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25th Anniversary of Operation Desert Storm: AF Civil Engineers lead the way

  • Published
  • By Roger Gragg
  • AFCEC Public Affairs
In January 1991, the United States' first real test of the post-Cold War world unfolded as a television event.  After Iraq invaded the nation of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, and it was condemned by the United Nations, Operation Desert Shield began.  Desert Shield was a deployment to defend Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries from future aggression and provided a platform to prepare for an offensive contingency if Iraq didn't comply with UN edicts.

The world watched and waited to see if Iraq would abide by the United Nations-imposed deadline to withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15, 1991, or face a coalition force instructed to use "all means necessary to restore international order."  As the deadline passed without a response from Iraq, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm.

With a focus on air power, the U.S. Air Force took center stage, giving Air Force civil engineers the opportunity to show they were more than ready for the task.  The main mission of the deployed Air Force civil engineers, some of the first units to deploy, was to bed down personnel and aircraft, then operate and maintain those bases.

Wayland Patterson, a member of the AFCEC Readiness Directorate, recalls deploying to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in August 1990 as a captain and chief of readiness for the engineering directorate at U.S Central Command Air Force.

"I remember getting on a C-141 with Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, of USCENTAF, with a set of orders in my hand that had an 'X' in the box for number of days to deploy," Patterson said.

He remembers taking nothing more than a duffle bag for uniforms and personal items; a wooden footlocker containing a computer, a printer and reference materials, and hitting the ground running.

A Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force, or Prime BEEF, was one of the first groups deployed. It was tasked with building bases and weapons platforms for the coming assault.  An Air Force Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer team, or RED HORSE, was also deployed to provide large-scale construction capabilities.

Doug Hammer, retired Air Force colonel and current Air Force Civil Engineer Center contractor, deployed as a first lieutenant in November 1990 to King Khalid Military City, or KKMC, in northern Saudi Arabia, just 50 miles from the Iraqi border.  Among some of the first troops to arrive, Hammer and other members of the CE team were tasked to establish, build-up and sustain an Air Force forward operating location.

"When we first landed over there, they had no idea we were coming and no one seemed to have heard of KKMC," Hammer said.  "We finally found a C-130 loadmaster who had dropped supplies there a few days earlier and off we went.  Due to the location, (the pilot) had to land at night, couldn't stop his engines and we could only take what we could carry."

KKMC was originally planned as an 800-person tent city and airfield with limited turnaround capability, but due to its strategic location, it continued to expand to accommodate almost 2,000 people by the end of the war.

"With no team kit to support the mission, we relied on the tools folks packed in their personal bags and anything we could trade for to get the job done," Hammer said. "It was hard enough to get there.  Equipment was optional."

By the end of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, 3,000 civil engineers had built 21 tent cities, bedded 55,000 troops and more than 1,500 aircraft, erected more than 5,000 tents and constructed more than 300,000 square feet of buildings, according to "Leading the Way: The History of the Air Force Civil Engineer" by Dr. Ronald Hartzer, former Air Force historian.
The availability, reliability and capability of the network of bases that provide air power were key to successful prosecution of the air war, Hartzer wrote.

Glenn Deese, AFCEC Expeditionary Engineering Division contractor, also deployed to the Persian Gulf in November 1990.  After arriving at Eskan Village in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he was sent to help install a power plant and an electrical distribution system at KKMC.  He also served as team chief for the Barrier Arresting Kit-12 expeditionary aircraft arresting system, or AAS, installation at KKMC.

"We had just finished AAS installation at KKMC when my boss called, told me to send my team back to Riyadh and for me to jump a C-130 to Al Dhafra Air Base (Saudia Arabia) to help him with two BAK-12 installations," Deese said.  "We completed installations around (11 p.m.) on Jan. 15.  The next day F-16s launched from Al Dhafra to kick off Desert Storm. "
On Jan. 16, after the UN deadline had passed, Operation Desert Storm began with special operations helicopters, stealth fighters and cruise missiles conducting air strikes on Iraqi military targets from Kuwait to Baghdad, and Air Force civil engineers watched some of the very first missions launch.

Once the air sorties began -- sometimes more than 2,000 a day -- Air Force fire fighters worked 12-hour shifts to support coalition forces and the quick-turn refueling operations that required continuous fire protection.  These fire fighters, engaged in a mission rhythm rarely seen before, acted as first responders to aircraft emergencies and protected the base and personnel from fire, said Hammer.
Coalition air strikes continued for 41 days.

"Although we had no assigned aircraft, KKMC was extremely busy as we became an ops point for the planes to refuel, rearm and go in again without having to return to their home base," Hammer said.  "Our firefighters responded to over 1,000 emergencies in the first two months of the war. What a group of professionals!  I was honored to be associated with them."
At the outset of this war, there was, among many, a pervasive fear of missile attacks from Iraq on neighboring countries, including the fear of chemical weapons. On the first day of Operation Desert Storm, Iraq attacked Israel and Saudi Arabia with SCUD missiles.  One of the most common memories of participants in the war is warning sirens and threat of missile attacks.

Deese recalls donning full chemical gear and seeking cover during SCUD attacks, then waiting to hear the explosions when Patriot missile systems operated by the U.S. Army intercepted them, or when they made it through and landed nearby.

"I just remember putting on full gear and running to the nearest bunker regardless of the hour, every time the attack sirens sounded," Hammer said, "and the sirens sounded all the time."

Members of RED HORSE provided support to the U.S. Army by constructing security berms for the Patriot batteries at several locations.  They also assisted with rigging front-end loaders to assist with reloading the batteries, drastically reducing reload time.  RED HORSE members completed 25 major projects in three months, the equivalent of three years of construction for a single squadron, Hartzer noted.

On Feb. 23 the ground assault for the liberation of Kuwait began.  As coalition forces moved into and across Kuwait, command leadership identified two Iraqi air bases they wanted to make unusable in the future.  RED HORSE teams partnered with members of the explosive ordnance demolition, or EOD, teams, excavated and used explosives to make cuts and craters approximately every 2,000 feet on all runways and taxiways, ensuring the assets couldn't be used against coalition forces in the foreseeable future.

Then Tech. Sgt. John D. Olive, now subject matter expert for the AFCEC Explosive Ordnance Disposal Division, was among the first EOD teams to arrive in the lead up to Desert Storm and took part in response and recovery following SCUD attacks.

EOD teams, like the one Olive was assigned to, deployed to the Persian Gulf to oversee munitions and disposal of unexploded ordnance, proved essential for troop safety and mission success.  Despite a shortage of equipment, including protective gear, the EOD mission began to expand and their role in the battlefield would change even more significantly in the months and years ahead.

On Feb. 28, approximately 100 hours after the ground assault began, President George H.W. Bush ordered a suspension of offensive combat and laid out conditions for a permanent cease-fire.  The 42-day conflict had necessitated the largest deployment within a six-month period in American history.  In addition to demonstrating American air power, it demonstrated that the Air Force civil engineer community was well trained and ready for deployment -- literally build cities out of sand.

"Operation Desert Storm provided the next generation of Air Force civil engineers the opportunity to demonstrate the 'Can-Do, Will-Do' attitude that was earned by those who went before them," Hammer said. "In fact, it helped make us the engineers of choice within the joint community for expeditionary basing."