Max Boot. Foreign Affairs. Volume 82, Issue 4. July/August 2003.
Waging Modern War
“The American way of war.” That phrase—popularized by the military historian Russell Weigley in his 1973 book—has come to refer to a grinding strategy of attrition: the strategy employed by Ulysses S. Grant to destroy Robert E. Lee’s army in 1864-65, by John J. Pershing to wear down the German army in 1918, and by the U.S. Army Air Force to pulverize all the major cities of Germany and Japan in 1944-45. In this view, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II were won not by tactical or strategic brilliance but by the sheer weight of numbers—the awesome destructive power that only a fully mobilized and highly industrialized democracy can bring to bear. In all these conflicts, U.S. armies composed of citizen-soldiers suffered and inflicted massive casualties.
Much the same methods characterized the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, though with decreasing levels of success; the former being a costly draw, the latter a bloody failure. The first Gulf War was much more successful, but in many ways, it still fit the traditional, firepower-intensive mode: more than five weeks of relentless bombing was followed by a massive armored onslaught. Although the “left hook” that swept around Iraqi forces entrenched in Kuwait showed some operational flair, it was hardly a gamble—the eight-division allied force was so heavy that it simply crushed everything in its path.
As with all generalizations, this view of the American way of war has always needed some qualification. There have always been some generals, such as Stonewall Jackson and George S. Patton, who favored dazzling maneuvers over costly frontal assaults. And there have been many “small wars” in America’s past that were carried out in a far more modest manner. But as a description of the main U.S. approach to major conflicts, the American way of war has stood the test of time.
Its time is now past, however. Spurred by dramatic advances in information technology, the U.S. military has adopted a new style of warfare that eschews the bloody slogging matches of old. It seeks a quick victory with minimal casualties on both sides. Its hallmarks are speed, maneuver, flexibility, and surprise. It is heavily reliant upon precision firepower, special forces, and psychological operations. And it strives to integrate naval, air, and land power into a seamless whole. This approach was put powerfully on display in the recent invasion of Iraq, and its implications for the future of American war fighting are profound.
This new American way of war has been a long time in the making; its roots trace back to defense reforms of the 1980s. In recent years its most high-profile advocate has been Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Around the Pentagon, his mantra of “transformation” has become a bit of a joke—a buzzword that is applied to just about any weapons system or program championed by any of the services. (The army claimed that its canceled Crusader heavy howitzer was, you guessed it, “transformational.”) But when Rumsfeld and his senior aides, such as Stephen Cambone and Dov Zakheim, talk about “transformation,” they are referring to much more than a change of weapons systems. They are referring to a change of mindset that will allow the military to harness the technological advances of the information age to gain a qualitative advantage over any potential foe.
The transformation of the American military was showcased in Afghanistan in 2001. Instead of blundering into terrain that had swallowed up past invading armies, the United States chose to fight with a handful of special operations forces and massive amounts of precision-guided munitions. This skillful application of American power allowed the Northern Alliance, which had been stalemated for years, to topple the Taliban in just two months. Although generally successful, the Afghan war also showed the limitations of not using enough ground forces. Osama bin Laden and other top terrorists managed to escape during the battle of Tora Bora, and even after a new government was established in Kabul, warlords were left in control of much of the countryside.
The second Gulf War has proved to be more impressive than the Afghan war because it was a truly combined-arms operation. An examination of the conflict shows the potential of the new American way of war and offers some lessons for the future.
Coalition forces in the second Gulf War were less than half the size of those deployed in the first one. Yet they achieved a much more ambitious goal—occupying all of Iraq, rather than just kicking the Iraqi army out of Kuwait—in almost half the time, with one-third the casualties, and at one-fourth the cost of the first war. Many will argue, in retrospect, that Saddam Hussein’s forces were not all that formidable to begin with, and there is no doubt a great deal of truth in this. But they were capable enough when they fought the Iranian army to a draw in the 1980s and put down Kurdish and Shi’ite insurgencies in the 1990s. And, on paper at least, the Baathist regime’s military enjoyed a big numerical advantage over U.S. and British forces. Although the Iraqi army was much degraded from its pre-1991 heyday, it still deployed more than 450,000 troops, including paramilitary units, the Republican Guard, and the Special Republican Guard, whose loyalty had been repeatedly demonstrated. Traditionally, war colleges have taught that to be sure of success, an attacking force must have a 3 to 1 advantage—a ratio that goes up to 6 to 1 in difficult terrain such as urban areas. Far from having a 3 to 1 advantage in Iraq, coalition ground forces (which never numbered more than 100,000) faced a 3 to 1 or 4 to 1 disadvantage.
