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  • James Houser

February 26, 1991 - Desert Storm and the Battle of '73 Easting

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

February 26, 1991. A broad expanse of open desert is about to be torn asunder. With no landmarks, roads or towns, locations within these sandy wastes have no names except for the imaginary lines on military maps. Along one imaginary line in the Iraqi desert - 73 Easting - the last great tank battle of the 20th Century, and the climax of Desert Storm, is about to begin.

From 1980 to 1988, Saddam Hussein's Iraq - something on par with a light form of Fascism - had fought a grueling and miserable war with Revolutionary Iran. Saddam's goal of gaining a monopoly on Middle Eastern oil led him into this ill-conceived affair, which cost both sides half a million military dead and unknown civilians for no change in the border whatsoever.

So of course, this light and breezy conflict led Saddam to pick an easier target this time: the small, oil-rich Emirate of Kuwait. He figured no one would care - the West and Soviet Union had supported him against Iran. Of course, Iran was a Revolutionary Islamist state with no friends, while Kuwait was happily minding its own business. Saddam had made a grievous mistake.

When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, he provoked a hostile response from the world community - especially Saudi Arabia, which considered itself next on the hit list. This was reasonable because Saddam immediately began threatening the Saudis upon overrunning Kuwait. UN Resolutions condemned Iraq, and a Coalition began to assemble to eject Saddam from the tiny nation.

Stinger Crew in Operation Desert Shield, 1990

Led by the United States, the Coalition planned to first conduct Desert Shield - the defense of Saudi Arabia - then prepare for the counteroffensive, Desert Storm. The logistic achievement of the American military in assembling over 700,000 troops, in addition to Allied forces, in the Middle East within five months was unequalled in world history. The levels of materiel and ordnance delivered quickly and safely were astounding, and by January Coalition forces were prepared for the counteroffensive to liberate Kuwait.

General Schwarzkopf (left) and President George H.W. Bush (right) visiting Coalition troops in Saudi Arabia, 1990

This attack, when it came, was made much simpler by the overwhelming use of American air power. The Iraqi Air Force utterly failed to contest the skies soon after the war, and Saddam positioned his forces in a rigid defense along the border. This made them exceptional targets for American air, and some units of the Iraqi Army did not receive supplies for weeks or months at a time due to the destruction of their convoys. Much of the fighting capability of the Iraqi Army, therefore, was destroyed well before the ground offensive took place.

In response to the air attacks, Saddam launched SCUD missile strikes at Saudi Arabia and at Israel, hoping to trigger an Israeli response and gain the sympathy of the Arab world, most of whom were Coalition members. The US successfully kept Israel from reacting to Saddam's strikes, but this came with guarantees that they could stop the missiles. The air attacks were expanded to include "SCUD hunts," which somewhat decreased the level of close ground support.

In his battle plan for the ground campaign, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf planned to envelop the Iraqi right flank by passing through the trackless, featureless southern Iraqi desert. This was considered a risky plan. Navigation would be difficult in the wide-open desert, and the attack could collapse in confusion. The only way Allied forces could traverse this terrain bereft of landmarks would be the new GPS systems. Their advance would be measured by pre-arranged lines set by the Coalition staff, designated as "northings" and "eastings".

On February 22, 1991, the ground offensive began. Coalition and US Marine forces assaulted the Iraqi defensive line in Kuwait, and the 1st Cavalry launched a diversionary attack on the right end of the Iraqi position. To their left, the enormous VII Corps, an armored spearhead with 3 US and 1 UK Armored divisions, would cross the desert and drive in the Iraqi flank. In the lead, screening the main attack force, was the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, a 4500-man armored scout force intended to locate the Iraqi positions.

On the night of February 23/24, VII Corps cut loose, sweeping east in a huge right hook that Schwarzkopf called a "Hail Mary." 2nd ACR thundered out in the lead, hunting. Their goal was to locate and destroy the five armored divisions of Saddam's Republican Guard. The Coalition forces steamed forward, but made scant contact until February 25. With air assets busy and its own helicopters grounded by sandstorms, the 2nd ACR went in blind. They crossed the 60 Easting, their original limit of advance, and broke for the 70, making remarkable speed and cutting far ahead of the main armored force.

At 0522 in the morning, February 26, the regiment received orders to reorient north of the 1st British Armored Division and expect contact with the Republican Guard. A couple of hours later, they found them. The Tawakalna Armored Division was in their front, and had been somehow untouched by air strikes. It was intact, in good positions, and ready to fight.

While 2nd ACR's 1st Squadron on the left clashed with the Tawakalna, 2nd and 3rd Squadrons pushed past the 70 Easting and continued their march. By 1500, these squadrons had made contact and the battle was joined.

"Night Attack," by Mario Acevedo, U.S. Army Center of Military History, depicting 73 Easting

E Troop, 2nd Squadron, 2nd ACR, lumbered forward. Without knowing it, Captain H.R. McMaster's company of M1A1 Abrams tanks had become the focal point of the battle. With nine tanks, McMaster slashed across a hill and surprised eight Iraqi T-72s in their positions, at point-blank range. E Troop's guns crashed, McMaster firing first. The Iraqis never stood a chance. McMaster proceeded east, hitting the 73 Easting along with his fellow tank units to left and right. E Troop accounted for 19 more Iraqi tanks before the day was done.

2nd ACR, meant to screen the main attack and not fight a serious battle, had in a few hours annihilated two brigades of the Republican Guard. The Abrams of McMaster's E Troop, G Troop, and I Troop, along with supporting Bradleys, carried the brunt of the fight. G Troop in particular fought off wave after wave of Iraqi vehicles and had to call in heavy artillery and helicopter support just to stave off the attack.

Destroyed Iraqi Type 69 tank following Battle of 73 Easting

In total, 2nd ACR accounted for 160 Iraqi tanks on February 26, along with over 300 other vehicles; enemy casualties were 1,000 killed and 2,000 captured at a cost of 6 American dead and 1 Bradley destroyed - no tanks were lost. The Iraqi forces were scattered and unable to stop the 1st Infantry Division from passing through 2nd ACR's lines that night. Instead of a spread-out cavalry regiment, the armored fist of VII Corps had arrived.

2nd ACR's battle at 73 Easting was the only time in Desert Storm that American forces were significantly outnumbered, but they nevertheless defeated forces twice their size. The skill and leadership of its officers, the high quality of American equipment, and its soldiers' high level of training proved the major difference. This was the rule throughout the Gulf War.

Captain McMaster would retire as Lieutenant General McMaster after serving a brief and contentious term as Trump's National Security Advisor.

The rest of the story - Iraq, the war, the aftermath and round two - you know.

The triumph of technology and firepower in the Gulf War, while admittedly impressive, led to a dangerous narrowing of thinking among American defense analysts. The assumption that new technologies and overwhelming force changed all rules of war created a perception that enough of both could accomplish anything - a lesson that would be proved tragically mistaken when the US reentered Iraq 12 years later. No amount of 73 Eastings could solve the puzzle of a complex counterinsurgency.

The Gulf War cannot escape the taint of the overconfidence that followed it. There is such a thing as "victory disease."

Book Recommendations: Desert Storm is too recent to have a good historical consensus built up around it. Try Rick Atkinson, Crusade, The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993) on for size.

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