Monday, December 2, 2013

Desert Storm: the View from inside a Tank

The first Gulf War, as Operation Desert Storm is sometimes called, presents the historian with a good object for study, because it was limited in both time and space, allowing the student to capture a comprehensive overview of the conflict. By comparison, a scholar might study WWII for years, only to realize how much more he has yet to learn about it.

There was a clear and defined buildup to the war. Planners and strategists had access to reliable intelligence, knew the terrain, and measured their resources carefully. Historians Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh write:

The Vietnam War had as profound an influence on American calculations as the war with Iran had on Iraq. Key actors in the American political process were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s: the administration was resolved not to get trapped in an unwinnable war; the military would not allow civilians to impose artificial restrictions that would deny them the possibility of a decisive victory; Congress refused to be railroaded into giving the executive carte blanche to wage war; and the diplomats did not wish to find themselves supporting a military campaign in isolation from natural allies.

But there was more to the Desert Storm strategy than merely working to avoid "another Vietnam," a phrase which was common in public discussions of the conflict. As the Foreign Service's Sol Schindler writes,

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s strategy, crafted by a special team of planners brought in from the Pentagon was fairly simple. The Marines would attack along the coast hitting the heavily fortified Iraqi Army positions. It was thought the Republican Guard would then stream south to reinforce the troops under attack. At that point, the VII Corps under Lt. Gen. Frederick “Freddie” Franks on the left would hook round to come in on their flank and crush the Republican Guard.

Schwarzkopf was commanding a coalition of at least 35 nations. Iraq stood essentially alone, with no material or military support from any ally. The Republican Guard was the elite unit of the Iraqi army. Although the coalition was militarily far superior to the Iraqi army, Schwarzkopf and other planners did not want overconfidence to become a weakness, and so they planned as if the enemy were strong, and attempted to organize a provision for worst-case scenarios. Yet, as is almost always the case in war, once hostilities commenced, the most careful planning and strategizing can quickly dissolve in the fog of war, as something will inevitably not go according to plan. Despite the attempt to foresee every unexpected possibility, there's always one scenario for which nobody accounted. War begins, and plans start to dissolve.

Fighting began not on the ground, but in the air, as Freedman and Karsh report:

The war began at 03:00 Kuwait time on January 17. A million men (with some 32,000 women on the coalition side) faced each other across the border but, as predicted, the initial stage of the war was turned over to the air campaign. The coalition command had earlier intended to begin with a phased campaign; the sustained attacks on ground forces were to be held back for a late stage. In the event, the considerable air armada gathered by the start of the war made it possible to begin attacks on ground forces from day one. Despite the intense speculation accompanying the lapse of the United Nations deadline, effective tactical surprise was achieved. Iraqi air defenses, confused by electronic warfare, achieved little. A high sortie rate, averaging about 2000 per day, was achieved almost immediately and sustained thereafter. A strategic phase of considerable efficiency was directed against Iraq's ability to command and supply its ground forces, and to develop and produce weapons of mass destruction.

Various forms of smart bombs - munitions guided by laser, radio and radar - gave the coalition both control of the air and the ability to inflict devastating damage on the enemy's military installations on the ground. After establishing air superiority, the ground war began, as Sol Schindler writes:

When the signal for the ground war in Kuwait was given, the 2nd Squadron (the Cougars) was more than ready. The troops had trained relentlessly in the desert, were sick of desert sand in their coffee, underwear and bedding, tired of the general dullness and boredom of their surroundings and, at the risk of being politically incorrect, could be described as eager for combat. They knew that only through offensive action could the war be brought to an end and they could finally leave the desert and return home.

Armor would play a major role in this war. Covering large amounts of desert quickly meant that the infantry would be less crucial than cavalry. Both the Iraqis and the coalition forces understood this. Freedman and Karsh report that

The coalition also had good reasons not to be overawed by Iraq's military capability. The major uncertainties surrounded its readiness and ability to use chemical weapons, and the potential effects of its ballistic missile force. Although fear of an eventual Iraqi nuclear capability was one of the reasons for defeating Saddam, no one thought that such a capability was then already available. Only a limited number of Iraqi divisions were considered compe- tent, and only the elite Republican Guard had modern Soviet T-72 tanks. Nearly half of the troops were mobilized reservists who had shown a read- iness to surrender during the war with Iran when the opportunity arose. There was also evidence that Iraq's less capable and youngest troops were being put in the lightly defended forward positions. The air force had been ineffective in close air support and the pilots were judged to be poor. The chain of command was heavily centralized and unresponsive. Generals who had made their names in the war with Iran were retired, dead, or under arrest. The defensive methods developed during the war with Iran had been based on massive earthworks combined with flooding to channel any offensive onto a killing ground. The Kuwaiti border did not offer the same potential for water barriers, nor were there any natural barriers such as the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. It was also apparent that the Iraqi force on the border to the west was more thinly spread.

In later years, popular memory would confuse and conflate the two Gulf wars, but a decade and significant differences lie between them. In 1991's Operation Desert Storm, both the Israeli and Saudi governments confirmed Iraq's possession of, and willingness to use, chemical and biological weapons; Senator Donald Riegle confirmed that Iraqi used these weapons, and that coalition forces had been exposed to them. Further, coalition forces were exposed to low levels of radiation in form of depleted uranium, a material used in manufacturing armor-piercing shells. The Iraqis did not have a functioning nuclear warhead (fission) during the conflict; one of the coalition's goal was to disrupt the Iraqi weapons program which was in the process of building such warheads.

In Operation Iraqi Freedom, by contrast, which began in 2003, featured less use of chemical and biological weapons; the coalition forces moved so quickly that the Iraqis did not have time to deploy them. Coalition troops found stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons - called weapons of mass destruction or WMDs - as well facilities producing material for nuclear weapons, facilities which had been restarted after the 1991 conflict had ended.

In both conflicts, armor was central. Tanks were decisive in Operation Desert Storm, and important in early phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 1991's conflict, the superiority of the coalition forces was demonstrated in tank battle between the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment of the VII Corps and the Republican Guard. Sol Schinlder writes:

After two days the 2nd Squadron, which was leading the advance finally made contact with the Republican Guard. The conflict that ensued was overwhelmingly in favor of the Americans. One squadron (cavalry speak for a battalion) wiped out an entire mechanized brigade. The entire battle cost the Americans one fatality while they managed to kill hundreds and captured even more.

Both in terms of equipment and in terms of training, the Iraqis were outpaced by coalition forces:

The Russian-built T72 tank was mechanically reliable but inferior to the American Abrams in the guns it used and in its range finders. More important, however, the American crews were better trained, better schooled, better led and infinitely more capable, making the results of the battle logical if somewhat unbelievable. What is truly unbelievable, however, is the faith the American leadership had in the fighting abilities of the Republican Guard, which prevented them from finishing it off.

Coalition officers overestimated the Republican Guard, and did not press the attack as quickly, as far, and as powerfully as they could have. The result was that many from the Republican Guard escaped or retreated, leaving them as threats for later. To which extent this surviving remnant of Republican Guard forces contributed to the second Gulf war, over a decade later, is not clear. But had the coalition been able to neutralize more of the Republican Guard in 1991, the Iraqi army of 2003 would have been to some extent weaker.