Monday, January 17, 2011

Gulf War 20th: The War at Sea

Most observers think of the Gulf War as a land and air campaign; surely the naval aspect was secondary. In fact it was primary: Without the seapower, the war could not have been fought at all. For the United States, seapower is, above all, about access to the world beyond our shores. In an age of air transportation, it is too easy to forget that most heavy goods still travel by sea, because that is by far the easiest way to move them. It still only pays to move very valuable lightweight cargo – such as people – by air. It would, for example, be unimaginable to try to move an air base, with its airplanes and its resources, along a highway or through the air. Yet an aircraft carrier is exactly that, a moving air base.
Operation Desert Storm
Ships of Task Force 155 during Operation Desert Storm, including the carriers Saratoga, America, and John F. Kennedy. DoD photo.
It is also extremely important to note that a U.S. warship is U.S. territory, generally not subject to any other country’s authority in the way that a base on foreign soil is. Given such mobile territory, the U.S. government can decide what it wants to do in a crisis situation, without having to gain local support. In many cases a foreign government wants our support but risks domestic or local opposition if it requests it. By moving ships into place we can solve that government’s problem.
Finally, seaborne mobility still exceeds land mobility. A seaborne force can threaten an enemy with a wide variety of attacks, and those ashore may find it very difficult to build up defenses at each threatened place. Conversely, once defenses have been erected ashore, they are difficult to withdraw and reposition. In a larger sense, the sea is both potential barrier and potential highway. The force facing Iraq had long sea flanks in both the Gulf and the Red Sea, both of which it could use – and both of which the Iraqis could use as venues of attack.
Overall, U.S. seapower guarantees access to war zones overseas and tries to deny such access to an enemy. U.S. naval forces demonstrated all of these virtues during the Gulf War.
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