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Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait; 1990
By Tom Cooper, with Brig.Gen. Ahmad Sadik (IrAF)
Sep 16, 2003, 03:02

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Existing in the shadow of powerful states of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, Kuwait - a country of mere 14.000 square kilometres, with a population of some 1.6 million - became foremost known as an oil-rich nation at a strategically important position, the existence of which was threatened ever since it was created as a self-ruled area.

The northern part of the Persian Gulf was under nominal control of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the World War I. In the early 1920s Kuwait was given the status of an independent sheikdom – Dawlat al-Kuwait (State of Kuwait) - ruled by the al-Sabbath family, that governs it until today. Its foreign affairs were handled by the British until 1961. One week after the formal termination of this arrangement (through a treaty that recognized Kuwait’s full independence) Iraq unilaterally announced that Kuwait was to be considered Iraqi territory. Emir Abdullah al-Sabbath immediately appealed to the British, who had promised military aid in the case of emergency. The rapid deployment of combat aircraft of the RAF and one aircraft carrier of the Royal Navy, as well as subsequent landings of British troops in Kuwait City have prevented any further Iraqi moves.

In the years afterwards, Kuwaitis mainly profited from immense oil wealth. The government of Kuwait attempted to show the Arab world that this wealth was not to be considered a threat. Large proportions of oil revenues went to the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development and Kuwait has been a principal source of funds for the Arab League, particularly after disastrous defeat of Egypt, Jordan and Syria during the 1967 War with Israel.

Armed Forces

Kuwaiti armed forces were created in reaction to Iraqi threat from 1961. Initially, they were slowly but methodically organized and trained by the British, who remained influential well into the 1970s. The situation changed in the 1980s, when the government introduced a number of modernization projects, all of which remained very limited in nature and were based on procurement of cheap hardware from a multitude of sources, eventually causing a logistical nightmare.

Driven by their own experiences in the area, the British were initially foremost interested in developing the Kuwait Air Force (KAF). This was originally equipped with six Jet Provost T.Mk.51s, and four Westland Whirlwind helicopters – all of which were flown by British pilots. After an initial cadre of native pilots was trained, in 1969 a total of eleven Hawker Hunter F.Mk.57s were delivered, pending the Kuwaiti search for more advanced aircraft. This ended by the British and the USA almost forcing Kuwait – and Saudi Arabia – to buy BAC Lightning F.Mk.53 interceptors, even if these have not been exactly what either customer needed: the British were interested in purchasing 50 General Dynamics F-111 fighter-bombers from the USA, and the sale of Lightnings was to ascertain the funding for this project.

The lack of experience among Kuwaiti pilots proved to be a handicap in the use of sophisticated Lightnings and so several additional deals had to be concluded, all of which were to support the purchase of Lightnings. Eventually, 12 Lightning F.Mk.53s were purchased, together with two T.55 trainers, however, they were not to become fully operational for years. For example, in late 1968 a contract was signed with BAC for the purchase of 12 Strikemaster Mk.83s, that should give the Kuwaitis better initial training. Also, several former British MoD officers were contracted to organize a company which would organize and supervise the training of Saudi and Kuwaiti pilots and ground personnel: this company, however, was paid by the British government, and already by 1970 there were complaints that the UK never earned even a Pound Sterling from the whole sale of the Lightnings, as all the profit was spent for secondary projects needed to make the type operational in the two Gulf air forces.

By 1970, the Kuwait’s armed forces consisted of an army of about 4.500 men, organized as a brigade group with 50 Indian-built Vijayanta medium tanks, a battery of 25pdr howitzers, armoured cars, and Vigilant anti-tank guided missiles. At the time, the KAF counted 900 men, organized into one fighter-bomber squadron (equipped with Hunters and Lightnings), and a support squadron (with six BAC Strikemasters, two Lockheed C-130 Hercules transports, two Whirlwind and six Agusta-Bell AB.205 helicopters).

"415" was one of the two retired KAF Lightnings that survived not only the years of service with the KAF in the 1970s, but also the Iraqi invasion and then the whole II Persian Gulf War, in January/February 1991. The Lightnings were acquired by the KAF in a controversial deal, and it seems the Kuwaitis never managed to make them fully operational alone: although using them well into the 1980s, some help from the British instructors was always needed. (KAF)


Kuwait’s relations with Iraq remained tense and in March 1973 Baghdad tried to force Kuwait to concede area opposite to the then newly built naval base at Omm ol-Qasr. Brief border skirmishes demonstrated the need for a well equipped Kuwaiti Air Force and the Emir immediately launched a comprehensive re-equipment programme.

As first, in early 1974, the Kuwaitis ordered 18 Dassault Mirage F.1CK and two (two-seat) Mirage F.1BKs, as well as 24 SA.342L/K Gazelle in France, some of which have had the ability to fire HOT anti-tank missiles. As delivered to Kuwait, Mirage F.1CKs were equipped with the “basic” Cyrano-IV radar, without any more sophisticated additions later introduced on F.1EQs of the neighbouring Iraq. The main equipment of new interceptors were AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles of US-production, replaced by Matra R.550 Magic Mk.Is in the early 1980s.

KAF Mirage F.1CK "714"; the first batch, serialed 701 thru 718, was delivered between 1977 and 1979. The accompanying two-seaters were designated Mirage F.1BK, and serialled 771 and 772. All were very potent interceptors for their time, equipped with Matra R.530 and R.550 Magic missiles. During the 1980s the whole fleet was upgraded to the F.1CK-2 standard, which added the Super 530F capability, and the examples surviving the Iraqi invasion in 1990 were once again upgraded, this time with Super 530D capability. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Meanwhile, in March 1974, an order for 30 McDonnell Douglas A-4KU Skyhawks and MIM-23 HAWK SAMs was issued to Pentagon, and on 20 January 1975 McDonnell Douglas was authorized to launch production of these aircraft for Kuwait. All A-4KUs were to be newly-built, and similar to the A-4M Skyhawk II standard as delivered to the USMC at the time, powered by the powerful P&W J-52-P-408 engine, with a larger cockpit hood and a squared-off fin-tip, but without any classified electronic equipment or provision for AGM-45 Shrike and AGM-62 Walleye missiles, or equipment needed for delivery of nuclear weapons. The two-seat TA-4KUs were powered by the same engine, had the same payload capability and have also kept all the other elements of the A-4KUs, including the dorsal avionics hump behind the cockpit.

