sitemapDesert Storm and the Gulf War

The Gulf War

Desert Storm:
The Evidence for Third-Wave Warfare

Randall Whitaker
November 1995

NOTE: All literature citations refer to materials listed in the
Information Warfare Bibliography at this site


To many writers the Gulf War clearly demonstrated the military effects of the Information Revolution (e.g., Campen, 1992; Mann, 1994; Mazarr, 1994). Their lines of argument generally proceed as follows. Early suppression and sustained surpassing of Iraq's C3I infrastructure made victory a foregone conclusion. Iraq's limited direct channels for acquiring battlespace data were decimated at the conflict's outset, leaving its '...radar eyes ... poked out, its wireless nerves severed' (Morton, 1995, p. 5). Ongoing aerial reconnaissance was suppressed along with all other Iraqi air missions, and satellite intelligence was denied because commercially-available downlinks were controlled by Allied coalition members. Indirect channels (e.g., the public media) were manipulated to mislead Iraq's command into concentrating on the eastern end of the Kuwaiti front (along the Gulf coast). Perhaps the most important aspect of this manipulation was the complete suppression of information hinting at the large Allied buildup in the desert far to the west of what Iraq presumed to be the inevitable front lines. Additional information-oriented factors ranged from the computer-enabled precision of cruise missiles to global media vilification of Sadam Hussein's regime to psychological operations motivating mass desertions and surrenders of Iraqi troops (cf. Waller, 1995).

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, it became apparent that the key success factors were best explained with regard to the acquisition and processing of information, the integration of this information into a base of knowledge, and the conduct of warmaking activities based on this evolving knowledge. Conservatively, Krepinevich appraises Desert Storm as a 'precursor war -- an indication of the revolutionary potential of emerging technologies and new military systems' analogous to the British success at Cambrai in 1917 (1994, p. 40). The tentative nature of this shift is emphasized by McKenzie (1995), who returns to the Cambrai analogy to point out '...the British Army's unreadiness to exploit its surprise success left it open to an embarrassing reverse in a German counterattack.' (p. 20)

The Tofflers (1993) and Mann (1994) take a more expansive line, claiming Desert Storm represented the first 'information war' or third-wave conflict in history. They go on to suggest that the Allies' victory was all but inevitable given the disjunction between their third-wave orientation and Iraq's outdated second-wave approach. This third-wave attribution extended beyond command, control and intelligence issues to the weapons themselves. For example, the effective (and cost-effective) usage of cruise missiles in Desert Storm was reinterpreted in terms of applying precise information (e.g., terrain maps, recon photos) to deliver precise effects (maximal destructive effect balanced against minimal collateral damage).

This is not, however, the only possible interpretation. DiNardo and Hughes (1995) criticize such a faddishly RMA-oriented analysis on the basis that it '...grossly overstates the importance of information.' (p. 6) They suggest such interpretations are reading much into an event better (and more simply) explained as '...the military equivalent of 'wish chess' against an opponent accurately described by a perceptive critic as 'a third-class Soviet clone'.' (p. 7) This interpretation -- a minority viewpoint -- is constructive in its call for restraint and in its demonstration that Desert Storm was at best preliminary (and not final) evidence for fundamental change in military affairs. These points are, however, more substantively made elsewhere (e.g., Krepinevich, 1994; McKenzie, 1995). The irony is that one might question the finality of the claims from these authors (both academic historians) on the basis of their own closing declaration that academic theorization should be subordinated to empirical evaluation. To judge from the literature, it is military professionals who put the most stock in the concept of an MTR in progress.

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Draft Date = 15 November 1995