Iraq: Heavy Forces and Decisive Warfare
The Iraq War was a stunning example of the
new paradigm of "decisive warfare," even more so than
had been the Afghanistan campaign. The Bush Administration came
into office defining this new paradigm as the ability to march on
an enemy's capital and overthrow its regime.1
The thinking behind this paradigm is often linked to the failure
of the United States to march on Baghdad in 1991, but there is also
a link back to the indecisive "limited war" doctrine which
led to failure in Vietnam. In Southeast Asia only Hanoi waged decisive
warfare by sending an army south to capture Saigon and impose a
regime change that ended the war. US attempts to bomb North Vietnam
to a negotiated settlement did not result in victory. Regimes that
cannot be persuaded to change their behavior must themselves be
changed, or else conflicts will drag on, and America is at a political
and diplomatic disadvantage in wars of attrition.
While other recent wars are remembered for
gun-camera footage of missiles flying through windows, the most
memorable images of Operation Iraqi Freedom are of American armored
columns roaring along highways, and of icons of Saddam Hussein being
dragged through the dust. While a lucky bomb hit might have decapitated
the regime, a ground offensive to seize the center of government
and break its hold on the country was the essential factor defining
The war showed the ability of fast-moving,
heavily armed troops to disrupt defenses before they could be established.
Technology played its part in a permissive environment provided
by American air supremacy. A profusion of aerial platforms detected
enemy forces in the open, attacked them in a variety of settings,
and provided close support with precision weapons. Air transports
and helicopters provided reinforcement and resupply for friendly
ground forces. Improved communications and surveillance systems
allowed Army brigade groups and Marine regimental combat teams to
operate independently like small divisions. These combined-arms
units performed in accord with many of the theories put forth about
transformation by Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki.2
The rapid advance centered on Baghdad was the real "shock and
awe" part of the campaign as it ensured that the regime was
doomed. Iraqi Republican Guard units that were initially deployed
outside Baghdad to block approach routes were so rapidly engaged
by interdiction and maneuver that they could not pull back into
the city and mount the kind of urban warfare coalition planners
had been concerned about.
This "speed kills" doctrine is not
really new, however. It predates even the theories of blitzkrieg
with which the US campaign has been compared. Two centuries ago,
Napoleon argued that to wage war "energetically and with severity"
is the only way to "make it shorter." But it takes exceptional
troops and a brilliant operational plan to actually pull it off
in any era. Napoleon also argued that God fights on the side with
the heaviest artillery. The heavy, combined-arms units of the Army
and Marines executed rapid maneuver with brilliance, and their firepower
and protection enabled them to overcome whatever resistance or counterattacks
they encountered. It was reported that Iraqi irregulars resorted
to trucks armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades
because that had worked in Somalia. But one of the central controversies
about Somalia was the lack of armor deployed with US forces. Against
the "thunder runs" of US tanks and infantry fighting vehicles,
such tactics were suicidal.
If enemy light troops proved ineffective against
American heavy units, US light troops were also not used as spearheads.
The heavy components, the 3d Infantry Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary
Force, and British 7th Armoured Brigade, were given the toughest
assignments where resistance was most likely. Lighter units from
the 101st and 82d Airborne divisions were kept to the west, where
opposition was much lighter.
The 173d Airborne Brigade, though composed
of crack troops with air support, had a rougher go of it in the
north because it lacked integral armor and adequate artillery. The
offensive there finally got moving after M1 Abrams tanks and M2
Bradley fighting vehicles from the 1st Infantry Division were flown
into captured airfields to reinforce the paratroopers two weeks
after they had made their dramatic airdrop.3
Turkish opposition had blocked the deployment of the heavy 4th Infantry
Division on the northern front.
Looking to the Future
Part of defense transformation has been the
recognized need to increase the firepower of light forces. The Army
is fielding new brigades built around the Stryker wheeled armored
infantry fighting vehicle. This 19-ton vehicle will come in a variety
of configurations including those armed with anti-tank missiles,
heavy mortars, and 105mm guns, as well as engineering, medical,
and reconnaissance variants. The Army hopes to field six Stryker
Brigade Combat Teams, each with more than 300 Strykers, by converting
light infantry and cavalry brigades currently in the force. After
the 101st Airborne Division had seized airfields in western Iraq,
Stryker brigades could have been flown in to reinforce the airborne
infantry, giving them both increased combat power and mobility.