Most of the new aircraft and helicopters for KAF were delivered between 1976 and 1978, by which time the crews for them were trained in Kuwait by French and Pakistani instructors.

Originally, the Kuwaiti A-4KUs should have been painted in the camouflage pattern shown here, which should have been a mix of sand and Dark Olive Green. Their original serials should have been in the range 500-530. Kuwait placed its order for Skyhawks in late 1974, ordering a total of 30 A-4KUs and six TA-4KUs (the first of which flew on 14 December 1976). The aircraft were all newly-built and delivered via the UK in 1977 and 1978. Intended to provide a measure of strike capability against the permanent threat from Iraq, they served with two squadrons, and initially saw not much use: in fact, by 1984 their utilisation was so low, Kuwait intended to sell them to a third party. After some negotiations with the USA, however, the type was held in service and both squadrons moved to the newly-built Ahmad al-Jabar AB, in the same year. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


Once all the Mirages and Skyhawks were delivered, in 1983, the KAF issued an order for 13 additional Mirage F.1CK-2s and four Mirage F.1BK-2s, together with orders for six AS.332F Super Puma helicopters, equipped with Exocet anti-ship missiles. Despite its official "pro-pan-Arab" stance, in the same year Kuwait also turned down an Egyptian offer for purchasing Alpha Jets assembled in Egypt under license, and instead ordered 12 Hawk T.Mk.64s from the UK.

From 1987, however, Kuwait was increasingly associated with the USA for its defence needs, and this cooperation resulted in an order for 32 McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet single-seaters, and eight F/A-18Ds two seaters. Together with Hornets, the USA were to deliver 120 AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, 344 AGM-65G Mavericks and 40 AGM-84D Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Two years later, when production of first Hornets for Kuwait was about to be finalized, the first out of 12 Hawks arrived, while the KAF issued an order for 12 Shorts Tucano T.Mk.52s in the UK, to act as basic and advanced trainers.

By the time, the KAF was best equipped of all military branches – and this for several reasons: the ruling al-Sabah family always counted on help and support from one of superpowers and therefore only a small and relatively poorly trained army (this was also a precaution against a possible disloyalty of its armed forces); the air force was considered the only serious mean of defence for the small country, wile the Land Forces were little more but a “speed-bumper” for any potential invaders, designed to hold an eventual aggression for few days. Afterwards, it was expected that the help from abroad would arrive.

As of 1989, the Kuwaiti Land Forces were still generally equipped and trained by the British, but a modest modernisation program was launched in 1988, with Kuwaitis selecting Russian BMP-2s infantry-fighting vehicles and Yugoslav M-84 MBTs. The first of newly-ordered vehicles were about to arrive in the autumn of 1990. Together with selection of a number of other systems from the USA, UK, France, Germany, and Yugoslavia, the small size of the Kuwaiti armed forces created a logistical nightmare and required a considerable number of foreign instructors, as well as relatively sizeable foreign liaison teams to be stationed in Kuwait. within the small Kuwait Land Forces, consisting of three mechanized brigades (including 24th and 35th). These were supported by a small team of the United States Liaison Office Kuwait (USLOK), which was focusing on logistical support.

Kuwait and the I Persian Gulf War

As a monarchy with a large minority of Shi'a sect, Kuwait was particularly susceptible to threats from Iran, which early after the Iraqi invasion, in September 1980, understood the importance of Kuwaiti support (mainly financial) for the Iraqi war effort. In the following months and years Tehran repeatedly warned that it would "take appropriate action" against any regional state that backed Baghdad actively. Indeed, to show that it meant business, Iran launched air raids on Kuwaiti border posts on 12 and 16 November 1980, in retaliation for alleged Kuwaiti involvement in the Iraqi military effort. The attacks - all executed by the F-4E Phantoms of the TFB.6, stationed in Bushehr - saw repeated use of the AGM-65A Maverick air-to-ground missiles. Usually, the Iranian pilots would first thunder low over the Kuwaiti posts, so to scare the officers working there - or any civilians - away, and then rocket and strafe buildings. The third such attack was flown in April 1981, by three Phantoms. Both the Iraqis and the Kuwaitis later claimed to have shot down one of the attackers each, but in fact not a single bullet was fired against the Iranians: the Iraqi air defences were foremost concentrated in the area between al-Faw and Basrah, and were taken by surprise, while the Kuwaiti air defences were not active at all.

However, the Kuwaitis were not to change their politics despite such direct Iranian warnings. In autumn 1981, they granted another interest-free loan of $2 billion to Iraq. In response, on 1 October 1981, the oil refinery at Umm Aayash was hit in another raid by Iranian Phantoms. Though Tehran denied responsibility, it was not only so that the Saudi-based US AWACS tracked the attacking planes from their base in Bushehr, but both the Kuwaitis and the Iranians knew very well who flew this attack and why.

The situation of Kuwait was clear now, and the country had to pay a price, periodically, if it persisted in sit policy of allowing Iraq to use its airspace, ports, airfields and highways. Nevertheless, the Kuwaitis increased their support for Iraq, especially in the wake of the Iranian offensives in 1986 and 1987, which captured the Faw Peninsula, thus effectively cutting off the Iraqi entrance into the Persian Gulf, and almost cutting off the southernmost Iraqi communications with Kuwait.

