WASHINGTON, D.C. — “See all those contrails heading north, captain?” the salty lieutenant colonel asked me on Jan. 16, 1991.
“Yes sir!” I replied, flying as a brand-new aircraft commander in the C-141B Starlifter.
The contrails covered the darkening sky and seemed like hundreds of fingers reaching north into Iraq to grab Saddam Hussein. “That means we are at war,” said the colonel, as the cockpit fell silent and each crewmember pondered the greater implication of the contrails.
That was a quarter of a century ago this week, marking the opening salvo in Operation Desert Storm. The operation was an American shock and awe campaign to evict Hussein from Kuwait; it displayed airpower the world had not seen since Operation Linebacker II over Vietnam.
I was honored to be part of the largest air bridge in history, often flying 24-hour airlift missions from Torrejon and Zaragosa, Spain, or Ramstein Air Base and Rhein Main, Germany, to locations in Saudi Arabia such as Dhahran or Riyadh. The ramps at these locations were so full and it was sometimes difficult to find the assigned aircraft to preflight. Loading crews were challenged to keep up with the volume of cargo and people necessary for the fight.
We would often augment our crews with “pool pilots” — additional pilots to extend our crew duty day. Each day was long and hot; our ground times “downrange” were short but filled with the apprehension of dreaded “Scud” missile alerts. Tired crews would return to Europe for a short rest before repeating the process. We were all supported by the greatest cast the world has ever known, filled with maintainers, aerial porters, fuelers, logisticians and services Airmen.
All told, the total force flew over 69,000 sorties in support of Desert Storm. The operation also saw the first comprehensive use of stealth and space technologies integrated with precision guided weapons.
Twenty-five years later, my C-141B has long been retired, replaced by the C-17 Globemaster III. While much of our Air Force has been modernized since that first night in the desert, our average aircraft age today stands at 27 years. We have gone from having 188 fighter squadrons during Desert Storm to 54 today. Aging combat aircraft such as our B-52 Stratofortress and KC-135 Stratotanker are slated to keep flying for a decade or more.
In Operation Desert Storm, I was an Airman in the regular component when it consisted of over 600,000 Airmen; today, it has decreased to approximately 313,000 Airmen. Even with that size, Desert Storm required more than 48,000 Air Reserve component Airmen to remove Hussein from Kuwait.
As a result of a smaller force, our Air Reserve component consisting of over 105,000 Air National guardsmen and 69,000 Air Force reservists have gone from a strategic reserve force to one that provides daily operational capability and surge capacity where needed. These figures do not include the vital capability our Air Force civilian Airmen bring to the fight.
Southwest Asia is no less secure and in some ways is more complex and dangerous even though Hussein is long gone. Commitments to our friends and allies are not decreasing, so we will continue to rely on the total force more, not less.
In my current role in the Total Force Continuum Air Staff office, our team is looking for the most efficient mix of regular, Guard and Reserve Airmen in each primary mission area. In the aggregate, our analysis shows that our Air Force is at least 12 percent too small for current requirements. Just as during the peak of Desert Storm, we are “all in” and have cleared the bench to meet current requirements.
We are also looking at policy and legislative ways to make our total force more integrated by preserving and leveraging the strengths and efficiencies of each individual component. Programs that will allow transitioning between Air Force components, provide career development opportunities, and feature our three components working more closely together will become the norm over the next 25 years.
In commemoration of Desert Storm’s largest air campaign this week, make sure you thank a veteran for serving in the operation, and ask a wingman or relative who participated about their experiences.
If you’re reading this and not part of the world’s greatest Air Force, consider joining either the regular, Reserve or Guard component. We may be smaller than in 1991, but we’re the most lethal air, space and cyber force; and there is no question our total force will continue to answer our nation’s call.