14 April 2020
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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the First Gulf War. On 2 August 1990 Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion and occupation of Kuwait, an independent state since 1961.
On the same day the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 660 (1990) condemning the invasion and demanding Iraq’s immediate withdrawal from Kuwait. All Council members voted in favour of the resolution except for Yemen, a Council member at the time and the only country that refused to participate in the vote.
The Kuwaiti representative to the UN told the Council:
Iraq occupied Kuwait at dawn today. The Iraqi forces have penetrated and occupied ministries, and the headquarters of the Government has been shelled. Crossroads have been occupied. A short time ago, Baghdad Radio announced that the aim of the invasion of Kuwait is to stage a coup d’etat to overthrow the regime and establish a new regime and a Government friendly to Iraq.
The Iraqi representative to the UN responded by acknowledging the Free Provisional Government as the legitimate government of Kuwait rather than the Kuwaiti Government overthrown by Iraqi forces that was represented at the Council. Iraq claimed the Free Provisional Government requested Iraq’s support to ‘establish security and order’ and this was the sole reason Iraq provided such ‘assistance’.
It is widely believed that one of the main reasons for the invasion was the debt accrued by Iraq to countries like Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates during the Iran-Iraq War and the reduction in the price of oil by those countries (and others) to the detriment of Iraq’s oil revenue. Iraq also accused Kuwait of stealing oil from one of its oil fields and prior to the invasion, negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait over this and outstanding debt issues had failed.
The UN Security Council adopted a further 11 resolutions—including Resolution 665 (25 August 1990), which authorised a naval blockade to enforce economic sanctions previously adopted against Iraq—eventually culminating in Resolution 678 (1990) on 29 November 1990. Resolution 678 gave Iraq until 15 January 1991 to fully withdraw from Kuwait otherwise Member States would be authorised to ‘use all necessary means’ under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Operation Desert Shield
The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq alarmed neighbouring countries, particularly major oil exporters like Saudi Arabia, as Iraq was considered the world’s fourth largest army at the time (during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War the US had supplied Iraq with military aid). The US military sent forces to Saudi Arabia on 7 August 1990 to deter any potential Iraqi invasion of that country. This was known as Operation Desert Shield and involved the deployment of over 500,000 military personnel to Saudi Arabia in the lead-up to Operation Desert Storm.
On 10 August 1990 the Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke, announced that Australia would contribute military forces to the US-led multinational task force against Iraq. Prime Minister Hawke emphasised:
… the primary purpose of that multinational naval task force will be to enforce the blockade on Iraq and Kuwait and of course to protect the exports from other oil producing gulf countries and to protect other trade in the gulf.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) initially deployed naval frigates HMA Ships Adelaide and Darwin and supply vessel HMAS Success in response to the US request for assistance. This was codenamed Operation Damask. This decision was made prior to UN Security Council Resolution 665 (25 August 1990) authorising the blockade. On 4 December 1990 Prime Minister Hawke advised the Parliament that Australia’s contribution to the multinational force in the Gulf would change in light of UN Security Council Resolution 678 (1990):
I therefore inform the House that Australia is prepared to make our naval task force available to serve with allied forces in operations authorised by resolution 678, should that become necessary. Accordingly, if conflict occurs of a kind which is contemplated and authorised by the resolution, our ships would be available to participate in action with the allied fleet in the Gulf, where they would be in a position to make an important contribution to its air defence capabilities.
HMA Ships Adelaide and Darwin were replaced by HMA Ships Sydney and Brisbane in December 1990 and HMAS Success was replaced by HMAS Westralia in January 1991. An extra two medical teams of 20 people were deployed in addition to the two teams already operating on hospital ships in the Gulf.
The prime minister stated that this commitment would ‘not formally commit Australian forces to any action; ADF units will remain at all times under Australian national command’. At the time there was no commitment to contribute air or land forces.
Operation Desert Storm
On 17 January 1991 Operation Desert Storm commenced with a sustained air assault against Iraq by the US and allied forces that lasted 43 days. The main land campaign only lasted the final 100 hours of the war before Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait. The US General Accounting Office (GAO) described the air campaign as the largest use of US air power since the Vietnam War:
The air campaign involved nearly every type of fixed-wing aircraft in the U.S. inventory, flying about 40,000 air-to-ground and 50,000 support sorties. Approximately 1,600 U.S. combat aircraft were deployed by the end of the war. By historical standards, the intensity of the air campaign was substantial. The U.S. bomb tonnage dropped per day was equivalent to 85 per cent of the average daily bomb tonnage dropped by the United States on Germany and Japan during the course of World War II.
On the same date the operation commenced, Prime Minister Hawke announced Australia’s involvement in Operation Desert Storm:
With profound regret, I must now inform you that the necessity which I foreshadowed in the Parliament five weeks ago has come about.
As a consequence, therefore, the Australian Naval Task Force in the Gulf is now with other members of the United Nations co-operating in armed action to fulfil the United Nations resolutions to enforce the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait.
Parliament was recalled on 21 and 22 January 1991 to debate the motion on Australia’s involvement in the war.
During Operation Desert Storm, Iraqi forces launched Scud missiles into Israel and Saudi Arabia. These were mostly intercepted by US Patriot missiles. By late February 1991 Iraqi forces started to withdraw from Kuwait, but as they retreated, around 650 Kuwaiti oil wells were ignited, resulting in the release of an estimated 1.5 billion barrels of oil into the environment. It took ten months and 11,450 workers from 38 countries to extinguish the fires.
By 27 February 1991 Iraqi forces had fully withdrawn from Kuwait. On 28 February 1991 Prime Minister Hawke announced that military operations against Iraq under UN Security Council Resolution 678 were suspended while terms for the ceasefire were negotiated. This was confirmed at the UN Security Council in Resolution 686 (1991) on 2 March 1991. The terms of the ceasefire agreement and other matters such as accounting for and destroying weapons of mass destruction were included in UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991) on 3 April 1991.
Operation Desert Storm involved a multinational force from more than 30 contributing nations. The ADF’s contribution involved a three-ship task group with an eight-person detachment from the Army’s 16th Air Defence Regiment, a 13-person RAN logistic support element based in Oman, an ADF Liaison Officer attached to the US command ship, RAAF photo-interpreters, Defence Intelligence Organisation personnel, and a clearance diving team. The ADF did not suffer any fatalities due to the conflict. Overall, the multinational force lost around 166 military personnel, predominantly due to ‘friendly fire’. The estimates of the number of fatalities suffered by the Iraqi military (60,000 to 100,000 or 200,000) and the civilian population (100,000 to 200,000) vary greatly depending on the source.
The Preliminary Gulf War Nominal Roll includes the names of 1,871 personnel who served in the Gulf War from August 1990 to September 1991.
The RAN’s contribution to ongoing security in the Middle East continues today with the 68th major surface unit rotation since 1990 currently underway by HMAS Toowoomba.
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