In 1986, the Iraqis signed a contract with several other Gulf states - foremost Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - which permitted them the use of airspace along the western coast of the Persian Gulf for attacks against Iran. This contract not only permitted armed Iraqi fighters to fly inside the foreign airspace while underway to attack Iranian oil installations, but also to land and refuel in the case of emergency - and if the Iraqi fighters were not armed any more. Needless to say, this contract saved lives of dozens of Iraqi pilots, and the Iranian interceptor-pilots which were hunting them over the Gulf soon enough noticed a particularly strange behaviour of the Iraqi pilots once they would be caught by the Iranian Phantoms and Tomcats: the Iraqis would jettison their ammunition, turn towards west - instead towards north (i.e. back towards Iraq) - and try to disappear flying at max speed and lowest possible level, obviously not carrying about their fuel consumption.

In at least two cases, Iraqi fighters landed in Dhahran (Saudi Arabia), and at least once on Kuwaiti air bases after experiencing problems during their in-flight-refuelling operations deep over the Persian Gulf.

Theoretically, the Kuwaitis counted that such help and support for the Iraqi war effort secured them not only against Iran, but also in the face of Iraq, which - despite the long and bloody war against Iran - never changed its stance towards Kuwait: Baghdad still considered the small country as a part of Iraq, and every now and then the crews of the Iraqi helicopters operating over the Bubiyan Island when asked about flying inside the Kuwaiti airspace would explain to foreign reporters that this was "their" (i.e. Iraqi) airspace, and "that one day it would be turn on "them" (the Kuwaitis) as well". Besides, all IrAF pilots operating in the area have had Bubiyan marked as Iraqi soil on their tactical charts.

Believing all the differences could be solved by other – foremost monetary – means, the Kuwaitis never took such behaviour or Iraqi threats seriously enough, however, and the Iraqi attack against Kuwait surprised quite a few observers and involved parties.

KAF Mirage F.1CK-2 "722" seen sometimes in the 1980s. The Mirage F.1 was one of the most widespread interceptors in the air forces of the Persian Gulf of the time, and used by Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar. Without surprise, the Iraqis were swift to take Mirage F.1CKs and F.1BKs they found in Kuwait and integrate them into their air force. Before the Iraqi invasion, the KAF was swift to equip its Mirages with the Matra R.550 Mk.2, which was introduced in service only in the late 1980s, and proved excellent during the short war. Even more so, there was a considerable alarm within the USAF when a report became known that the Iraqis have captured 50 R.550 Mk.2s in KAF depots. (KAF)


The Kuwait Business

Tensions between Iraq and Kuwait began to increase already in 1989, when the regime in Baghdad issued a number of statements towards Western powers, its Arab neighbours, and Israel. Most of Iraqi threats were targeting Kuwait.

Iraqis have had at least five reasons for their behaviour towards the smaller neighbour: Iraq could not repay about $80 billion that had been borrowed to finance the war with Iran. While, arguably, this war was in Kuwaiti and Saudi interests, Kuwait decided to not forgive Iraq’s $65 billion debt, thus providing economic and emotional justification for an Iraqi attack. Kuwaitis were incredibly rich and have had huge investments abroad: access to this wealth could resolve Iraq’s financial problems. The third reason was alleged Kuwaiti oil drilling in the Rumaylah oilfield, which lay in disputed border territory, and the fourth was Kuwaiti overproduction of oil. Gulf revenues were depressed as a result of an oil glut on the spot market in the late 1980s, forcing Iraq to threaten with the use of force as retribution for Kuwaiti overproduction and underpricing.

An additional justification for an Iraqi military action was the fact that the Emir of Kuwait and the whole royal family were immensely unpopular – outright hated – among Arabs and Moslems. Described in the Arab world (but also outside) as “degenerates”, “complete parasites” and “nepotists”, owners of a harem and slaves, the Kuwaiti royals ran their country as their private enterprise. Without surprise, by comparison to feudal Kuwait, Iraq was a modern, secular state, with most advanced status of women in the region and extensive religious freedoms, high rates of economic growth, and some of the highest standards of living and literacy rates in the Arab world.

In February 1990, the Iraqi President Saddam Hussayin demanded US warships to leave the Persian Gulf: this demand passed almost unobserved in the West, which was all too busy with the developments in the Europe and dissolution of the USSR: subsequent Iraqi actions did not, and it was soon obvious that some kind of an armed conflict had to occur.

Namely, by March 1990, US intelligence learned about Iraq building permanent missile launching sites in the west of the country, facing Israel. Almost like in reaction to this finding, already on 2 April, Saddam Hussayin announced that Iraq was in possession of binary chemical weapons and that, “By God, we will make the fire eat up half of Israel, if it tries to do anything against Iraq.” During the Arab Leage Summit, held in Baghdad, in late May 1990, the Iraqi President furthermore called for the liberation of Jerusalem, attacks on the USA and Israel, and demanded $27 billion from Kuwait, while blaming Kuwaiti and Saudi greed for oil, and equating them with an act of war against Iraq. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) responded that they would lower their oil output, but – in essence – all the corresponding Iraqi demands were in vain: Arab countries continued producing more oil than assigned to them by the OPEC, thus lowering the price. The result was that the Iraqi economy experienced increasing problems while attempting to recover from the long war with Iran.

The first round of talks between Iraq and Kuwait, held in June 1990, in Kuwait City, resulted in no agreement. The following month, all OPEC members agreed to cut production and increase prices, but most of the countries failed to observe the OPEC quota agreement, causing the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, to send a letter to Chedli Klibin, the Arab League Secretary General, accusing Kuwait of stealing oil from the Rumailah oilfield and adopting a policy of harming Iraq and conspiring with the UAE to glut the world oil market. Aziz specified, that this is forcing Iraq to retrieve, “stolen funds and recover territories”. In the following days, Aziz openly attacked Kuwait for “direct aggression” and “refusal to honour oil production reductions”, while Saddam Hussayin then threatened military action against the neighbour, demanding the return of the Rumailah oilfield and $2.4 billion compensation. The Kuwaiti cabined rejected all these claims, instead accusing Iraq of violating Kuwaiti territory, and demanding arbitration by the Arab League. With a whole Iraqi Republican Guards 1st Hammurabi Armoured Division – a total of some 10.000 troops with 350 T-72 tanks - massed on the Kuwaiti border and a second division being in the process of getting there, Kuwait placed its armed forces on alert, while Washington declared that the US commitment to protect Kuwait remains in force, and six US Navy warship in the Persian Gulf were moved into the northern Persian Gulf.

