2003 March 28 Friday
Attacks On Supply Lines Slowing War Advance
Coalition convoys are being driven back and stalled by Iraqi attacks.
Since this afternoon, the fighting has been continuous. Cobra gunships raced back and forth to the front lines, their racks full of rockets on the way out and empty on the way in. Twice this evening, American officers sounded warnings for poison gas. All through the night, the ground shook from the telltale explosions of American B-52 strikes.
All the while, for three days the convoy was still. Lashing sandstorms have not helped the advance either.
The stretch near Nasiriyah is now called the turkey shoot because vehicles driving thru it are routinely attacked.
They call it the turkey shoot, and they are the targets. Every day, Marines trying to keep critical supply lines open to forward units heading toward Baghdad run a gantlet through the strategic crossroads city of Nasiriyah -- over one bridge, up a few miles and then over another bridge. If they make it without getting shot at, they are lucky.
The attackers are dressed in civilian clothes and are strongly loyal to Saddam's regime. The Baath Party appears to be coordinating the attacks.
Colonel Saylor and other officers said that they had discovered arms caches along the route and that some of the guerrillas were traveling in Toyota pickup trucks. Most seemed to be operating in civilian clothes. The colonel added that in some towns, "it's the Baath Party headquarters, that's where they pour out of."
Lt. Col. Clarke Lethin, an operations officer, said, "There are battalions stationed throughout the country in order to intimidate. The Baath Party and those people are still in charge."
The US mistake was in assuming that the fear that the Iraqi populace had toward the Baath Party would dissolve very quickly once the coalition forces attack began in earnest. The Iraqis are definitely still strongly intimidated by the Party and by intelligence agencies of the Iraqi regime. Reports are coming out about refugees fleeing Basra being shot at by regime loyalists. Even in areas where the coalition forces are nominally in control there are still regime agents who are instilling fear in the populace. The Iraqis need to be convinced that the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein really are going down and not getting back up again.
"The biggest problem we are having is getting it out of their minds that the Baath Party is returning," McSporran said. "I've got an enormous amount of sympathy for them -- they've lived under a reign of terror for 30 years. They don't know who to trust."
Even though the decision to bypass cities on the road to Baghdad is coming in for a lot of criticism there are people in the Pentagon who maintain that this decision will be vindicated by events. The proponents of the current strategy argue that it will result in fewer civilian casualties and less damage to infrastructure. If this strategy succeeds the populace of Iraq will emerge from the war more favorably disposed toward the coalition forces than would have been the case if the coalition had brought in a much larger force and fought to capture every town and city.
More important to Pentagon and Central Command planners is reducing the strategic risk. They do not want to win the war just to lose the peace afterward.
Bringing such firepower would run the risk of flattening the country, killing civilians and convincing the Arab world the United States does indeed intend to "own" Iraq for a long time to come, according to military officials.
The criticisms now being heard from a lot of the retired generals may stem from an attachment to old orthodoxies of infantry warfare that may now be obsolesced by technological advances. The Iraqi regime has managed for longer than expected to maintain the aura of fear that the Iraqi populace feels for it. However, the regime's ability to attack convoys may seriously degrade in the days ahead because of high casualties suffered at the hands of coalition ground and air power. Also, as more Iraqi fighters who are dressed as civilians are captured and interrogated the structure of the Baathist and Saddam Fedayeen forces may become much better understood. Development of sufficient information about those forces will lead to the knowledge of how to more selectively attack and destroy the Saddam loyalists.
Update: Saddam's Fedayeen militia have been the biggest surprise in the campaign.
The paramilitary forces, while recognized by planners, have demonstrated a willingness and ability to fight that has caught the Americans off-balance. "The theory was that they might not welcome us but that they wouldn't resist us," a senior officer said today. He later added, "I hope this is what's being cast in some quarters as the dying gasp of a regime on the ropes. But I'm not so sure."
Asymmetric warfare is no fun.
