Military Might Tested, after the Battles ; Conflict Teaches Pentagon about New Ways of Fighting - and Nationbuilding

Article excerpt

The "war on terror" existed years before the United States invaded Iraq.

Most people just didn't think much about it.

But when US troops, tanks, and attack aircraft began blasting their way from Kuwait toward Baghdad a year ago Friday, it was a watershed mark in what is likely to be the principal form of armed conflict in the 21st century.

In many ways, the battles in Iraq (and those that preceded them and continue in Afghanistan) are the first major test of America's place in this new post-cold-war world - especially of the Bush administration's more muscular policy of preemptive war, with a go- it-alone attitude if necessary.

The largest US war effort since Vietnam already is having a major effect on the US military, including the disposition of forces around the world.

Warfighting doctrine, tactics, weaponry, recruiting and retaining military personnel, the role of women now fighting and dying in combat, an unprecedented use of National Guard and Reserve forces in an active duty role - all are being tested.

The country's diplomatic position vis-a-vis its friends and adversaries also faces major challenges as a result of the year-old Iraq war. For example, will last week's deadly terrorist attack in Spain (along with Britain, Spain has been one of the major US allies in Iraq) arouse European countries to help American peacemaking and nationbuilding efforts in Iraq? Or will it increase public opposition to Mr. Bush's policy there?

More likely the latter, if Spain's weekend election is a clue, and this undoubtedly will impact the US military as well.

Rumsfeld's rules

The conduct of the war - at least up through the fall of Baghdad - seems to confirm Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's desire to have more lighter, faster-moving combat units able to communicate and coordinate in real time and backed up with long-range, more accurate weapons, and special-operations forces.

"Rumsfeld's notion that you can fight wars with smaller forces I think is for the most part proving out," says Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute. "But what you can't do is occupy countries with smaller forces. So all the defense transformation and technology in the world is not going to help you when it comes to having to occupy a country."

Iraq versus Afghanistan

Others point out the difference here between Afghanistan and Iraq - the two major US fronts in the war on terrorism.

"Afghanistan suggested that a larger number of smaller ground forces backed with precision munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles, and good communications are the wave of the future for warfighting," says retired Army Col. Dan Smith. "Then came Iraq, in which the older, bigger legacy systems and units predominated, or seemed to until the Iraqis failed to show up for the war."

That the Iraqi Republican Guard and other elite units faded from the battlefield (perhaps re-forming into the hit-and-run groups that have continued to kill allied soldiers as well as Iraqi and foreign civilians) means the true test of the US military has yet to occur, some experts suggest. "We may face similarly inept enemies again in the future, but that isn't what you'd call a good planning assumption," says Loren Thompson, head of security studies at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

For years, Pentagon officials planned around the "one-and-a-half war" scenario - one major war (in central Europe, for example) and another smaller simultaneous conflict somewhere else in the world.

How big should US forces be?

Now, it appears, Pentagon planners have to worry about how to handle the aftermath of even "half" a war - particularly as it affects the hundreds of thousands of troops rotated in and out of peacekeeping and nationbuilding duty.

And most of the challenge involves the numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines that can be counted on. …