Desert Storm – SOF Scud Hunting Mission in Iraq

SCUD Launcher

On August 2, 1990 Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. The leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, claimed that Kuwait was historically a ‘province’ of Iraq and that Kuwait had been stealing Iraq’s oil (by way of ‘slant drilling’).

Desert Shield. While world leaders condemned the action, President George Bush formed an international coalition in response to Iraq’s attack on Kuwait. The intent was to defend Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states from further Iraqi aggression. The US and other nations immediately deployed air assets and ground troops to the Saudi Arabian peninsular in an operation called Desert Shield. Over several months a massive troop buildup occurred with the positioning of military forces in the Gulf region.

Desert Storm. Once it became apparent that Saddam Hussein would not withdraw from Kuwait, the coalition, with appropriate resolutions from the United Nations, began finalizing plans to conduct offensive air and ground operations. An air campaign began against Iraq in mid-January 1991. This air phase of the war would establish air superiority, destroy air defense systems, render ineffective command and control networks, and hit other strategic targets. The coalition ground offensive would begin a month later – lasting only 100 hours.

SCUDs. Iraq lacked offensive options against the coalition and the nations in the region. Its air force was destroyed on the ground, shot out of the skies, or remained hidden. Some Iraqi pilots flew their aircraft to safety in Iran. However, the Iraqis did have an inventory of missiles that could be launched against military and other targets that could reach Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The SCUDs lacked a sophisticated guidance system but could deliver an explosive payload that could cause damage and casualties. [1] Once the coalition began its air campaign in January 1991 Iraq began launching SCUD missiles toward the Arabian Peninsular. Iraq also launched SCUDs into Israel from western Iraq.

SCUD Facts. The SCUD was first deployed by the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s. It could carry a nuclear warhead or a 2,000 pound conventional warhead. It also was an ideal weapon for chemical or biological agents. The missile was first used in the 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War. It was later used in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The Iraqis modified the missile to achieve greater range – by reducing the warhead weight, enlarging fuel tanks, and other modifications. These modifications reduced the accuracy of the missile.

The Iraqi variant of the Soviet missile carried a 350-pound warhead. It had enough range to hit most of Israel (from western Iraq) and the major cities of Saudi Arabia. The term SCUD came to be used for a variety of surface-to-surface missiles in the Iraqi inventory.

Estimates of the number of SCUDs that Iraq possessed varied – depending on whether it was a pre-war number or an assessment made during the conflict. Some initial intelligence estimates indicated Iraq had a little more than 100 missiles. This was revised to a higher figure of 400-800.

Photo: Members of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) wearing gas masks in a command post. Photo by IDF, 1991.

Israel Targeted. The launching of missiles toward Israel posed a problem for the coalition. The SCUDs landing in Tel Aviv and other cities unnerved the Israeli population. While the overall physical damage from the SCUD attacks were minimal there were fears that Saddam would put biological or chemical payloads on the SCUDs – causing numerous deaths and injuries. Israel informed Washington that it would respond. [2] There were concerns that if biological or chemical weapons were used against Israel by Iraq then Israel would respond with nuclear weapons. Most accounts say that Iraq launched 40 missiles against Israel (46 against targets in Saudi Arabia).

Saving the Coalition. The intent of Iraq was to prompt an Israeli retaliation. This would put the Arab members of the coalition in a bind. Would they then be allied with Israel fighting an Arab nation? If Israel began attacking Iraq the coalition might very well fall apart – making the task of wresting control of Kuwait from Iraq much more difficult. Washington promised Israel that finding and killing the SCUD missiles would become a top priority – which kept Israel on the sidelines.

Air Force Targeting and Kill Boxes. The fixed launch sites in western Iraq had been hit early in the air campaign. Some of the targets associated with the manufacture, storage, and maintenance of SCUDs had been already hit as well; those that hadn’t quickly moved up on the target list. It is believed that the Iraqis had moved the SCUDs from the fixed site launch locations prior to the start of the coalition air campaign. The coalition rapidly diverted air assets to searching for and destroying mobile SCUDs in western Iraq that could target Israel. The primary aircraft in the SCUD hunt were the A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-16, F-15E, Navy A-6Es, and British Tornados. [3]

Mobile Launchers – a Vexing Problem. The Iraqis had a number of mobile Transporter – Erection – Launch (TEL) vehicles that had been dispersed throughout western and southern Iraq. The exact number varies depending on which source you use – between 20 to 36 launchers are an approximate guess. They were difficult to find. The electronic signature of the TELs were not distinct enough for location purposes. The TELs were camouflaged and hidden to avoid observation from the air. They were frequently moved at night. Once the TELs launched their SCUDs they moved rapidly from the launch site to a different hide location. Sophisticated decoy vehicles were deployed throughout the region that attracted the attention of coalition aircraft. Coalition aircraft had a difficult time finding and targeting the mobile SCUDs. There was some confusion in obtaining the confirmation of ‘kills’ of SCUDs by aircraft. [4] The SCUD launches toward Israel continued.

Photo: Delta Force on SCUD Hunt. Photo by DoD, 1991.

