One Piece At A Time – The most complex military operation since the Normandy invasion

What follows is a random collection of thoughts, ideas and comments (A Blog?). I have attempted to hammer them into a coherent essay, but like Churchill’s legendary pudding, it lacks a theme. They are some thoughts and ideas that must be said during this short prelude to war. In substance they are somewhat of a collection of rules of thumb, maxims and other observations as well as attendant comments.

Forget everything you’ve read in the media up to now. Please believe me when I say that you will never be able to separate the wheat from the chaff if you rely on reports in reputable organs like the New York Times, Washington Post or the major TV networks. You can count on one hand the number of military affairs reporters who have either: actual hands on military experience or a deep appreciation for military history. Rare is the star reporter who has a sensitive enough BS detector to pan for the nuggets of gold that leak out of the military complex. Reporters look for “stories” and rarely appreciate context. They have no idea how to apply tools of military logic or reasonableness.

Are they subject to manipulation? Not so much, or at least not deliberately, but their lack of intellectual appreciation for the art of war, renders them incapable of seeing the forest.

There are stories aplenty on offer, but do they pass the smell test? Case in point: the capabilities of the 101st Airborne Division. Since the 4th Infantry has been shut out of Turkey it became received wisdom that the 101st could assume the mission by merely helicoptering up to northern Iraq and landing in the available airfields. Has any of them bothered to calculate the distance from Kuwait to Mosul? Do they understand that air assault doctrine is one of movement over relatively short distances? Do the math. How many lifts of the division’s transport helicopters would be required to move one brigade plus supporting arms from south to north? How many fixed wing aircraft would be required to provide air defense suppression? How many C130 loads of fuel would need to be brought in from Turkey to refuel the lift helicopters for the return trip?

Could it be done? Sure. But why would we need to? In war, even the simple is difficult, so why would the battle plan include complex operations fraught with both execution and military risk? It would be simpler, and just as effective to conduct a combined parachute assault and air landing operation of one brigade of the 82d Airborne.

The battle will be won or lost before the first round goes down range

The military planning process is equal parts art and science. The first step is establishing the objective. In this case it is a given, remove Hussein from power. Next, the commander must develop a military appreciation for the enemy’s capabilities: strengths, weaknesses, likely courses of action and other facets. Identify the black holes in our intelligence and focus resources on filling those gaps. Only after the commander has a picture, refined by the application of military judgment (the art part of war) can a logical battle plan be developed.

Battle is the orchestration of complex forces to achieve a single military goal. The demands placed on higher level battle staffs are immense. All available assets must be employed to maximum effect in an integrated fashion. Attention must be paid to things like sortie rates, maintenance and sustainability over time. Attacks must be coordinated to achieve maximum effect. An artillery brigade composed of various caliber guns and missiles can do some simple math to arrive at the firing data needed to conduct a Time on Target (TOT: where all the rounds arrive at the same time). Coordinating an air attack of B2s flying from Diego Garcia, F18s flying from carriers in the Med and the Gulf, aerial jammers from Turkey, F15 Strike Eagles from Oman and cruise missiles launched from submarines in the Arabian Sea is several orders of magnitude greater.

“Shock and Awe” is one of those unfortunate buzz phrases that has leaked out of the Pentagon that means very little but implies a great deal, an empty phrase that sounds neat. We have an overwhelming advantage in combat power, but even the coalition forces do not have an embarrassment of riches. We can not strike every critical target at H Hour on G Day, nor can we assume that the focus on network centric warfare will paralyze the entire Iraqi military command structure. Instead, the prudent commander will assume that his enemy has alternative orders and structures in place. Our best hope is not that his command will collapse in the face of our assault, but that we will slow down his ability to collect information and make decisions. Is it possible that we will “shock and awe” the Iraqi forces? Sure. But in warfare you plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Military history teaches us that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. And to presume that “the plan” anticipates every enemy reaction is to forget that we are dealing with humans, not programmed automatons. Detailed planning often runs aground on the rocks of false presumption. Von Schlieffen’s brilliant envelopment of the French was predicated on strict adherence to certain assumptions about German capabilities, Belgian weaknesses and French performance. Even as the intelligence services developed information conflicting with the plan, the otherwise rational General Staff insisted on patching the weak parts together and assuming away problems of time and distance.

Military commanders and staffs learn more from failure than success. It is only through minimizing weakness, reducing friction and simplifying can a good plan be well executed. That is why I presume “shock and awe” is really a technique with limited objectives which may or may not have a “bonus effect”.

Every day we see the impact of the tyranny of distance. Thousands of soldiers and thousands of pieces of equipment are literally “in transit” to the theater of operations. It has taken months to assemble the limited forces in theater today. What should not be surprising to an informed observer is that the USMC actually has a larger number of combat battalions in theater than the Army. Why? Because the Marines are infantry forces designed for operations afloat and rapid deployment. Compare that with the Army which is limited by the availability of pre positioned equipment in theater. One division, the 3d Infantry could “fall in” on sets already in the Gulf. All else must be loaded out from places like Fort Hood (in central Texas), railed to ports, loaded on ships and sent off to another port in the region for unloading, marshaling and movement to the combat zone.

The Marines have great strategic mobility and limited tactical mobility. Army divisions are tactically mobile and strategically limited.

