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STATEMENT BY
DR. STEPHEN BIDDLE
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF NATIONAL SECURITY STUDIES

 U.S. ARMY WAR COLLEGE 
STRATEGIC STUDIES INSTITUTE 

BEFORE THE
COMMITTEE ON ARMED SERVICES
UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
FIRST SESSION, 108TH CONGRESS 

ON 
OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM: OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVES 


  21 OCTOBER 2003 
 

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the U.S. Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

Chairman Hunter, Mr. Skelton, members of the Committee, it is a pleasure to appear before you to discuss Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).  My remarks today are based on the preliminary findings of a  War College study of why the campaign to topple Saddam came out the way it did, and what implications should be drawn from this for American defense policy.[1] This study is not yet complete; it is undergoing peer review and is thus subject to change. But on the basis of the work completed to date, it is possible to sketch the outlines of what I think the main answers are likely to be, subject to the proviso that the review process could still alter the study's final conclusions if new data or evidence so indicate.

The key question for the study is why the war came out to be a low cost victory. After all, before the war, many feared that OIF would see an urban street fight with heavy Coalition casualties, a protracted siege of  Baghdad, a scorched earth campaign with extensive Iraqi economic and environmental damage, or Iraqi use of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction). Of course, none of these things actually occurred. Instead, Saddam was overthrown in just 21 days of fighting, without scorched earth or WMD use, and without prolonged street fighting in Iraqi cities. The Coalition loss rate of fewer than one in 2300 troops killed in action was among the lowest ever for major mechanized campaigns, and resembles those of the other recent American wars that have led many to see an ongoing revolution in military affairs.

How did the Coalition avert the perils so many had feared beforehand? Many now credit some combination of speed, precision, and situation awareness, which are held to have destroyed much of Iraq's combat power before it could be brought to bear, and prevented the rest from responding meaningfully to Coalition movements.[2] In this view, the speed of those movements demoralized Iraq's forces, and preempted Saddam's attempts to torch Iraqi oil fields, destroy Iraqi ports, or employ chemical weapons. Taken together, speed, precision, and situation awareness can substitute for mass, it is argued - in fact, many now see mass as antithetical to the speed on which we increasingly rely to keep losses down and limit damage to the societies in which we operate.

If so, the implications for American defense planning are potentially sweeping. If speed and mass trade off, and if speed is essential, then mass has become unnecessary at best and counterproductive at worst. This in turn suggests a declining role for conventional ground forces optimized for close combat in major warfare; an increasing demand for information infrastructure and standoff precision engagement capability; and (in light of reconstruction demands in Iraq and elsewhere) a reorientation of whatever ground forces as may remain to make them more suitable for peacekeeping and stabilization duties rather than conventional operations in major warfare.

Assessing Speed, Precision, and Situation Awareness in OIF

Is this view of the war sound, and do these implications thus follow? In fact, neither speed, precision nor situation awareness per se played as strong a causal role as is often claimed.

In spite of their limited situation awareness, for example, the Iraqis nonetheless interposed more than enough combatants in our path to have caused much heavier losses if those combatants had fought well once there - speed and superior information did not so outmaneuver the Iraqis as to leave them incapable of hurting us. Elements of four Iraqi divisions (the Hammurabi, Medina, Adnan, and Nebuchadnezzar) redeployed across the V Corps axis of advance after D-day, and arrived in plenty of time to prepare their positions for combat.[3] Some 10,000 paramilitary reinforcements were moved south from Baghdad to stiffen Iraqi defenses at Nasiriyah and Najaf once those cities became key battlefields.[4] Perhaps most important, major concentrations of paramilitaries and Special Republican Guards were predeployed in Baghdad and other key cities long before they were reached by Coalition forces, and remained there until defeated by close combat in the urban centers.[5] It took no special situation awareness to recognize that Baghdad, for example, would be a critical objective and that Iraqis deployed there would get their chance to kill Americans: no amount of speed or bold maneuver could prevent Iraqi fighters who had been predeployed there from blocking key terrain and compelling close combat, as indeed they did.

Nor were the defenders of Baghdad, Basra, or Iraq's other major cities too demoralized by our precision or speed to resist once we arrived. When 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd brigade made its initial "Thunder Run" into Baghdad on April 5, for example, every vehicle in the brigade column was hit by RPG and small arms fire. When the unit made its second foray into the city on April 7, it again took heavy fire from all directions. Iraqis reoccupied destroyed positions after American units drove by, engaging follow on elements in turn. An emergency resupply convoy had to fight its way through to the brigade's advance positions on the Tigris after nightfall; in a series of bitter firefights it lost one ammunition and two fuel trucks, suffering two soldiers killed and 30 wounded en route.[6] This is not indicative of an enemy whose will to fight had been crippled by standoff precision or the speed with which we reached Baghdad; nor had our maneuver left them too maldeployed to have hurt us. Many Iraqis were killed by air attack or made to flee from fear of it, but many others were not. Thousands of Iraqi combatants survived standoff engagement, were deployed astride key Coalition objectives (especially Baghdad and other major cities) and tried to resist - sometimes fanatically - when attacked by Coalition ground forces. If these surviving, actively resisting Iraqis had inflicted the kind of per capita losses typical of major warfare in earlier eras, our casualties would have been radically higher in spite of our speed and precision. Street fighting in Baghdad and elsewhere posed perhaps the single most important threat of heavy casualties in OIF; this possibility was not precluded by speed, precision, or situation awareness in 2003.

