- In January and February 1991, hundreds of thousands of troops in a US-led coalition pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.
- Amid that campaign, Delta Force and the British SAS went deep behind Iraqi lines to neutralize the Scud missiles that Saddam Hussein hoped would turn the tide of the war.
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On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army invaded Kuwait, igniting a crisis that led to an intervention by a massive US-led coalition.
At the time, Iraq possessed one of the world’s largest armies, with about 1 million troops. To defeat it, the US knocked on every diplomatic door in the region and elsewhere, successfully gathering 750,000 troops for Operation Desert Storm, which began on January 17, 1991.
As the coalition against him swelled, Hussein sought to divide the Babel-style alliance of nearly 40 countries, including several Arab nations and Israel, though Israel didn’t actively participate. By directly attacking Israel, the Iraqi leader hoped to provoke an Israeli response that would break the fragile coalition.
Hussein chose his Scud missile batteries as the instrument of his strategy. The Soviet-made tactical ballistic-missile system came in both fixed and mobile launchers, both of which were quite deadly. One Scud struck a US base in Saudi Arabia, killing 28 soldiers.
To stop the Scud threat, the Pentagon turned to its best: Delta Force, along with its British counterpart, the Special Air Service (SAS).
Following the invasion of Kuwait, the US’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) proposed several operations to the Pentagon, ranging from the rescue of American diplomats and citizens trapped in Kuwait City to direct-action operations in Iraq.
“Once we got word about the invasion, there were lots of ideas going around on how the Unit could respond,” a former Delta operator told Insider.
But one of the biggest hurdles for Delta Force and other US special-operations units during Desert Storm was the leadership of conventional military forces.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the four-star commander of US Central Command and the overall boss in the war, was quite skeptical about special-operations forces and their strategic utility in nation-state warfare.
In the end, however, Schwarzkopf had to acquiesce to the White House and Pentagon and allow special operators to join the campaign. It certainly helped that his second-in-command, British Gen. Sir Peter de la Billière, had served in and commanded the SAS and was director of British special forces during the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980.
“Actually, believe or not, at one point, Saddam was pretty high on the target deck. Of course, the guys were all up for it, but in the end, it came to nothing. We couldn’t pinpoint him. We didn’t have enough or accurate intel to action an operation,” the former Delta operator said. “But looking back, even if there was enough intel, the higher-ups would have probably gone for an airstrike.”
“Some of the ideas, like going after Saddam himself, were pretty wild, but that’s the whole purpose of the brainstorming sessions. You gotta think big and explore all possibilities, no matter how outlandish they might seem,” the former Delta operator told Insider.
“In the end, we settled down to a few options, with Scud-hunting being the primary, and A got that, with C primarily doing CP [close protection] for ‘Storming Norman'” Schwarzkopf, the former Delta operator added, referring to Delta Force’s A and C Squadrons.
Scud-hunting in the desert
The Iraqis knew their business. They would move the mobile Scud launchers during the night and lay down during the day, camouflaging the trucks so well that they would perfectly blend in the desert landscape, making it near impossible for coalition aircraft to spot them.
The Delta and SAS patrols would be inserted by helicopters and roam alongside main supply routes, looking for signs of mobile Scud launchers. Some patrols entered the country on vehicles and others by foot.
The Delta operators used a mix of Humvees, motorcycles, and heavily armed Pinzgaeur trucks. Affectionately nicknamed the “Pig,” a Pinzgaeur could carry several crew-served weapons, such as the M2 Browning heavy and the M-240 medium machine guns, and great amounts of rations, water, and fuel necessary to support the patrols.
However, some Delta patrols were frustrated by mechanical issues — it’s hard to change a tire in the middle of the desert. But the commandos had to be wary of the weather as well. In one instance, a special-operations helicopter went down, killing its crew and three Delta operators.
There were several times when SAS and Delta Force patrols got into firefights with Iraqi forces, either because the patrols were compromised or had attacked targets of opportunity.
One of these patrols went terribly wrong. Codenamed Bravo Two Zero, it consisted of eight SAS troopers from B Squadron. Their mission was to conduct special reconnaissance deep behind enemy lines in an attempt to locate mobile Scud missiles.
As the team was laying up in a small ravine during the day following their insertion, they were spotted by Iraqi civilians. There are conflicting reports about what happened next, with some patrol members saying that Iraqi mechanized infantry started pouring into the area.
The patrol members started escaping and evading toward Syria but were separated in the night. After an adventurous few days, four SAS troopers fell into Iraqi hands, three were killed (two by hypothermia, one by enemy fire), and one successfully escaped to Syria.
Weeks of fighting
During Operation Desert Storm, the SAS operators had returned to their roots.
The SAS was created during World War II to fight Nazi Germany’s Africa Korps, led by well-known Gen. Erwin Rommel, in North Africa. The force’s bread and butter was long-range reconnaissance and direct-action operations, such as raids and ambushes, deep behind enemy lines.
From forward-operating bases in the middle of the Sahara Desert, the SAS troopers — and some additional special-operations units, like the Long Range Desert Group — used heavily armed trucks and jeeps to devastating effect, destroying more planes on the ground the entire Royal Air Force did in the theater.
The Delta and SAS operators in the field during Desert Storm faced a different kind of opponent.
Coalition aircraft ensured air superiority from Day One, and conventional Iraqi ground forces were quickly overwhelmed. But US and British special operators did have a strategic impact on the war, reducing Scud launches against Israel by more than 80%.
Desert Storm ended on February 28, 1991, six weeks after it began. Just weeks after starting their hunt for Iraq’s Scuds, Delta and SAS completed their mission.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.