But the first Stryker brigade will not be ready for deployment until
near the end of 2003.
The issue then will be how much airlift will
be available to move how many of the Stryker brigades. While size
and weight are critical factors in air-landing operations, there
is not much practical difference between moving a Stryker brigade
and a traditional mechanized brigade by sea. The differences between
a Stryker and an M1 or M2 within the context of the total load of
a combat brigade being moved by a convoy of ships will not affect
how soon the convoy will reach its destination. The main difference
will be in what capabilities the brigade will bring to the fight
once unloaded, and it is the mission that should determine what
capabilities are needed.
Few question the need to up-gun light units
with air-transportable armored systems that can get American ground
troops into action quickly, but without putting them at too great
a disadvantage against enemy forces that will probably contain heavy
units of tanks and artillery. The debate is whether the Army should
become a predominantly light force and scrap many of its own tanks
and artillery. Here is where those planning to base the Objective
Force on more lightly armed and armored units need to take a second
look at their simulations and wargames compared to the actual experience
of war in Iraq.
It is open to question whether the proposed
diminutive Future Combat System (FCS) could conduct the same high-paced
Iraq-style campaign in the face of a well-armed enemy with a will
to resist. The FCS will be a group of manned and unmanned ground
and airborne weapon systems weighing 20 tons or less. The size and
weight limit for the high-tech, futuristic FCS was set so that they
can be deployed via C-130 transport planes, the first of which flew
nearly 50 years ago. The Objective Force is set for fielding in
2010, with the first prototype unit equipped by 2008.4
The FCS is too often portrayed, even by proponents,
as skulking around or hiding while it waits for airpower to destroy
through attrition any opposing forces before it dares advance. For
example, a video presented by Boeing (the prime FCS contractor)
at the 23d Army Science Conference demonstrated how the FCS might
perform in combat. In the simulation, robotic sensors spot three
enemy vehicles and immediately send the information via satellite
to a naval vessel that launches missiles which destroy two of the
targets. The remaining enemy vehicle is then knocked out by an Air
Force fighter-bomber. Only with these enemy threats eliminated could
the FCS "cells" (of three vehicles each) move forward.5
It is thus difficult to envision the lightly armed and armored FCS
making "thunder runs" through enemy defenses.
There is a major conceptual flaw in this depiction
of future war common to much of the romance associated with precision
strike technology. What is presented is an ultimate form of attrition
warfare. Every enemy unit encountered is apparently to be destroyed
by some exotic means before American units are to venture forth
to carry out any type of maneuver. Indeed, there seems to be little
envisioned need to maneuver on the battlefield, only hide until
the smoke clears and then advance across the craters left by the
bombs and missiles. This attitude is more reminiscent of the World
War I notion that "the artillery conquers, the infantry occupies"
rather than of the blitzkrieg operations that broke the defensive
stalemate of modern warfare.6
Airpower and precision strike-along with tube
and rocket artillery- are vital parts of the larger ground battle
of annihilation, not a substitute for it. Airpower is needed to
help protect the flanks of rapidly advancing armored and mechanized
units, and for providing on-call fire support for their lead elements.
Indeed, the tactical mobility of airpower across the battlefield
gives it the kind of flexibility that makes it the ideal joint partner
with mechanized ground forces in maneuver warfare. The number of
kills racked up by the bombers is less important than their shock
effect in disrupting enemy deployments and slowing enemy reactions
so that friendly ground units can pin, envelop, and rout opposing
One of the constants in military history from
ancient times to the present is that the real destruction of an
army occurs when it is forced to retreat. As Napoleon said of retreats,
"the loss of life is often greater than in two battles."
And when the enemy is surrounded by rapid maneuver as well as subject
to vigorous pursuit, he can be annihilated as a fighting force.