What about scorched earth or WMD use? Did our speed prevent the Iraqis from destroying their oil fields, blowing their bridges, sabotaging the port at Um Qasr, flooding the Karbala gap, or using chemical weapons? As for WMD, none have yet been found anywhere in Iraq. They may yet be found. The difficulty of locating them, however, suggests that it would probably have taken considerable time to make these weapons ready for use during the campaign. At a minimum, no WMD have been found in any reasonable proximity to an intact delivery system, or near any form of transportation that could move them to a delivery system with any dispatch. If WMD exist in Iraq, they exist in deep cover - and possibly buried and/or disassembled. If so, then it is hard to see how a slower Coalition advance would have enabled these to have been recovered, reconstituted, and employed without being detected and either destroyed from the air or overrun by even a much slower ground force advance in the meantime. Without direct evidence of their status it is difficult to reach authoritative conclusions, but at a minimum there is no current evidence to suggest that the Iraqis had WMD close enough to employment for the speed of the Coalition advance to have made any difference in their use. Conversely, it is at least consistent with the available evidence to hypothesize that the Iraqis could not have used WMD soon enough to head off overrun by even a much slower-moving Coalition advance.

Nor is there strong evidence to suggest that speed was the central factor in preventing scorched earth. The Iraqis had neither prepared their infrastructure for destruction on more than a token scale nor were they in the process of doing so, either before the war or during the fighting. They may never have intended to carry out the threat of scorched earth: the evidence is consistent with a hypothesis that this was merely a bluff for deterrent purposes. But either way, their lack of preparations left them unable to destroy infrastructure on any wholesale basis, and their failure to destroy even facilities left in their possession for weeks after the fighting began suggests that it was not our speed of advance that caused this.

Consider, for example, the issue of oil field destruction. Of 250 wells in the key sections of the Rumaila oil field, only 22 had actually been prepared for demolition when the Marines secured the field on March 21. Of these 22, only 9 were actually detonated, causing just 7 fires. No gas-oil separation plants (GOSPs), pumping stations, or pipelines were wired for destruction. Nor was there any evidence of ongoing efforts at preparing additional wells or other oil field facilities for destruction in the days before the invasion or the early stages of the invasion itself. Even with a very fast-moving offensive, there was still more than 48 hours available to the Iraqis between the beginning of hostilities and the time the field was actually secured - if Rumaila had been prepared for demolition the Iraqis would have had more than ample time to complete the job before we could have stopped them, and they had considerable (but unused) time for setting additional charges or preparing additional facilities for destruction even after the war began.[7]

In fact, the Kirkuk oil field in the north remained in Iraqi hands for more than three weeks after the invasion began. Yet at no point in that interval were any oil wells destroyed, or any facilities demolished, or any fires set. No evidence of preparation for demolition was discovered when American troops finally took possession of the field after April 7; in fact, dirt had been piled around a number of wells to protect them from accidental destruction in the fighting.[8] Even if one were to argue that the Iraqis would have demolished Rumaila if we had only given them more time, at Kirkuk they had the time - by any standard. Yet they did less demolition at Kirkuk than at Rumaila.

There are many possible explanations for the Iraqis' lack of preparation, ranging from disobedience by oil field workers to organizational incompetence in the Iraqi military to a lack of intent at the highest levels: perhaps the threat of scorched earth was merely a bluff to deter us from attacking. Either way, though, none of these possibilities are consistent with a claim that only a fast-moving advance prevented mass destruction of the Iraqi oil industry. None implies a process which would have yielded significantly wider destruction if the campaign had lasted weeks or even months longer than it did. If time were all the Iraqis needed, then at a minimum, Kirkuk should have been razed. Yet it was not.

Iraqi bridges, port facilities, and inundation follow a similar pattern. The Coalition advance was obviously premised on its ability to use a series of key bridges over the Euphrates River. The towns at these crossings were in fact major battlefields in the war, as the Iraqis apparently understood their importance and sought to contest the bridge sites. Yet few of these bridges were wired for demolition, and even fewer were actually destroyed. At Nasiriyah, the Iraqis fought a week-long battle for a city whose military importance turned on its bridges - yet the Iraqis made no systematic effort to destroy them.[9] Of the five bridges surrounding Basra, only one was wired, and none were actually destroyed.[10] At Objective Peaches south of Baghdad, the key bridge was found wired for demolition, but undestroyed.[11] The key port of Um Qasr, critical to the potential prosperity of postwar Iraq, was undamaged in the war and captured intact by Coalition forces, even though the Iraqis held the port and its facilities for days prior to its capture and could have done extensive damage had they used this time to do so.[12] American commanders had worried that the Iraqis would flood the Karbala Gap, a key choke point on the road to Baghdad and a potentially promising target for Iraqi WMD use against stalled Coalition ground forces. Yet nothing of the kind happened - the closest the Iraqis came to deliberate flooding was some small-scale tactical inundation in the Subiyat Depression near Nasiriyah.[13] In all, there is little evidence that speed made the difference in the prevention of scorched earth.

Skill-Technology Synergy in OIF

But if speed, precision, and situation awareness were less important for low cost victory than often assumed, then to what should this outcome be attributed? Part of the answer lies in idiosyncratic features of Ba'athist Iraq: the Iraqis' failure to destroy oilfields and other economic infrastructure, for example, was ultimately their choice. Either Saddam never meant to carry out this threat, or his people refused to follow his orders, or his organization proved unable to implement his plan. But the failure of scorched earth was less our doing than theirs - even a different or less capable Coalition military might still have averted scorched earth given the Iraqis' apparent unwillingness to carry out their threat, and even a very capable Coalition would have failed if the Iraqis had been able and willing to follow through.

