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Friday, March 28, 2003

How Is the War Faring? Some Random Observations

Remember what was said in the previous article here: all observations about the course of the Iraqi war that appear in the media, this internet site included, are speculative --- nothing less. nothing more. Additionally, the more they roam widely and engage in generalities, the more speculative they're very likely to be. That doesn't mean all speculations are the same, let alone useless. The retired military officers who appear on the TV networks are intelligent, experienced, and clearly knowledgeable, and their opinions tend to be worth more than those voiced by anchormen or most reporters, let alone partisan advocates. Even the retired officers, though, aren't privy to highly classified information that's available only to Command Central and the Pentagon and White House. Then, too, their views are likely to reflect their previous service-affiliations --- on the whole, former army officers more inclined to worry than ex-air force or ex-airborne officers that there's not sufficient armor and men on the ground for the battle of Baghdad and securing long supply lines --- and to draw on their experience in previous wars or battles that may not be fully applicable to the kind of strategy and force deployments being used by the US and UK in Iraq.

One upshot of all this instant analysis --- plus the mood-swings from over-confidence (the war's gonna be over in two or three days) to the silly and shallow doom-doom stuff --- is that certain key statistics have been overlooked. Such as that in 9 days of fighting, US forces --- 3 divisions within 50 miles of Baghdad after an historic offensive advance --- have lost exactly 20 casualties in battle. Twenty! Who would have ever foreseen that? There are, of course, more American casualties in the neighborhood of 50-55, with 30 dead and the rest POWs, and about the same number of Britons, but most of those were due to accidents, inevitable in moving so many helicopters, planes, and tanks around whatever the weather conditions --- and these haven't been all Santa Barbara style "sunny with clear skies and a light cool breeze" (the usual weather in this area 320 days a year) --- and about another 15 or so taken prisoner. Most of the 20 killed, moreover, came in the surprise attack by terrorists disguised as Iraqi regulars giving up or in a suicide car bombing. These won't easily happen again. By contrast, in the Gulf war of 1991 --- when after 6 weeks of bombing (six solid weeks, Baghdad under assault for 44 days) --- the ground offensive when it started last 5 days and counted about seven times that number killed. Another 150 or so Americans were killed when an Iraqi Scud --- which can't hit anything it aims at within a mile with any certainty and is therefore a terror weapon with no military value under international law --- managed to slam into an American barracks in Saudi Arabia.

As for the number of combatants killed so far on the Iraqi side, there have been no official figures, but one reporter in the media said the CIA had informed him that they could be upwards of 30-40,000. That may be only a rumor. What is clear is that these stats are ignored in almost all the usual media discussions, as is the fact, clarified below, that so far all the harassment of US supply lines extending over 220 miles has not impeded one supply vehicle from getting through.

 Given all this, what the buggy professor says here --- drawing on no military expertise --- is not just highly speculative, but could be quickly proved wrong.


1. Important Battles with the 3 Key Iraqi Republican Guard Divisions South of Baghdad

Among the academic specialists in military affairs worth listening to is Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, who set out a series of observations in the N.Y Times today that seem generally sound save in one respect. It concerns the Republican Guard divisions that Saddam's regime has placed south of Baghdad as the outer ring for defending the city against coalition forces. O'Hanlon rightly notes that these are vulnerable to the combined air and ground operations that have already begun against them and will likely be destroyed fairly quickly, but goes astray when he says that Saddam made a mistake in placing them there. Not so. The alternative --- moving them into the city itself --- is ruled out by the fears of Saddam and the other Baath Party leadership that the regular guards, who seem to number around 50,000 or so (there are two other divisions not directly blocking the southern route to the city), could carry out a coup. Those fears are well grounded. Saddam has repeatedly purged the Republican Guard officer corps to prevent any coups or kill off any generals and other officers suspected of less than total loyalty; in the winter of 2002 alone, somewhere between about a dozen and 18 generals were executed, the killings carried out by the smaller, more trusted Special Republican Guards and Saddam's special forces (his palace guards) that number probably around 15,000 20,000 at most. The most the Baath Party leaders could hope for is that the Republican Guards, who somehow believe that American forces didn't attack in 1991 as they retreated from the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border area northward out of fear, would fight tenaciously out of military pride and cause large numbers of American casualties in the attacking US divisions.