That the United States and its allies won anyway—and won so quickly—must rank as one of the signal achievements in military history. Previously, the gold standard of operational excellence had been the German blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and France in 1940. The Germans managed to conquer France, the Netherlands, and Belgium in just 44 days, at a cost of “only” 27,000 dead soldiers. The United States and Britain took just 26 days to conquer Iraq (a country 80 percent of the size of France), at a cost of 161 dead, making fabled generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian seem positively incompetent by comparison.
This spectacular success was not achieved easily, however. It required overcoming the traditional mentality of some active and retired officers who sniped relentlessly at Rumsfeld right up until the giant statue of Saddam fell in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003. Winning the war in Iraq first required rooting out the old American way of war from its Washington redoubts.
The battle over how to take Baghdad reached full intensity in 2002. General Tommy Franks, a stolid artillery officer who ran the Central Command, initially proposed sending a large force, akin to that used in Desert Storm, and paving their way with a two-week air campaign. Secretary Rumsfeld and his advisers wanted to build on the lessons of Afghanistan by sending a much smaller force and starting air and ground operations simultaneously. In typical Washington fashion, a compromise was reached, calling for about 300,000 personnel. But by the time the war started on March 19, 2003, the force deployed was closer to Rumsfeld’s “transformational” model than to the traditional heavy force advocated by army planners. Fewer than 100,000 allied ground troops entered Iraq. The bulk of the combat punch was provided by the Third Infantry Division (ID), which had about 200 M1A1 Abrams tanks and 250 M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and the First Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), which had about 120 Abrams tanks. These forces were supplemented by the British First Armored Division, the 11th Aviation Regiment, the 101st Airborne Division, and a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division.
The invasion force was lighter than expected because Turkey refused to let the Fourth Infantry Division land on its soil. Franks had insisted on keeping the Fourth ID’s equipment anchored off Turkey until the last minute, in part because there simply was not enough dock space to unload in Kuwait. The division was not redirected to Kuwait until after the war had started, and it never deployed in time for the fighting. It is not clear why Franks did not wait for the Fourth ID to start the war. One possible explanation is that he wanted to use the division as a feint, figuring that the Iraqis would not expect the invasion to start until it had landed. Another likely explanation is that he did not want to delay the start of the war until mid-April, when the weather in the Persian Gulf region heats up and makes operations in chemical warfare suits difficult. Whatever the case, Franks’ willingness to start the war without overwhelming ground forces showed that he was far bolder than his more flamboyant predecessor, “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf.
The improvisation extended to the start of the war. President Bush’s 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam expired on March 19. The war plan called for giving special operations forces a couple of days to work quietly in Iraq before bombing started on March 21. A ground invasion was to come nine hours later. That schedule was thrown out the window when the CIA discovered the location where Saddam and his sons were believed to be meeting on March 19. After several hours of deliberation at the White House, President Bush made the decision to launch an air strike in an attempt to decapitate the Baathist regime. Saddam’s alleged meeting place was struck by 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles and several satellite-guided bombs dropped by two F-117a Stealth fighters. The strike failed to kill Saddam, perhaps because the deliberations dragged on so long, but it was a gamble well worth taking.
With the first air strikes moved up, General Franks made a hurried decision on Thursday, March 20, to move up the ground assault as well. He had received intelligence that some oil wells in the giant Rumaila fields were on fire. Determined to prevent the oil field destruction that had occurred in the last Gulf War, he ordered the First MEF to advance into Iraq ahead of schedule—and without a massive air bombardment beforehand. There had been some “shaping” of the battlefield prior to the start of ground operations by allied aircraft that were ostensibly enforcing “no-fly” zones, but ordering the ground assault on March 20 was a gutsy call that no doubt caught the Iraqis by surprise.
