The stunning success of the "combat portion" of Operation Iraqi Freedom challenges any understanding based upon previous military history. Vice President Dick Cheney's cutting comment about retired generals "embedded in television studios" is an understandable reaction, but Barry McCaffrey is neither a fool nor a coward. Indeed, during Operation Desert Storm he was the commander of what is now the 3rd Infantry Division, and he knows his trade as well as any soldier ever has. He also drove his subordinates relentlessly and was not above going the extra mile in search of a fight.
So it was not unreasonable for him to worry that three ground divisions and 900 airplanes was a small force to conquer a country the size of California. And had the operation gone according to the original plan, of course, it would have involved the 4th Infantry Division attacking through Turkey from the north. Going after a bloody regime in possession of weapons of mass destruction without 25 percent of your land combat power--and without any certainty of rapid reinforcement if things went badly--ran the risk of catastrophic failure when measured by traditional yardsticks.
So has the art of warfare indeed been "transformed?" Is this a new baseline of performance? What does the war mean for future U.S. military plans, programs, and strategies? Perhaps most important, what's the view from the Axis of Evil and what are their options for deterring and defeating America?
Debate about the lessons of the Iraq war began even before the fighting did. Although most of the attention has been directed toward the army's complaints about the size of the invasion force after the initial attack "stalled," airpower zealots didn't even wait for the war to begin. Whining about the "non-doctrinal application of airpower" has accompanied nearly every U.S. military action of the past decade--even, as in Kosovo, when airpower wins the war, it's never enough--and Operation Iraqi Freedom proved no exception.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on February 25, retired general Buster Glosson, who planned the Gulf War air campaign, warned that "when you do not permit the Special Forces and the air capability and technology you have to accomplish the maximum, before you start [employing] ground forces, in a Roman legion fashion, you're asking for disaster." Glosson suggested that Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon and Gen. Tommy Franks were "getting overly concerned about the wrong things," namely, Iraqi casualties, and that the price of victory might be "unmercifully different" than in 1991. "War can be too precise, you can be too careful, and the results are dead coalition forces."
The heavy army tread-heads, by contrast, leaped upon the comment by V Corps commander Lt. Gen. William Wallace that the Iraqi irregulars were not the "enemy we wargamed against." They used it to imply that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had intentionally limited the ground invasion to prove a budgetary and programmatic point about the need for lighter, more mobile ground units. Rather than seeing in the 3rd Infantry Division's race to Baghdad evidence that armored forces are quite capable of mobility without sacrificing firepower--or in the various hoppings of the 101st Airborne that the army has its own very effective airpower--the conservative forces in the army's upper ranks simply saw a chance to repay Rummy for his shabby treatment of army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. To say that an opportunity to heal the main breach in American civil-military relations was lost is an understatement. With Shinseki due to retire this summer and no clear replacement in sight, the problem may only get worse. The army is actually well along the transformation road, but still faces its greatest resistance from within its own ranks.
The Marine Corps, which never travels anywhere without a full complement of embedded reporters, performed admirably in conducting the supporting attack in the race toward Baghdad, although to look at the television coverage you'd think the Marines won the war. First Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis lived up to his reputation as a very aggressive combat leader, at one point relieving a regimental commander for not acting with sufficient speed to secure an objective. Nonetheless, the Marines' jack-of-all-trades mentality, in many ways their greatest virtue, is also their greatest weakness. While the Marines' light armored vehicles appear to have given them great flexibility and mobility, their creaking Amphibious Assault Vehicles and Vietnam-era helicopter designs, though updated, are dinosaurs overdue for burial. Operation Iraqi Freedom was tailor-made for the capabilities represented by the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft; the Osprey would have provided a significant force in northern Iraq almost from the start without having to worry about the vagaries of Turkish domestic politics.
That the Navy has thus far been so modest, at least in the public relations contest, obscures what is perhaps the biggest technological and tactical improvement between the Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom forces: the ability to distribute information widely and to strike precisely, in large numbers. In 1991, Navy strike fighters couldn't reach very far into Iraq and were forced to take greater risks because of the need to drop "dumb" bombs with non-stealthy airplanes. And distributing the "air tasking order"--the daily master plan coordinating the sorties of all the services (except the Marine Corps, whose pilots refuse to play with others)--to the aircraft carriers was a 72-hour process that involved flying a paper copy of the order from Central Command headquarters out to sea. Today, relatively modest investments in information systems and precision ordnance have allowed for far greater "jointness" among services. U.S. armed forces now fight very closely together rather than simply trying to stay out of each other's way.
