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Reviewed by:
  • Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War
  • Norman Friedman
Edward J. Marolda and Robert J. Schneller Jr. , Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2001. 544 pp. $36.95.

This book is a republication of the U.S. Navy's 1998 official account of its participation in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the buildup to and then the execution of the war to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which they had occupied in August 1990. As such, it has all the virtues of official history: precision and completeness. It has the extra virtue of showing not only how vital the role of sea power was in the war but also how underappreciated its contribution has been. On the other hand, because this is official history it must avoid speculation. That is inevitable but unfortunate because the most important influence of sea power may well have been indirect.

Sea power may have made the liberation of Kuwait possible in the most basic way. When the Iraqis invaded in 1990, Saddam Hussein tried to deter Saudi leaders from admitting Americans to help defend their kingdom. He proclaimed that it would be sinful for the Saudis to admit non-believers onto their sacred Arabian soil—a message later taken over by Osama bin Laden, and an ironic one for a determined secularist like Saddam. But because the United States had aircraft carriers deployed near Saudi Arabia, it was clear from the outset that a defense of Saudi Arabia could be erected (using the ships' aircraft) whether or not the Saudi government welcomed [End Page 152] U.S. troops. Saddam's subversive argument was thereby rendered moot. The Saudis could feel free to accept U.S. troops, and ultimately it was those troops who liberated Kuwait. Given the poor quality of Saddam's army, it is conceivable that an assault made entirely from the sea could have been successful, but no one thought so at the time. Hence the vital importance of the Saudi base and also, most likely, the ability of the Saudis to veto any decisive operation to oust Saddam, although the question of just how and why the U.S. forces stopped short of Baghdad in 1991 remains murky.

Quite naturally it is not yet possible to confirm the effect of the U.S. carriers. Edward Marolda and Robert Schneller do make the interesting point that those on the ground in Saudi Arabia tended to discount the effect of naval forces. Because so little infrastructure had been put into place, Air Force fighters flown to Saudi Arabia could not be considered particularly effective until months had passed. The air defense of the Kingdom really did rest on those carriers. Much the same can probably be said of the Marines, thanks to their pre-positioned (at sea) equipment. In contrast, Army units gradually moved into Saudi Arabia. In both cases, naval forces acted as a necessary shield for the buildup that led to success in early 1991.

For that matter, it was Western sea power that made the buildup possible. What many have forgotten—though Marolda and Schneller have not—is that there was a real fear that rulers sympathetic to Saddam Hussein, such as Muammar Qadaffi in Libya, would try to slow or stop the buildup by interdicting shipping through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. Such actions had precedents, including Libya's mining of the Red Sea pilgrim route in 1984. What stopped any such effort this time was a combination of raw sea power (the Libyans had learned their lesson in April 1986, when U.S. naval aircraft bombed ground targets in Libya) and, probably, naval intelligence that would not only have detected any attempt at interdiction but would also have identified its source.

Sea power had other effects, and they are well described in the book. The extensive embargo, prosecuted by sea, made it difficult for Saddam to repair gaps in his forces, notably in their air defenses. We can see the effect of the sustained embargo, continued after the 1991 ceasefire, in the extremely limited capacity of Iraqi...