Even before U.S. and British marines successfully occupied the Rumaila oil fields, allied commandos—not only American but also British, Polish, and Australian units—had gone to work. They had been operating in Iraq for several months, focusing especially on the search for weapons of mass destruction and missile launcher sites in western Iraq. It was from there that Saddam had fired Scuds against Israel, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. The commandos’ stealthy assault precluded similar dangers this time around.
Fifteen hours after the start of the ground war, the coalition began its full-scale air assault on Baghdad. Despite all the hype about “shock and awe,” the initial bombardment was very restrained. In addition to hitting the usual targets—air defenses and command-and-control facilities—allied commanders seemed to take special glee in bombing Baath Party headquarters and Saddam’s palaces. They had apparently hoped that the regime would collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder, leaving its infrastructure intact. That overly optimistic expectation was dashed when allied ground forces ran into stiffer-than-expected resistance in southern Iraq.
From Basra to Baghdad
Coalition commanders had anticipated that Basra, a heavily Shi’ite city that had rebelled against Saddam in 1991, would rise up this time as well. Yet no such rebellion was forthcoming, in part because Basra’s citizens did not want to risk being slaughtered by Baathist security forces, as they had been in 1991. Following the first Gulf War, Saddam had formed the paramilitary Fedayeen to stiffen resistance and prevent any further revolts. Their cruel efficiency ensured that there were no massive uprisings or defections from the Iraqi armed forces in the early days of the second Gulf War.
The coalition’s response to this setback was to loosely cordon off Basra. The British First Armored Division would spend the next three weeks patiently chipping away at Iraqi defenses, all the while being careful to avoid the kind of street fighting that Saddam clearly hoped to trigger. Leaving the British behind, the rest of the coalition forces raced north toward Baghdad along two parallel axes. The Third ID took to the largely empty deserts west of the Euphrates River. The First MEF advanced to its right, along the heavily populated east bank of the Euphrates. The initial speed of the advance was breathtaking, with the Third ID sprinting some 200 miles in three days—far faster than its predecessor, the 24th ID, had traveled during the first Gulf War.
This bold dash toward the enemy capital left the U.S. lines of communication temporarily exposed. In normal army doctrine, an armored cavalry regiment would have been deployed to secure the flanks, but Franks relied on airpower alone. The price of this gamble was revealed when the Fedayeen and other Iraqi security forces began attacking supply convoys. Things quickly turned ugly. On Sunday, March 23, a convoy of the 507th Maintenance Company was ambushed in Nasiriyah, and 12 soldiers were captured or killed. The next day, more than 30 ah-64d Apache Longbows tried to attack Republican Guard positions south of Karbala—only to run into a wall of small-arms fire that downed one helicopter and damaged the rest. This was a humiliating setback for the most advanced attack helicopters in the world. To top things off, on March 24, much of southern Iraq was enveloped in a blinding sandstorm. Helicopters could not fly and supply convoys had to be delayed, leaving some forward units perilously short on food and other necessities.
Senior commanders made a decision to slow down temporarily the advance to allow their forces to get rested, regrouped, and resupplied—and to secure rear areas. The 101st Airborne, which initially had been slated to lead the charge into Baghdad, was instead used to secure Najaf, Hillah, Karbala, and other towns along the route. The marines undertook a week of hard street fighting to clear out Nasiriyah. One brigade of the Third ID—a third of its strength—was sent back to secure lines of communication.
On March 27, Lieutenant General William Wallace, commander of the army’s V Corps, which was in charge of all army units in Iraq, said in an interview that “the enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against.” Unfortunately, when The Washington Post reported his comment the next morning, it dropped “a bit,” giving the impression that U.S. forces had suffered a serious setback. (The New York Times rendered the quote accurately in one story but flubbed it in another.) A media frenzy ensued, with numerous stories suggesting that the offensive was bogged down and that the war could last months and result in thousands of casualties. Leading the charge was a platoon of retired generals who suggested that Rumsfeld had placed the invasion in jeopardy by not sending enough troops.