Much of the answer, however, lies in the interaction between our strengths and their particular weaknesses. That is, we argue that skilled use of modern Coalition technology interacted synergistically with Iraqi errors to produce unprecedented lethality and a radically one-sided military confrontation. In this, no one technology, or even family of technologies (such as precision strike or information processing) was necessary. Practically any of the major advantages of American forces, ranging from the survivability of American armor to the lethality of American firepower, would have been sufficient given the skill differential between ourselves and the Iraqis, and the synergistic nature of the interaction between skill and technology. With a diverse panoply of sophisticated technology, there were many possible ways in which a skilled military could exploit hostile mistakes with radical severity. And skill imbalance, though necessary, was not by itself sufficient: comparable imbalances in skill or motivation prior to 1991 had never produced outcomes as lopsided as either 2003 or 1991. Only together can a skill imbalance and modern technology explain our ability to topple Saddam without heavy cost in lives or environmental damage.

Given this synergy, our skill and technology would probably produce similar results against other enemies as unskilled as the Iraqis, and with friendly forces no larger than 2003's. But because both technology and a major skill imbalance are required, even the same Coalition skills and equipment would probably not produce comparable results against a more skilled opponent. In particular, the troop level required to destroy a skilled force the size of Saddam's military could well have exceeded that available in 2003, and even so, the losses required could well have been significantly higher.

 This is because skilled militaries can survive standoff precision engagement and compel close combat on terms unfavorable to us, and because such close combat, even with modern technology, is inherently dangerous and labor intensive. To survive standoff precision engagement and set the terms of battle, however, requires high tactical proficiency and an ability to exploit complex terrain for cover and concealment. The Iraqis in 2003 were anything but highly proficient tactically. Their poor training and leadership produced a combination of mistakes, ill-prepared fighting positions, poor marksmanship, and flawed dispositions that left them fatally exposed to Coalition technology. This in turn enabled a relatively small Coalition force to prevail in a short, relatively low-cost campaign - but it would be a mistake to assume similar outcomes against better prepared opponents. 

Iraqi Ineptitude

To see why, it is useful to review some of the more serious of the Iraqis' many military shortcomings, and how these interacted with particular Coalition strengths in 2003. To begin with, Iraqi training was radically substandard in important respects, and especially in weapon employment. Most Iraqi fighters had fired little or no live ammunition in the year prior to the war; some had never fired their weapons at all. The 2nd division of the Iraqi Regular Army, for example, had no live fire training in the twelve months prior to the war.[14] The 3rd division held a single live fire exercise in which each soldier fired four rounds of ammunition.[15] None of the soldiers in the 11th division's 3rd battalion had fired their weapons in the past year.[16] Even the Baghdad Republican Guard division held only a single live fire exercise with just ten rounds for every soldier in the year leading up to the war.[17] By contrast, a typical U.S. infantry unit might fire 2,500 rounds or more of ammunition per soldier in an average year; for units preparing to enter combat that figure would be much higher.[18] The typical American infantryman thus had over 250 times as much target practice as even the best Iraqis.

Unsurprisingly, Iraqi marksmanship was thus very poor. Against the 3rd Infantry's 3rd Brigade in Baghdad, Iraqi paramilitaries attained a hit rate of under ten percent for rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) fired at ranges of under 500 meters.[19] At Objective Montgomery west of Baghdad, an elite Republican Guard tank battalion fired at least 16 T-72 main gun rounds at ranges of as little as 800-1000 meters at the fully exposed flanks of the U.S. 3-7 Cavalry's tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles - with zero hits at what amounted to pointblank range for weapons of this caliber. In fact, the nearest miss fell fully 25 meters short of the lead American troop commander's tank.[20] Similar results are reported from American and British combatants throughout the theater of war, and across all Iraqi weapon types employed in OIF.[21]

Iraqi tactics could charitably be described as self-defeating. Much of the close combat in OIF took the form of Iraqi paramilitaries charging Coalition armored vehicles on the outskirts of Iraqi cities using civilian sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, minivans, and even bicycles. These were typically simple frontal assaults, fully exposed, with no apparent attempt to coordinate movement with suppressive fire, use terrain for cover, or employ smoke or other obscurants.[22] Moreover, they were usually directed at Coalition heavy armored units; Iraqi paramilitaries appear to have systematically avoided softer-skinned command or logistical elements in order to seek out Coalition tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.[23]

Iraqi position preparation was systematically inadequate. After their losses to American air power in 1991, the Iraqis understood that survival against air attack would be vital in 2003. They thus made an attempt to protect their ground forces from Coalition air power.[24] This attempt fell far short, however. They were able to provide some concealment for some units. But they were much less successful in creating adequate cover. And they were systematically unable to combine cover, concealment, and an adequate field of fire for their own weapons.