Whether that happens is another matter.

The Guards have fewer tanks and other armor than they did in 1991, and it is old-style Soviet equipment like T-72 tanks. These latter are markedly outgunned by US M1A1 and M1A2 tanks --- up to ranges of 2000 yards in ability to hit one another; they aren't nearly as fast either, nor do they have the same degree of armored protection. For that matter, the T-72s don't begin to approximate the later M1A1 and M1A2 tanks in target location and digitalized links to J-Stars and satellite reconnaissance overlooking the battlefield. (The M1A2 tank has a lighter, smaller, but no less powerful engine than the slightly older M1A1 engines, with less noise and no visible exhaust that can give away its location if concealed by hills, trees, dunes, or the like.) At the same time, on top of the earlier bombing that has been going on throughout the last three days during the fierce sandstorms in the south of Iraq, the Medina, Baghdad, and Hammurabi divisions will be attacked simultaneously by more bombs delivered by heavy and light bombers and A-10 Warthogs, followed by Apache-10 helicopters preceding and even accompanying the US divisions attacking them --- right now, the 3rd infantry, the 7th cavalry, and the 1st Marine Expeditionary force (the latter lightly armored), but accompanied by the 1st British armored division and hence can rely on the British Centurion tanks as well as its own air and helicopter protection. (The 101st Airborne division seems to be working with the 3rd Infantry Division near Karbala, a Shia city about 50 miles south of Baghdad).

Something else. Unless the Russians and others have cheated on a large scale, the Republican Guard divisions won't have the night-fighting goggles, let alone reconnaissance guidance systems, for heavy fighting at night. The US and British attack divisions will.


2. Will These Republican Guard Divisions Use Chemical Weapons?

Possibly, no one knows for sure . . . especially when dealing with a reckless gambler like Saddam. Still, two considerations make their use at this stage of the war doubtful: the use of chemicals in the open on battlefields is always chancy, and doubly so in trying to harm US divisions fully prepared for a chemical battlefield-environment; and to the extent Saddam still thinks he can win the war --- stalemating the US and UK forces as civilian casualties mount and the peace-movements in the world clamor for negotiations or a US-UK withdrawal, no doubt helped by Saddam's allies in the Security Council --- using gas early on in the defense of Baghdad would undermine this strategy of his. That doesn't mean gas won't be used (or biological weapons), but most likely in the city itself and when the war looks like shaping up to the destruction of Saddam's regime. At that point, he's likely to use any weapons at his disposal.


3. The Battle of Baghdad: Expect the Unexpected

Oddly, even a few retired generals called on by the media for their opinions about the forthcoming battle seem stuck in outmoded views of what urban warfare entails these days. Come to think of it, maybe not so odd after all. Recall what we said earlier: however intelligent and battle-experienced, retired officers, especially when they're in their late 50's and 60's, are going to be drawing on the lessons they learned, often on the battlefield itself, and then generalizing to the offensive against Saddam's regime in Baghdad. That seems doubtful.

The offensive will likely be new and surprising, adapted to the kinds of intelligence, reconnaissance, smart weaponry, and precise target-location that the US Command possesses, reinforced by several hundred special-op and CIA agents (along with British equivalents and trained Iraqi colleagues) who have been infiltrating into Baghdad for months now . . . and maybe even longer. What this means is that instead of a head-on assault by US and British armor starting in the suburbs and fighting their way forward block by block, often building by building --- the strategy used by both the Soviets and Anglo-Americans in attacking Germany on land in WWII --- US and British forces will be fighting mainly in small commando-size units and with special-ops all over the city, and not least in the center. They will not just be shining lasers on key targets --- which could be a concealed Special Republican Guard unit in the building across the street or a two-tank unit hiding in an underground garage down the block --- but, in certain circumstances, will be sniping and killing off the Special Republican Guard forces, those of Saddam's Palace Guards and the Secret Police, and Baath Party leaders at all levels. These special-ops and whatever Iraqi help they have, plus commando-size units, will quickly target known Iraqi military and political command posts, have them destroyed, and leave all the other Iraqi forces essentially isolated, unable to know what's happening two blocks away.

