After Coalition forces drove Iraqi occupiers out of Kuwait in February 1991, U.S. Special Forces discovered an intricate sand-table model used by the Republican Guard to plan for the defense of Kuwait City.
Most of the defenses displayed on the mockup were pointed toward the nearby sea coast, from where the Iraqis believed – as did most of the world that had watched – U.S. Marines would mount an amphibious assault. Model artillery and concertina wire lined the shoreline.
But that anticipated amphibious attack was an illusion, an elaborate ruse concocted by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s planners to conceal the real main attack: a roughly 150-mile sweep west by U.S. Army ground forces into Iraq that cut off supply lines and retreat for many Republican Guard troops.
More than a month of bomb strikes had largely blinded Iraqi surveillance capability, allowing the U.S. to manipulate what the enemy still could see. A week before the main ground attack began on Feb. 23, Marines had crossed over the Saudi Arabia border to conduct attacks on the Republican Guard defenses.
But they were a feint -- although powerful enough to keep Saddam Hussein’s forces believing they were the main ground attack to support an amphibious landing.
“They bought it 100 percent,” said Bill Allison, a history professor at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro and author of “The Gulf War, 1990-1991.”
He compared the deception to that used by Allied forces during World War II for the D-Day landing on Normandy Beach in 1944.
“Even after we’d landed in Normandy, they kept believing we were going to land in Calais for three weeks or so,” Allison said.
In the heady days after the Republican Guard was routed from Kuwait, news accounts gushed over how the surprise sweep to the west – an exploit Schwarzkopf likened to a football “Hail Mary” pass – would be studied in military planners for years to come.
“Yeah, of course it’s still studied,” Allison said. It provides a good sand-table exercise for students of military campaigns, focusing on “Napoleonic-style audacity and surprise,” he said.
“It holds. It was a bold deal, and it worked, right?”
The Persian Gulf War is being used this year for the first time as the basis for the introduction to strategic studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., said Richard A. Lacquement, Jr., dean of the School of Strategic Landpower.
It’s the first “comprehensive” use of the Gulf War at the college, and the course goes well beyond the battlefield operations in an attempt to get students to understand “how to connect the use of military means to the broader objectives,” Lacquement said.
“Iraq was able to exert control over all of Kuwait, and we were able to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait,” he said. “That looks like World War II, where there are fronts, and it’s about control of territory -- who gets to govern in that territory. That’s still relevant, as a type of warfare, even if you’re looking at what the Chinese are asserting at sea in the South China Sea, for example, and other places.”
The tactics for the Hail Mary phase of the offensive were developed by a small group of junior officers at the Army Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, according to “The Commanders,” an account of the war written by Bob Woodward in 1991. The coterie of majors and lieutenant colonels was dubbed the “Jedi Knights” after being sent to Saudi Arabia to plan parts of the offensive, for which they used concepts established by General Ulysses Grant’s campaign at Vicksburg in 1863.
The plan fit neatly into the Army's AirLand Battle doctrine, whose basic tenet was that synchronizing mobile air, land and sea forces multiplies an attacking force’s advantage in overcome stationary defenses.
In his autobiography, “It Doesn’t Take a Hero,” Schwarzkopf wrote that he gave the planners a very broad directive: “Assume a ground attack will follow an air campaign. I want you to study the enemy dispositions and terrain and tell me the best way to drive Iraq out of Kuwait given the forces we have available.”
He gave them two weeks to concoct a plan, during which corps and division commanders were deeply involved.
Schwarzkopf deftly used the media to distract attention away the planned offensive. Operation Imminent Thunder employed thousands of Marines for a phony amphibious task force, which began posturing in the Gulf in January. The media were invited to cover an amphibious rehearsal in nearby Oman.
“It’s not so much that Schwarzkopf lied to the media,” Allison said. “He just misdirected the media a little bit and they ran with this idea about how the Marines were sitting out there in the Gulf all ready to go: it’s going to be Iwo Jima; we’re going to storm the beaches.”
The Coalition also dropped propaganda leaflets on the occupying Iraqis about how the Marines were going to swarm the beaches and destroy all before them.
“Everything we did led them to believe that we were going to do it,” Allison said. And Schwarzkopf’s forceful persona went a long way in selling the deception.
“In those press briefings, he’d walk in there like a big bear and say, ‘Argh, we’re going to do this, the enemy’s doing that.’ He was kind of the right guy at the right time.”