View Full Version : Experts: War winnable, but no battle plan is foolproof

03-14-03, 06:25 AM
March 13, 2003

Experts: War winnable, but no battle plan is foolproof

By Tom Squitieri
USA Today

No military analyst believes that the United States would lose a war with Iraq. But there are quite a few — both inside and outside the Pentagon — who say there is a real possibility for things to go wrong despite the overwhelming U.S. superiority in weapons, training and technology.
“No plan survives contact with an enemy, no matter how positive or optimistic you can be about a conflict,” says Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank in Washington, D.C.

The war is eminently winnable. But analysts warn of a variety of potential problems, from chemical or biological warfare to a situation in which high-tech U.S. tanks bog down in the marshes around Baghdad. The problems aren’t highlighted in the war scenarios leaked from the Pentagon, but strategists have worked them over nonetheless.

“There is a nearly 100 percent probability that actual combat will not neatly conform to any scenario developed before the war,” says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Many expert arguments over how to structure given (war) scenarios are largely irrelevant.”

The concern about possible setbacks to a U.S.-led military strike comes as the United States and Britain assemble a force of about 270,000 for an invasion that looks likely to begin by late March or early April.

The worry goes all the way to the top. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld keeps a typewritten list of what he calls “very unpleasant” things that could go wrong, topped by concerns about chemical and biological weapons, house-to-house fighting in Baghdad and civil war in a post-Saddam Iraq.

“There are any number of things that can go wrong,” Rumsfeld told the PBS “NewsHour.” “There are also a number of things that can go right, and what one has to do is to look at them all with a cold eye.”

Some steps already have been taken to respond to setbacks, such as creating an air evacuation plan to Germany for troops exposed to chemical or biological weapons in case nearby Persian Gulf nations refuse to accept them.

One of the unknowns facing military strategists is what Saddam will do when he reaches the “cross-over point,” the moment he realizes that United Nations weapons inspections are about to end and that an invasion is imminent. At that point it will be enormously tempting for him to strike first, when opposing forces are massing and are most vulnerable.

Saddam did not do that during the long buildup before the 1991 Gulf War, in part out of the belief that the U.S.-led attack could be forestalled by negotiations. He would not be under any such illusions this time, military experts say. Planners fear that once Saddam senses an attack is about to begin, he will start a scorched-earth campaign to destroy Iraq’s oil fields and bridges, actions that could force U.S. commanders to move sooner than planned.

“When he does start blowing up infrastructure, we’ve got to move right away,” says Benjamin Works, executive director of the Strategic Issues Research Institute, a defense think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

A good part of the unease about setbacks comes from some senior officers’ concerns that not enough troops are being deployed — some planners wanted as many as 400,000 — and that there is too much micromanaging by Rumsfeld, according to military personnel who insist on not being identified. Rumsfeld has demanded a smaller force than some advisers advocate, and military officials have complained about his overriding their recommendations.

There are also concerns that the U.S. military, whose technology and training make it the most dominant armed force on the planet, could become overconfident. The last time the U.S. military went up against a nation considered a pushover was in 1999, when U.S. forces intervened to try to stop Serbs from killing ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Yugoslavia. Though they were badly outgunned and vulnerable to U.S. air power, the Serbs used a variety of tactics to hide targets from U.S. aircraft, from burning smudge pots to create plumes of smoke to deploying fake tanks and other decoys. The Serbs also managed to shoot down an F-117 Stealth fighter in that conflict and an F-16 over Bosnia in 1995 and they successfully jammed U.S. military communications.

Shooting down the sophisticated F-117 was a point of Serb pride and a U.S. embarrassment. A popular postcard Serbs circulated afterward showed the burning Stealth fighter with the derisive caption: “Sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible.” The U.S. military wrote off the downing of the F-117 as a lucky shot, but the incident underscored the danger of being overconfident.

Lessons from Serbs

The Iraqis hope to replicate the Serbs’ success: Senior Air Force officials say the Iraqis have met with the Serbs to learn how their air defenses fought U.S. warplanes.

One of the concerns about a war with Iraq comes from U.S. planners’ new tactic of having troops and armor advance as fast as possible with little regard to supply and reinforcement lines. That is designed to take advantage of developments in armor and communications that will permit the United States to attack Iraqi forces from many directions with little warning. The downside is that tanks and other armor could move so fast they would wind up stuck on the banks of the Euphrates River and in the marshes around Baghdad, waiting for engineers to construct sturdy roads and replace bridges destroyed by the Iraqis.

Here is a worrisome scenario outlined by several strategists, including some at the Pentagon: The armor gets slowed crossing the Euphrates on the way into Baghdad. The Iraqis lob chemical shells into the gridlock, and they manage to jam the electronic communications systems in the Abrams tanks and the Bradley fighting vehicles — perhaps by a strategy as simple as broadcasting noise on all available frequencies. Suddenly, the U.S. vehicles find themselves out of communication with each other and unsure of where their foes are.

The Iraqi attacks create confusion. With little fuel, the armor cannot move far. Soon, the tanks’ internal oxygen systems are exhausted, forcing crews to breathe outside air, which makes them vulnerable to Iraqi chemical weapons. Ground troops begin to withdraw, and the tanks must be abandoned.

