Looking Back at Iraqi Air Defences during Desert Storm

Soldiers examine an SA-2 missile site that was destroyed during Desert Storm. (U.S. Air Force)

Iraqi forces stormed into Kuwait on 2 August 1990 and after a seven month occupation of its southern neighbour was defeated by the United States led coalition forces consisting of troops from 39 countries. The ground offensive on 24 February 1991 was preceded by a five week air offensive to put down the Iraqi air defences and shape the battlefield. The air war during Desert Storm is generally considered to be a resounding success with the Iraqi air defences failing to offer any opposition. Dr Thomas Withington’s insightful article “Electric Avenue: Electronic Warfare and the battle against Iraq’s air defences during Operation Desert Storm” [1] is along similar lines but it misses out on some important aspects. 

This article aims to offer a counter view and put the performance of Iraqi air defences in perspective. It also needs to be noted that Iraq had the sixth largest air force in the world, with about 915 aircraft [2]  but it hardly put up a fight and it was only the ground-based air defences that offered any real opposition to the coalition air forces. This article thus focuses largely on the ground based air defences and discusses three basic issues i.e. were the  Iraqi air defences as lethal and effective as projected before the war; secondly, were the  SEAD operations carried out by the coalition air forces effective and achieved its stated goal(s); and thirdly, how did the Iraqi air defences perform during the war.

The commonly held view of the Iraqi air defences was that they were lethal and ‘potentially ferocious’ [3] has been echoed by Dr Withington who quotes the following from US Department of Defence’s official report on DESERT STORM

The multi-layered, redundant, computer-controlled air defence network around Baghdad was denser than that surrounding most Eastern European cities during the Cold War, and several orders of magnitude greater than that which had defended Hanoi during the later stages of the Vietnam War. 

This claim about lethality and ferocity of Iraqi AD needs to be analysed to see if it has any merit. The Iraqi Integrated Air Defence System was made up of a mix of Soviet and Western air defence systems. While the surface-to-air missiles were predominantly of Soviet origin, the heart of the system called KARI was built by the French defence contractor, Thomson-CSF. It was designed primarily to provide air defence against  Israel and Iran and had a serious limitation that it  could handle twenty to forty hostile aircraft only. Iraq had over 500 radars located at about 100 sites but the radar layout did not afford all-around coverage with bias towards east and west. The vast majority of radars had no capability to detect the stealth aircraft barring the limited capability with the P-12 and P-18 radars and the six Chinese (Nanjing) low-frequency radars.[4] 

The ground-based air defences included both surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and anti-aircraft (AA)  guns. The missiles included the Soviet SA-2, SA-3, SA-6 and SA-8 and the Franco-German Roland I/II missiles. With a range limitation of about 40 km, even  SA-2s and SA-3s cannot be considered to be strategic air defence systems while the SA-8s and the Rolands were purely tactical SAM systems. The SA-6 was used for both the tactical role and to fill up gaps in the strategic SAM layout.  The 58 SAM batteries notwithstanding, Iraq had no strategic SAM system and with the available SAM batteries it was capable of very limited, and thin, air defence cover over its strategic targets. 

With the country’s material assets widely dispersed, no attempt was made to defend all of them; instead, the SAMs and AA guns were concentrated to defend selected areas or sectors like Baghdad, Basra, the Scud-launching sites in western Iraq, and the northern oil fields only, with  the defence of the capital given the foremost priority. With concentration of the SAMs and AA guns at select areas, it was in fact a point defence layout that Iraq had adopted.

Fifty-eight SAM batteries, almost half of the total 120 batteries, were deployed to defend Baghdad alone along with 1,300 AA guns. The other areas with these missile systems were Basra with fifteen and Mosul/Kirkuk with sixteen batteries. The airfield complex of H-2/H-3 had thirteen SAM batteries and the Talil/Jlaibah complex had three.[5]

Location                                  SA-2    SA-3    SA-6    SA-8    Roland             Total

Mosul/Kirkuk                         1          12        0          1          2                      16

H-2/H-3                                  1          0          6          0          6                      13

Talil/Jalibah                             1          0          0          0          2                      3

Basrah                                     2          0          8          0          5                      15

Baghdad                                  10        16        8          15        9                      58

Source: USAF, History of the Air Campaign, p. 254.

Even at Baghdad the defence systems did not necessarily protect downtown Baghdad at a higher threat level than the rest of the overall metropolitan area as the SAM sites were dispersed throughout the Baghdad area. The claim of United States Air Force (USAF) that downtown Baghdad was ‘where air defences are uniquely dense or severe’  was thus without any merit. 