The majority of his soldiers will end up as prisoners or deserters
rather than casualties, and the bulk of his weapons and equipment
will be abandoned rather than engaged in any shootout. The great
encirclement battles on the Eastern Front in World War II are the
ultimate examples of this approach, as was General Douglas MacArthur's
landing at Inchon in Korea and Israel's counterattack across the
Suez in 1973. The drive on Baghdad can now be added to the list,
as the bulk of the Iraqi army was bypassed and subsequently disintegrated.
As retired Major General Robert H. Scales,
Jr., has argued, "Rarely has superior firepower determined
the outcome of a war. Armies and nations have displayed remarkable
resiliency in sustaining enduring punishment wrought by bombs, artillery
and missiles...But maneuver by itself has inherent limitations.
Depending on the experience of soldiers and their leaders, the unexpected
presence of enemy forces in their rear or on their flanks, while
disconcerting, rarely leads to total collapse."7
Maneuver forces must be agile enough to exploit enemy weak points,
powerful enough to seize vital political or strategic objectives,
and robust enough to hold until follow-on forces can arrive to secure
the victory. Decisive warfare confirms the requirement that ground
forces at the tip of the spear combine speed, firepower, and endurance.
According to the Army White Paper Concepts
for the Objective Force, the future Objective Force is supposed
to be able to maneuver "from strategic distances . . . arriving
at multiple points of entry, improved and unimproved," which
are attributes of light forces. But its real mission is to "overwhelm
aggressor anti-access capabilities, and rapidly impose our will
on our opponents."8 That will require
heavy weapons. Too much emphasis on the desire for rapid deployment
may compromise the ability to actually accomplish the mission of
winning the war, especially a decisive war calling for the complete
defeat and conquest of the enemy's country. Using light forces as
the arm of decision is a trade-off of capabilities, not a "trade-on"
that combines them. Transformation should concentrate more on improving
the means of deploying robust combat units to the theater of conflict
and the battlefield than has been the case, studying the proper
expansion of fast cargo ships, prepositioned equipment, and heavy
lift aircraft to get the job done.
Keeping Our Heavy Advantage
In an interview in Defense News the day Tikrit
fell, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Richard Myers was asked if the
tank will survive transformation. After paying his respects to the
FCS, Myers replied, "Never was it said that things like the
M1 [Abrams] tanks and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles are not required.
That's never been part of the discussion."9
But in many circles, the replacement of the M1 and M2 by the FCS
has been a major part of the discussion. Indeed, the FCS is commonly
referred to "as the core building block" of the Objective
Force. The latest example of this shift in force structure is in
the Army's 2004 budget, which did not include money to upgrade the
M1s and M2s of the 3d Infantry Division and the 3d Armored Cavalry
Regiment so as not to take money away from the FCS program.
It should be remembered that the initial concept
of a lighter Army was a product of the 1990s when the focus was
more on peacekeeping. Such missions assumed operations more in line
with police actions than sustained conventional combat (which was
one of the reasons armor was not sent to Somalia). The 21st century,
however, has started with a bang. The engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan
have been fundamentally different from those in Bosnia and Haiti.
Major war is back, and due to the greater importance of large-scale
conflict to the regional and global balance of power, the Army must
be prepared to fight at the high end of the spectrum.
The dominant argument for creating a lighter
Army has been the need for rapid strategic deployment in response
to sudden crises. But the Iraq War demonstrated that it is diplomacy
that sets the timetable, not troop movements. President Bush first
identified Iraq as part of the "axis of evil" in his State
of the Union address on 29 January 2002. Baghdad's rejection of
UN weapons inspections proposals on 5 July 2002 set in motion the
events leading to the invasion of Iraq. On 8 November 2002 the UN
Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1441 establishing
a new inspection regime, which Iraq accepted five days later. Four
more months of inspections, propaganda, and coalition-building followed
before the United States gave up its attempt to obtain a second
UN resolution condemning Iraq on 14 March and issued its own ultimatum
to Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq on 16 March. Operation Iraqi Freedom
finally commenced on 19 March 2003.