Historically there have been only two methods to win a war. The first is to occupy the enemy capital and the second is the destruction of the enemy army in the field. In modern times the most effective method to victory is a combination of the two. Considering the nature of Iraq, a centralized tyranny, the occupation of Baghdad is the more likely objective of military operations. Whether individual Iraqi units fight or flee is a minor consideration at the higher levels of command. The pace of operations, chained as always be our logistical tail, will need to be rapid. Most Iraqi units and cities will be bypassed in order to bring maximum ground combat power to the environs of Baghdad quickly.

The key for the ground offensive will be making our forces disappear into the blue. The one-two punch of the ground attack will be executed simultaneously. The joint UK/Marine Corps will isolate and seize the city of Basra in the south, while V Corps will advance across the desert avoiding contact with the enemy when possible to maximize the speed of the main attack toward Baghdad. It is likely that the joint UK/USMC Corps will then advance along the northern bank of the Tigris River to clear the oil fields along the Iraq-Iran border and threaten Baghdad from the south and east.

The nature of the terrain in the plains between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is such that allied forces will probably avoid any substantial commitment of forces. Drained by many rivers and swamps it is great terrain for defense and limits the mobility of allied forces. V Corps advancing along the south bank of the Euphrates will have much greater speed as the obstacles are limited.

This flies in the face of standard military practice. Normally one does not divide his forces in the face of the enemy. This opens the attacker to defeat in turn. But the Iraqi Army, though having the advantage of interior lines lacks the necessary operational and tactical mobility in the face of superior allied air power. Speed and air cover will provide sufficient security to the western (V Corps) attack force.

I don’t think you will see a lot of Afghan style “tank plinking” by Special Forces. They are a limited resource and the list of missions they could do, is endless. One area you might see it is in the vicinity of Baghdad. Iraq has supposedly organized two (or more) defense rings around the city. Like the Maginot Line, fixed defenses are a monument to man’s stupidity.

Probably within the first 48 hours of the offensive a number of spotter teams will be inserted deep into Iraq, possibly in conjunction with Iraqi insurgents. The mission will be to identify and target key positions in the Iraqi defenses. And the application of precision munitions to create weak points in the defense. We may even be bold enough to insert the forces between the inner and outer rings, allowing the teams to target the lines of communications to the outer ring and to prevent movement from one position to another. This might also enable the targeting teams to infiltrate the inner ring. This will be a high risk, but necessary application of specialized teams.

If I were the theater commander, the two immediate goals I would set are “shock and awe” as discussed above and protection of my forces from NBC attacks. To accomplish the second goal I would “smother” the enemy artillery at H Hour. Based on news reports (how accurate they are I can not say) units have been issued chemical munitions that they don’t have. My priority for intelligence up to the time we began the ground attack would be to pin down the location of every cannon and rocket unit within 50 kilometers of the front line trace. I would allocate a goodly portion of my air assets (planes and cruise missiles) to a timed attack in conjunction with MLRS batteries and attack helicopters to to suppress any unit which might have chemical weapons capability.

Concurrently I would move all of my forces at risk forward into Iraq to spoil any possible pre planned chemical weapons strikes. What this might produce is a rolling start to the campaign. Considering the time distance the aircraft conducting “shock and awe” strikes will have to cover to get into central Iraq, and assuming that Iraqi air defense radars will pick them up at some point, I would backward plan from airspace penetration for the smothering attack on enemy artillery assets. So what we might see is the air/ground attack precede the main air strikes by up to 90 minutes. Not being completely up on the capabilities of the B2/F117 it is also possible that they might be loitering over Baghdad to coordinate their first strikes with the time our main air attack appears on Iraqi radar while the southern combined attack goes in.

As you can see timing is very critical and and when the desire is maximum effect the amount of coordination needed is daunting.

Probably the area where we will see the most creativity is in organization and logistics. The division structure that has served us well for 100 years is woefully inadequate to the demands of modern warfare. For training efficiency you can’t beat single purpose divisions: airborne, air assault, mechanized, infantry. But in modern combat the division commander must have a wider range of capabilities. We can see this already in Afghanistan where the division headquarters has become an all encompassing command and control organization employing diverse units from various divisions.

We will some some unique task organized units in the campaign. The most obvious is the combined UK/USMC Corps with the British 7th Armored Brigade supplying the mailed fist for the Marines infantry attacks. Other “new” organizations we might see are mobile strike columns, a combination of aviation, mechanized and artillery assets built around the standard brigade. If V Corps can create a separate logistical system dedicated to absolute mobility of the strike brigade (combining army aviation supply and air force re-supply) I could see a method where air assault units leap into the void some 50 or 100 kilometers in advance of the strike force, establish in effect a 7-11 deep in the desert, and then the brigade advances into what is an advanced supply base. This would enable the strike brigade to cast off it’s ground lines of communications and move rapidly and unimpeded by concerns about its flanks or rear areas. The 3d Infantry needs to advance about 250 miles along the Euphrates and then seize crossings over the river to present a threat to Baghdad. If the lead column can cut its logistical tail they might be able to make this move in 4 days.

The balance of the division would follow in trail and tidy up the battlefield

Alternatively they could create a large brigade trains organization. In effect take everything they need for a week of operations. I’m not sure we have sufficient transport in theater for this option. And I’m also not sure we have enough helicopters and C130s to do the first option either. But it’s clear to me that if speed is the requirement, then some creative logistical solutions must be applied.

To summarize my thoughts, I think what we have been told by the major media is wrong. Their reports are either so general that they will always be right, or so specific but content free as to defy rational thought. We are setting up things for a quick war, but war is unpredictable. The important thing to remember is that in retrospect it will all look easy. It is not, and has never been so remember the hard work and determination that goes into every action in the theater.