That doesn't mean there won't be some violent blood-strewn street battles, but not likely in the sense of WWII's urban fighting.

What's uncertain is what the civilian casualties will be. Like Hitler at the end of his mass-genocidal war in his bunker beneath the ruins in central Baghdad, Saddam has already made it clear that he will sacrifice the population as much as necessary in order to survive. Using the Shi-ites in the southern cities as human shields is already evidence of this, and there's no reason to think that he wouldn't sacrifice a million or more of his citizens in Baghdad if that were necessary to his survival.

Even so, keep in mind that about 40-50% of Baghdad's 5 million are Kurds and Shi-ites, living in mainly Kurdish and Shia neighborhoods, and they are very likely to rise up and fight Saddam if the alternative were to stay passive and let big battles rage near their homes and see them and their families destroyed. At the same time, probably a majority of people have moved out of Baghdad anyway, though nobody knows how many: since the start of the war, Saddam's security forces are no doubt preventing anyone from escaping.


4. Further Comments on the Battle for Baghdad

You might recall a highly informative article on the likely scenario of a Baghdad battle that appeared two days ago in the New York Times by a Dartmouth professor, Daryl Press, who's also a consultant for the Pentagon. He noted that above and beyond all the other advantages the US forces taking the city will enjoy that we just mentioned, there are geographical and other circumstances peculiar to Baghdad that don't favor the defenders the way Stalingrad or Berlin or Grozny even in Chechnya did, never mind Mogadishu in Somalia. (In Grozny, Soviet forces --- none of them elite --- were mowed down in large numbers by the defenders.)

*No tall buildings, which impede the advance of armor (tanks can't generally even get a good fix on the upper stories for their firepower).

*Wide boulevards, not narrow streets . . . save in one or two areas of the city that are not likely to be favorable to the Saddamite regime. That makes ambushes all the more difficult.

*Then too, despite urban warfare (like guerrilla warfare in jungles or mountains) nullifying many US technological advantages, our troops will have night-fighting goggles and night scopes and tiny remote controlled mobile robots that can send back information over distances as far as a 100 yards or more.

*Material advantages too such as explosives for breaking through walls and --- possibly, copying the Israelis in their seige of terrorists in Jenin where the world's media (especially the politically correct EU media) screamed large massacres, when in fact at the end 55 Palestinians were killed and 26 Israelis --- the use of earth-moving equipment to simply knock whole buildings down. On top of that, close coordination with helicopter and other forms of air power.

Nobody expects a final assault, should it come to that --- and there might be alternatives we're not aware of --- won't cause casualties both among US forces and the civilians. One way to minimize the civilian casualties and offset terrorist attacks --- suicidal or not --- is simply in each quarter of the city as you advance (or take it from within) is to use loudspeakers, with Iraqi anti-Saddamite forces doing the broadcasting, to tell the civilians to stay in their homes or cellars and to warn them that anyone out on the streets there will be treated as a potential combatant.


5. A Northern Front?

Now that airborne troops have secured the airport and landing strips in Kurdish areas, the northern front should be expanding quickly in the next few days. Reporters have already said that C-17 giant cargo planes have been landing steadily ever since the airborne operation. These planes can carry up to 3 Bradley armored vehicles, plus crews; or an M-1 Abrams tank and one Bradley (there are other armored vehicles in the US military too). How quickly Central Command judges that the forces in the north are strong enough to head directly south toward Baghdad isn't clear. It remains a secret. And the northern front probably depends on what happens not just to the 3 Republican Guard divisions south of Baghdad in the next 48 hours or so, but to the other two back-up Republican Guard divisions that constitute the Guard's full strength.