With hindsight, it should be mentioned that Iraqi accusations of Kuwait were reasonable: Kuwait was stealing Iraqi oil and selling it at low prices, by pumping bellow the border from Iraqi soil. This surplus oil was keeping the oil price low and indeed causing damage to the Iraqi economy. However, the development was playing in hands of the regime in Baghdad, which was interested in obtaining better control over additional oil resources – as well as the USA, interested in obtaining the Saudi permission to base their troops in that kingdom already since the times of the World War II.

With more readiness for negotiations, an armed conflict could have been averted already at the time, but neither Kuwait nor Iraq were ready to give up, and through the summer the concentration of Iraqi ground forces along the mutual border continued increasing. By mid-July 1990, the situation was reaching the boiling point. One of crucial moments occurred on 25 July, when during a meeting between Saddam and the US Ambassador in Iraq, Glaspie, the Iraqi President stated that he will not use force against Kuwait, as well as that he wants better relations with Washington. In response, Glaspie stated that the USA had “no opinion” on disputes between Arab nations. The Iraqis misunderstood this quiet stance as a sign that the Americans would not oppose an invasion of Kuwait.

What followed, was extremely unusual: while at previous times Kuwait was often described as “vital for national security of the United States”, and the Administration of the US President Bush launched a “policy review” of Iraq after evidence was offered that Baghdad was accelerating efforts to build nuclear, as well as more advanced chemical weapons, and despite Iraqis meanwhile concentrating 100.000 troops and over 1.000 tanks on the border to Kuwait, as well as in spite of warnings from own intelligence services and the Saudis about an Iraqi attack being imminent, the US government publicly sent the USS Independence carrier battle group away from the Persian Gulf, and would not change this decision even after the last round of negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait failed, due to the Emir of Kuwait failing to consent to face-to-face peace talks, preferring Arab League mediation, on the evening of 1 August 1990.

Thus, instead of issuing a clear warning to Iraq to stay out of Kuwait, and backing this with serious, high-profile military demonstrations, the US Administration maintained a public silence. The few public statements issued after 24 July 1994, in fact stressed time and again that the USA have no defence treaties or special defence or security commitments with Kuwait. Without surprise,

Iraqi and Kuwaiti Planning

The Iraqi plan for the operation against Kuwait was actually based on the combination of old British plans from the 1950s, "updated" on the basis of the lessons from the last 18 months of the war against Iran, with various new elements - with one exception: no chemical warheads were to be used, even if the use of chemical weapons was a standard part of Iraqi tactical doctrine already since the late 1987. Besides, the Iraqi leadership understood the importance of capturing the Kuwaiti government, in order to be able to replace it legally by a body that would support the Iraqi cause. The Iraqis attempted to made the least use of force possible: instead of starting their invasion by powerful air strikes and artillery bombardments their military could mount, they planned to deploy command units into Kuwait City, with the task of capturing the royal family. Simultaneously, four Iraqi Republican Guards divisions would drive deep into Kuwait: two were to occupy the capital, while another two would execute an enveloping manoeuvre and cut off communications between Kuwait City and the Saudi border. Therefore, after the first counter-air strike against the Kuwaiti airfields by Iraqi long-range artillery and fighter-bombers of the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF), the Iraqis planned to deploy commando units into Kuwait City, with the task of capturing the royal family. Air and artillery strikes would be undertaken only in so far to keep the KAF on the ground.

For this operation, the Iraqis deployed four divisions of their Republican Guards Command (RFGC):
- 1st Hammurabi Armoured Division (with 8th and 17th Armoured Brigade, and 15th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, equipped with a total of some 350 T-72 MBTs and 100 BMP-2 APCs) and 6th Nebuchadnezzar Motorized Infantry Division (with 19th and 22nd Motorized Infantry Brigades, and one armoured brigade), were deployed north of Kuwait, along the Highway 6, connecting Basrah and Kuwait City; they were to strike directly on Kuwaiti capital.
- 2nd al-Medinah al-Munawera Armoured Division (with 2nd and 10th Armoured Brigades, and 14th Mechanized Brigade, equipped with T-72 MBTs and BMP-2 APCs) and 3rd Tawalkalna al-Allah Mechanized Infantry Division (with two mechanized and one armoured brigade) were deployed north-west of Kuwait; they were to attack from north-west, across the Wadi al-Batin, charge towards south and then east, thus cutting off all land connections between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
- The Iraqis also deployed RGFC and Army commando units in equivalent of a full division for this operation. Although based south-west of Basrah, and thus relatively far away from Kuwait, these were to play an important role – through heliborne deployment.

In support of these units, the Iraqi Army Aviation Corps (IrAAC) was to deploy a squadron of Mil Mi-25 (ASCC-Code “Hind”) helicopter gunships, several units of Mi-8 and Mi-17 transport helicopters, as well as a squadron of Bell 412STs. The task of helicopter units was foremost to transport and support Iraqi commandos into Kuwait City, and subsequently to support the advance of ground troops.

The IrAF has had at least two squadrons of Sukhoi Su-22 and one of Mirage F.1EQ fighter-bombers at as-Shoibiyah AB (former RAF Shaybah), 45km south-west of Basrah, and two squadrons of MiG-23BN deployed at Ali Ibn Abu Talib AB (better known in the West as “Tallil”), south of an-Nasseriyah, where a squadron of Sukhoi Su-25K fighter-bombers had been deployed as well. In addition, it was to make use of a Boeing 727 passenger aircraft, equipped with powerful stand-off communications- and radar-jammers. Main task of the IrAF was to establish air superiority through limited counter-air strikes against two main air bases, to provide close air support and reconnaissance as necessary.