SOF and Desert Storm. A wide variety of special operations units were deployed during the Gulf War. Coalition nations provided special operations forces to the fight – among these were the British Special Air Service (SAS) and Syrian Special Forces Regiment. The United States provided an array of SOF units to include Army Special Forces, Army Rangers, Army Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Navy SEALs and Special Boat Units, Air Force Special Operations squadrons and Combat Control Teams, Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs units, and Marine Force Reconnaissance.

These SOF units conducted a variety of missions. Navy SEALs were busy with special operations missions along the shores of the Persian Gulf. Army Special Forces units were conducting a number of different missions to include direct action, strategic reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, CSAR, border surveillance, and coalition warfare support. Some SOF units would be assigned a new mission – SCUD hunting. The SOF aviation units were very busy with infiltrations, exfiltration, combat search and rescue (CSAR), and other special operations missions.

SOF Teams Inserted. British Special Air Service and 1st SFOD-Delta teams were inserted into western Iraq to join the SCUD hunt. [5] Their mission in “SCUD Alley” was to search for and destroy the SCUDs, launchers, and associated equipment and vehicles. Some of the SOF teams infiltrated by air (usually helicopter) and others by vehicle. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment utilized armed MH-60s to insert SOF teams hundreds of miles inside western Iraq. The Air Force Special Operations squadrons also conducted operations in support of the SCUD hunt. U.S. and British SOF divided the operational area into two sectors – one for the U.S. and one for the British.

SOF On The Ground. The means of interdiction of the SCUDS by SOF teams would range from direct action against the targets to calling in air power to destroy the vehicles and sites associated with the SCUDs. The patrols usually moved at night by foot or vehicle and hid during the day. The British patrols tended to be longer in duration. Some of the SOF teams operating in western Iraq had other missions as well as the SCUD hunt. One of the methods for discovering SCUDs was to set up observation sites along main lines of communication (LOCs). US teams would use hand-held lasers pinpointing targets for aircraft to strike.

Bravo Two Zero. A British SAS team that was inserted by a Royal Air Force Chinook helicopter quickly ran into trouble. It was soon discovered and chased by Iraqi security forces. A few of the patrol members were killed. Some were captured. One patrol member managed to move on foot to the Syrian border avoiding capture. A few books were published and a movie made about Bravo Two Zero. [6]

Effectiveness of SCUD Hunt. The effectiveness of the SCUD hunt by both the Air Force and the SOF teams has been a topic of discussion following the war. How many SCUDs were found and destroyed was not immediately known. There were varying estimates of the effectiveness of the air strikes and the SOF teams on the ground. [7] Some sources indicate that many of the aircraft reported kills of SCUDs were in fact decoys or similar looking vehicles. [8]

Finding the SCUDs and their launchers were difficult. The SCUDs moved from site to site at night. They hid during the day. The SCUD crews could move the launchers to a pre-coordinated launch site, fire their missiles, and drive away in ten minutes.

It became apparent in post-war analysis that countering Iraq’s mobile short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) was a time and resource intensive endeavor. Although the SCUDs were highly inaccurate they did have an important psychological and political impact. In addition, they forced the coalition to divert resources to the SCUD hunt that otherwise could have been occupied with the main effort – the ousting of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Conclusion. What is known is that the air campaign and introduction of SOF teams into western Iraq to find and destroy the SCUDS kept Israel on the sidelines. The frequency of SCUD attacks against Israel diminished. This kept the Arab nations in the coalition and contributed to the overall success of Desert Storm’s objective of removing Iraqi troops from Kuwait.


Top Photo: SCUD launcher, DoD photo.


[1] On February 25, 1991, parts of an Iraqi Al Hussein SCUD missile destroyed barracks housing U.S. troops. 28 soldiers died and 99 were wounded.

[2] “We’re going to attack Iraq, Israel told the US. ‘Move your planes'”, The Times of Israel, January 18, 2018.

[3] The Air Force and the Gulf War, Air Force Association, December 2009, PDF, p. 22.

[4] Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign, U.S. Government Accountability Office, NSIAD-97-134, June 12, 1997, page 31, 32.

[5] There is much more open source information about the participation of the SAS in the SCUD hunt than there is about Delta Force’s role in the operation. A few sources indicate that the Navy SEALs and U.S. Army Rangers may have participated as well.

[6] Two books have been published that tell the story of Bravo Two Zero – Bravo Two Zero and SAS in the Gulf War.

[7] RAND paper cited below by Rosenau, page 36.

[8] “Scud War, Round Two”, Air Force Magazine, April 1, 1991, by Stewart M. Powell.


Rosenau, William, “Chapter Three: Coalition Scud-Hunting in Iraq, 1991”, Special Operations Forces and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets, RAND Corporation, 2001, PDF, 16 pages.

Kipphut, Colonel Mark E., USAF, “The Great Scud Chase”, Crossbow and Gulf War Counter-Scud Efforts: Lessons from History, US Air Force Counterproliferation Center, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, February 2003, PDF, 48 pages.

Story, William C., “Operation Desert Storm Scud Hunt – 1991”, Third World Traps and Pitfalls: Ballistic Missiles, Cruise Missiles, and Land-Based Air Power, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, June 1994.

DIA, Mobile Short-range Ballistic Missile Targeting in Operation DESERT STORM, Defense Intelligence Assessment, OGA-1040-23-91, November 1991.

About John Friberg 201 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.