AFTER NEARLY A YEAR in the Iraqi hornets' nest, 130,000 U.S. troops continue to patrol the village streets, capture and kill loyalists of Saddam Hussein, and help build a post-totalitarian society in the heart of the Middle East. But as of March 2004, those troops who maintain today's tenuous occupation are coming home. To take their place, new Army active and reserve units are on their way with more than 20,000 Marines in tow.
The force in Iraq is expected to decline to nearly 105,000 at a time when many--especially on Capitol Hill--are clamoring for more troops. The Pentagon says it will reduce the number of military forces in Iraq as it accelerates the training of native Iraqi security forces. And while this may look on the face of it to be a sign that the Pentagon is growing weary of its mission in Iraq, it's instructive to look at the breakdown of where these troops will be and what they'll be bringing with them before making a judgment on how robust America's overall military presence will be in Iraq.
Nine battalions of Marines are heading to Iraq in March--21,000 in all. While the Corps is tight-lipped on which units are heading over, many will undoubtedly come from regiments who've already seen action there. They will primarily be based in western Iraq, including the volatile towns of Ramadhi and Fallujah. Additionally, the Army's 1st Infantry Division and 1st Cavalry division are deploying to Iraq in March, along with 37,000 reservists and Guardsmen. Carrier aircraft at sea and helicopter gunships at nearby land bases will provide the usual aviation coverage.
Joining the force will be the Army's new Stryker brigade, a lightweight motor infantry unit that utilizes state-of-the-art armored vehicles and highly trained troops to pack a larger punch in a smaller, more deployable package. This will be the first combat deployment of the "transformational" Stryker brigade--named after the eight-wheeled vehicle that is the unit's centerpiece--and by all accounts the soldiers are champing at the bit to prove to the skeptics they have what it takes to fight America's war on terror.
Both the Marines and Army are huddling together their best minds to develop training that builds on lessons learned from the units who have fought the war and occupied Iraq, as well as the experiences of other nations and the lessons of history. The Marine Corps, in fact, is in the middle of a revision of its "Small Wars Manual"--a sort of encyclopedia for occupation forces--that dates back to 1930s. Most of the junior and senior leaders going over to Iraq have read the manual or at least know of it as a timeless resource for the mission they will soon face.
Additionally, the Pentagon's top scientific testing office has organized a joint working group between the Army, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command, and other services and agencies to develop new tactics to protect convoys, repel and deter attacks, and counterinsurgent groups.
Not only will the forces who deploy to Iraq next spring have the benefit of hindsight in their preparations and training, but they will also be armed with the latest technology to detect and repel the roadside ambushes and guerrilla attacks that have so far claimed the lives of 191 U.S. soldiers.
LEAD BY THE PENTAGON'S top scientific and research office, the services are accelerating high-tech programs that have been in development--sometimes for years--but now have more relevance and are urgently needed. Instead of methodically testing the systems in a U.S.-based lab, the Pentagon is going to use Iraq as its testing ground. Some of the systems being fast-tracked include electronic jammers that can ride in the back of a Humvee and block the signals used to remotely detonate roadside bombs (some Iraqi insurgents are using garage door openers and cell phones to blow up their bombs from a safe distance). Other jammers will be able to detonate these bombs, sending a signal out some distance away to blow it up before the convoy gets there--maybe even while it is being placed.
The military is also sending over passive systems that can monitor large swaths of territory so troops can catch the guerrillas in the act. The forces arriving in March could see a string of aerostats--essentially gas-filled balloons with embedded high-tech cameras--floating alongside major highways and convoy routes in Iraq, keeping a wary, robotic eye on potential ambushes. The services have also turned to industry to help protect vehicles. Since not enough bullet-proof Humvee jeeps--what the troops term "up-armored"--can be built to outfit all units heading over, some companies are coming up with innovative ways to supplement the jeep's thin shell. One West Coast-based company has developed armor plates that can be stuck onto the outer panels of a Humvee with adhesives, forming a barrier than can protect against .50 cal machine gun rounds.
Despite the overwhelming firepower brought to bear by U.S. troops in Iraq, the trickle of American blood and treasure continues to seep from that war-torn land. But as the occupation slogs on and fresh troops head over to confront the insurgents and bring peace to the Iraqi people, they will be equipped with the tactics and training, the technology and equipment that will help keep them alive.