The SA-2s and SA-3s, being vintage missiles, were supplemented by the newer SA-6s with a battery deployed at important sites. Although the presence of SA-6 at selected locations beefed up the air defences, it had an unintended effect that with the SA-6s moving back from the front-line units, the forward army units were left devoid of the most effective SAM in the inventory. HAWK, with comparable range, would have been an effective deterrent but as the Iraqis did not have the technical expertise to operate  it, it was never used by the Iraqis. [6] 

Another drawback of the IADS was that the 8,000 or so anti-aircraft guns were reportedly not integrated in the overall air defence system and were designed to operate independently. [7]

The air defence network was thus far from lethal and did not even cover the optimized for threats from two axes only: from Iran to the east or from Israel to the west with only the SAMs integrated with KARI.  The overall assessment of IADS by the US Navy’s Strike Projection Evaluation and Anti-Air Research (SPEAR) Department was more realistic than other claims as stated that: [8]

the command elements of the Iraqi air defence organization (the . . . interceptor force, the IADF [Iraqi Air defence Force], as well as Army air defence) are unlikely to function well under the stress of a concerted air campaign.

The coalition forces initiated the strike offensive at 2:38 on 17 January 1991 when Task Force Normandy struck the two Iraqi radar codenamed Nebraska and Oklahoma, firing twenty-seven Hellfires, 100 rockets and 4,000 rounds of 30mm ammunition. A corridor thirty kilometres wide was now available for the follow on missions. Next were the eight USAF F-15 Strike Eagles that targeted the local air defence command and control centre, further degrading the network and facilitating the strike by the F-117s preceded by three EF-111 Ravens. In all, seventeen F-117s were tasked to deliver twenty-seven LGBs on fifteen Iraqi air defence system related targets. Contrary to initial claims, only nine of the fifteen targets were hit and eight remained operational even after the air strikes. One of the main targets, the central Air Defence Operations Centre in Baghdad was not damaged and remained operational.[9]  The F/A-18 Hornets armed with AGM-88 high-speed anti-radar missiles (HARMs) fared not much better as about half seventy five HARMs fired by the Hornets hit their targets.[10]

The performance of Iraqi air defences was respectable on Day 1 as they shot down six aircraft; all except one by ground-based air defences. The AAA shot down two aircraft (one F-15 and a Tornado GR.1) while the R-SAM claimed three. One F/A-18 was shot down by an Iraqi MiG-25. [11] Ground-based air defences damaged a dozen more aircraft. 

The Coalition air forces lost three aircraft to ground fire over 2,250 sorties on Day 2 as one aircraft each was claimed by AAA (a US Navy A-6) and IR-SAM (US Marine Corps OV-10) while the cause of loss of an Italian Tornado GR.1 could not be ascertained.[12] The next day, a number of missions were called off due to bad weather though the strikes against Scud launchers continued during the day. The Iraqi SAMs shot down two United States F-16s over Baghdad and an additional  F-15. Four Tornados were lost, two each by the Royal Air Force and Royal Saudi Air Force, while a USAF F-4 crashed after being hit by AAA. The air operations on 20 January were scaled down due to continued bad weather and, with losses mounting, especially to AAA, the United States Air Force imposed a minimum altitude to reduce attrition. The Iraqi air defences, on their part, shot down  two Coalition aircraft; a United States Navy F-14, downed by an SA-2 and an RAF Tornado, besides damaging three more. RAF lost a Tornado to ground fire with a USAF F-15 also being hit by an IR-SAM.

On 23 January coalition air forces claimed to have destroyed nineteen Iraqi aircraft thus far and to have achieved air superiority over Iraq. The losses to Iraqi air defences were fifteen and the unexpected intensity of ground fire by AAA and hand-held SAMs was forcing Coalition aircraft to adopt higher-altitude delivery tactics. During the second week the Iraqi air defences were not able to put up any concerted opposition and it was only on 28 January that they claimed their next kill when a US Marine AV-8B was shot down by an IR-SAM although a number of Coalition aircraft were hit by AAA fire. KARI was badly fragmented by the end of week two and only three of sixteen IOCs were reported to be fully operational.Coalition losses during week three were again quite low, with only three aircraft (an A-10, an AC-130 and an A-6E) lost to Iraqi air defences. The following week also, Iraqi air defences managed to shoot down only three Coalition aircraft – two AV-8Bs and a Saudi F-5E. 