This criticism vastly exaggerated the difficulties encountered by U.S. forces. The Fedayeen turned out to be more of a nuisance than a serious military menace. Many of their attacks were reckless to the point of being suicidal. They would charge M1A1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. Sometimes the tanks would not even bother to open fire; they would simply roll over the attacking vehicles. The “dead-enders” died by the thousands; few U.S. troops were killed.
Although this fighting was going on in full view of the world’s press, an even more critical aspect of the campaign was taking place outside the glare of television cameras: navy, air force, and marine aircraft, along with army helicopters, artillery, and rockets, were pounding Republican Guard divisions dug in south of Baghdad. Some of their fire was directed by aerial surveillance, some by special operations forces on the ground. The assault took an especially devastating toll on the Iraqis during the heavy sandstorm, when they mistakenly believed they could move around freely and instead became easy targets for precision-guided munitions.
On March 29, the most important meeting of the war was convened at Camp David. In a teleconference, the administration’s “war cabinet” considered whether to stop the advance and wait for reinforcements, as many armchair strategists were suggesting. President Bush wisely rejected this advice and directed that the focus be kept on Baghdad.
Senior ground commanders wanted to wait to advance until the Republican Guard divisions south of Baghdad were judged to be at least half strength. It took only a few days for intelligence officers to report that the Medina Division was just 20 percent effective, and the other units were not far behind. On the morning of April 1, the army and the marines began their final dash for Baghdad. U.S. soldiers were surprised to find that the supposedly formidable Republican Guard put up almost no resistance. The guard divisions had all but ceased to exist as coherent fighting forces. Those not killed simply threw off their uniforms and ran away.
The only remaining question was how much of a fight the coalition would face in Baghdad. Right up until the last moment, a chorus of gloomy commentators warned that the United States risked another Stalingrad. That was apparently Saddam’s expectation too. U.S. intelligence believes he distributed copies of the movie Black Hawk Down to give his commanders hints on what to do.
U.S. forces approached the capital with caution, but they became progressively bolder as their probing attacks revealed the weakness of Iraqi defenses. On April 3, the Third ID’s Seventh Cavalry Regiment seized Saddam International Airport, on the outskirts of the capital. Two days later, an armored column of the Third ID’s Second Brigade knifed into the center of the city, drawing heavy fire and killing perhaps a thousand enemy fighters while losing only one soldier. A heavy firefight on April 7 allowed the Second Brigade to secure three key highway junctions leading into Baghdad, which U.S. troops called Objectives Larry, Curly, and Moe. Seeing that the defense of Baghdad was crumbling, U.S. commanders ordered a final push, with the Third ID charging in from the west and the First Marine Division from the east. On April 9, the giant statue of Saddam fell in the heart of Baghdad, signaling the regime’s demise.
Mopping up operations in the north took a few more days. A conventional northern front had never really developed. The U.S. presence was limited to a couple of thousand light infantrymen from the 173rd Airborne Brigade and a few hundred U.S. special forces working with the Kurdish Pesh Merga. In a reprise of Afghanistan, this force, backed up by substantial airpower, routed the Ansar al Islam terrorist group out of northern Iraq and took the key northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. The occupation of the entire country was completed on April 14, when marines rolled into Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. The hard task of “nation building” lay ahead, but the bulk of the military campaign was over.
How the War Was Won
This three-week campaign will be studied and debated by historians and military analysts for years to come, but even at this early stage, it is possible to point to a number of factors that led to a relatively easy U.S. victory. The most obvious point, of course, is the ineptitude of the Iraqi defense. Saddam had to fight with a force degraded by years of sanctions; his army was ill trained and ill equipped. Although they had a few new gadgets, such as Russian-made Kornet antitank missiles and devices that jammed Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite signals, on the whole their equipment was woefully out of date. There was little chance the Iraqi forces could stand toe-to-toe with the mighty U.S. war machine—and Saddam knew it. His strategy was designed to make the best of a bad hand. The Iraqis planned to fall back into the cities and utilize guerrilla warfare to drive up American and civilian casualties to the point where, they hoped, domestic and international pressure would force Washington to come to the bargaining table. This was a shrewd plan similar to that used by the Chechens to bog down Russian invaders on two occasions. But in Iraq it was undone by poor execution.