More-conventional Special Republican Guard (SRG) units deployed some heavy weapons, especially in Baghdad, but these were a tiny fraction of the total available to the Iraqi military. And even the SRG failed systematically to make effective use of urban terrain for their employment. The SRG's prepared positions were almost entirely outdoors, typically in shallow foxholes dug along the roadside or in simple sandbag emplacements on building roofs or at intersections (a typical example from downtown Baghdad is illustrated in Figure 4). SRG tanks were often simply parked in the open at major intersections, with no effort at cover or concealment (see, for example, the T-72 in Figure 5). Practically no buildings received the interior preparations that would be normal for urban warfare in Western practice, such as interior barricades, wall reinforcement, loophole construction, or wire entanglements. Outdoor obstacles, barriers, or minefields were almost completely absent.[28]

As with Iraqi marksmanship, their failings in urban tactics have roots in poor training. The Republican Guard and Iraqi Regular Army received no training whatsoever in urban warfare in the years leading up to the war.[29] In fact, Guard and Army commanders found the entire concept of city fighting unthinkable. As one Iraqi colonel put it: "Why would anyone want to fight in a city?" His troops "couldn't defend themselves in cities."[30] Only the Special Republican Guard was given any systematic training in conventional urban warfare, and even this was poor quality. The paramilitaries who shouldered much of the burden of actual city fighting in 2003 received no sustained conventional military training of any kind.[31]

Some Iraqi difficulties stemmed from political, rather than strictly military sources. The unpopularity of the Ba'athist regime, for example, made human intelligence (HUMINT) available on the locations of nominally concealed urban positions such as paramilitary command centers or ammunition caches in civilian buildings. Many Iraqi civilians hated the Ba'athist regime, and were at least initially sympathetic to Coalition forces. Civilians with knowledge of hidden assets' whereabouts were thus potentially available to provide targeting information. Of course, a major function of the Ba'athist paramilitaries was to deter such cooperation by the threat of violence if collaboration was discovered; as a result, HUMINT cooperation often developed slowly. Once the Ba'athists' vulnerability became apparent, however, and as it became clearer that they would be unable to hold their positions for long given their staggering loss rates in near-suicidal attacks on Coalition forces, Iraqi civilians gradually came forward with targeting information. This targeting information proved instrumental in attacking paramilitary command and communication nodes within major cities. Without this HUMINT from sympathetic civilians disaffected from Saddam's regime, locating often-austere urban command posts for standoff attack would have been very difficult. The illegitimacy of Ba'athist governance thus made targeting intelligence available that would be largely out of reach for urban offensives against more popular regimes.[32]

Interactions Between Iraqi Ineptitude, Coalition Technology, 
and Coalition Skill 

The Iraqis' shortcomings left them extremely vulnerable to the Coalition's technological advantages. For example, the Regular Army, Republican Guard, or Special Republican Guard's inability to exploit complex terrain for cover and concealment left them exposed to the full weight of Coalition standoff precision strike. Coalition air forces were capable of delivering thousands of precision guided bombs and missiles a day, and could concentrate hundreds against a single point. Cruise and surface-to-surface missiles added still more precision firepower. Against such an armada, failure to secure cover and concealment can be lethal to hundreds of combatants in just minutes; the Iraqis' exposure enabled the Coalition to slaughter whole formations at safe distances, and persuaded many Iraqis to abandon crew-served weapons lest they suffer the same fate.

But while precision weapons are tremendously lethal against exposed targets, they are much less so against opponents who exploit complex terrain for cover and concealment. As recently as 2001-2 in Afghanistan, for example, al Qaeda defenders successfully used the complex terrain of the Dar-ye Suf and Shah-i-Kot valleys to reduce their exposure to American surveillance and reduce their vulnerability to standoff precision engagement. At Bai Beche and Operation Anaconda, al Qaeda fighters withstood long range bombing in sufficient numbers to compel sometimes bloody close quarters assaults by American and allied ground forces. Fewer than half the defenders of the Shah-I-Kot valley were either found or killed by standoff precision engagement prior to the arrival of Western ground forces in close combat in Operation Anaconda. In Kandahar province, al Qaeda defenders using local terrain for cover eluded preliminary air strikes and thwarted advances by friendly ground forces; al Qaeda counterattackers found sufficient cover to reach close quarters with American and allied forces before being driven back in hard fighting at point blank range.[33] In the 1999 Kosovo war, Serbian ground forces used wooded terrain and urban intermingling to thwart efforts by Western aircraft to find and destroy them with precision weapons.[34]

Standoff precision is valuable against any target, and any defender can expect to suffer against it. But it is far more lethal against massed targets in the open than it is against covered, concealed targets in complex terrain. And whereas al Qaeda and the Serbs largely denied us such easy targets, the Iraqi Regular Army, Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard did not.[35] The Iraqis' failures to reduce their exposure thus played into the strengths of the Coalition's technology, and enabled us to destroy Iraqi combat power from safe distances at a much higher rate than we could have done had they been better prepared.

Even so, some Iraqis survived standoff precision. Some hid in concealed but impractical locations, as did the BMP depicted in Figure 1. A few others managed to mount limited counterattacks, as did elements of the Hammurabi division at Objective Peach. And some survived long enough to defend prepared positions against direct ground attack, as did the 17th battalion of the Hammurabi's 17th brigade at Objective Montgomery.[36]

Here, too, however, the Iraqis' military shortcomings interacted with Coalition technological sophistication to produce extremely one-sided outcomes. The M1 tank's ability to fire on the move, hit targets on the first shot at ranges of multiple kilometers, and penetrate both sand berms and T72 frontal armor at the same distances made deathtraps out of the simple horseshoe revetments used the by Iraqis at Objective Montgomery. Together with highly skilled U.S. crews, this technology allowed a single cavalry troop to devastate an entire battalion of dug-in defenders in less than 10 minutes of firing.