The cumulative effect of all this was, as Gen. Myers put it, "Speed kills--the enemy." What was visible to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was also clear to a Marine corporal who observed that "the Iraqis could never keep up with our pace." For the first time since the Panama invasion of 1989, American technological and tactical advantages were employed with an intent to be audacious rather than cautious. The combat portion of Operation Iraqi Freedom was less a "campaign"--a series of distinct moves linked together--than a sustained, single battle. Even during the days of the sandstorms, ground unit movements and airstrikes continued. There was no real "operational pause" outside Baghdad; once having seized the initiative, coalition forces simply tightened their choke hold on their Iraqi opponents.
It's also plausible that the final plan regained an element of strategic surprise--quite remarkable given the laborious diplomatic run-up to the war. One can imagine the discussions inside the Iraqi high command: "They will never attack with just four divisions. Their most capable ground unit couldn't deploy in Turkey and will take weeks to get in through Kuwait; we'll see them coming. And we know there will be an extended air campaign before the ground attack begins."
It is thus also misleading to ascribe the quick victory principally to the Iraqi military's weaknesses and the difficulties of decision-making under Saddam Hussein's command. The Iraqi war plan seems to have been designed to be "self-executing" in the event of "decapitation" strikes. The Saddam fedayeen and other stay-behinds who emerged to snipe at supply lines were in place well before the war began; they were surely following long-standing orders, a pre-planned reaction to the expected invasion. But other than the initial surprise of their resistance, they had no measurable effect on the outcome.
Finally, the Battle of Baghdad was a whimper and not a bang. While pockets of resistance--and gangs of thugs--remain as of this writing, the street-by-street slogging long predicted never materialized; Baghdad was neither Stalingrad nor Mogadishu. And Tikrit fell even faster. If there ever was an Iraqi plan for bleeding U.S. or British forces in urban combat, it could not cope either with the British care and precision in Basra or with the boldness of the American attack into Baghdad. Once the fight for the former Saddam International Airport was over, the city lay open.
WHAT IS THE REST of the world to make of this overwhelming battlefield success? The first Gulf War made clear the likely outcome of a conventional war with the United States and its allies. This operation suggests that U.S. military forces are so superior that there may even be few unconventional alternatives. One such alternative, which al Qaeda embraces on its website, is that a guerrilla or terror war against the United States can be won. But Osama bin Laden's "weak horse" metaphor is looking less convincing. The last remaining succor for anti-American elements comes from the "lessons" of Vietnam. But in a clearer light, that war appears to be an anomaly, with conditions difficult to repeat: Soviet and Chinese sponsorship that immediately raised the specter of larger war if not Armageddon; Ho Chi Minh's willingness to destroy his nation in order to win it. And despite that, the United States was not easily defeated: 55,000 lost lives, decades of effort, and billions of dollars testify to, if nothing else, America's determination and will to win.
A second alternative is to acquire nuclear weapons as fast as possible. Iran has announced such an intention, and Russia is more than willing to help. But unless, like North Korea, you've already got the nukes (and unless you can launch a devastating conventional attack on a close American ally, such as South Korea), the process of acquisition runs the risk of U.S. preemption. While the Iraq war was not simply a test of the Bush preemption doctrine, the administration's recent rhetorical attack on Syria indicates how serious it is about the nexus of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.
A third alternative for deterring America, and one that has received too little attention, is for rogue states (or terrorists) to attempt a de facto alliance with a great-power sponsor. The problem is that former great powers, like France, won't suffice; just ask Saddam. Realistically, the People's Republic of China is the only possible rallying point for the world's anti-American forces. Whether China wants or is prepared for that role is hard to say. Chinese grand strategy is premised upon a long build-up of its economy and military power before asserting an independent role as a counterweight to the United States and today's liberal global order. But Beijing has been flummoxed by U.S. moves in South and Central Asia; there are American troops loose in a lot of "-stan" countries, not to mention an expanding involvement in East Asia and Southwest Asia.
Thus it is difficult to overemphasize the profound military, strategic, and even political effects of the success of the "combat portion" of the Iraq war. Of course, it is commonplace to observe that the fighting may turn out to be the easy part. Even optimists--I count myself one--should keep a clear eye in judging the struggle ahead to give the Iraqi political experiment a secure environment in which to grow.
Yet we must also acknowledge that a good measure of any optimism about the future of Iraq, and indeed the greater Middle East, comes from the combat performance of the coalition forces over the past several months: Other than the United States, no other nation is capable of projecting such effective military power so far from home; other than Great Britain, no other nation is capable of playing a major complementary role; other than Australia, Denmark, Poland, and a few other allies, no other nations had the courage or strategic insight to make a useful contribution to the operation. America and its allies conquered an army and destroyed a regime that had repressed its people and destroyed its society; this required the most violent means and, at the same time, tender care for innocent Iraqis. Americans and their allies put themselves at risk--gave their own lives--to bring liberty to another nation.
Here endeth the lesson: We should "be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced," and "to the great task remaining before us . . . "
Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.