6. Wait Until the 4th Infantry Division Arrives and Is Battle Ready?

Whether an assault against Baghdad will have to wait for the arrival of the 4th Infantry Mechanized division out of Texas --- remember, the most technologically advanced in the US military --- isn't clear. The 40 ship armada that sailed up and down the Mediterranean for a month, waiting for Turkish approval to offload its armor and artillery and other supplies that never came, is heading for Kuwait and should be arriving this coming week. The men and women of the division, some 16,000 strong, are already apparently being airlifted to the region.

The original plan for the war --- which depended on getting Turkish support for sending in the 4th Infantry into Northern Iraq --- also called for the early use of the 1st Cavalry Mechanized division from Germany. It too is on the way, though how and when its armor would arrive in the region isn't something anybody's apparently discussed. Its the disappointment with the Turkish decision that has led to the potshots taken at Rumsfeld and Central Command for approving the war's start without, it's claimed, sufficient armor on the ground for the battle of Baghdad and what has turned out to be the attacks by para-military forces on extended US supply lines. Some doomsters predict that the rear's vulnerability is so great that a disaster similar to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 awaits the US and UK --- a claim that was headlined in, among other places, Le Figaro, a conservative French newspaper that's Chirac's favorite.

Call that wishful thinking, no more, no less.

For one thing, the partisan attacks on German supply lines between late June 1940 and November when German forces were turned back at the very gates of Moscow had little to do with the setback: it was the onset of winter, plus the arrival of fresh Soviet forces from beyond the Ural Mountains in the Asian areas, that stopped the German attack. Not that critics, let alone French ones, will worry much about historical details.

For another thing, the attacks so far on the US supply lines have been a nuisance, nothing more. The general in charge of securing the lines noted that the attacks so far had not stopped any delivery of vital materials: fuel, water, food, ammunition. What's more, the 3rd Infantry division discovered a huge artisian well that has more than enough ample water for the entire division for days. Then, too, a pipeline carrying fuel is being quickly built, and it was supposed to take no more than a week to reach the outermost US front lines near Karbala. (A pipeline, built without satellite reconnaisance, is essentially invulnerable to sabotage; the saboteurs can't find it in a desert area.)

All of which brings us back to the question left hanging fire a moment or two ago: will Central Command wait for the arrival of more heavy armor for the assault on Baghdad? No one can be sure, of course; but if the strategy for taking the city turns out to be what was outlined above, then the battle could be begin before the 4th Infantry or the 1st Cavalry arrive.


7. Supply Lines: How Vulnerable?

We touched on this earlier. The shift to guerrilla hit-and-run tactics in the rear areas, the supply lines running over 200 miles to the front-line forces 50 miles from Baghdad, has been a nuisance so far, amounting to sporadic gunfire and no doubt increasing the problems of getting supplies through. Up to now, though, plenty of supplies have reached the 3rd infantry and 7th cavalry units. What's at stake is something else: the psychological effect on the Iraqi population of continued fighting, even if in small units of guerrillas.

This is where the hearts-and-minds side of the war comes into play. Essentially, so it appears, the Shiites in the south have been held captive in their cities by Saddam's political commissars, operating with Fedayeen and secret police dressed in civilian clothes, preventing them from fleeing as British and US forces approaches the cities that were originally circumvented by those forces as they raced rapidly northward. Those commissars and their henchmen --- a tactic developed by the Soviets and used in WWII, right down to the KGB setting up whole KGB regiments armed with machine guns in the rear to mow down any retreating Soviet soldiers in battle --- are also operating apparently in certain regular military units of the Iraqi army and maybe, for all we know, the Republican Guard. The upshot is that fighting, however low level, continues in areas of the south that Central Command, it appears, had underestimated. We can take for granted that they must have given this matter some forethought; we can probably also grant they may have downplayed the extent to which guerrillas, para-military forces, political commissars, Fedayeen thugs, and the secret police have complicated securing fully the rear areas.

