This fake amphibious assault saved hundreds of lives in Desert Storm

Deep into night on Feb. 23, 1991, the U.S. military and its coalition partners launched the long-anticipated invasion of Iraq with a three-pronged attack that crippled Iraqi command and control, isolated and devastated enemy units, and resulted in one of the fastest land wars in military history as the U.S. secured victory in 100 hours.

But the three-pronged attack consisted of two real prongs — an infantry assault as well as the famous “left hook” of tanks cutting through the Kuwaiti and Iraqi deserts — and one ruse attack. The ruse was an amphibious assault of Marines hitting the beaches of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and pushing west towards Baghdad.

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The USS Wisconsin fires a Tomahawk cruise missile during Desert Storm. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

If the ruse was successful, the Iraqi units would continue to look east, orienting defenses and their attentions towards a fake amphibious assault as light infantrymen and paratroopers secured positions to their rear and one of history’s greatest armored thrusts smacked them right in the capital.

The Navy called on two of its greatest weapons to ensure that the Iraqis looked east, the USS Wisconsin and the USS Missouri, massive battleships taken out of retirement in the early 1980s by Ronald Reagan.

The two Iowa-class battleships bristled with guns and had already seen heavy fighting in the mine-laden waters off the coast of Iraq and Kuwait. They took part in the initial Tomahawk cruise missile attacks that January. They also provided naval artillery support to American and coalition troops on the ground by hurling shells of up to 2,700 pounds against Iraqi artillery and bunkers.

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The USS Missouri fires during Operation Desert Storm. (Photo: U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Dillon)

In the weeks leading up to the invasion, U.S. commanders kept everyone’s eyes on the big ships, calling in shots from the battleships throughout the fighting and getting the effects of those 16-inch guns onto the front pages of newspapers like The New York Times.

The NYT even reported on the likelihood that America would invade by sea, saying in the second paragraph of an article on February 4:

Powerful guns aboard the battleship Missouri lobbed 2,700-pound shells against Iraqi command bunkers near the Kuwaiti coastline, military command officials said, describing the shore bombardment as a further indication that an American-led amphibious assault on occupied Kuwait might be drawing near.

On Feb. 23, the battleships cleared their throats once again. A targeting drone from the Wisconsin was flying over the coast as the shells ripped into Iraqi positions once again, softening up the coast and sowing panic into the defenders.

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The Pioneer drone is moved on the USS Wisconsin during Desert Storm. The small aerial vehicle was used to observe naval artillery and its effects during the war. (Photo: U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate John Kristoffersen)

The bombardment was so effective that, when the drone flew back over the target, Iraqi troops attempted to surrender to it by waving small white flags.

But the U.S. wasn’t done.

Just a few hours later, the ground offensive began. The British Special Air Service was the first military unit to cross into Iraqi territory, but multiple troops poured over the border by the thousands throughout the morning.

Throughout the day on Feb. 24, coalition forces hit ground target after ground target and American tanks began tanking out bunkers in the armored thrust that would stun the world.

USS Wisconsin fires her main battery during Desert Storm. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

But America still wanted Iraqi commanders too scared to pull their forces back from the coast to counter the growing threat of armor and infantry. And so the battleships were called up once again.

On Feb. 25, the Missouri once again fired into Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. And this time, the Marine Corps sent in 10 helicopters to simulate a landing force. The Iraqis launched anti-ship missiles at the Missouri, but a British ship shot down the only one that actually threatened the battleship. Coalition planes quickly found the launch site and destroyed the missiles based there.

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Abrams tanks and a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle move out during Operation Desert Storm. (Photo: U.S. Navy D. W. Holmes II)

The Iraqis near the coast stayed put even as coalition armor was slamming into their best units. On Feb. 26, then-Cpt. H.R. McMaster fought the famous Battle of 73 Easting that saw one armored cavalry troop of Abrams and Bradleys wipe out 44 enemy tanks and armored vehicles with no losses.

A ceasefire was declared on Feb. 28, halting the fighting until Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein accepted the terms of the peace deal. The coalition forces lost 300 troops in the fighting, much fewer than they would have lost if the Iraqi forces had been able to concentrate on the real threat.

The Iraqi forces lost an estimated 8,000-10,000 killed.