On the Kuwaiti side, there were no serious plans for defence at all. While tensions were increasing already since months, the level of alertness within the Kuwaiti armed forces was low. It was only for one week in mid-July 1990 that the Land Forces and the KAF were put on any kind of alert: subsequently, like the rest of the country, they were ordered to stand down, pending the hottest times of the year, when most of people in Kuwait attempt not to work. Correspondingly, the Emir of Kuwait issued no orders or prepared plans for defence of the country and only usual patrols were assigned to border areas, even if these could clearly see the Iraqi troops deployed within their sight. small detachments were deployed along the border.

By 1990, the KAF was already a well-developed air force, planned to be used as the first line of defence of the country. As already mentioned, it had only two main air bases: Ali al-Salem Sabah AB, outside Kuwait City to the south, and Ahmad al-Jaber AB, some 50km due south. Its strength lied in five squadrons of combat aircraft and helicopters and crews considered proficient on their aircraft. As of 1 August 1990, KAF units were deployed as follows:

- No.9 Sqn: 14 A-4KU/TA-4KU at Ahmed al-Jaber AB
- No.12 Sqn: 12 Hawk T.Mk.64 at Ahmed al-Jaber AB
- No.18 Sqn: 13 Mirage F.1CK/F.1BK at Ali al-Salem Sabah AB
- No.25 Sqn: 15 A-4KU/TA-4KU at Ahmed al-Jaber AB
- No.33 Sqn: SA.342K Gazelle at Ali al-Salem Sabah AB
- No.41 Sqn: L-100-30, DC-9-32CF at Ali al-Salem Sabah AB
- No.61 Sqn: 12 Mirage F.1CK-2/F.BK-2 Ali al-Salem Sabah AB
- No.62 Sqn: SA.330H Puma and SA.330F Super Puma at Ali al-Salem Sabah AB

The Kuwaiti Land Forces consisted on three brigades, including the 15th Mechanized Brigade, based in southern Kuwait City; 35th “Fatah” Mechanized Brigade, equipped with Chieftains, based in the west of the country, and the 6th Mechanized Brigade, also equipped with Chieftains, based in the north. All of these were in their bases, with a significant number of tanks and other vehicles stored. In essence, both the KAF and the Land Forces were operating under routine, peacetime conditions, with most of their officers and a better part of enlisted ranks at leave. In addition, the Westinghouse Company was contracted to operate a radar observation balloon, which was positioned south of the Iraqi border: it was its crew this aerostat radar that reported the first movement of Iraqi units directly towards the border, at 23:00hrs, on 1 August 1990.

Plan of Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, on 2 August 1990, showing main directions of attack. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003 software)


2 August 1990: Iraqi Invasion

The Iraqi attack had been launched at 01:00hrs of 2 August 1990, with the T-72s and mechanized infantry of the al-Medinah al-Munawera Division rolling over the border south of Safwan and along the Highway 6 towards Kuwait City. There was no opposition: although informed, the royal family and Kuwaiti officials did nothing to warn their armed forces, instead being busy with preparations for a hasty departure. The Iraqis swiftly bypassed the base of the 6th Kuwaiti Mechanized Brigade, and rushed towards south, reaching the outskirts of Kuwait City already by 05:00hrs, few minutes before the dawn. Simultaneously, the al-Medinah al-Munawera Armoured Division entered the Rumaylah oilfields and raced towards the south, bypassing the base of the Kuwaiti 35th Mechanized Brigade in the process.

It was only around 05:00hrs that the first Kuwaiti Land Forces unit – roughly a battalion of Chieftain tanks from the 35th Mechanized Brigade, led by Col. Salem al-Srour – has moved out of its base and towards Jahra, with intention of mounting delaying action.

At dawn, both sides brought their air forces into action, and it was around this time – shortly after 05:00hrs – that the Kuwaiti air defence units were activated. Shortly before the first wave of IrAF fighter-bombers arrived, two KAF A-4KUs were scrambled from the Ahmed al-Jaber AB. They attacked the front column of the al-Medinah al-Munawera Armoured Division, making two strafing passes each, causing little (if any) damage before escaping undamaged.

Due to chaos and break down of its chain of command – but at least as much due to the fact that none of its Pakistani, Indian and Bengali officers and NCOs that managed the armament and technical support of the KAF units was available – the KAF was not yet able of mounting additional sorties before larger formations of Iraqi fighter-bombers and helicopters reached Kuwait City. This meant that none of KAF was caught literally with its “trousers down”. Nevertheless, there was an active MIM-23B I-HAWK site at Bubiyan island, controlled by a US contractor, who ordered it into firing action after detecting the first formations of Iraqi aircraft and helicopters approaching. Despite the Kuwaitis subsequently claiming their “SAM-sites” to have shot down up to 14 Iraqi aircraft and helicopters, only two HAWK-kills can be confirmed: a Su-22 and MiG-23BN were shot down while approaching over the northern Persian Gulf at dawn.

These two planes belonged to formations that took off from Wahda AB (better known as as-Shoibiyah), and were underway to attack Kuwait IAP, along the route as-Shoibiyah - al-Faw - Kuwait IAP. The Su-22 belonged to the No.109 Squadron, and the MiG-23BN to the No.49 Squadron IrAF, and both fighters were flown by young 1st Lieutenants. Both planes were shot down around 05:00hrs, and the Iraqis found no trace of them subsequently. In reaction to activity of the Kuwaiti MIM-23B I-HAWK site at Bubyan, one of Su-22s from the No.109 Squadron IrAF (based at as-Shoibiyah AB), fired a single Kh-25MP anti-radar missile, forcing the site to shut down its radar. Although the IrAF has had Kh-25s since several years, it never used them against Iran, and this was the first combat firing of this weapon ever.