In a way, then, paradoxically, the Turks --- by rejecting the access of the 4th Infantry division to the northern front --- may have done us a favor. That's because the 4th, with its armor and personnel, could be partly diverted when its equipment is fully disembarked and the 16,000 size division is ready for action --- say, in 10-14 more days --- to further securing the rear areas. Remember, desert isn't like jungle in Vietnam or the Afghan mountain areas, and guerrilla forces have to be highly dispersed during the day to avoid aerial reconnaissance. Most likely, they would prefer operating in or near cities, taking shelter in outlying residences (not that they'll be welcomed with open hearts by the occupants). Sooner or later, then, they can be located and fleshed out or killed in open combat as they try to attack supply lines or withstand, if it comes to that, a push into a city like Basra.

This brings us back smack in the middle of the hearts-and-minds campaign, particularly the existing rules of engagement. Do those rules need to be relaxed as some military critics (and pundits) argue? It's not for the buggy prof, lacking military expertise, to say. It's enough to note that as a general thing the rules of engagement that any military starts with will be altered to suit the actual firefighting conditions soldiers find themselves in. (There's a very good film on this called Rules of Engagement, situated in the Middle East, with Samuel Jackson, a colonel who orders his men guarding the US embassy in a fictitious Arab country that's being assaulted by an armed mob to fire on them, and who is then court-marshaled by the politicos at the White House (especially the National Security adviser) for killing innocents as a means of appeasing the Arab country's government and angry population. The film, which came out a couple of years ago, has a fine supporting cast, with Tommy Lee Jones, Jackson's mentor, coming out of retirement to defend him, and Guy Pearce playing the zealous prosecutor at the Court Marshal.)

In this connection, urban warfare can minimize the dangers of guerrillas and terrorists dressed as civilians --- exactly the situation the Israel armed forces face in the West Bank and Gaza --- by various tactics, such as simply knocking buildings down, using small commando squads, and above all simply announcing that civilians should stay in their residences and not come out onto the streets as long as the fighting goes on.

All that said, remember the key thing. A war like this unfolding on a nation-size territory (California in dimensions) consists of dozens of different kinds of battles, some small and skirmishes with guerrillas at one point, others head-on armored attacks, others pin-point precise bombing of dug-in Iraqis at another point, search-and-destroy missions of Scud and other missile sites, continued bombing and degradation of the political and military leadership of the Saddamite state, mine-clearing in harbors, and on and on. The reporters embedded with the military units can give a vivid description of a slice of each (up to a point, subject to military concerns for the safety and location of the units they're with), but they can hardly come up with an overall picture and balance-sheet of the war as it's unfolding quickly.

Replies: 1 Comment

I'm positive the number of Americans killed by the Scud hitting the barracks in 91 was 28, not 150 (I don't remember how many were wounded). Where did you get 150? I believe (less positive) that U.S battle deaths for Gulf War I totaled 147 (as opposed to total deaths, which would include accidents-somewhere above 300?). I'm guessing you used 150 because you had a vague memory of the 147 figure? It's not that I memorized the figures, but I saw them somewhere in the last several days (but can't give you a link). Even if I hadn't seen them, I damn sure remember when that Scud hit the barracks and I'd have remembered the proximity of the actual number. C'mon, Prof, you should have had a vague memory of the proper order of magnitude for that number.


Thanks for the corrections. I got my original figures from this site, which mentions 148 combat deaths for American troops, then another 145 for non-combat troops --- which, for some reason, I thought was 150 and all due to the barracks attack. Obviously, that was a poor inference, based anyway on a faulty recollection. Most of the non-combatant deaths were no doubt due to accidents, like those we've seen in the current war unfolding in Iraq. The article in question was published about six months ago. Daily Kos http://www.dailykos.com/archives/000284.html

"The true cost of Gulf War I Alert reader KS pointed me to this sobering piece about veterans of the first Gulf War.

To wit, the first Gulf War was a cakewalk, right? The cost to coalition forces was the following:

213 coalition combat deaths, including 148 Americans;

145 American deaths in non-combat circumstances. Note that waging war is dangerous business, and deaths will occur even without enemy action.

467 Americans were wounded.

159,000 Gulf War vets are receiving disability payments from the government -- suffering from the still mysterious "Gulf War Syndrome". . .

Posted by Paul H @ 03/30/2003 06:17 PM PST