Time after time, Iraqi forces missed opportunities to make life more difficult for the invading army. They did not blow up dams and bridges, utilize chemical weapons, or barricade Baghdad. Why they did none of this remains a mystery. It is possible that Iraqi troops simply did not want to fight very hard for Saddam. But although Iraqi bumbling and low morale provide part of the answer, American prowess must not be overlooked.
Coalition forces, led by the United States, severely disrupted Iraqi command-and-control systems and moved much faster than Iraqi forces could handle. In military parlance, the United States got inside the Iraqis’ “decision cycle.” This task was facilitated by the fact that Saddam ran a highly centralized regime. Commanders were afraid to relay negative news to Baghdad for fear of incurring the wrath of Saddam or his homicidal sons. And once they were cut off from the center, commanders in the field were afraid to exercise their own initiative for the same reason. Saddam had actually set up systems to ensure that his army commanders could not coordinate closely, for fear that they would plot against him. Thus the Iraqi armed forces were organized on opposite principles from those of the United States, namely decentralization and joint operations. It was the difference in mindsets, as much as anything else, that allowed U.S. forces always to stay several steps ahead of their adversaries.
Whereas the Iraqi military was built on the old Soviet model, the U.S. armed forces specialize in what the Pentagon calls “network-centric warfare.” This approach means taking advantage of information technology to radically enhance the effectiveness of “C4ISR”—command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
The U.S. military operates a bewildering array of sensors to cut through the fog of war. Just consider the lineup of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) that operated over Iraq, none of which was available in 1991. At the highest altitude, around 60,000 feet, a RQ-4A Global Hawk provided U.S. commanders with a kaleidoscopic view of the Iraqi battlefield. Lower down, at 15,000-25,000 feet, flew RQ-1B Predators, some of them armed with Hellfire antitank missiles. (Both Global Hawks and Predators can stay on station for more than 24 hours at a stretch.) Beneath them, buzzing just above the battlefield, were smaller, tactical UAVS, such as the army’s Hunter and the marines’ Dragon Eye, which resembles a model airplane. Then there were all the manned surveillance airplanes: the high-flying U-2, with its synthetic aperture radar; the e-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), which uses ground-mapping radar to monitor the battlefield; the E-3 AWACS, which coordinates air operations; and the RC-135 Rivet Joint, which intercepts enemy communications. All the information they provide is complemented by reports from ground units, which are equipped with GPS, satellite telephones, and wireless Internet devices that allow them to feed their coordinates to headquarters constantly.
In the first Gulf War, commanders took reports by radio and scribbled down troop positions with grease pencils on a map. Now, troop deployments are displayed on digital screens, with friendly forces shown in blue and the enemy in red. In the most advanced U.S. division, the Fourth ID, this wireless Internet system, known as Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below, is installed on nearly every vehicle. But even units such as the Third ID, which have not yet received Force XXI, are far more networked than their predecessors were a decade ago. This advancement cuts down, even if it does not eliminate, “friendly fire” accidents and gives U.S. commanders much better knowledge of the battlefield than their enemies possess. To give an indication of how blinded the Iraqis were, at one point an Iraqi major general tried to escape Baghdad—and drove straight into a marine checkpoint that he did not know was there. He was killed in a hail of gunfire.
Once enemy forces are located, either through eyes in the sky or boots on the ground, they can be hit faster than ever before. Coordination among the services has improved even since Afghanistan, when the army and the air force traded recriminations about failures of close air support during Operation Anaconda in March 2002. And it is vastly better than it was during the first Gulf War, when three days could elapse between identifying and hitting a target. Then, air tasking orders had to be flown to aircraft carriers. Now those interactions are performed via high-speed satellite and radio relays. In one notable instance, only 45 minutes elapsed on April 7 between the time an intelligence asset detected Saddam meeting with top commanders in Baghdad and the time a B-1B bomber dropped four 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs on the restaurant.
