Desert Storm to Inherent Resolve: Twenty-Five Years of Coalition Ops at Incirlik

  • Published
  • By Richard Ryan
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
A quarter-century after the fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing coalition victory during the first Gulf War, Incirlik Air Base remains as important as it has ever been since the end of World War II, even as global threats evolve in size, scope, and symmetry.

This last week of February marks 25 years since coalition forces liberated Kuwait City and President George H.W. Bush declared a suspension of hostilities against Iraqi forces.  A cease-fire was negotiated on March 1, 1991, and Operation Desert Storm was over.  The first troops began rotating home to the United States three weeks later after having spent eight months on the Arabian Peninsula.

What is now known today as the Gulf War is largely regarded as a historical turning point between the Cold War and our current multipolar world where security is maintained or enforced cooperatively, often across political ideologies, ethnicities, and geographic demarcations. 

Operation Desert Storm also put on graphic display for millions of homes around the world the greatest leap in military technology since World War II, most of it in the form of airpower. 

With an air war that lasted more than a month and a ground war that lasted less than a week, Operation Desert Storm falsely portrayed a cleanliness, precision, and overwhelming airpower, not to mention a countervailing, but equally false end of traditional boots on the ground.   This forecast was as erroneous in 1991 as it was when Billy Mitchell sunk the battleship Ostfriesland in 1921 and when Army and Marine ground forces helped Iraqis in Baghdad topple Saddam Hussein's statue in 2003.  Still, the ability to deploy and project power from the sky is profoundly critical, both politically and tactically, in stabilizing the world's varied trouble spots.

To that end, Incirlik has been a vital supporting element for European security structures since the first U-2 reconnaissance sorties were launched over the Soviet Union from what was then Adana Air Base, sixty years ago this year. 

Southern Turkey has always been ideal for both airlift of materiel and personnel from the U.S. and Europe as well as combat sorties into the Middle East, and it was a dark horse game-changer for U.S. Air Forces in Europe in 1990.  In the early days of Operation Desert Shield, the "what if" ponderings of European Command staff officers regarding Incirlik's utility in the imminent air war were unexpectedly operationalized when the Turkish government shocked coalition authorities by approving its use as a strike base.  The U.S. had no other extant air fields suitable for tactical air combat operations in Northern Iraq.  With the surprise collaboration of the host nation government, Incirlik saw a tremendous influx of fighter, tanker, and airlift aircraft as well as other critical combat support elements.

By the end of the air phase of Operation Desert Storm, Incirlik Air Base would have launched nearly 5,000 sorties, pumped 30 million gallons of fuel, and seen USAFE F-15's shoot down four Iraqi aircraft at a price of zero coalition combat losses.  Incirlik again proved its value to security in the Middle East when it served as the transit nexus for what was then the largest troop movement in history, supporting the early years of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Today, Incirlik Air Base remains as critical to the fight against Islamic State extremists as it was in the Cold War environment of the 1950's.  In the nine months since the commencement of Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIL, the base has hosted U.S. Air Force F-16, F-15, A-10, KC-135, C-130, and UAV aircraft, as well as Special Operations and Air Defense personnel and coalition force enablers from more than ten NATO and Gulf Cooperation Council nations.  Their extraordinary efforts have contributed significantly to the nearly 20,000 strike, resupply, and refueling sorties flown in support of OIR since summer of 2015.  These mission packages have included the targeting of high-profile targets such as planners for the November 2015 Paris attacks and missions around the Mediterranean rim.

From the Cold War through two Gulf Wars to the fight against Islamic State extremists, the threat in our region has evolved: superpower, rogue state, civil war and parastatal actors.  Throughout this last half-century, events like Operation Desert Storm and Operation Inherent Resolve have underscored the enduring strategic importance of Incirlik Air Base to the cooperative security efforts of Turkish and American forces as well as NATO organization as a whole and the global community in general. 

Indeed, history shows that no matter how the world changes, Incirlik Air Base remains an invaluable strategic fit with lasting impact for the better on the global stage.