Had the Iraqis been better skilled, however, the same technological match up could have produced a much costlier outcome. The M1 is an extremely survivable tank, but no tank has equally resistant armor on all surfaces, and like all tanks, the M1's flank armor is much thinner than its frontal arc. In Operation Desert Storm, M1s were killed by T72 or BMP fire that struck them from the flank or rear; in OIF, even RPGs sometimes penetrated M1s when hit from the proper direction.[37] And six of the 3-7 Cavalry Apache troop's 13 armored vehicles at Objective Montgomery were Bradley Fighting Vehicles without even the M1's level of flank armor protection. At Montgomery, the Iraqi position afforded flank shots by most Iraqi combatants against all of Apache troop's tanks and Bradleys - at ranges of as little as 800-1000 meters.[38] A well-trained tank battalion would expect to hit with nearly every shot at such ranges; the 16 or more shots fired by the Iraqis at Objective Montgomery could thus easily have wiped out Apache troop if fired by crews with skills anything like their American attackers.

The most important source of close combat in OIF, however, was urban warfare. Paramilitaries in civilian clothes and intermingled with the population offered poor targets for air attack; many thus survived to engage Coalition ground forces at close quarters in Iraqi cities. Even without standoff precision engagement, however, other Coalition technologies still interacted with Iraqi ineptitude and Coalition skill to yield slaughter. In particular, the modern armor technology of the M1 and Challenger tanks offer extraordinary protection, and their fire suppression, blast localization, and crew escape systems often make it possible to survive even a large-caliber penetration of the armor envelope. The ability of Bradley Fighting Vehicles as well as Abrams tanks to shoot on the move with both accuracy and tremendous volumes of fire makes them lethal even to hostile armored vehicles, much less paramilitary foot soldiers. For the latter to launch themselves in frontal assaults at such well-protected, highly lethal targets with nothing more than civilian pickup trucks and RPGs was clearly suicidal. Even where the paramilitaries fought on the tactical defense, as in their resistance to 2nd Brigade's "thunder runs" in Baghdad, the combination of the paramilitaries' shortcomings and the Americans' lethality meant that tremendous numbers of Iraqis would be mowed down: without adequate cover or concealment once firing had given them away, Iraqi paramilitaries were dangerously exposed. And whereas the Iraqis' fire often missed, Coalition return fire was both voluminous and deadly accurate - exposed paramilitaries thus rarely survived to fire again.

Yet here, too, better trained Iraqis could have produced a very different outcome even with exactly the same equipment on both sides. The light weapons wielded by Iraqi irregulars can penetrate M1 tanks - in fact, nine M1s were penetrated by RPG fire in OIF.[39] If the hundreds of RPGs fired at 2 BCT in the two thunder runs alone had been fired accurately, the penetration rate could have been dramatically higher. And if the shooters had been firing from covered, concealed positions, they could reasonably have expected to survive their first shot at a much higher rate, enabling them to shoot again and thus increasing the hit rate even further. Most important, though, a skilled urban defender could not have been broken by an all-mounted assault of the sort waged in Baghdad and Basra. In 2003, the Iraqis were exposed and could thus often be slaughtered in the open even within the city center without the attacker dismounting from its armored vehicles. By contrast, a defender who exploited the natural potential of urban terrain by remaining in cover to fire from within buildings; who prepared those buildings for maximum cover and concealment; who used barriers and obstacles to canalize attacks into prepared ambushes; and who used covered retreat routes to slip away for subsequent engagements a couple of blocks away would have been a much tougher target. Historically, it has been impossible to destroy such urban defenders without supporting armored advances with dismounted infantry who can enter building interiors to clear rooms, kill concealed defenders, and hold the building interiors to prevent their reoccupation by defenders. Mounted vehicle crews simply cannot find properly-concealed defenders in building interiors. And unless such defenders are cleared before the armored vehicles advance, the vehicles' weaker roof, rear, and flank armor surfaces risk easy penetration from bypassed but unseen defenders. Working together, skilled dismounted infantry and supporting armor can clear urban terrain, but they cannot do so cheaply if the defender makes the most of that terrain: even with skilled attackers, and even with armored support, dismounted building clearance against skilled defenders has typically been very costly. Recent analyses by the U.S. Marine Corps have concluded that against skilled urban defenders, even the best-trained attackers can expect no better than a 1:1 loss exchange ratio (LER); a 1:1 LER against multiple thousands of Iraqi urban defenders would have produced thousands of friendly casualties and a fundamentally different outcome for OIF, even given the technological advantages of the Abrams and the Challenger.

 Conclusions and Implications

So both advanced technology and a major skill differential are necessary to explain OIF's low casualties; to explain the failure of scorched earth requires Iraqi cooperation, whether deliberate (in the form of disobedience or lack of intent) or inadvertent (via organizational incapacity). Given Iraqi idiosyncrasies, a major skill differential, and modern technology, the OIF outcome would probably have obtained even without the speed of the Coalition advance or our precision or situation awareness per se; our technology was advanced enough and diverse enough that any of a wide variety of capabilities could have sufficed to punish Iraqi error very harshly. Inter alia, precision and situation awareness might have been sufficient, but neither were necessary as such; speed was probably neither necessary nor sufficient. A major skill differential, by contrast was necessary - as was some source of the modern lethality and protection needed to exploit Iraq's mistakes. Given this, the causal importance of speed, precision and situation awareness has often been overestimated in the public debate on the war; the causal role of the skill differential between ourselves and our enemies has probably been underestimated. And the variety of ways in which technology can exploit that differential has been underestimated in the postwar focus on precision and situation awareness per se.