The precision of U.S. airpower is by now well known and almost taken for granted, but it continues to improve. In the first Gulf War only 9 percent of munitions were precision-guided. In the most recent conflict, that figure soared to 70 percent. Much of this increase was due to the deployment in the late 1990s of Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMS), a cheap ($20,000) kit that can turn dumb bombs into satellite-guided smart bombs. Aside from their price tag, JDAMS enjoy other important advantages over the laser-guided smart bombs used in the first Gulf War: They can operate in all weather conditions and at all altitudes. The use of JDAMS has made it possible to turn even high-flying bombers such as the B-1, B-2, and B-52 into close air support platforms. Previously, they would have been judged too imprecise for use close to friendly troops or in urban areas. No longer.
Paradoxically, increasing precision makes U.S. firepower both more effective and less destructive. Because U.S. bombs can hit within a meter or two of their aim point, they can carry a lighter load of explosives. U.S. war planners tried hard to minimize collateral damage by employing the smallest possible munitions to get the job done, on occasion going so far as to drop bombs filled with nothing but concrete. Saddam’s regime sought to take advantage of U.S. sensitivities by locating military installations among schools, hospitals, and mosques. But even with such dire provocations, U.S. forces still took great care to spare civilians. The U.S. air campaign never deliberately targeted water and power facilities in Baghdad, as had happened during the first Gulf War. (Electrical power failed anyway on April 4 for reasons that remain mysterious.) Ground forces also did their best to avoid killing civilians, even though Saddam’s thugs used human shields in blatant violation of the laws of war. Even though U.S. Army doctrine favors nighttime operations, the 101st Airborne Division operated mainly during the daytime—because, as one of its brigade commanders put it, “You can much more easily discern civilians during the daytime.” No one knows how many civilians were killed in the second Gulf War, but even Saddam’s regime, which had an obvious interest in exaggerating the figures, claimed the total was no more than 1,254 as of April 3—a remarkably low number considering the savagery of the fighting.
A large part of the reason why U.S. forces wanted to limit civilian casualties was that they were fighting a battle for hearts and minds—primarily in Iraq but also in the rest of the world. As part of this campaign, a massive propaganda blitz preceded the start of ground operations. U.S. forces used leaflets, radio broadcasts, faxes, e-mails, and other means to urge Iraqi troops not to fight. This campaign did not prevent all resistance, obviously, but it contributed to the decision of most regular army units to stay out of the fray.
Saddam waged his own psychological operations campaign. In an attempt to rally international public opinion against the war and to keep his own people fighting, his TV station broadcast nonstop pictures of U.S. prisoners of war and of Iraqi civilians supposedly killed by coalition air strikes. U.S. forces were surprisingly slow to target Iraqi TV transmitters, and even when a Predator took out a satellite dish with its Hellfire missile on March 25, the Baathists managed to keep broadcasting for a time with redundant systems. Gradually, however, Iraqi propaganda became too far divorced from reality to be effective. Information Minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf became a global joke as he kept proclaiming that coalition troops were nowhere near Baghdad—even as they were just a few miles away.
The United States waged a much smarter information war, the centerpiece of which was the program of “embedding” reporters among coalition units. This move succeeded in bridging the chasm of distrust between the media and the military. Indeed, before long reporters were referring to U.S. forces as “we” rather than “they” (“Lester, we’re moving out now …”). The embedded reporters presented a convincing picture of the professionalism, heroism, and restraint of U.S. and British soldiers. This may not have won over the Arab world, where the media focused almost exclusively on alleged American atrocities, but it did help to sway many Westerners who had been skeptical of the war. As the war’s success became evident, support surged in public opinion polls across Europe, America, Australia, and Canada.
Psychological operations are the responsibility of the Special Operations Command. The commandos also handled a number of other missions, from securing western Iraq, to leading Kurdish resistance in the north, to hunting down leadership targets in Baghdad, contributing greatly to the final outcome. In the first Gulf War, Schwarzkopf was wary of the “snake eaters” and used them sparingly. In the second Gulf War, Franks made better use of them, and they delivered outstanding results as “force multipliers.”
