Interview: Lessons of the Iraq war

By LOU MARANO  |  Aug. 25, 2003 at 1:56 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Although coalition commanders adapted well to a fluid battlefield, the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom was largely the result of air supremacy over an inept enemy, a Naval War College professor argues.

Of about 300 Iraqi aircraft, not one took off.

"We softened the defenses, especially the fiber-optics communications, starting in June of 2002," Milan Vego said in a phone interview. "It's often overlooked that much of the preparatory work was actually done before the invasion. That was why we didn't need to bomb 10, 15 or 20 days before the ground assault."

Nevertheless, Vego said air and naval superiority should not be used to justify small ground forces.

A primary failing of the continuing American effort in Iraq is that allied planners did not deploy sufficient ground forces fast enough because of overly optimistic assumptions about the attitude of the Iraqi population and the difficulties of occupation, he writes in the August issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.

"I am bothered by the notion that air power is a panacea," Vego told United Press International. "The outcome is always on land. So air power can help a great deal, but it cannot win the war."

And, of course, an occupation cannot be run with air power.

Vego said as the United States has gone from Bosnia to Kosovo to Afghanistan to Iraq, the wrong lessons have been learned along the way - of which the smaller-ground-forces error is only one.

Other mistaken "lessons" are the idea that warfare has changed beyond recognition, that "nobody can beat us," that Special Forces can do the job of conventional forces, and that it's good for command and control to be highly centralized.

He makes these points in the context of his published analysis, titled "Learning From Victory," and he elaborated on them in his interview with UPI. In the article, Vego dissects the campaign, giving credit for factors leading to the decisive victory while candidly reviewing its shortcomings.

"Learning From Victory" is hard to paraphrase because it is condensed from a much longer manuscript, and almost every sentence is a nugget of information. Vego's thesis is that the war reconfirmed the principles of the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), especially, in Vego's words: "Military victories mean little and can be detrimental if the policy aims and the desired strategic end state fall short or are not achieved at all."

A focus of analysis is the size of the ground assault forces and the deployment of reserves. Vego writes that Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of Central Command, initially asked for 200,000 troops - including three divisions of heavy forces. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, however, wanted a force no larger than 60,000.

After much discussion, the invasion force was to have been 151,000 troops, including the British. But with the loss of the 4th Infantry Division, which was to have attacked from Turkey, about 130,000 troops actually moved against Iraq.

"The deployment of the coalition ground forces did not proceed in an orderly fashion," Vego writes, criticizing the decision for a "rolling start." Forces should be phased in only when there is no time to deploy the whole.

"In general, the larger the force, the shorter the conflict and the fewer the losses for both friendly and enemy forces. Larger forces also provide a margin of safety in case planning assumptions prove wrong. ... The enemy's morale also is much more adversely affected by facing a numerically larger force."

Vego writes that the planners envisaged coalition forces reaching the outskirts of Baghdad 25 to 30 days after the start of the ground offensive. The disadvantage was that the speedy advance would expose flanks and stretch supply lines. This, plus a three-day sandstorm, resulted in a 72-hour pause, which gave Fedayeen paramilitaries a chance to harass the support column in the rear.

"The Iraqis, however, were unable to coordinate and mass their forces to attack weak points in the coalition lines," Vego writes. "Undoubtedly, a more adept and skillful enemy would have done more damage."

The assumption that modern warfare will be conducted with no pauses is "nonsense," Vego told UPI.

"You still have fatigue, you still have logistics. Even if the enemy is weak, you still have to stop at some point. Whether you stop for one day or two days or three days, you cannot continue non-stop."

Vego writes that one of the worst errors is to initiate a campaign or major operation without sufficient and timely reinforcements and reserves.

"Because of inadequate force levels, planners could not provide for an operational reserve or reinforcements in the initial phase of the operation. By 25 March, three coalition divisions were 300 miles deep into Iraqi territory, but the follow-on division was three weeks away from being phased into the theater."

Vego told UPI that a prudent commander always needs a detached force of reserves close at hand. "That force is usually the most combat-ready and most mobile," he said. Without it, in a crisis, a commander has no freedom to act.

Vego writes that close air support did not intensify until U.S. ground forces lost momentum after moving 220 of the 300 miles to Baghdad.

The Republican Guard divisions moving north to south were difficult to stop because they were dispersed. "They were not successfully attacked until they regrouped some 30 miles from Baghdad."