This is not to say that speed was a bad idea, or that either precision or situation awareness were unhelpful. Hindsight suggests that the Iraqis would not have torched their oil fields or used WMD with more time, but this was less clear beforehand. A rapid advance made sense given the credible possibility that Saddam might carry out such threats. And both precision and situation awareness were important contributors to the aggregate technological sophistication we needed to exploit the Iraqis' mistakes.

But to say that speed was a sensible choice, or that precision and situation awareness were valuable, is not to find that their role was as important as often claimed. And the difference matters. Views of past wars shape future policies, and views on the relative importance of contributing causes can have serious postwar policy implications.

In particular, underestimating the skill differential's importance could have a variety of dangerous consequences. First, it could lead to an assumption that precision and situation awareness can produce OIF-like results against other opponents with better skills than the Iraqis'. Even with skilled forces of our own, this is a dangerous assumption. In 2003, our technology could operate at near-proving-ground effectiveness against exposed, ill-prepared opponents. Enemies who do a better job of exploiting the natural complexity of the earth's surface for cover and concealment could pose much tougher targets - as we have already seen in the performance of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Our technology's performance is strongly affected by the nature of its targets, and our targets were extremely permissive in OIF. If we overlook this, we could thus exaggerate our technology's potential against better skilled enemies elsewhere.

Second, an imprecise analysis of OIF could lead to an assumption that modernization can be accelerated at the expense of training. If standoff precision and situation awareness either destroyed or bypassed the Iraqi military, then why spend the huge sums needed to maintain perishable close combat skills across a large American ground force? Why not divert some of that into faster improvement in the standoff capabilities that render such close combat unnecessary? The answer, of course, is that we did not destroy or bypass enough of the Iraqi military to preclude heavy casualties - while many opponents were negated at standoff, others could only be destroyed in close combat. It was our superiority in close combat capability that averted such casualties - and this was a product of both advanced technology and a major skill differential. If technology and skill interact synergistically, then perforce they will be poor substitutes for one another. Hence it will be difficult to buy enough modernization acceleration to compensate for the loss of skill that buys it.

Third, misunderstanding causation in OIF could lead to an assumption that speed can substitute for mass, and that standoff precision can substitute for close combat capability. If speed were sufficient for the OIF outcome (either alone or in conjunction with precision), and if speed and mass are antithetical, then reducing mass to enable greater speed would make sense. But if speed was not sufficient, and if a major skill differential was necessary for speed to succeed, then to trade speed for mass in U.S. force structure would be a dangerous bargain. Against enemies like Iraq, small, fast-moving ground forces with massive standoff firepower and excellent situation awareness may well succeed again - in fact, against such foes this could well be the optimum solution. But if future warfare pits us against better-skilled opponents, and if a skill differential played the role identified above in OIF, then a small but agile U.S. ground force could find itself unable to cope with concealed, covered enemies in numbers too great to overcome without mass of our own.

Of course, it is always possible that the future could differ from the past, and there is only so much one can learn from an analysis of a concluded campaign. But it is always a mistake to misunderstand the past, and to draw lessons for the future from a mistaken impression of the past is always dangerous. The analysis above suggests that OIF, at least, does not provide evidence that it would be wise to trade speed for mass, to shift too far away from close combat capability toward greater emphasis on standoff precision, or to accelerate modernization at the cost of training for close combat. Some important causes of the OIF outcome lie beyond our control, in the idiosyncrasies of Saddam's Iraq. But others are products of our own choices. And we must be careful to ensure that those choices are informed by the fullest possible appreciation of the war we just fought.


