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Operation DESERT OWL Provides Linguists for First Gulf War

By USAICoE Command History Office, (Published with permission.)
[This is an updated and expanded version of an article previously published in the Fort Huachuca Scout in January 2013.]

With the outbreak of the first Gulf War, the US Army realized it had a shortage of Soldiers proficient in Arabic. The US Army’s 267 Arabic linguists, trained in Syrian, Egyptian, and other Persian Gulf dialects, had already deployed to Saudi Arabia in late 1990 to serve with the XVIII Airborne Corps. When the Army committed a second corps to the conflict, it faced an additional requirement for more than 900 linguists. The 142nd MI Battalion (Utah National Guard) deployed its Arabic speakers as reinforcements, but the need for more linguists could not be satisfied, even partially, until the middle of the following year.

To help mitigate the shortage, Col. William Lipke, from the office of the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Intelligence, dealt directly with the government of Kuwait to establish Operation DESERT OWL. The Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington, DC, recruited volunteers from Kuwaiti college students already in the US to provide language support for the military efforts in the Persian Gulf. The 300 students chosen spoke fluent English, as well as the Iraqi dialect of Arabic. Their understanding of American customs and traditions eased their adjustment to serving side-by-side with American Soldiers.

The DESERT OWL volunteers enlisted as sergeants in the Kuwaiti Army and then reported to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for training and equipping on January 6, 1991. The span of time between identification of the requirement and the arrival of the students at Fort Dix was approximately six weeks.

The US Army Intelligence School at Fort Devens, Massachusetts (USAISD), served as executive agent for DESERT OWL. The Electronic Warfare Department quickly developed a training package to ensure these native speakers could provide language support to tactical intelligence and electronic warfare ground system teams in Saudi Arabia. On January 4, USAISD’s 40-person Training Task Force (TTF), directed by Lt. Col. Donald Manchester, traveled to Fort Dix to prepare to provide the accelerated intelligence training. The Combat Intelligence Training Course (CITC) began on January 7.

The CITC focused foremost on teaching the Kuwaitis to recognize enemy communications and to extract essential information for intelligence purposes. The students learned military terminology, the structure of military communications, US and Iraqi order of battle, and the recognition of Iraqi military communications. Students also learned the basics of the US Army’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) equipment in use at that time.
The CITC also incorporated combat skills, such as basic rifle marksmanship, M-16 familiarization, nuclear/biological/chemical training, and gas mask confidence. These skills were taught by drill instructors from Fort Dix’s 3/26th Infantry Battalion as well as drill sergeants and non-commissioned officers from Fort Deven’s 306th MI Battalion and NCO Academy.

Although all the students were expected to arrive at once, they actually arrived in four groups over the course of the week. Because they had a fixed deployment date, the training for the later arrivals had to be curtailed to fit the time available. On January 14, just eight days after their arrival at Fort Dix, 287 graduates of the CITC to Saudi Arabia.

On January 15, the TTF returned to Fort Devens. Less than a week later, it received a new task to train an additional 40 Kuwaiti soldiers. By the time this class started on January 27, an addition 20 trainees had been identified specifically for the interrogation mission. While the SIGINT students worked with Devens instructors, the interrogators trained with a two-person MTT sent from the US Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The 59 graduates of the late January course deployed from on February 6. A final class of 63 Kuwaitis trained in interrogation skills from February 20-26 at Fort Dix. The Fort Huachuca MTT also conducted this accelerated course, artfully condensing a 9-week program of instruction into just 28 hours.

M915 tractor with M113 Armored Personnel Carriers waiting for the convoy to move out.

Eventful Convoy in Desert Storm

Boring convoys would be nice, but can get over exciting quickly. (Where is the ammo truck?)
During the convoy, at about 2am, on this super highway in the middle of the Saudi wasteland, there’s nothing but pitch blackness except for the dim illumination of our trucks headlights and the occasional passing motorist. Our vehicle intervals are stretched out to about 100 meters and we can barely make out who is ahead of us or who is behind us, except again, for the faint illumination of the lights of the trucks and our convoy manifest. We are tired and sleepy, having been driving for 20 hours or so.