sons and daughters of Desert Storm’s air warriors.

The Air Force Times recently reported that five squadrons of combat aircraft are currently deployed in at least three countries in the Middle East. F-15E Strike Eagles with the 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron from RAF Lakenheath in England are now stationed at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia after deploying from Lakenheath in the Fall of 2019; along with Airmen and F-16s from the 555th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and the advanced F-35A Lightning IIs of the 34th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. Airmen of the 79th Expeditionary F-16 Fighter Squadron, deployed from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, are also at Al Dhafra. They fall under the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. And Airmen with the 389th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, another Strike Eagle squadron, deployed from Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, are also deployed to an undisclosed location in the CENTCOM area of responsibility. They fall under the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing.

That’s not all. Airmen operating A-10 Warthogs with the 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron are deployed from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. They fall under the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing.

All our Airmen around the world, are continuously integrated in an incredible global reach team. USAF Global Strike Command bombers – B1s, B2s, and B52s routinely deploy to the Middle East and worldwide. Air Mobility Command Airmen maintain and fly KC-10 and KC-135 air refuelers and C-130, C-17, and C-5 airlifters; intelligence-gathering, command and control, and communications operators fly and employ U-2s, RC-135s, E-8 JSTARS, E-3A AWACS; and Airmen from multiple geographic locations employ complex Space assets and unmanned remotely piloted aircraft like the Reaper and  Global Hawk fleets.

Americans rightly have a long and storied love affair with our ground warriors. I would offer that Airmen love them even more. We admire their courage and their fortitude, and we suffer when we see grim realities and images of wounded Soldiers and Marines. Unlike the World War II, Korea, and Vietnam eras, when enemy air defenses too often brought down our pilots and their aircraft, Americans may no longer recognize the risks their Airmen take to defend their nation’s vital interests overseas.

I have tremendous respect for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. In his excellent recent book, Call Sign Chaos, Jim takes appropriate pride in the Marines he led in Desert Storm and later in Afghanistan and, again, in Iraq. He points to failures in strategy at the upper echelons of political leadership that cost American lives, and to the selfless courage of those who do their nation’s bidding.

 When Jim was a battalion commander in Operation Desert Storm, I was a teammate F16 squadron commander. The Airmen in my squadron and wing, in the air and on the ground, were in a tough fight with the Iraqis before then-lieutenant colonel Mattis engaged and we remained with him throughout his time on the ground in Kuwait. In fact, U.S. Air Force warriors have been providing lethal combat power in the Middle East continuously over the nearly thirty years since the beginning of Desert Storm. They have ably and selflessly fought along with and for Jim Mattis most every day of his forty year career as a joint warfighter.

Our Air Force and Space Force Airmen are always there, ready to answer the call with the lethality and violence that overwhelm the enemies of America’s warriors. They provide the preponderance of joint integrated precision weapons attacks, unparalleled intelligence, global navigation, and sustained real-time communications support. They continue to target and destroy Taliban forces in Afghanistan and residual Islamic State elements in Iraq and Syria, even as they envelop and credibly deter Iran from potential conflict escalation.

On every continent, Airmen are on watch and ready to deliver decisive blows to our enemies and critical aid to their teammates in arms—Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines. Teamed with our remarkable Special Operations forces, our Airmen are the “killer angels” overhead. To much of America, however, they are all but invisible. Yet their work should never be a thankless task.

“Our warriors are no longer limited to the people who fly the airplanes,” then-chief of staff Gen. John Jumper said back in 2003. “Our entire force is a warrior force. Being a warrior is not an [Air Force specialty code]. It’s a condition of the heart.”