"I'm getting pissed off about it, really," said one British Fusilier, a member of the famed "Desert Rats." He said, "This is getting to be peacekeeping duty, like in Bosnia and Kosovo. I came here to fight a war."
Here's the most interesting unknown to me: How many of the Iraqi fighters really want to be fighting? How many are out there because the regime is holding their families hostage? How many are fighting because they are being forced into the battlefield with guns at their heads? Also, on a related note: divide the Iraqi fighters into the willing and the unwilling. Is a larger percentage of the willing or the unwilling dying?
The willing fighters really break further down into two more categories: Those who directly go out fighting themselves and those who concentrate on forcing others to fight. My guess is that those who are willing to go out fighting themselves are dying at a much higher rate than those who are focusing on forcing others to fight. This poses a problem for the coalition forces. What the coalition forces need is intelligence that will let them pick out and capture or kill Saddam's enforcers in all the towns and cities between Kuwait and Baghdad.
The realities of combat don't change that much from century to century. It's all about one nation or group imposing its will on another nation or group. The most sure way to do that is to kill the members of the enemy nation or group in very large numbers while only losing small numbers of your own nation or group. You keep this process up until the enemy's morale breaks and they surrender or until the enemy is wiped out. This is the classic American Way of War and it always works -- as long as it is waged with massive force and relentless determination.
Other strategies that don't rely on using massive force to destroy your enemies can work, too. Selective strikes against the leadership may cause a dictatorial regime to collapse. Covert operations and popular revolts may succeed in overthrowing a government. Limited combat forces or guerrillas may be able to erode an enemy's will to fight or cause enemy collapse through long-term attrition. All of these strategies have the advantage of minimizing the combat power that must be committed against an enemy. Unfortunately, they all have the disadvantage of increasing the risk of failure.
The greatest risk to the United States in this operation is failure. That is a very low probability. However, a protracted conflict that lasts more than six months will be considered a failure. Indeed, combat that lasts more than three months may be considered a failure by our enemies. The second greatest risk to the United States is high personnel casualties. Partly this is a risk to the political strength of the Bush Administration. However, high US casualties will also encourage militant Islamists and their sympathizers throughout the world.
All war involves risk to the nation and especially to the military. However, we have to ask ourselves why the richest and most powerful nation in the world is deliberately increasing the risks to its geopolitical strategy and to its military personnel by limiting its use of ground combat power. Shock and Awe is a strategy for scaring your enemy into submission instead of beating him to a pulp. This is great if it works. Unfortunately, there are some people who just don't scare easily.
The first great problem with the current OPLAN for Iraq is that it assumes the use of limited force in a carefully controlled manner will be sufficient to break the Hussein regime's will. The planners may be right. We only began combat operations eight days ago. But what if the enemy doesn't cooperate? Hope is not a method. You have to plan for the worst case even while you hope for the best case.
The second great problem with the current OPLAN is a lack of operational and theater level reserves. CENTCOM does not have enough ground combat units and combat support units in theater to do it the "old fashioned way." They don't have enough heavy divisions and armored cavalry for sustained combat. They also don't have enough MP units and separate armor/infantry battalions to patrol the line of communications and destroy bypassed Iraqi forces. This will inevitably result in higher US personnel casualties. It also degrades the combat effectiveness of ground combat units that are available because they cannot be placed in temporary reserve to rest and refit. All of this increases the risk of the operation for no apparent gain.
The very rapid advance by the 3rd Mechanized Infantry division is an example of the speed and power of modern American heavy units. The sad thing is that the Shock and Awe strategy might well have worked if 4 or 5 heavy divisions had reached the outskirts of Baghdad within five to seven days after the war began. They would have been strong enough to rapidly destroy the Republican Guard divisions and seal off the city. One division stopped fifty miles away while the 1st Marine division slugs it out one hundred miles away is not very shocking and not very awesome.