Although special operations forces are the best of the best, U.S. troops as a whole displayed remarkable skills in Iraq. They were able to fight effectively for long stretches at a time, react quickly to events, and avoid most of the traps the Iraqis had laid for them. The little-heralded logisticians deserve special praise for keeping so many fast-moving troops so well supplied.
Rumsfeld and Franks tried to sell the story that everything went “according to plan.” It did not, but the true genius of U.S. forces was their ability to improvise on the spot rather than stick to a rigid blueprint. The troops’ fighting edge, honed by realistic training programs, and nonstop overseas operations since the end of the Cold War, allowed coalition forces to fully leverage the benefits of superior technology.
Fighting the Next War
What lessons does the second Gulf War offer about the future shape of the U.S. military? Although the increased potency of airpower was clearly on display—it took six weeks to destroy the Republican Guard in 1991 and just a week this time around—the air force still has not realized the dreams of Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, and other early advocates of airpower, who claimed that aerial bombardment could win wars by itself. NATO tried that approach in Kosovo in 1999, and it was not stunningly successful: 11 weeks of bombing left most of the Serbian army intact. Slobodan Milosevic eventually sued for peace, in large part because he was abandoned by Russia and feared that he might face a ground invasion, but it is doubtful that he would have capitulated if the allied goal had been to liberate the entire country rather than just one province. Four days of air raids against Iraq in December 1988—Operation Desert Fox—achieved even less. Nor did Saddam’s regime crumble during the first few days of the more recent bombing of Baghdad; he was neither shocked nor awed by the initial onslaught. The problem is that airpower’s edge can be blunted by dispersing and concealing defensive forces; it takes ground forces to root out hidden troops. Airpower by itself is also incapable of preventing Scud launchings or oil-field destruction, both of which were precluded in the second Gulf War through early ground action by conventional and commando forces.
But if the new American way of war cannot obviate the need for “ground pounders,” it can make them more lethal, thereby reducing the need for numbers. As the conflict in Iraq repeatedly demonstrated, a good deal of the firepower that once could be delivered only by tanks and howitzers can now come from the air.
This could leave the future of armored forces in some doubt. It should not. The heavy units proved their worth in Iraq. There was no replay of Black Hawk Down largely because U.S. forces fighting in Iraqi cities had armor, and those who fought in Mogadishu in 1993 did not. Having these armored beasts at their disposal allowed U.S. forces in Iraq to advance at a fast clip, with great confidence that they could handle anything thrown their way. Only three Abrams tanks were disabled, and all their crew members survived.
The problem with armored forces is that they are hard to deploy and hard to supply. (The Abrams tank weighs 70 tons and gets half a mile per gallon of fuel.) The experience of the Fourth ID, which never got into the fight, shows just how formidable these challenges can be. Army old-timers who argued for more heavy forces ignored the difficulties of funneling them through Kuwait’s single port and keeping them supplied over hundreds of miles. To address this problem, the army is equipping six brigades with the Stryker, a wheeled fighting vehicle that is much lighter, and hence more easily deployable, than an Abrams tank. But the lightness comes with a price: the Stryker’s armor cannot stop anything heavier than a .50 caliber bullet. The Stryker should be fine for peacekeeping, but for high-intensity combat the army needs to hold on to its armored forces, though possibly not as many as it currently deploys.
It may make sense to transform some heavy armored units into lighter, more deployable formations. It makes no sense to reduce the size of the army as whole, an idea that Rumsfeld once toyed with. The army has already shrunk from 18 active-duty divisions in 1990 to 10 today—a force that is not adequate for all its responsibilities, which include deployments in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sinai, South Korea, and now Iraq. The army is overstretched and having to lean more heavily on the reserves and the National Guard for vital functions such as policing and civil affairs. These part-time soldiers are not happy about becoming full-timers. The marines should pick up some of the slack by shouldering occupation duties in Iraq and elsewhere. But the active-duty army still needs to be increased in size. Airpower, no matter how awesome, cannot police newly liberated countries—or build democratic governments.