The expectation that Iraqi divisions in the south would surrender proved a chimera. Other unpleasant surprises materialized.

"Coalition forces assumed that by largely bypassing cities and towns on the way, they would advance toward Baghdad relatively easily. The Fedayeen militia appeared in much greater numbers and acted more aggressively than the coalition commanders expected. The Baathist-led resistance in the port of Basra was not anticipated. U.S. Marines planned to seize the city of Nasiriyah within six hours, but it turned out that one week of heavy fighting was required. The Marines had to fight off constant ambushes as Iraqi militia used women and children as cover."

The failure to capture or eliminate Saddam Hussein and his inner circle complicates postwar stabilization efforts.

Vego writes that post-conflict planning was tardy, of low quality, and based on wishful thinking about the attitudes of the Iraqi population. "Its execution was even worse." Planners also underestimated the difficulty of restoring basic services.

In the original version of his manuscript, Vego dealt in detail with the issue of light forces vs. heavy forces. "You cannot eliminate heavy forces," Vego said. "If you can produce a tank which has the combat power of an Abrams and is lighter and more mobile, certainly do it. But you always need a mix of light and heavy forces."

Vego said the campaign in Afghanistan could not be used as a recipe for the future. "The Taliban regime was very weak, and we had proxies on the ground, and we used 430 or 440 Special Forces troops, and everything collapsed very quickly -- initially.

"I agree that Special Forces have emerged as a major factor, mostly because of the synergy you can achieve through the use of precision weapons. But Special Forces cannot replace regular forces. And you cannot use them everywhere. Not every dictatorship is as rotten from within as Saddam Hussein's."

He cited the Soviet regime under Stalin, Hitler's Germany, and communist China.

"They're not going to collapse. In that kind of environment, where the regime has a very firm control over the population, Special Forces cannot be that effective. But they can be effective in an area which is loosely controlled and allows you access or where you have proxies on the ground.

"Every situation is different - the terrain, nature, and the enemy. Lessons learned in one conflict are not necessarily transferable."

History shows that major catastrophes can result from the misapplication of "lessons," Vego told UPI.

"The Germans were very successful in 1940 against France and Britain in the West on a 400-mile front, where the ratio of forces was favorable," he said. "They applied the same tactics against Russia along a 2,000-mile front, and the entire effort collapsed."

Vego questions the assumption that the advantages of network-centric warfare allow for smaller armies.

"An ever-increasing reliance on the speed of information flow ... should be a cause of great concern for the U.S. military," Vego writes. "The more forces rely on information, the more they are vulnerable to information loss. Network-centric warfare has been applied extensively in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and especially Iraq. In none of these cases did the loser have the capacity to disrupt or even interfere with U.S. space-based and airborne sensors and computer networks. ... The vulnerabilities inherent in such a complex system could be exploited by a more capable and resourceful adversary using asymmetric tactics."

Vego told UPI: "If you do not have sufficient organic power - raw power - the other gains can be nullified if your command and control is overly centralized and you are micromanaging too much."

He said that in the 1920s, J.F.C. Fuller (1876-1966) - the British general, military historian and strategist -- had the same mistaken notion people have today. Fuller believed that new weapons and modernization would result in smaller armies. "Then, in World War II, you had million-man armies."

Vego warned that the United States lacks the ground forces to fight a major conflict in Korea. "If you reduce the size of your armies, you cannot substitute with naval power and air power," he said. "You have to reduce your commitments worldwide."

Vego disputes claims that strategies of attrition and annihilation are obsolete because the enemy's center of gravity can be attacked directly.

"You cannot," he told UPI. "You can attack the leadership, as we did in Iraq, but that didn't lead to the collapse of the regime. You still have to defeat the forces on the ground. You never can win a campaign in a fell swoop. You need to space your effort, although you might do certain things simultaneously.

"If the enemy surrenders and the leadership accepts defeat and there is no insurgency, certainly you don't need a large presence in the post-conflict. But in this case the leadership vanished, essentially, and you have chaos and insurgency, certainly you need much larger number of troops to reestablish law and order.

"So many people are obsessed with technology, they don't see or talk about anything else," he said. "What about training and morale? You cannot win just through technology. ...

"You don't rely on the stupidity of your enemy. ...

"Any time theory conflicts with reality, reality wins."

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