Bottom Line lesson 1: Airpower with precision guided munitions is very useful but it is not a substitute for ground combat power in offensive operations against a determined modern military.
Bottom Line lesson 2: Don't fight wars on the cheap. When you have the combat power available, use it. If you find out you have more than you needed, that's not a problem. Finding out you don't have enough combat power IS the problem.
I think you may have omitted "Bottom Line Lesson 0: Secure the supply lines." I think somebody in the administration or at the Pentagon needs to write that one out on the chalkboard 1000 times. Maybe 10,000 times.
Isn't that like "Warfare 101" at West Point? From the Roman Road to Napoleon's "An Army moves on its stomach" to Churchill's observations regarding the military importance of the rail lines in Egypt and in India to his later strategy of convoy shipping, isn't that the most basic stuff?
Tear up a few cross roads, displace a few civilians to knock down homes and businesses too close to the highway, put up a "do not cross" line a certain distance from the highway and shoot anyone who ignores it.
When the war is over, repair the cross roads and rebuild the homes and businesses. I must be missing something important, because it all seems simple enough to me. Of course, I am not there being shot at so it's easy for me to talk.
I worry that Bush was talking the talk without walking the walk when he promised not to wage war by half-measures.
You're absolutely correct! Securing the supply lines is essential to waging sustained offensive war. A lot of the theorists advancing the ideas of the "transformation in warfare" and the "revolution in military affairs" believe that you can secure your flanks and your supply lines with air power. Gen. George Patton's experience with 3rd Army in W. Europe in WWII is often cited. Patton frequently attacked deep into German-held territory on a narrow front instead of a wide front and relied on the Army Air Corps to disrupt major German attacks on his flanks and line of communications.
Using Patton's experience as a template is great but the new strategists appear to have forgotten four things:
1) Patton always used armored cavalry regiments or divisional cavalry squadrons to patrol his open flanks. These units were strong enough to stop any German attacks in less than brigade strength and slow any attacks in division strength. They also helped to fix the German units in place and make them better targets for the Air Corps fighter-bombers. Gen. Franks was not allowed to deploy enough of these units to do the job for one deep thrust and he is trying to support two deep attacks.
2) American and British forces outnumbered German forces on the Western Front after the destruction of the German 7th Army in the Falaise Pocket. Reserve combat forces were always available to deal with any normal German penetration or holdout force. Gen. Franks' ground combat forces in Iraq were initially outnumbered approximately 10:1.
3) Patton's forces frequently ran out of gasoline and ran critically low on ammunition. The Germans rarely had sufficient reserves available to take advantage of this. The Iraqi's do, at least for now.
4) Air power is much less effective in bad weather. The Germans counter-attacked in the Battle of the Bulge under cover of bad weather and the Iraqis have been using the sandstorms and thunderstorms as cover in their attacks.
I don't think President Bush is responsible for the lack of ground combat power in theater. He appears to be an executive who tries to pick strong managers and then delegates authority to them to carry out his policies.
The real sources of the under-resourcing problem appears to be the civilians in the Secretary of Defense's office and the staff of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. News reports indicate that the Gen. Franks' original plan called for double the ground forces he has now. The original plans from Secretary Rumsfeld and JCS Chair Meyers (USAF) called for lots of air power, lots of special ops forces, lots of Iraqi indigenous forces (Kurds, Shia, INC), and one (1) reinforced heavy division. It was going to be the Afghanistan campaign on steroids.
Don Rumsfeld is a strong Secretary of Defense. I hope that he and Gen. Meyers are reassessing the need for strong ground forces in any future campaigns. This may also encourage a hard look at the size of the active duty Army and Marine Corps. They were both cut substantially at the end of the Cold War. We used to have the ability to fight two (2) major regional wars simultaneously and conduct a holding action in a third region. We don't anymore. The silver lining to this initial disappointment with a Shock and Awe strategy is going to be a new clarity about military realities in Washington.
I have to admit that my worries now appear unfounded, and it looks like Bush walked the walk.