The army needs to tackle the task of “imperial” policing—not a popular duty, but one that is as vital to safeguarding U.S. interests in the long run as are the more conventional war-fighting skills on display during the second Gulf War. The Army War College’s decision to shut down its Peacekeeping Institute is not a good sign; it means that the army still wants to avoid focusing on noncombat missions. The army brass should realize that battlefield victories in places like Afghanistan and Iraq can easily be squandered if they do not do enough to win the peace.
The air force has taken a starring role in recent years primarily through bombing missions in support of ground forces. This has been a bit of culture shock for a service that has traditionally favored either air-to-air engagements or “strategic” bombing. “Tactical” bombing is derided as “tank plinking.” This is an old story going all the way back to World War II, when the only way that Eisenhower could be sure of getting adequate air support for D-Day was to gain operational control of the tactical air forces; left to their own devices, air force generals would have allocated all their aircraft for bombing German cities. The air force has done a great deal to overcome this mindset in recent years, but traces of it still linger.
The air force has only 60 B-1B bombers (and only 36 of them are combat-ready) and 21 B-2 bombers (16 combat-ready), forcing it to continue relying on 76 aging B-52HS (44 combat-ready) and on short-range, low-capacity fighter/bombers such as the F-15 and the F-16. The last B-52 was built in 1962, and they are scheduled to stay in service past 2040. Yet the air force has no immediate plans to acquire more bombers, and it is anxious to retire the slow-flying A-10 Warthog, which is designed expressly for ground support and which proved its worth again in Iraq. Its big acquisitions projects are the F/A-22 Raptor and, in conjunction with the navy and the marines, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—both short-range aircraft with limited bomb capacity, which makes them dependent on forward bases that may not always be available. Building one new fighter makes sense, but two seems excessive, given that in Iraq, as in just about every conflict since Vietnam, the air force’s mission was ground attack.
Congress should repeal the absurd law that prevents the army, with some minor exceptions, from fielding any fixed-wing aviation of its own. If the air force does not want the A-10, let the army take it over to supplement its helicopters, the vulnerability of which to ground fire and plain old mechanical malfunctions was once again demonstrated in Iraq.
Just as the air force is slowly weaning itself from the excitement of air-to-air engagements, so the navy is learning to live in a world in which ship-to-ship battles are increasingly rare. Like that of the air force, the primary function of the navy these days is support of ground operations. Roughly half the coalition aircraft in the second Gulf War came from five navy carriers positioned in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Yet the navy’s most capable ground-attack aircraft, the A-6 Intruder, which delivered more ordnance during Vietnam than the B-52, was mothballed after the first Gulf War. The navy is forced to rely on F-14s and F-18s, which have short ranges and limited bomb capacity. The navy, too, needs to concentrate more on ground support—a mission that marine aviators, who also operate off carriers, specialize in.
These are only a few examples of how the military must continue the transformation process after the second Gulf War. More surveillance platforms, such as the JSTARS and the Global Hawk, are needed, as well as more bandwidth to allow all these systems to communicate with one another. U.S. forces used 30 times more bandwidth in Operation Iraqi Freedom than in Desert Storm, and the need for speed will only keep growing. Satisfying this need, and many others, will be expensive. Even though the defense budget is starting to grow again, it is still inadequate to address all of the military’s deficiencies after the procurement holiday of the 1990s. A transformational military will actually cost more than the old force, but the result will be worth it, since it will allow the U.S. military to continue winning wars at a small cost in lives.
Beyond purely technical considerations, there are also important personnel issues. The services have made great strides in working together, but they need to do more to make their systems and mindsets interoperable. The military, which often succumbs to excessive caution in peacetime, also needs to encourage the spirit of innovation and audacity on display on the Iraqi battlefield. These are both high priorities for Rumsfeld, who is pushing an ambitious package of personnel reforms that is sure to be resisted by the Pentagon bureaucracy.
Transformation is by no means finished—nor will it ever be. It is an ongoing process. But the victory in Iraq shows that the military is making impressive progress toward making the American way of war both more effective and more humane.