There are other problems Pentagon planners worry the Iraqis could create:

• Destroying crucial dams. Iraqis could blow up dams to flood areas around Baghdad, the northern city of Mosul, and the marshes around Basra in the south. This would slow a direct, quick punch against Baghdad and other cities. It would also complicate postwar recovery efforts by wiping out areas needed to grow food.

• Destroying one dam on the Tigris River north of Mosul — the 35th largest dam in the world in terms of the water behind it — would unleash 9.5 billion gallons of water. That would flood northern roads U.S. forces need for an assault from Turkey. Rupturing two dams north of Baghdad on the Tigris would flood the city and the agricultural area around the capital. Destroying other dams south and west of Baghdad would flood the marsh regions and Basra, complicating the assault from Kuwait.

To cope with this tactic, extra Marine amphibious units are being deployed in the region. Their equipment and training permit them to carry the fight to the enemy regardless of water barriers.

• Setting oil wells on fire. The Iraqis set oil wells ablaze in Kuwait in 1991. Pentagon planners say they believe that Saddam is ready to take the same step in Iraq, but this time he could also place biological agents in the oil fields. That would turn burning wells into chemical or biological weapons.

• Interfering with communications and targeting devices. Iraqi forces can easily obtain jamming equipment that could block or confuse radar, radios and the Global Positioning System units allied forces would use to navigate and target weapons.. Military experts say the Iraqis have the technical capability to conduct the jamming, but they are unsure whether the Iraqi forces have the creativity to do it, as the Serbs did.

Besides jamming communications by filling the airwaves, Iraqis could confuse radar by adding spurious signals to a radar system’s returns. That can make the radar think there are more, or fewer, targets in an area.


03-14-03, 06:26 AM
It would also be possible to infect military computers with computer viruses and worms, but experts again say the Iraqis might not know how to do the necessary hacking. Iraq has also tried to develop an electromagnetic pulse weapon that could fry the computer and electronic networks in U.S. weapons, experts say.

• Using weapons of mass destruction. Strategists presume Saddam does not have nuclear bombs, but they believe he does have chemical and biological weapons. “The use of either of those would slow an infantry advance and probably slow an armor advance,” says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

The Pentagon says no matter how well troops have been trained in the use of protective suits, there would inevitably be gruesome deaths if Saddam used chemical weapons. Depending on how many died and how many times it happened, that could be a huge psychological setback for soldiers and for Americans back home.

Adding to the problem: Saudi and Kuwaiti officials have hinted they would refuse to let contaminated personnel and vehicles back into their countries.

• Fighting between the Turks and the Kurds in northern Iraq. Turkish troops have waged a 15-year struggle in and near northern Iraq to contain Kurdish separatists, some of whom want to create an independent Kurdish nation that would include parts of Turkey and Iraq. The Turks have begun to move more troops to the Turkey-Iraq border to prevent Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq from infiltrating into Turkey during a war. That has angered Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq.

U.S. forces are waiting for permission to launch attacks from Turkey. Even if they don’t get a green light from that country, they will go into northern Iraq, most likely by airlift. In either case, fighting between Turks and Kurds would complicate the U.S. drive to Baghdad and the reinforcement and resupply of troops by requiring the U.S. soldiers to try to keep the two sides apart. It would also give regional Saddam loyalists the chance to harass distracted U.S. forces.

That would delay efforts to secure the northern oil wells, rout the local pockets of Saddam supporters and stamp out a small group of al-Qaida supporters in the northeast.

• Launching Scud missiles against Israel, possibly with chemical or biological warheads. Israeli retaliation could recast the war as the Arabs against Israel. If Iraq cannot launch Scuds, it may try to provoke Israel by infiltrating terrorist bombers with chemical or biological weapons.

Among other things, an Israeli entry into the fighting would most likely close off Jordan and Saudi Arabia as areas from which U.S. forces could operate.

• Urban warfare. A street-by-street battle would slow U.S. troops and drive up casualties. That would create what one military analyst warned could become a “Mesopotamian Stalingrad” — referring to the World War II battle in which Soviet defenders fought heavily armed German invaders to a stalemate in the streets of Stalingrad and turned the course of the war. One factor working in the favor of U.S. troops is that Baghdad’s relatively low-rise buildings make it an open urban landscape. That makes it easier for allied forces to use helicopters to protect ground troops and flush out Iraqi defenders.

Fighters in civilian clothing

Cordesman says Iraqis are building defensive structures to heavily fortify Baghdad and Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, an indication that the Iraqi leader plans to make a stand in his cities.

The Pentagon says it believes reports that Iraqi forces have bought U.S. and British uniforms and plan to use them to confuse allied forces. Even more worrisome, Cordesman says, there are signs that some elements of the elite Republican Guard are training to fight in civilian dress, and that Iraq will deliberately use fighters in civilian clothes to make a stand in the streets of Baghdad and Tikrit.

At a time when allied forces will want to be especially careful to avoid killing civilians so as not to alienate opinion in Arab states and around the world, that could prove a huge headache. “The U.S. and British may find it impossible to distinguish combatants from civilians,” Cordesman says.