Analysis: Sizing up the Iraqi army

By THOMAS HOULAHAN   |   March 1, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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WASHINGTON, March 1 (UPI) -- It has been reported that American intelligence operatives have e-mailed Iraqi generals in the hope that some of them might turn on Saddam Hussein. Some in the government seem to believe that the upper echelons of the Iraqi army are filled with closet Jeffersonians, waiting for just the right time to put a bullet in Saddam Hussein's head so that they can lead Iraq down the path of true democracy. Some believe that Iraqi generals are a cynical lot who might be expected to turn on Saddam to be on the winning side. The U.S. government shouldn't waste the electrons.

The commanders of Saddam's key units are men who got where they are by proving their loyalty to Saddam. If he had any reason to doubt their loyalty, they wouldn't be in command of these units. The commanders of the lesser units also aren't great bets as potential coup plotters. These men may not be commanding the best units, but they are generals. They got to be generals by proving their loyalty. This meant doing his dirty work, some of which was very dirty indeed. So, even the men whose loyalty to Saddam may have waned recently have reason to stick it out. The collapse of his regime would probably result in their being brought to book for the crimes they have committed in his service. In short, the Iraqi army is not going to turn on Saddam Hussein. Removing him will probably require the destruction of his army. This begs the question: What shape is his army in?

The Iraqi Army has about 2,000 main battle tanks. In any ground war, Iraq would have a numerical advantage in tanks, but this would be rendered meaningless by the overwhelming qualitative disadvantage they would face. The Iraqis do not have a weapon that will penetrate the frontal armor of an American Abrams or a British Challenger tank. During the Gulf War, there were about 1,000 engagements between crewed Iraqi tanks and either Abrams or Challenger tanks. In those engagements, the Iraqis scored one hit, which disabled, but did not destroy, an Abrams. The Iraqis lost 1,000 tanks. Most suffered catastrophic internal ammunition explosions and, to the best of my knowledge, none of the roughly 3,500 men in those tanks survived.

The Iraqi Army also has 1,700 infantry fighting vehicles or armored personnel carriers in its combat divisions. Infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers are both armored troop carriers. The difference is, IFVs are equipped with guns (anything firing a projectile 20mm or larger qualifies as a gun) and APCs are equipped with machine guns.

There are also around 1,600 artillery pieces, 1,000 of which are smaller caliber 122mm guns. Only about 150 of Iraq's artillery pieces are self-propelled. The self-propelled guns and the multiple rocket launchers, of which there are about 100, can be found in the armored or mechanized units.

An accurate assessment of the Iraqi Army's capabilities requires an understanding of its qualitative hierarchy. There is no understanding the Iraqi army without understanding that, contrary to innumerable published reports, the qualitative dividing line is not between the Republican Guard and the Regular Army. The idea that Saddam sends his least reliable officers to the Regular Army is a fallacy, and leads to the mistaken assumption that the entire Regular Army is basically just waiting to surrender. The Regular Army's tank and mechanized divisions actually have about 40 percent more tanks than the Republican Guard's heavy divisions. Saddam cannot afford to send unreliable officers to units that contain such a large portion of Iraq's combat power. So, if an officer has been given command of a Regular Army division with 140 to 180 tanks, it is a good bet that he's fairly competent and Saddam Hussein trusts him unreservedly. Less reliable officers go to units with few tanks and little combat power.

There are six main types of Iraqi units:

--Republican Guard Heavy Divisions: In the event of war, each 8,000-man heavy division will probably fight until it is destroyed. The troops in these divisions are the best trained in the army. They are also the most disciplined. During the occupation of Kuwait, there was little looting or other criminal behavior by the soldiers of the heavy divisions. Some soldiers in these units caught looting were executed. These units fought until they were overrun during Desert Storm. During the Gulf War, two of the Republican Guard's three heavy divisions were destroyed completely, down to the last armored vehicle. The Hammurabi Armored Division escaped destruction.

I should take this opportunity to clear up a misconception that has lingered since the war's end. The Hammurabi's escape has been blamed on the VII Corps' commander, Lt.Gen. Frederick Franks. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf accused Franks of moving too slowly and allowing the division to escape. In fact, Schwarzkopf was to blame. As soon as the ground war started, the Hammurabi Division left VII Corps' zone (and stopped being VII Corps' responsibility) and took up defensive positions on the western outskirts of Basra. The end of the war four days later found the XVIII Airborne Corps' 24th Infantry Division outside Basra preparing to destroy the Hammurabi Division. President George Bush had decreed that the war would end at 8 a.m. local time on Feb. 28. From 4 to 5 that morning, the 24th ID's artillery launched a massive preparatory barrage. Then, as the division's Apache attack helicopters were preparing to take off and its tanks were starting their engines, Maj.Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the 24th ID's commander, received word that the CENTCOM commander had instructed all units to hold their positions. Incredibly, Schwarzkopf, without consulting with any of his division commanders, had decided to cease offensive operations three hours before the president had required him to. The Hammurabi Division was saved. Schwarzkopf's blunder would have far-reaching consequences. Within weeks, the reprieved Hammurabi Division would crush the Shi'ite rebellion around Basra, short-circuiting an insurgency that could ultimately have toppled Saddam's regime. But I digress. After the war, the Republican Guard equipped three additional heavy divisions out of reserve stocks.

