Al Jaber During Desert Shield (August 7, 1990 - January 16, 1991)

Before the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait, Al Jaber served as a Kuwaiti military air base. After the Iraqi invasion in August 1990, U.S. intelligence reported that the airfield might be used for the storage of chemical munitions--mainly because Iraqi ground forces had deployed 30 GHN-45 155mm howitzers and employed the Kuwaiti hardened hangarettes for munitions storage.[8] The GHN-45 is a top-of-the-line, Austrian-manufactured artillery piece with a range of 38-40 km., used primarily by Iraqi Republican Guard units.[9] A Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) paper published before the war notes that, "Iraq regards its 155mm artillery as the weapon of choice for ground force delivery of CW [Chemical Weapons]...".[10] Post-war analysis of UN inspection data shows that the Iraqi 155mm was the sole ground force delivery system of the Mustard chemical weapon agent.[11] Before the war, Iraqi artillery assets consisted of approximately 3600 Soviet Bloc artillery tubes (122mm, 130mm, 152mm) and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) artillery tubes (105mm and 155mm). Of these, only 450 were thought to be 155mm.[12]

Coalition Planning and Actions

During the air war (January 17 through February 23, 1991) coalition aircraft struck Al Jaber several times--attacking bunkers on the air base suspected as chemical weapons storage facilities.[13] Aircraft also dropped anti-personnel mines to impede Iraqi movement in and around the base.[14]

To coalition ground-war planners, the early capture of Al Jaber was a primary goal because of the dense concentration of Iraqi long-range artillery in the vicinity. The 1st Marine Division (1st MarDiv) Commander considered the Iraqi artillery around the base to be the "nerve center of Iraqi defenses."[15] Consequently, Al Jaber became the Marine Expeditionary Force’s (MEF) Objective "Alpha"—a principal liberation goal for elements of the 1st MarDiv once they crossed the minefields on the first day of the ground war. The Marines intended to neutralize the Iraqi artillery threat by overrunning Al Jaber and then to use the captured air base as a forward air base for Marine Corps aircraft. It was assumed that Al Jaber would be a crucial staging area for the liberation of Kuwait City.[16]

Figure 3. I Marine Expeditionary Force Table of Organization

Most of the units discussed in this narrative were in the 1st MarDiv or under this division’s operational control. (See Figure 3). For the assault into Kuwait, the 1st MarDiv was organized into Task Forces. Two of these, Task Force Ripper and Task Force Grizzly, played roles in capturing Al Jaber air base from Iraqi forces. Task Force Ripper consisted of the three battalions of the 7th Marine Regiment. These units were the 3rd Tank Battalion, the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment (1/5), and the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment (1/7). Task Force Ripper was augmented with forces from the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, and the 3rd Battalion of the 11th Marine Regiment (3/11), which provided artillery support. The 1st MarDiv also gave Task Force Ripper one of the four Fox NBC Detection vehicles attached to the division.[17]

During the course of combat on the first day of the ground war, Iraqi forces set fire to the nearby Al Burqan oil fields. The heavy black smoke from these fires sharply reduced visibility during the combat operations to secure Al Jaber. Despite crossing a second mine field, Iraqi ground force resistance, artillery and the smoke, Task Force Ripper surrounded the air base by 1800 hours on February 24th (the first day of the ground war). Iraqi forces, however, still held the base.[18] Because of the reduced visibility, operations to take the base were postponed until the following day, February 25.[19] A number of Iraqi soldiers surrendered to Task Force Ripper units during the afternoon and evening of February 24th. These prisoners revealed that only conventional munitions—not chemical warfare rounds—were stored in Al Jaber’s bunkers.[20]

Five Chemical Alerts on the Night of 24/25 February

The night of February 24-25 was tense for the Marines encircling Al Jaber. Task Force Ripper troops had been warned that Iraq might use chemical weapons, and this knowledge, combined with the expectation of a pitched battle the next day (or sooner), set nerves on edge.[21] Interviews conducted for this investigation indicate that several units around Al Jaber donned chemical protective equipment to a Mission Oriented Protective Posture level 4 (MOPP-4[22] ) five times between 2000 hours on Feb. 24 and 0200 hours on the Feb. 25.[23] However, no records of these alerts appear in any of the unit chronologies. None of those interviewed remember any alerts to go to MOPP-4 being broadcast over any of the radio nets. Those interviewed about these events remember being told of a "gas" alert verbally.[24]

The 1st MarDiv NBC NCO stated that atmospheric conditions that night caused the smoke from outgoing artillery to hug the ground rather than dissipate. On several occasions, Marines mistook this artillery smoke for Iraqi chemical attacks and this was erroneously reported.[25] However, they took no chances and followed normal procedures for confirming a chemical alert while investigating the cause. 1st MarDiv Headquarters Forward Command Post—sometimes called the "Bravo" CP—was located outside the base (See Figure 4) and the NBC staff performed tests with their M256A1 chemical warfare agent detector kit after each "gas" alert.[26] Each of the five M256 tests produced no positive results—indicating no chemical agents were present. Following standard procedure, a few individuals were selected to remove their gas masks. These men were then observed for several minutes to see if they experienced any chemical warfare agent exposure symptoms. When they did not exhibit symptoms, a general "all clear" was sounded, returning all the Marines to MOPP-2.[27]

Figure 4. Unit deployment around Al Jaber, Night of Feb. 24/25, 1991.[28]

Although some of those involved believed there was a Fox detection vehicle at Al Jaber, none of the 1st MarDiv’s Fox vehicles were present. The four Fox Vehicles were deployed as follows: Task Force Ripper, Task Force Papa Bear, and two with 1st MarDiv Mobile Command Post. Only the Task Force Ripper Fox was close to the air base - probably within five miles, but they reported no alerts on this night.[29]

Task Force Grizzly captured over 1000 Iraqi soldiers during this first day of the ground war and they were being held just outside the gates of Al Jaber. Few of these prisoners had chemical protective equipment, and following the five alarms, none appeared to have suffered any ill effects that would be reflective of chemical exposure. Task Force Grizzly Marines observed no chemical warfare agent exposure effects among the prisoners. Similarly, several Marines reported sleeping through some of the alarms without donning their masks and suffered no ill effects.[30]

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