AFMS operations during the Gulf War: Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm
AFMS History Office
/ Published January 21, 2021
FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- On Aug. 8, 1990, just six days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Air Force Medical Service began its largest deployment since the Vietnam War.
In August and September 1990, the Air Force placed the first in-theater U.S. medical facilities capable of both surgery and chemical decontamination. The first Air Force medical teams arrived in the Arabian Peninsula two days after the combat units. These teams were the main source of medical support to all American military forces until the second week in September 1990.
The overall Desert Shield medical deployment was much faster than during the Vietnam War, even though 175 more hospital beds deployed during Desert Shield (925 versus 750). Air transportable clinics and hospitals were the key to rapid mobility. The clinics deployed immediately with their flying squadrons. The first squadron medical elements and air transportable clinics left the U.S. on Aug. 8, 1990, just one day after the first fighter aircraft deployments. The first air transportable hospitals departed on Aug. 11 from Shaw, MacDill and Langley Air Force Bases.
In mid-August, because of a shortage of airlift capability, CENTCOM directed less essential support elements to deploy by sealift or airlift several days after their lead combat elements. By late August, the air transportable hospitals began arriving about two weeks after their combat squadrons. By late October, most of the air transportable medical facilities were committed to the operation. In November, the Persian Gulf deployment expanded to include hospitals from 10 CONUS air bases.
Desert Storm, January-February 1991
Most Air Force planners did not anticipate that the air and ground fighting during Desert Storm would hardly tax the medical system. The staff at Air Force contingency hospitals in Europe, like many of their counterparts in the Arabian Peninsula, practiced very little combat medicine because casualties were so low. From August 1990 to March 1991, disease and non-battle injuries accounted for most of the medical evacuations from Southwest Asia to Europe. Aggressive preventive medicine was effective in minimizing losses to disease. Orthopedic injuries alone accounted for about 43 percent of the evacuees from the theaters.
Final statistics on the size of the Air Force medical deployment are impressive. The 15 air transportable hospitals, with help from a 250-bed contingency hospital staffed by the Military Airlift Command, supplied most of the in-theater hospital beds and staff for the Air Force in Desert Storm. First-stage medical care and evaluation was available at 31 deployed air transportable clinics. The Air Force eventually provided 925 beds in Southwest Asia staffed by 4,900 medics, almost one out of every 10 Air Force people who deployed. The Air Force also deployed 6,900 medics to staff 3,740 beds in the Air Force fixed and contingency hospitals in Europe. By the end of the Gulf War, the active duty AFMS was larger than ever 14,500 - officers, 30,000 enlisted medics, and about 9,500 civilians.
The reserve mobilization and deployment was also essential to the medical deployment. Half of Air Force medics who went to Europe and Southwest Asia by February 1991 were members of the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve. The reserves accounted for almost 97 percent of the aeromedical evacuation cadre.
Although, by historical standards the deployment was extremely rapid and successful, the Medical Service was fortunate that hostilities did not start until 163 days after the initial mobilization. Since there was no guarantee that this lead time would be available in a future war, the AFMS immediately began to ensure that its next response would be even more timely and efficient.