The results of this strike remain unknown. Later in the day, around 09:00hrs, when Iraqi special units arrived on Bubyan Island to capture the I-HAWK site, they found out that it was set on "automatic" mode of operation. The US contractor had fleed, leaving startled Kuwaitis to give up: they have just raised their hands on the sight of the first Iraqi.

IrAF MiG-23BNs (or MiG-23BNs upgraded to a standard similar to MiG-23BK) are known to have participated in the first series of strikes against Kuwait, on the morning of 2 August 1990. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


On the contrary, some 50 IrAAC Mi-8/17 and Bell 412ST commandos-carrying helicopters, escorted by Mi-25s and Bo.105s reached Kuwait City almost unopposed: at the time they arrived no KAF aircraft were airborne. The Iraqis did lose several helicopters when these have hit high tension wires: this caused significant losses and some chaos, at least in so far that Iraqi commandos were prevented from capturing Emir’s Palace and also failed to intercept the members of the royal family. Contemporary rumours within the US military personnel in Kuwait were that the operation to seize the Emir of Kuwait had failed because Iraqi planners failed to coordinate the one-hour time difference between Kuwait City and Baghdad, resulting in an uncoordinated attack by Iraqi special forces, the Republican Guards forces, and the navy – the ships of which were used not only to carry commandos to assault the city, but also attacked government buildings and Emirs Dasman and Bayan palaces with artillery fire.

From conventional standpoint, the Iraqi counter-air strike was only marginally successful, but it should be mentioned that the IrAF was interested in capturing as many KAF aircraft in intact condition as possible. Nevertheless, air strikes, and shelling of Ali al-Salim Sabah AB did cause some damage: the Mirage F.1CK serialled “712” (wrongly reported as “516” in several Western publications) was hit and reduced to little more but remnants of the rear fuselage, fin, and the starboard wing, while another – unknown – Mirage was damaged as well, and rendered inoperational. Ahmed al-Jaber AB, as well as Kuwait International Airfield have been hit by IrAF fighters as well, and at the later the British Airways Boeing 747 “G-AWND” was destroyed on the ground.

Fighting the ensuing chaos, the KAF scrambled to bring as many aircraft into the air as possible – not to fight the Iraqis, but to evacuate them to Saudi Arabia. Despite Kuwaiti claims that their interceptors were scrambled and engaged Iraqi helicopters at low level over Kuwait City, downing up to 15 of these in the process, no eyewitness reports exists for such an engagement. On the contrary: it is obvious that KAF Mirage F.1s fled to Saudi Arabia, unarmed and without any fight. In fact, the IrAF monitored their activity with the help of ESM-equipment on its Boeing 727 that patrolled inside the Iraqi airspace, at medium level. This recorded a number of Mirages and Skyhawks taking off from KAF air bases and disappearing towards south. Only one KAF Mirage attempted to lock-on his radar at the IrAF Boeing for a short period of time, after launching from Ali al-Salem AB: the lock on was broken when the Kuwaiti banked sharply towards the south and disappeared. Iraqi MiG-29s and Mirage F.1EQs were airborne inside the Kuwaiti airspace, and their pilots reported sightings of KAF Skyhawks at least once, but there were no air-to-air combats.

The Invasion of Kuwait, in August 1990, was already the second war to see the participation of the IrAF MiG-29s. The type was by the time in service with two units, one of which was forward deployed at Tallil AB, south of an-Nasseriyah, and used for interception and escort duties. However, just like previously against Iran, 1987-1988, the type failed to score even in the face of vivid activities of the Kuwait Air Force, especially on the early morning of 2 August 1990. Subsequently, IrAF MiG-29s were several times noticed by KAF pilots while these were pounding Iraqi units on the ground, but Iraqi MiGs never got involved in any air combat. The MiG-29 shown hear was seen wearing the serial "29040", and belonged to the third batch, delivered to Iraq only in the spring of 1990. Iraq had over 130 MiG-29s on order by the time, but barely more than 30 examples were eventually supplied. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


The al-Medinah al-Munawera Armoured Division entered Kuwait City by 05:30hrs, its T-72s and BMP-2s racing down the main streets, only to become bogged down in a series of traffic jams. The failure of this unit to drive through the Kuwaiti capitol, and the slow pace at which the Hammurabi Armoured Division followed, permitted the bulk of the Kuwaiti 15th Brigade, located south of Kuwait City, to escape to Saudi Arabia with most of its assets, and also permitted the KAF units at Ahmed al-Jaber AB to prepare additional aircraft for evacuation. At Bayan Palace, the Emiri Guard – supported by several Saladin armoured cars – fought delaying action, but was soon overwhelmed.

Between 09:00 and 10:00hrs in the morning, an IrAAC Bell 412ST helicopter was lost over the Persian Gulf, off Kuwait City, under unclear circumstances. Few hours later, a Mi-25 and a Bo.105 failed to return from mission over Kuwait. IrAF SAR helicopters found no survivors. Except for two fighter-bombers shot down early in the morning, these are the only Iraqi losses to at least to some degree confirm Kuwaiti claims, then all three helicopters are suspected by the Iraqis to have been shot down in air-to-air combats. However, the Iraqis never identified the aircraft that attacked these helicopters: they speculated that some of KAF Mirages that landed in Saudi Arabia then returned to attack dozens of IrAAC helicopters that operated at low level between Basrah and Kuwait City. Kuwaiti claim as many as 23 kills against Iraqi helicopters, including 13 scored by Mirage F.1CK and three by A-4KU pilots. However, they neither specify the type of helicopters shot down or provide any other kind of reference that would enable a closer cross-examination. The IrAF speculated that some of KAF Mirages that landed in Saudi Arabia have returned back to attack dozens of IrAAC helicopters flying at low level over the Gulf, or that one of Royal Saudi Air Force F-15s might became involved. Therefore, the KAF claims for this war, and the history of IrAAC helicopter losses remain to be more closely examined.

