Academic journal article Parameters

Iraq: Heavy Forces and Decisive Warfare

Academic journal article Parameters

Iraq: Heavy Forces and Decisive Warfare

Article excerpt

The Iraq War was a stunning example of the new paradigm of "decisive warfare," even more so than had been the Afghanistan campaign. The Bush Administration came into office defining this new paradigm as the ability to march on an enemy's capital and overthrow its regime. (1) The thinking behind this paradigm is often linked to the failure of the United States to march on Baghdad in 1991, but there is also a link back to the indecisive "limited war" doctrine which led to failure in Vietnam. In Southeast Asia only Hanoi waged decisive warfare by sending an army south to capture Saigon and impose a regime change that ended the war. US attempts to bomb North Vietnam to a negotiated settlement did not result in victory. Regimes that cannot be persuaded to change their behavior must themselves be changed, or else conflicts will drag on, and America is at a political and diplomatic disadvantage in wars of attrition.

While other recent wars are remembered for gun-camera footage of missiles flying through windows, the most memorable images of Operation Iraqi Freedom are of American armored columns roaring along highways, and of icons of Saddam Hussein being dragged through the dust. While a lucky bomb hit might have decapitated the regime, a ground offensive to seize the center of government and break its hold on the country was the essential factor defining victory.

The war showed the ability of fast-moving, heavily armed troops to disrupt defenses before they could be established. Technology played its part in a permissive environment provided by American air supremacy. A profusion of aerial platforms detected enemy forces in the open, attacked them in a variety of settings, and provided close support with precision weapons. Air transports and helicopters provided reinforcement and resupply for friendly ground forces. Improved communications and surveillance systems allowed Army brigade groups and Marine regimental combat teams to operate independently like small divisions. These combined-arms units performed in accord with many of the theories put forth about transformation by Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki. (2)

The rapid advance centered on Baghdad was the real "shock and awe" part of the campaign as it ensured that the regime was doomed. Iraqi Republican Guard units that were initially deployed outside Baghdad to block approach routes were so rapidly engaged by interdiction and maneuver that they could not pull back into the city and mount the kind of urban warfare coalition planners had been concerned about.

This "speed kills" doctrine is not really new, however. It predates even the theories of blitzkrieg with which the US campaign has been compared. Two centuries ago, Napoleon argued that to wage war "energetically and with severity" is the only way to "make it shorter." But it takes exceptional troops and a brilliant operational plan to actually pull it off in any era.

Napoleon also argued that God fights on the side with the heaviest artillery. The heavy, combined-arms units of the Army and Marines executed rapid maneuver with brilliance, and their firepower and protection enabled them to overcome whatever resistance or counterattacks they encountered. It was reported that Iraqi irregulars resorted to trucks armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades because that had worked in Somalia. But one of the central controversies about Somalia was the lack of armor deployed with US forces. Against the "thunder runs" of US tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, such tactics were suicidal.

If enemy light troops proved ineffective against American heavy units, US light troops were also not used as spearheads. The heavy components, the 3d Infantry Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, and British 7th Armoured Brigade, were given the toughest assignments where resistance was most likely. Lighter units from the 101st and 82d Airborne divisions were kept to the west, where opposition was much lighter. …

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