The building of coalitions, the attempt to
coerce a favorable outcome without war, and the desire to conform
to international norms combine to make the much-discussed "bolt
from the blue" a rare occurrence. The most telling example
of the superior speed of military deployment compared to diplomatic
preparation was the arrival of a fleet of ships carrying the heavy
equipment of the 4th Infantry Division off the coast of Turkey well
before the process of obtaining Ankara's permission to unload had
reached its disappointing climax. Both Gulf Wars have shown a two-step
process involving military and diplomatic maneuvers. In the early
stages, American air-transportable troops, prepositioned equipment,
and Marine amphibious units are rapidly deployed to put down political
markers. This first wave is not strong enough to fight a decisive
campaign, but it does show national resolve and puts muscle behind
diplomacy. As the situation deteriorates, diplomacy shifts to building
military coalitions and securing local bases for a further deployment
of the heavy units needed to fight and win a war. Because America's
superior strength is known to its adversaries, Washington is able
to maintain the initiative and thus control the time when large-scale
military action will commence--which ought not to be until it has
the forces deployed to prevail.
The diplomatic environment can also affect
operational choices. Operation Desert Storm saw 34 days of air strikes
as part of an attrition campaign against Iraqi defenses prior to
the US ground offensive in 1991. The United States could not afford
a similar wait to launch the decisive stage of the campaign to topple
Saddam in 2003. A month of air strikes might have triggered a worldwide
political outcry, with demands for renewed negotiations, a cease-fire,
and no regime change. American and coalition forces had to advance
on Iraq's capital from the first day and move as quickly as possible
to achieve their political objective. This will have to be the model
for future campaigns. Fortunately, the Iraqis fought for Saddam
the way the Italians fought for Mussolini in 1943 rather than how
the Germans fought for Hitler in 1945 (it cost the Russians 250,000
casualties to take Berlin, a city smaller than Baghdad). American
intelligence analysts, covert operatives, and psychological warfare
specialists deserve much credit for understanding and exploiting
the enemy's fragile political environment. However, Washington cannot
always count on the enemy being so irresolute. In addition to World
War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars provide vivid examples of enemy
armies that are willing to fight tenaciously for totalitarian regimes.
The next adversary may use chemical weapons or pull its main forces
into urban areas to fight to the bitter end. To overcome such enemies
requires not only sound strategy and dynamic leadership, but the
heavy weapons to prevail in the force-on-force battles that will
determine the future of entire nations.
1. "If deterrence
fails, decisively defeat an adversary...Such a decisive defeat could
include changing the regime of an adversary state or occupation
of a foreign territory until US strategic objectives are met."
Office of the Secretary of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report
(Washington: Department of Defense, 30 September 2001), p. 13. See
also US Department of Defense, "Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz
Briefing on the Defense Planning Guidance," 16 August 2001,
in which Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz says, "We want to have
a major war capability to impose whatever terms--'win decisively,'
I guess is the terminology. It was called 'unconditional surrender'
in World War II."
2. See, for example,
Douglas A. MacGregor, Breaking the Phalanx (Westport, Conn.: Praeger,
3. "As Turkey
Casts Wary Eye on Kurdish-held Territory," The Philadelphia
Inquirer, 10 April 2003, p. A8.
4. Frank Tiboni, "U.S.
Army's Future Tank Features New Look," Defense News, 9 June
2003, p. 40. Additional information about the FCS is available at
5. Frank Tiboni, "Simulation
Shows Speed, IT Key to U.S. FCS," Defense News, 9-15 December
2002, p. 8.
6. See Jonathan M.
House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century (Lawrence:
Univ. Press of Kansas, 2001), in particular pp. 32-36.
7. Robert H. Scales,
Jr., "A Sword with Two Edges: Maneuver in 21st Century Warfare,"
in Future Warfare Anthology (rev. ed.; Carlisle, Pa.: US Army War
College, 2000), pp. 72-73.
8. US Army White Paper, Concepts
for the Objective Force, undated, http://www.objectiveforce.army.mil/pages/ObjectiveForceWhitePaper.pdf.
9. Interview with General
Richard Myers, Defense News, 14-20 April 2003, p. 46.
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