The radar-guided SAMs had been targeted repeatedly, but the Iraqis continued to launch them, although sparingly. In one such instance, an SA-3 shot down an RAF Tornado GR.1 on 14 February. The Iraqis managed to shoot down five aircraft during week five, including two A-10s on the same day (15 February) by SA-13s. This forced the Coalition air forces to restrict the use of A-10s in high threat areas. As the war entered its final phase with the Coalition aircraft attacking from lower altitudes,, the losses went up with Iraqi air defences shooting down eight aircraft during this final week of the war: three AV-8Bs, one OV-10, one OA-10, one A-10, and two  F-16s. This marked the second highest weekly loss rate since the beginning of the war.[13]

The ground offensive did not see the Iraqi air defences put up any fight as they folded up tamely against the coalition air forces. During the entire campaign, a total of thirty-eight coalition aircraft were lost to Iraqi air defences while a further forty-eight were damaged in combat; making a total of eighty-six combat casualties. The majority of losses were to IR SAM which claimed thirteen aircraft and damaged fifteen more while the radar-guided SAMs shot down ten aircraft and damaged four. The least number i.e. nine, were shot down by AAA although it damaged twenty-four more aircraft. The remaining losses were to accidents/technical reasons. Considering the ‘lost’ and ‘damaged’ aircraft together, the maximum casualties were due to AAA as it claimed 33 aircraft (38 per cent of the total losses) with the IR SAMs accounting for twenty-eight aircraft (31 per cent). Only 16 per cent of the casualties were attributed to radar-guided SAMs.

The low kill rate by the radar SAMs is attributable to a number of factors, the primary one being the SEAD missions carried out by Coalition air forces which forced the radar SAMs to shut down for most part of the operations. All the radar SAMs held by Iraq were vintage Soviet-era missiles which had been used in combat earlier – there were no new weapons, like the SA-6s in the Yom Kippur War, which could have posed difficulties for the Coalition air forces.

There was a significantly higher daily casualty rate in the first five days of the war, during which thirty-one aircraft casualties occurred (36 per cent of the total and an average of 6.2 per day), compared to the following thirty-eight days, with a total of fifty-five more casualties (an average of 1.45 per day). Losses to radar-guided SAMs fell to nearly zero after day five, having accounted for 29 per cent (nine out of thirty-one) of total casualties by then. They accounted for just nine per cent (five out of fifty-five) of all aircraft casualties in the remainder of the war. It is apparent, therefore, that by the end of day five of the air campaign, radar SAMs had been largely eliminated as an effective threat to coalition aircraft.  Moreover, in the first three days of the war, some aircraft (B-52s, A-6Es, GR-1s, and F-111Fs) attacked at very low altitude, where they were more vulnerable to low-altitude defences. After the imposition of  a minimum attack level of about 12,000 feet the losses reduced but it also resulted in much less accuracy with unguided weapons. 

Iraq managed to maintain a fair degree of air defence capability throughout the war. The primary role in this was of KARI which expanded the responsibilities of various nodes and developed local back-up air-defence networks using different communication networks, over  combat phone lines and wire between various stations. These back-up networks could control local air defences, even when the communication to the central network was down. For information on Coalition aircraft, these back-up systems used ground observers passing information over voice and data channels. Radars associated with the Roland or SA-8 would be used to gain information about the altitude of inbound aircraft. The radars would be brought online for short fifteen-second bursts to ensure survivability in a hostile environment. The SAMs were fired at times without using the target-tracking radars, again to prevent being targeted by the anti-radar missiles. Optical tracking mode was also used while firing the SAMs.

At the end of the war, Iraqi air defences were far from finished. According to Anthony Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Iraq retained at least 380 Soviet-made surface-to-air missile launchers, about eighty French-made Roland units and ‘large numbers’ of portable Soviet-made anti-aircraft systems, not counting the hundreds of AA guns.[14]  After having claimed almost complete destruction of the Iraqi air defence network, the claims were revised with new goalposts established. As United States Air Force Colonel  David Deptula, one of the architects of the air campaign, put it, ‘We didn’t go in there to eviscerate the whole network. The aim was to suppress their defences.’ [15]  

2282419 10.09.2013 Зенитный ракетный комплекс “Печора-2М” вооруженных сил Республики Таджикистан на совместных учениях объединенной системы ПВО стран СНГ “Боевое Содружество-2013” на полигоне “Ашулук”. Михаил Мокрушин/РИА Новости

The Soviet reaction to the Gulf War was important as the entire IADS was made up of Soviet SAMs. In an understatement, Marshal Dmitri Yazov, the Soviet Minister of Defence admitted that Iraq’s air defences ‘failed in most cases’.[16]  Commenting on the initial attack on the IADS, Lieutenant General V. Gorbachev, dean of the faculty at the General Staff Academy opined that ‘The Iraqi air defence system was paralyzed by powerful electronic warfare devices. Command and control of troops was overwhelmed in the first few minutes’ but also added that ‘As far as Soviet equipment is concerned, it is not so much a problem, I think, as the people operating it. Iraqi military professionalism is not, as we can see, up to the mark.’[17] Reinforcing this view, the Soviets believed that, as the air defence systems employed by the Iraqis were able to down every type of Coalition aircraft used, including a Stealth fighter, it suggested that the problem was more one of manpower than technology and that modern wars demand well-trained professional soldiers to man and maintain it, and not a large conscript army.[18] 

After DESERT STORM, Iraqi air defences continued to harass the Coalition aircraft, defying the restrictions imposed by the no-fly zone. During Operation DESERT FOX, over a three-year period, Iraq engaged Coalition aircraft more than 1,000 times and fired nearly sixty surface-to-air missiles. [19] The Iraqis would even fire unguided rockets at the aircraft to harass them.

