April 10, 2003
SAN FRANCISCO - Last February, I wrote a pre-war analysis of how the US-British invasion of Iraq would develop. My tactical and strategic predictions were pretty accurate but my timing was off. The war, I estimated would take 10-15 days: in fact, it took 21.
The Second Oil War was a brilliant and intimidating display of US military technology, now an entire generation ahead of Europe, China, and Russia, and two generations (30 years) ahead of Iraq's obsolete, run-down forces. The Iraq campaign is now being hailed by what a reader aptly terms the `Monika Lewinsky' media as `one of the greatest military campaigns in history.'
Glory and honor in war is determined by the strength, courage and skill of one's adversity. Fighting Germans, Russians, or Japanese brings glory. Blowing apart Iraq, a small nation of 17 million (deduct rebellious Kurds), without any air cover or effective air defenses, its military eviscerated by a crushing 13-year embargo, bombed daily for a decade, is not in the league of Napoleon or Frederick the Great. Repeated Mideast and Balkan wars confirmed that any attacker(the US and Israel) enjoying total air supremacy will slaughter its opponents.
Iraq was a superb test-bed for the US military's integrated technologies: deadly accurate satellite-guided bombs; bombers and strike aircraft with re-programmable war loads, waiting above battlefields for targets of opportunity; cruise missiles and Patriot anti-aircraft missiles of astounding accuracy; wide-area anti-armor weapons that destroy entire tank columns. Sensors that see through night, rain, haze, and sandstorms.
Equally important, the US military managed the extraordinarily difficult task of digitally data-linking its aircraft, armor, ships and recon units, so that commanders, both high and junior, had total situational awareness, knowing, for the first time in military history, the location of moving friendly and enemy units. For obsolete, paralyzed Iraqi forces, war against the US was like blind man fighting a prizefighter.
US forces delivered unprecedented fire power. The military again showed its unrivaled command of strategic and tactical logistics, the source of America's triumph in WWII. Most important, the Iraq war demonstrated that no nation dare challenge the US to war unless a way is found of degrading the near omnipotent power of the US Air Force. Only enemy forces operating under dense tree cover or very rough, wooded terrain can hope to lessen destruction from the air.
Interestingly, the main criticism of the Iraq campaign - aside from its dubious legality, morality, negative worldwide effect, and smell of imperialism - is being made by the US Air Force. The Army and Marines should have been in Baghdad in 10-15 days, says the US Air Force, and as this column had also predicted, except for violent sandstorms and the Army and Marine's failure to secure their lines of communications from Iraqi guerilla attacks.
Such attacks, claims the Air Force, could have been broken up had the ground troops called for close air support. They, apparently did not, preferring to use their own Apache and Cobra helicopter gunships while the Air Force was heavily bombing Baghdad. The reason: military politics. The Air Force won the 1991 Gulf Oil War; ground forces played a very minor role chasing retreating Iraqi units out of Kuwait.
This time around, the army and Marine wanted the lion's share of battle trophies without the Air Force, but got a nasty surprise: counter-attacks and delays, becoming over-extended, and short of supplies, in their rush for Baghdad.
Combat operations showed a number of important points. The Army' much vaunted, super-expensive Apache attack helicopter is simply too vulnerable to ground fire, as was found in Kosova. The US would do better to buy
the nearly indestructible Soviet-era MI-24 Hind armored gunship, aka `the flying tank.' The Army' and Marine's should-fired anti-tank weapons proved very useful. An updated, lighter-weight version of the venerable Soviet/Chinese RPG anti-tank rocket used to good effect by the Iraqis should be standard issue for US troops.
The Army's M1 Abrams heavy tank is very difficult to destroy or disable without modern 120mm tank guns and tandem-warhead heavy anti-tank weapons. The Iraqis simply could not stop US armor: the shells of their most modern tanks, 1980's era T-72's, bounced off, as did most Iraqi A/T weapons. Hence the easily accomplished US armored rush into Baghdad. The Pentagon is considering slashing heavy tank units and replacing them with lightly-armored wheeled vehicles - the new `Striker' divisions. But the heavy M1 Abrahms tank and its British equivalent proved decisive in Iraq in field combat and storming cities. Lightly armored vehicles would have been destroyed by Iraq a/t weapons and tanks. So in the next neo-colonial war against a Syria or Iran, the US better bring along its heavy tanks.
America's and Britain's professional armed forces performed brilliantly and with remarkable efficiency. Accidents and loss to friendly fire were minimal. Wars are full of accidents and disasters; this one, on the US-British side, was a benchmark of fine military management.
In conclusion, a jolly good example of what 19th-century British imperialists in Asia and Africa used to call `small wars.' Getting into Iraq, like Afghanistan, was easy. The hard part will be getting out.