There are around 670 T-72 tanks, 620 BMP Infantry Fighting Vehicles and 320 artillery pieces in the Republican Guard's three armored divisions and one mechanized division. The T-72 is a 1970s vintage tank, and is no match for an Abrams or a Challenger. Iraq's BMPs are also mostly 1970s vintage. They are thinly armored firetraps. It is virtually impossible to hit an Iraqi BMP without hitting a fuel tank or internally stored ammunition. Iraq's BMPs even have fuel tanks located in their rear doors. They are also badly underarmed. Most fire a weak, inaccurate 73mm main-gun round and mount an equally inaccurate anti-tank missile that cannot penetrate American or British main battle tanks.

--Regular Army Heavy Divisions: The Regular Army's heavy units also get relatively high-caliber officers (there are many former Republican Guard officers in these units) and men. About half of the Regular Army's nine heavy divisions fought hard during the Gulf War. There are now six (three armored and three mechanized) divisions instead of nine, so there are fewer marginal soldiers and leaders in the ranks. The training level in these units is almost on par with that of the Republican Guard heavy units. Most Regular Army heavy divisions will probably fight until they are destroyed. There are around 950 tanks in these divisions. About 550 are Soviet-built T-55s. The T-55's chassis was designed in 1946. Its turret was designed in 1963. It is a poor design. While about 88 percent of the world's soldiers are right-handed, for some reason the T-55 was designed with the loader on the right side of the turret, loading left-handed. This and other design flaws slow the T-55's rate of fire to about half the rate of fire of a modern Western tank. There are about 225 upgraded Chinese copies of the T-55 with improvements like laser range finders, but the same thin armor and relatively weak main guns. There are also about 175 T-62s (late 1960s vintage) in these units. Like the T-55 it must be loaded left-handed. These divisions also have about 400 BMPs and 575 armored personnel carriers as well as about 420 artillery pieces.

--Republican Guard Special Forces Brigades: Like the heavy divisions, these units get relatively high-quality officers and soldiers. Their mission includes the defense of sensitive areas like airfields. Those that were encountered during the Gulf War fought until they were overrun. There are at least six Special Forces brigades. If war breaks out, these brigades will probably fight to the bitter end.

--Special Republican Guard: The 15,000-man-strong Special Republican Guard is made up mostly of men from the Tikrit (Saddam's home town) area, especially al-Bu Nasir (Saddam's tribe) tribe members. They are selected on the basis of loyalty, not military ability. The training level of Special Republican Guard units is poor, because these men aren't really soldiers. They are security personnel. They therefore receive little serious military training. Any fight for Baghdad would occur after the rest of the Iraqi army was destroyed, and the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt. As a result, most of these Guardsmen will probably see the handwriting on the wall, put on civilian clothes and fade into the population.

--Republican Guard Light Divisions: Each of the three 8,000-man motorized (truck-borne) divisions of the Republican Guard has a battalion (35 T-72s) of tanks, a battalion (36 BMPs) of infantry fighting vehicles and 60-70 artillery pieces. One of these divisions, the Baghdad Division, is responsible for assisting the Special Republican Guard in the defense of Baghdad and Tikrit. Republican Guard light divisions don't have much in the way of quality manpower. Within the Republican Guard, the best officers and men go to the tank or mechanized divisions. The Special Forces brigades get next dibs on quality officers and soldiers. That does not leave much for the light divisions. The soldiers of these divisions are basically an undisciplined rabble. Soldiers from the motorized divisions were involved in looting on a massive scale during the occupation of Kuwait. In combat, most fled at the approach of American forces. The standard of leadership was disgraceful. Many officers and NCOs in the motorized units abandoned their troops, a phenomenon virtually unheard of in the heavy divisions or Special Forces brigades. The motorized divisions were utterly worthless in the Gulf War. I have seen nothing in the years since the Gulf War that would lead me to believe that they have gotten any better.

--Regular Army Light Divisions: There are now 11 Regular Army light divisions. For armor support, each has 17-25 decrepit T-55 tanks and 50 or so equally decrepit 122mm towed artillery pieces. These divisions are better than they were during the Gulf War. On G-Day, there were 40 Regular Army truck-borne or foot-propelled infantry divisions in the Iraqi order of battle. With 29 fewer light divisions to stock, Iraq is no longer forced to rely so heavily on old men and boys to fill them. More important, it no longer has to rely on politically unreliable soldiers to fill them. While 75 percent of Iraq's population was Shi'ite or Kurdish, almost 90 percent of the soldiers on the Saddam Line in the Gulf War came from these ethnic groups, which helps explain their lack of fighting spirit. Kurds are now exempt from military service, as are most Shi'ites. These divisions are more sound than they were during the Gulf War, but they are still basically worthless. An intense artillery barrage and the destruction of the handful of dug-in tanks backstopping the front line will almost certainly prompt a mass surrender. I should add that the idea that these units might join us and march on Baghdad is pure fantasy. The soldiers of these units do not want to fight anyone.

So, in the event of a massive ground assault, it is likely that American and British forces would pass through the Iraqi front lines with relative ease, smash Iraqi heavy forces in a short, sharp battle, then take Baghdad with little opposition. But it still does not look like the Bush administration, which will have a grand total of two heavy divisions in place by the onset of the Iraqi summer in April, is preparing for a massive ground assault.


(Thomas Houlahan is the director of the Military Assessment Program of the William R. Nelson Institute at James Madison University).

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