The IADS remained operational all throughout and was never ‘put down’. If the adage ‘the bomber will get through’ is considered to be reflective of the capability of air to operate in face of hostile air defences, it should be remembered that ‘the ground based air defence will not be suppressed and will continue to operate’ is equally true and will remain so.


[1] Withington, Dr Thomas, “Electric Avenue: Electronic Warfare and the battle against Iraq’s air defences during Operation Desert Storm”, Balloons to Drones, January 20, 2020 accessed 21 January 2022 at https://balloonstodrones.com/2022/01/20/desertstorm30-electric-avenue-electronic-warfare-and-the-battle-against-iraqs-air-defences-during-operation-desert-storm/

[2] The Iraqi Air Force had a mix of combat aircraft, ranging from 190 advanced Mirages, MiG-25s, MiG-29s, and Su-24s to about 300 moderate-quality MiG-23s, Su-7s, Su-25s, Tu-16s and Tu-22s.  The majority of the air force however comprised of  older aircraft like the MiG-17s and MiG-21s.

[3] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress, (Alexandria, VA: US Department of Defence, 1992), p. 15

[4] .  P-18 radar which uses metre-length wave in Very High Frequency, has the ability to  detect targets at a greater range than centimetre or millimetre wave radar which stealth aircraft are optimized against. It was  a P-18 radar in Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War that detected a F-117 Nighthawk leading to its shooting down by a SA-3 missile. Similarly, P-12 radar also operates in VHF can detect the stealth aircraft. Werrell in his book ‘Archie to SAM’ mentions that Iraq had low frequency radars though this is not mentioned by any other source. Gordon and Trainor, The Generals’ War : The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf, Little Brown, 1995, p 105; and Gulf War Air Power Survey, Vol. IV, Operations  and Effects and Effectiveness, 83. 

[5] As per Anthony Tucker-Jones, Iraq had 7,000 SAM and 6,000 AA Guns with the Republican Guard having its own Air defence System with about 3,000 AA Guns and 60 SAM Batteries. (Anthony Tucker-Jones, The Gulf War: Operation Desert Storm 1990-1991, Pen & Sword Books, 2014, p40). The distribution of SAM batteries is as given in United Sates Air Force, History of the Air Campaign, p. 254

[6] Gulf War Air Power Survey Vol IV, Weapons, Tactics, and Training and Space Operations, Ashington, 1993, p15

[7] Anthony Tucker-Jones, op cit., 2014, p40

[8] “Iraqi Threat to U.S. Forces”, Naval Intelligence Command, Navy Operational Intelligence Center, SPEAR Department, December 1990, p. 3-14.

[9] Gulf War Air Power Survey, Vol 2, Operations and Effects and Effectiveness

[10] Jim Corrigan, Desert Storm Air War: The Aerial Campaign against Saddam’s Iraq in the 1991, Stackpole Books, Connecticut, 2017p59

[11] Nordeen, p 413-4, Gulf War Airpower Survey, Vol. 5; Norman Friedman, Desert Victory; World Air Power Journal.

[12] . James P. Coyne, “Air Power in the Gulf”, Air Force Association, Arlington, Virginia, 1992, p 67-71

[13] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to the Congress, April 1992, Pursuant to Title V of The Persian Gulf Conflict Supplemental Authorization and Personnel Benefits Act of 1991 (Public Law102-25), Chapters I through VIII

[14] Bradley Graham, “Gulf  War left Iraqi Air Defence Beaten, Not bowed”, Washington Post, September 6, 1996

[15] ibid

[16] Quoted in The Manchester Guardian, March 2, 1991. See also Alexander Velovich, “USSR Demands Post-Gulf Air Defense Review,” Flight International, March 13-19, 1991, p. 5.

[17] Benjamin S. Lambeth, “Desert Storm and Its Meaning: The View from Moscow”, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, 1992

[18] Daniel Sneider , “Soviets Assess Their Arsenal After Iraq’s Defeat in Gulf”, The Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 1991

[19] Anthony Tucker-Jones, op cit., p 201