The Blog

Best-Case Scenario

One of the most impressive aspects of the coalition's war plan has been its ability to take advantage of good breaks.

8:00 PM, Apr 8, 2003 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

COMMENTING UPON the progress of coalition forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom has, over the past week, become an increasingly fruitless endeavor. United States troops are racing through the streets of Baghdad nearly as fast as they marched from Kuwait to the city outskirts, and the much awaited scenes of liberation are hitting the airwaves as British forces secure Basra. The play-by-play is happening so fast there hasn't been much need for color commentary.

Yet in the rush of events, two points should not be overlooked. The first is a tidbit coming out of the second attempt to strike Saddam Hussein and/or his sons and senior lieutenants in the midst of a meeting. According to initial press accounts, the time elapsed between the initial intelligence report of the meeting and the impact of four 2,000-pound bombs was roughly 45 minutes. If this turns out to be true, it represents the "revolution in military affairs" in microcosm.

Consider more carefully: A B-1B bomber, a "strategic" bomber on a pre-planned run lasting many hours and no doubt involving multiple refuelings, was diverted at the very last moment to take advantage of a fleeting bit of intelligence. The global positioning system coordinates of the "restaurant" where the Iraqi leadership was meeting were plotted--although it is a good possibility that the site was suspect and the coordinates already gauged--and passed to the bomber and to the guidance system on the bombs themselves. The flexibility, both technological and human, of U.S. forces to pull off such a mission, in combination with the precision and devastating effect of the bombs, is simply stunning. What was inconceivable to the military commanders of the past is now commonplace for American forces.

Perhaps even more stunning is the relentless ability of U.S. ground forces, both Army and Marine, to sustain their campaign to and, now through, Baghdad. Military analysts have been quite correct to voice concerns that these units would simply become exhausted by the combination of the duration and intensity of their operations, that they would, in the cumbersome but exact lingo of the trade, "culminate" before they could achieve the final victory and that other forces would have to relieve them and carry the fight forward.

No doubt the commanders of the 3rd Infantry, 101st Airborne and 1st Marine divisions have been meticulous in resting and rotating battalions and other subordinate units to the crucial points at key times. And the combined effects of their aggressive maneuvers with the devastating fires delivered by U.S. aircraft are nearly impossible to calculate--though God knows, when there are budgets to win, the fighting will really get tough and the calculations made clearer than truth. And further still, everyone will breathe a bit easier when the 4th Infantry Division comes up, which will be soon; no doubt the division's lead units are racing northward from Kuwait with their ears pinned back.

But as best one can tell from following the media, the front-line forces retain almost all of their combat strength. Like the last-minute targeting in the effort to get Saddam, the main ground forces are registering off-the-chart performance that will demand significant study and perhaps an entire re-calibration of the way we calculate the abilities of American forces. Indeed, it may be fatally hubristic to assume that this will be the norm henceforth, yet it is a phenomenon without obvious parallel or precedent in military history.

Taken together, these points illustrate the wisdom of planning for and deliberately trying to create conditions for what Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has taken to calling "catastrophic success." Planning for the worst case has always been a source of military wisdom, but the war in Iraq reminds us that planning to exploit the best case--which may appear and vanish in the briefest of moments--is also a wise thing to do.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.