In April 1991, shortly after the United States and its coalition allies expelled Iraqi military forces from Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm, the United States established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. This was followed shortly by the establishment of a similar zone over southern Iraq to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 688. That resolution directed the protection of Shiite Muslims from attack by military forces under the control of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Sunni Muslim dictator, and a number of other sanctions. To support the resolution and to protect the Shiites, the southern no-fly zone covered all of southern Iraq from the 32-degree latitude line south to the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The no-fly zone applied to both fixed and rotary wing aircraft, but in October 1991, the southern no-fly zone also became a "no-drive" zone and U.S. Central Command's Joint Task Force-Southwest Asia (JTF-SWA) was charged with its enforcement. Generally, most Southern Watch missions consisted of fighter sweeps and patrols, the suppression of enemy aerial defenses, aerial reconnaissance, and airborne command and control using E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft.
By 1997, Southern Watch crews had flown more than 86,000 sorties within the southern no-fly zone. To provide the continuous flow of personnel and resources required to sustain the operation over several years, the U.S. Air Force developed the Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) concept, and the first AEF deployment occurred on October 28, 1995. Typically, AEF rotations consisted of squadrons and individual specialists who served 90-day rotations at the major Southern Watch bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. On average, 5,000 U.S. Airmen supported Operation Southern Watch on each rotation, but during periods of crisis as many as 15,000 USAF personnel supported the operation.
When Saddam Hussein and his forces challenged the southern no-fly zone, JTF-SWA responded quickly. The first provocation occurred on December 27, 1992, when two MiG-25 aircraft threatened USAF aircraft in the no-fly zone. In response, USAF F-16s shot down one of the Iraqi fighter jets. Less than one month later, in January 1993, USAF aircraft struck missile sites in the no-fly zone. Other attacks against Iraqi targets followed in April, June, and July of that year. In October 1994, Iraqi forces massed on the Kuwaiti border, which resulted in Operation Vigilant Warrior, a massive influx of nearly 25,000 U.S. military personnel. This was followed by a smaller temporary reinforcement, Operation Vigilant Sentinel, to deter Iraqi aggression after several leaders of Hussein's regime and their families defected to Jordan.
As Operation Southern Watch continued, disaster struck the airmen serving in Southwest Asia. On June 25, 1996, terrorists bombed the Khobar Towers barracks on Dhahran Airbase in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 airmen and wounding 547 personnel. In response to the attack, the USAF reviewed its entire force protection and security police programs and established USAF Security Forces, who trained across all aspects of force protection, air base defense, and anti-terrorism measures. Undeterred by the terrorist attack, the USAF continued to support Operation Southern Watch through the 1990s and early 2000s and coalition aircraft participated in Operations Desert Strike and Desert Fox, which targeted missile and weapons of mass destruction production sites in Iraq. Operation Southern Watch continued until March of 2003, when the United States began Operation Iraqi Freedom with the aim of removing Saddam Hussein from power.
Capt Gregory Ball, USAFR, Ph.D.
For more information, see these Air Force History and Museum publications:
William J. Allen, "Crisis in Southern Iraq: Operation Southern Watch" in Short of War: Major USAF Contingency Operations 1947-1997.
Richard G. Davis, Immediate Reach, Immediate Power: The Air Expeditionary Force and American Power Projection in the Post Cold War Era .
Perry D. Jamieson, Khobar Towers: Tragedy and Response.