[1] This study is based on evidence collected in a series of 176 interviews with American, British, and Iraqi participants in the conflict, together with primary source documentation on the conduct of the war, and the results of direct physical inspection of several of the war's key battlefields. This evidence was collected partly in theater at Baghdad, Hillah, Basra, and Camp Bucca, Iraq, and Camp Doha, Kuwait; and partly with returnees at Ft. Carson, Colorado, Fallon Naval Air Station, Nevada, the Pentagon, and Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. The interviewees ranged in rank from E-5 to O-8, and include participants from the conventional U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps; the British Army; American Special Forces; and the Iraqi Regular Army and Republican Guard. Audiotapes of these interviews, together with other primary source documentary material collected for the study, have been deposited at the U.S. Army's Military History Institute archive in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and constitute the MHI Strategic Studies Institute OIF Research Collection, henceforth MHI.
[2]
See, e.g., Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Hearing on FY2004 Appropriations, FDCH Transcripts, May 14, 2003, p. 3; Paul Wolfowitz, Testimony on Iraq Reconstruction, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Thursday May 22, 2003, pp. 2, 7; idem., Testimony on U.S. Military Presence in Iraq: Implications for Global Defense Posture, House Armed Services Committee, Wednesday June 18, 2003, pp. 4-6; Tom Bowman, "Rumsfeld Taunting but Naysayers Persist," Baltimore Sun, May 18 2003; Sonni Efron, "Pentagon Officials Defend Iraq Battle Strategy," Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2003; Esther Schrader, "Official Ties Iraq's Troubles to U.S. Success," Los Angeles Times, July 9, 2003; Jim Mannion, "Rumsfeld Rejects Case for Boosting Size of Army," Washington Times, August 6, 2003; Rowan Scarborough, "Decisive Force Now Measured by Speed," Washington Times, May 7, 2003; Usha Lee McFarling, "The Eyes and Ears of War," Los Angeles Times, 24 April 2003; Terry McCarthy, "What ever happended to the Republican Guard?" Time, 12 May 2003; Max Boot, "The New American Way of War," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 4 (July/August 2003), pp. 41-58; Andrew Krepinevich, Operation Iraqi Freedom: A First-Blush Assessment (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2003), pp. 13-24, 28, 30-31 (which also emphasizes the importance of Iraqi shortcomings; see analysis below for a more extended discussion of this factor and its role in OIF).
[3]
MHI: Tape 062503a1sb LTC B int; 050203p1sb COL Perkins et al. int.; Tape 050403p1io LTC Sterling int.; Memorandum for the record, LTC Rodgers, LTC Marcoz int., 22 April 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait; Memorandum for the record, MG Blount et al. int., 4 May 2003, 3rd Infantry Division HQ, Baghdad International Airport, Iraq.
[4]
MHI: Memorandum for the record, MAJ Colligan et al. int., 26 April 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait; Tape 042903p1sb COL Brown et al. int.; Tape 050303a1sb COL Allyn et al int.; Tape 050103p2sb MAJ Walter int.; Tape 043003p2io COL Johnson int.
[5]
MHI: Tape 050203p1sb COL Perkins et al. int.; Tape 050303a1sb COL Allyn et al. int.; Memorandum for the record, MAJ Colligan et al. int., 26 April 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait; Tapes 050203a1io and 050203a2sb, LTC Bayer et al. int.; Tape 050103p2sb MAJ Robert Walter int.; Tape 050203p1sb LTC Schwartz et al. int.
[6]
MHI: Tape 050203p1sb COL Perkins et al. int.; Tape 050103p2sb MAJ Robert Walter int.; Tapes 050203a1io and 050203a2sb, LTC Bayer et al. int.
[7]
MHI: Memorandum for the record, CW4 Crowder int., 12 May 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait.
[8]
MHI: Tape 062403p1sb LTC K int.; Tape 050103p2sb MAJ Robert Walter int.; Memorandum for the record, CW4 Crowder int., 12 May 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait.
[9]
For example by targeting them for artillery or mortar fire after losing them to American control, let alone by effective pre-capture demolition. MHI: Tape 042903p2sb LTC Kerl et al. int.; Tape 043003p2io COL Johnson int.
[10]
MHI: Tape 050803a2sb MAJ Longman et al. int.
[11]
One span was dropped, but the bridge remained trafficable. MHI: Tape 050203a1io LTC Bayer et al. int.; Tape 050103p2sb MAJ Robert Walter int. On the survival of most Iraqi bridges, see Memorandum for the record, MAJ Stephenson int., 30 April 2003, I MEF HQ, Hillah, Iraq.
[12]
The authors inspected the port facilities on April 25, 2003 and found no evidence of damage. Captured Iraqi officers maintain that orders to destroy the port would not have been followed - the commanders at the scene viewed the facilities as the patrimony of the Iraqi people and not as tools for defending for Saddam: MHI: Tape 042403a1sb LTC Hamid int.
[13]
MHI: Tape 042803p1sb MG Marks, COL Rotkoff int.
[14]
MHI: Col Mohammed Al Jboori int., 4/24 PM, interviewed by Metz, Kidder, and Filiberti.
[15]
MHI: Lt Col Ayad Hasam Aldemi int., 4/23 PM, interviewed by Metz, Kidder, and Filiberti
[16]
MHI: Tape 042403a2sb Staff Colonel Alzadi int.
[17]
MHI: SSGT Ahmed Al Samarl, Baghdad Division of Republican Guard int., 4/25 AM, interviewed by Metz, Kidder, and Filiberti. For similar examples from other units, see MHI: Tape 042403a2sb MAJ Al Tamimi int.; Tape 042303p2sb Staff Brigadier Raid Sajid int.; Tape 042403a1sb LTC Hamid int.; Tape 042403p1sb Staff LTC Alaragi int.; Tape 042503a1sb COL Alzanabi int.; Major Mohammed Abad int., 4/24 interviewed by Metz, Kidder, and Filiberti; Captain Amer Taleb Alseltane int., 4/23 AM, interviewed by Metz, Kidder, and Filiberti; Lt Col Kassim Alajeel int., 4/25 AM, interviewed by Metz, Kidder, and Filiberti.