By the noon, the Iraqis were in full control of Kuwait City and Kuwait International Airport, except such key locations like the Bamyan Palace. The assault on the last complex was launched at 13:00hrs with artillery support. The Emiri Guard fought back already the whole morning, but was now silenced within just an hour.

At Doha, the Kuwaiti special forces offered some resistance as well, while the single battalion of Chieftains from the 35th Mechanized Brigade did cause some delays in advance of Iraqi units in the west. But, this unit was soon encircled and then run out of ammunition. Its surviving elements then retreated into the neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia: the Iraqi units that pursued them into this area were later wrongly perceived to have been deployed as a spearhead of a possible invasion of Saudi Arabia. Elsewhere, a number of surviving Kuwaiti officers had made calls to various members of USLOK, desperately asking for help. None came, however: while the US Administration condemned the Iraqi invasion, there was no decision yet as about what to do about it.

What happened subsequently is not known in great detail, mainly because the Kuwaiti military resistance had almost come to a standstill, with what remained of Land Forces being preoccupied by attempts to escape to Saudi Arabia. The KAF did attempt to put up some fight, all the time evacuating additional aircraft towards the south. Three Gazelle helicopters deployed to attack Iraqi armour were reportedly shot down after taking off from Ali al-Salem Sabah AB, while six Hawks were evacuated from Ahmed al-Jaber AB to Bahrain: one of them, serialled “142”, was damaged during the landing there.

The later air base was subsequently obviously disabled – either through artillery shelling or additional IrAF air strikes, as the few Skyhawks that remained there are known to have operated from the highway nearby in the following two days. This also points at the fact that some units of the Kuwait Land Forces did concentrate in the area and offered resistance; otherwise the Iraqi advance would make such operations impossible.

KAF SA.342 Gazelles were armed with HOTs and also saw some action during the short war. (KAF)


3rd and 4th of August

With most of Kuwait swiftly overrun by the Iraqi military, the second day saw only limited action. During the night, the Iraqis finally put the Kuwaiti TV out of operation, while several KAF SA.432C Super Pumas were used for transporting ammunition to isolated pockets of Kuwaiti Land Forces still resisting the Iraqi onslaught. One of them, serialled “545” was destroyed in an explosion while landing at Ali al-Salim AB, while two others – 541 and 544 – were lost on the same airfield under unknown circumstances.

On the ground, scattered Kuwaiti units were still fighting delaying actions along chocke points in the south, until being overrun or running out of ammunition. Those that could have then retreated into Saudi Arabia, leaving plenty of equipment back.

Meanwhile, a total of 18 Mirages were flown to two Saudi airfields where they were serviced and armed by French contract- and Saudi military personnel. Few of them flew some missions over Kuwait on 3 August as well. Overall, however, the KAF Mirage-fleet was out of business. Subsequently, the survivors were concentrated at al-Ahsa AB, near Hufuf, in Saudi Arabia, where they formed a joint wing with French Mirage 2000s and Mirage F.1CRs.

The remaining Skyhawks at Ahmad al-Jaber AB flew several air strikes in the morning, subsequently departing for Saudi Arabia, where a total of 24 A-4KUs and TA-4KUs were concentrated at King Abdul Aziz AB, near Dhahran. During their final operations from the highway near Ahmad al-Jaber AB, at least two Skyhawks overshoot, ending in soft sand. Another A-4 crashed during a take-off at night, while four were confirmed as lost by Kuwaitis, albeit under unknown circumstances. A US commercial enterprise was immediately contracted to maintain and service survivors evacuated to Saudi Arabia, and some were in action over Kuwait the same afternoon, at least trying to offer some kind of resistance. The last A-4-sortie from highway near Ahmad al-Jaber AB is said to have been flown on the early morning of 4 August 1990, the aircraft then departing for Saudi Arabia.

The last few Kuwaiti Chieftain tanks of the 35th Mechanized Brigade have fought until the afternoon of 4 August; left without ammunition and fuel, they were then forced to pull back into Saudi Arabia as well.

Sometimes during the 1980s the KAF Skyhawks were apparently repainted in a new camouflage pattern, better fitting to the baren Kuwaiti landscape over which they usually operated. Since the procurrement of A-4s for Kuwait ws accomplished via US Navy channels, all the KAF A-4s wore the standard USN BuAerNos, A-4KUs being 160180 thru 160209, and TA-4KUs being 160210 thru 160215. After being repainted in a new camouflage pattern, probably sometimes in the mid-1980s, KAF A-4KUs were allocated serials 801 thru 830, while TA-4KUs became 881 thru 886. At around this time many of Kuwaiti Skyhawks have also got the ALR-45 antenna retrofited to their avionics hump. At least one A-4KU was lost in a flying accident sometimes in the early 1980s, but otherwise the attrition was very low - until the Iraqi invasion, in August 1990. Then, and during the IIPGW, in 1991, the Kuwaiti Skyhawks proved their worth. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


Bean-Counting

After the war, Iraqi armament specialists from the al-Kut AB were flown to both KAF air bases, to inspect the captured equipment and armament. There they have found up to 14 intact Mirage F.1CKs (reports differ, with most Western sources citing five F.1CK/CK-2s and three F.1BKs to have been captured by Iraqis, while Iraqis report that the number was between 12 and 14), at least five Skyhawks, six Hawk T.Mk.64s, and a single Lockheed L-100-30 transport (a civilian version of the C-130 Hercules). Also captured was the whole equipment for four or five MIM-23B I-HAWK batteries and one battery of Skyguard SAMs (together with some 12 SAMs), and either 180 or 240 Matra R.550 Magic Mk.II air-to-air missiles.

