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February 16, 2003

Marking The Fall Of The

Marking The Fall Of The Sparrow

It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise to anyone that the Iraqi plan of battle described in the New York Times depends on delaying the advance of American forces towards Baghdad, then forcing ground troops into an urban combat situation once the city has been reached. "House to house" fighting has been a theme in the media for months, and occasionally CNN, Fox of one of their ilk will broadcast pictures of American troops charging into a plywood house, training for just such a scenario.

I bet Saddam gets a little glow in the cockles of his heart when he sees those stories. I bet Hitler did too, every time he read an intelligence report on the forces under General Patton, training for the invasion of Calais.

Those pictures are a lie. Combat in the desert is like combat at sea. You want to engage enemy forces, not occupy a patch of ocean, or desert. Yes, we need to occupy Iraq cities eventually, but there's no reason to do so so at the beginning of the war, as U.S.S. Clueless has pointed out. Oil fields, dams and bridges, yes. Cities, no.

Saddam's plan, at least the one described, is built upon an incorrect assumption of U.S. strategy, and strange as it may seem, an underestimation of American military power, in that he expects to be able to move significant numbers of troops around, as Iraq did during the month of bombing that proceeded the Allied ground invasion in 1991.

Many of the Republican Guard forces are now dispersed, a move that is intended to help them survive the airstrikes that would open the allied campaign. But as allied ground forces approach Baghdad, the Iraqis are expected to rush to fighting positions that have already been stocked with ammunition and supplies.

That's just stupid. In this war, every Iraqi highway is going to be a potential Highway of Death, from the very beginning of the war.

I also don't believe anyone thinks there's going to be a month long bombing campaign. A week or two of airstrikes followed by a ground attacks seems to be the most common assumption. The problem with such a scenario is that it's 1991 all over again, just faster. Most of the forecasters in the punditocracy and the blogosphere have accepted that the war is going to unfold in a manner similar to Desert Storm. The Iraqi plan of battle, at least the one in the NYT, also assumes that the United States will fight the previous war. In fact, the whole of their plan depends on it.

It's a classic mistake, one with its own cliche. Generals are always prepared to fight the last war. Its most famous embodiment is the Maginot line, built by the French after World War I, in the expectation that the next war would be one of static trench warfare as well.

We're not going to re-fight the 1991 war. If we do, then heads should roll, starting with Don Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks. I'm not positive what the initial phase of the war is going to look like, though I have some ideas about it, but what I do know is that it will be as shocking a surprise to the world as the first phase of the 1991 war was. Only after the battle has begun will people realize that the Iraqi leadership were only the physical targets of a shock and awe campaign. The offensive will also have political targets, among them recalcitrant allies, the anti-war movement, and the American public.

Most of you probably have some memories of Desert Storm; I doubt that there are many early teen readers or younger among the Hraka audience. If there are, feel free to skip ahead, and turn down that awful noise you call music. Now, for the rest. Do you remember the technological hard-on that war gave the American public? Do you remember the sheer sense of awe you had when Brent Sadler of CNN reported watching a cruise missile flying through downtown Baghdad? The technological theme of that war was so strong that it was being called the Nintendo war less than a month afterwards.

Now, how many of you would still choose to play games on a 1991 Nintendo? How many of you would still use a 1991 computer?

Now, would you use 1991 battle plans? Saddam is hoping Tommy Franks will.

If we do fight the previous war, then the Iraqi plan is probably the best one Saddam and his generals could come up with under the circumstances. It wouldn't matter in the long run, because we can beat them militarily no matter what their plans are. We have too much of an edge in weapons, men and material. Saddam's plan is to make it through the opening phase of the war, then hope that we lose the will to finish the job in the face of televised images of Iraqi civilian distress and suffering. In Saddam's mind, In order for him to win, he's got to make the war look like a quagmire for the U.S. Letting the war unfold in accordance with those plans, even if we think they can't keep us from victory, would be the height of arrogance and stupidity.

Planning for a re-fight of the 1991 war might make sense, if the technology we used at that time had not changed much in the interim. Past tactics retain their authority when technological change is slow, but that pace has been anything but slow in the 12 years since Desert Storm. Here's one example: Satellite imagery.

In 1991 the best satellite imagery could resolve details on the earth's surface that were 10 meters or larger, things about the size of your house. Color resolution could only pick out something about twice that size. Now civilian color imagery can resolve individual cars. Military imaging is always ahead of civilian. What do you suppose military satellites can see? What do you suppose they've been doing for the past few months, if not years?

They've been making maps of Iraq. And we're using things other than satellites to survey the battlefield. There's also Predators, Global Hawks, aircraft, passive sensors, and special forces and probably a couple of other things I've forgotten. We know more about the layout of the Iraqi countryside than anyone since God.

Not that this will prevent mistakes from happening, or casualties from being incurred. There'll be more than one incident of friendly fire hitting our troops, and more than one instance of civilians dying. Technology can't prevent mistakes, and it can't prevent deaths. But it can allay them, reduce them.

At this point, Iraq is the best mapped area on the planet, and there's no reason to think our military map of that country can't be updated in almost real time. I wouldn't be surprised if Iraq territories of specific interest have been overlain with a computerized one foot by one foot grid, one that is automatically checked for changes once or twice a day. If Saddam has buried anything in the last six months, we know where it is, and we'll know when Iraqi troops move towards that location.

I don't think they'll make it all the way, once they get the order to move. If American forces wage the kind of war I think we're planning, then they won't ever even get the order to move. If there's a template for the second Iraqi war, it's probably Panama rather than the first Iraqi war. There are major similarities, in that we'll have control of the skies from essentially the outset of hostilities, and we face a force that is on the whole weak, but possesses some more potent elements. Smart bombs and and cruise missiles will be part of the attack, but so will paratroops, tanks, marines, mechanized infantry and special forces. Everything is going to happen at once, as our combined forces attack simultaneously, from Turkey, Kuwait, the Kurdish enclave, and possibly even Israel or Jordan. We'll have troops attacking from very surprising places, in very surprising places, once the balloon goes up.

Whether it is successful or not, our plan is to end the war in a matter of hours, not days. Don't be surprised if you wake up one day and the major fire fights are already over. Do be surprised if you have to watch combat footage for two weeks on the evening news. Be surprised, and be worried. No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy, but two weeks of hostilities will indicate that ours was seriously out of whack.

Update: One Hand Clapping fleshes out the course of the campaign.

Posted by Bigwig at February 16, 2003 04:01 PM | TrackBack
Postscript:
First time visitor to House Hraka? Wondering if everything we produce could possibly be as brilliant/stupid/evil/pedantic/insipid/inspired as the post you just read? Check out the Hraka Essentials, the (mostly) reader-selected guide to Hraka's best posts, and decide for yourself.
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