[18]
DA PAM 350-38 1 (STRAC) Standards in Weapons Training, October 2002, ch. 5.
[19]
MHI: Tape 050303a1sb COL Allyn et al. int.
[20]
MHI: Tape 050303p2sb, LTC Ferrell et al. int.; Memorandum for the Record, Objective Montgomery Battlefield Inspection, 4 May 2003.
[21]
See, e.g., MHI: Tape 050203p1sb LTC Schwartz et al. int.; Tape 050303p1sb, LTC Pease int.; Tape 050303p1io MAJ Walter et al. int.; Tape 043003a1io COL Toolan et al. int.; Tape 043003p2io COL Johnson int.; Tape 062503p1sb MAJ P. int.; Tape 050203p1sb COL Perkins et al. int.; Tape 050803a2sb MAJ Longman et al. int.; 042903p1sb COL Brown et al.
[22]
MHI: Tape 050203p1sb LTC Schwartz et al. int.; Tape 050303a1sb COL Allyn et al. int.; Tape 050303p1sb, LTC Pease int.; Tape 050303p1io MAJ Walter et al. int.; Tape 050303p2sb, LTC Ferrell et al. int.; Memorandum for the record, MAJ Colligan et al. int., 26 April 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait; Tape 050103p2sb MAJ Robert Walter int.; Tape 050203p1sb COL Perkins et al. int.; Tape 050803a1sb MAJ Maciejewski int.; Tape 050803a2sb MAJ Longman et al. int.
[23]
MHI: Tape 050203p1sb COL Perkins et al. int.; Tape 050303a1sb COL Allyn et al. int.; Memorandum for the record, MAJ Colligan et al. int., 26 April 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait; Tape 050203a1io LTC Bayer et al. int.
[24]
See, e.g., MHI: Tape 042403a2sb MAJ Al Tamimi int.; Tape 042403a2sb Staff Colonel Alzadi int,; Tape 042403p1sb Staff LTC Alaragi int.
[25]
See, e.g., Jesse Orlansky and Col. Jack Thorpe, eds., 73 Easting: Lessons Learned from Desert Storm via Advanced Distributed Simulation Technology (Alexandria, Va: Institute for Defense Analyses, 1992), IDA D-1110, p. I-54; Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Hearings Before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991), S. Hrg. 102-326, p. 115.
[26]
MHI: Tape 042303p2sb Staff Brigadier Sajid int.; Tape 050403p1io LTC Sterling int.; Memorandum for the record, MAJ Colligan et al. int., 26 April 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait; Tape 050103p2sb MAJ Robert Walter int.
[27]
MHI: Tape 050203p1sb LTC Schwartz et al. int.; Tape 050303a1sb COL Allyn et al. int.; Tape 050303p1sb, LTC Pease int.; Tape 050303p1io MAJ Walter et al. int.; Tape 050303p2sb, LTC Ferrell et al. int.; Memorandum for the record, MAJ Colligan et al. int., 26 April 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait; Tape 050103p2sb MAJ Robert Walter int.; Tape 050203p1sb COL Perkins et al. int.; Tape 050803a1sb MAJ Maciejewski int.; Tape 050803a2sb MAJ Longman et al. int.
[28]
MHI: Tape 050203p1sb LTC Schwartz et al. int.; Tape 050303a1sb COL Allyn et al. int.; Tape 050303p1sb, LTC Pease int.; Tape 050303p1io MAJ Walter et al. int.; Tape 050303p2sb, LTC Ferrell et al. int.; Tape 042903p2sb LTC Kerl et al. int.; Tape 043003a1io COL Toolan et al. int.; Tape 043003p2io COL Johnson int.; Memorandum for the record, MAJ Colligan et al. int., 26 April 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait; Tape 050103p2sb MAJ Robert Walter int.; Tape 050203a2sb LTC Bayer int.; Tape 050203p1sb COL Perkins et al. int.; Tape 050803a2sb MAJ Longman et al. int.
[29]
MHI: Tape 042303p2sb Staff Brigadier Sajid int.
[30]
MHI: Tape 042403a2sb St. COL al Saadi int.
[31]
MHI: Tape 042403a1sb LTC Hamid int.; Memorandum for the record, MAJ Colligan et al. int., 26 April 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait.
[32]
MHI: Tape 050303a1sb COL Allyn et al. int.; Tape 050203p1sb COL Perkins et al. int.; Tape 050803a2sb MAJ Longman et al. int.; Memorandum for the record, LTC C int., 12 May 2003, CFLCC HQ, Camp Doha Kuwait; MAJ Curtis int.
[33]
For detailed accounts, see Stephen Biddle, Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2002), pp. 15-16, 26-43. Note that the indigenous Afghan Taliban (by contrast with the better-trained al Qaeda foreigners) were much less adept at exploiting cover and concealment, and suffered much more heavily under Western air attack: ibid.
[34]
See, e.g., Benjamin S. Lambeth, NATO's Air War for Kosovo (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001), pp. 120-136; Stephen T. Hosmer, Why Milosevic Decided to Settle When He Did  (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001), pp. 77-90; Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O'Hanlon, Winning Ugly: NATO's War to Save Kosovo (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 2000), pp. 120-124, 153-155.
[35]
And where they were able to conceal themselves from Coalition surveillance, they were typically unable to provide cover from fire or meaningful fields of fire for their own weapons (see above) - unlike al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
[36]
MHI: Tape 050303p2sb, LTC Ferrell et al. int.; Memorandum for the Record, Objective Montgomery Battlefield Inspection, 4 May 2003, with attached maps and photographs.
[37]
See, e.g., Robert H. Scales, Jr., Certain Victory:  The United States Army in the Gulf War (Washington, D.C.:  Office of the Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, 1993), pp. 267-70; MAJ Jeffrey R. Voigt et al., V Corps Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) Out Brief, U.S. Army Acquisition Corps, 28 April 2003.
[38]
MHI: Tape 050303p2sb, LTC Ferrell et al. int.; Memorandum for the Record, Objective Montgomery Battlefield Inspection, 4 May 2003.
[39]
MAJ Jeffrey R. Voigt et al., V Corps Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) Out Brief, U.S. Army Acquisition Corps, 28 April 2003.


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