Iraqi armament specialists verified that the manufacturing dates of the Kuwaiti Magic were earlier than the first batch of these missiles supplied to IrAF, back in 1980. Although some US intelligence documents – like SPEARTIP 014-90 (released to author in response to FOIA inquiry) – mention that the Iraqis captured even Magic Mk.II missiles in Kuwait, the Iraqis found none. Furthermore, the IrAF pilots and technicians concluded, that the Cyrano IV radars of Kuwaiti Mirages were older and less capable than those mounted on aircraft delivered to Iraq, having a lower number of working modes even when compared to oldest, early-mark Mirage F.1EQ interceptors and fighter-bombers delivered to IrAF. All the KAF Mirages were subsequently transported to Abu Ubaida AB, where they were used extensively for training purposes, between August 1990 and January 1991. The USA observed this development and this airfield was heavily targeted by USAF, during the following “II Gulf War”, in late January 1991, with result that most of hardened aircraft shelters housing Kuwaiti Mirages were hit, destroying eight or ten aircraft inside.

Kuwaiti Hawks were slightly more lucky: they were all transferred to Rashid AB, in southern Baghdad, and added to the Flying Leaders School – the fighter-weapons school of the Iraqi Air Force. Five were to survive the following war between Iraq and the US-led “Gulf Coalition”, in January and February 1991.

In total, the KAF came away in a pretty good shape and only days later the exiled Kuwaiti government claimed that during the invasion a total of eight Mirages, three or four A-4KUs, five Gazelle helicopters (three shot down by Iraqis and two lost on the ground), and three Super Pumas were lost in combat, while no less but 80% of KAF assets - including six Hawk T.MK.64s, three Lockheed L-100-30s, and most of the helicopters - were evacuated to Saudi Arabia, where they and their crews were to be reorganized into a "Free Kuwait Air Force".

In total, the Kuwaitis claimed the KAF to have shot down no less but 37 Iraqi helicopters and two fighters in two days of battle, as well as numerous armoured vehicles. No less but 15 of these should have been shot down during the first morning of the fighting, while alone the Kuwaiti MIM-23B I-HAWKs should have shot down 23 Iraqi aircraft and helicopters. However, except for names of nine KAF Mirage and A-4KU pilots that should have scored a total of 16 air-to-air kills, no other specific details about these claims were ever published, and their validation is therefore impossible.

One of four KAF Lockheed L-100-30s was captured by the Iraqis during the invasion and taken away. The plane was later destroyed by the RAF Buccanneers, using LGBs. (KAF)


Far-Reaching Consequences

Despite mishaps, the overall success of the Iraqi invasion was never in question: it had to succeed already due to simple numbers. The Iraqis have, namely, obviously drawn important lessons from their invasion of Iran, in September 1980. Instead of advancing as casually, and without obtaining numerical superiority, this time they have left no doubts about the outcome. There were two crucial mistakes, however: the first was the failure to capture the Emir of Kuwait, or at least the other higher members of the royal family, and the other was their inability to sack the rest of the KAF on the first day of the war. Thus, while many observers in the west have describe their action as being executed flawlessly, this invasion did not proceed as easy as expected. Especially attacks on the Bayan Palace and Kuwaiti airfields, as well as several other key installations are often described as uncoordinated and haphazard.

In fact, it seems that especially the troops of the vaunted Republican Guard have not taken the Kuwaitis particularly seriously: they repeatedly showed the lack of discipline of a well-trained and combat-hardened army, frequently resembling a motley force without orders. Much too often they were involved in scavenging food from the locals and stealing bedding items for their hastily constructed fighting positions. Without surprise, thousands of Kuwaitis and foreigners managed to escape over to Saudi Arabia before the border was finally sealed, on 11 August.

As the Iraqis began replacing their Republican Guard units in Kuwait by four Army formations already by the 5 August, to the US military analysts, it appeared that the Iraqis would now be preparing for an invasion of north-eastern Saudi Arabia, which was – for all practical purposes – defenceless. In fact, the swift Iraqi operation exhausted its ability to support the advancing troops during this drive, and the Republican Guard was pulled back into southern Iraq. In fact, Baghdad even promised to withdraw all its forces from Kuwait by 5 August. Instead, a puppet government was installed, headed by Alaa Hussein Ali. Already two days later, Iraq annexed Kuwait, installing Hussein as a new provincial governor and describing its operation as “liberation” of the county from the Emir of Kuwait.

This, as well as the fact that the US intelligence was uncertain about Iraqi intentions, but also the US interest to finally obtain the rights to base troops in Saudi Arabia, led to the US decision to launch a military intervention. During negotiations on 5 and 6 August, they managed to convince Saudi royals about necessity to deploy large contingents of US Army troops and US Air Force aircraft in the country.

Learning about this, the Iraqis were curious about the speed of this deployment and US intentions. Therefore, during the following days, IrAF reconnaissance aircraft flew a number of recce sorties over Saudi Arabia, obviously searching for traces of Saudi or US military reaction. They were not to find much, then US troops began arriving in Saudi Arabia only on 8 August 1990. Nevertheless, in at least two cases IrAF aircraft were turned back by RSAF F-15s while well inside the Saudi airspace.

Thus began the direct military confrontation between Iraq and the USA, which – in various forms – is continued until our days.




Sources and Bibliography


Except for own research, additional information for this article was kindly provided by Mr. Tom N. Following sources of reference were used as well:

- "AIR WARS AND AIRCRAFT; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989 (ISBN: 0-85368-779-X)

- "ARAB AIR FORCES", by Charles Stafrace, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1994 (ISBN: 0-89747-326-4)

- “ALLY TO ADVERSARY; An Eyewitness Account of Iraq’s Fall from Grace”, by Rick Francona, Naval Institute Press, 1999 (ISBN: 1-55750-281-1)

- “MILITARY LESSONS OF THE GULF WAR”, by Bruce W. Watson, Bruce George MP, Peter Tsouras, and B. L. Cyr, Greenhill Books/Bruce W. Watson, 1991 (CN 2533)

- “DER GOLFKONFLIKT; Dokumentation, Analyse und Bewertung aus militärischer Sicht”, by Hartmut Zehrer (Hrsg.), E. S. Mittler & Sohn GmbH, 1992 (ISBN 3-8132-0400-6)





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