As of August 2006, Iraq Watch is no longer being updated.
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1, Issue 5
By Gary Milhollin and Kelly Motz
If, within the next few months, Western soldiers invade Iraq, a new chapter will have opened in world history: the first war will be fought expressly to stop the spread of mass destruction weapons. President Bush, if we can take him at his word, has said many times that the threat of these weapons in Iraqi hands is what justifies the use of force.
The war will undoubtedly be seen as seminal. As the first big conflict of the new century, it will be thought to foreshadow similar conflicts to come, proceeding - as it will - on grounds entirely different from those given for other wars. It may even be thought inevitable. With terrorist attacks on the rise, with the risk of war between great powers receding, and with weapon technologies filtering out to the whole world, wars of prevention may eventually become the norm, not the exception.
But what sort of wars will they be? If the reasons for war are new, must the methods for waging them be new as well? If nuclear, chemical and biological weapons are the target, does that change the way we use our forces? The answer has to be yes. To achieve its war aims in Iraq, the United States must now pull off an entirely new kind of war, which won't look anything like the Gulf War of 1991.
Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a strong hint in mid-September of what the administration seems to be thinking. After laying out the administration's case on Iraq before the House Committee on International Relations, he said: "let me wrap it up with a single example" - which turned out to be Panama. He reminded the committee of the blitzkrieg warfare that he and his former boss, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, used back in 1989 to seize and depose Manuel Noriega, Panama's dictator, thug, and drug kingpin.
Powell at the time had just taken over the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He reminded the House committee that within four days after a Panamanian soldier killed a U.S. Marine on December 17, 1989, the White House had made the decision to invade, U.S. forces had seized the country, and Panama's government had fallen. To quote Powell, "we didn't ask the ... United Nations ... we brought 13,000 troops out of their barracks in Panama, and I dropped another 14,000 troops by air and by air landing, all in a 24-hour period ... and we took out a regime ... ."
Indeed we did. On the first day of battle, U.S. forces captured the headquarters of the Panamanian Defense Force [PDF], drove Noriega into hiding, and destroyed organized resistance. They also secured the U.S. embassy, the Panama Canal, and were able to assure the safety of 30,000 U.S. citizens who suddenly found themselves in a combat zone. According to a history of the engagement written for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell emphasized "using enough force to overwhelm the PDF in the shortest time possible."
That is exactly what happened. The United States used - simultaneously - U.S. Army Rangers, Marines, paratroopers, Navy SEALS, infantry, armored vehicles, stealth aircraft, precision-guided munitions, and a massive airlift of troops flown from bases in the United States to join troops already positioned in Panama. It was like a pride of lions jumping on a solitary hyena.
The Bush administration would love for the next war in Iraq to go the same way. In fact, it must go that way to succeed. Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons leave little choice in the matter. Unless they can be hit in a lightning-quick blow, things could get nasty in a hurry. The big question is whether Panama-like tactics can work in a country with the armaments and size of Iraq. If they do, the next Gulf war could herald a military revolution.
When the U.N. inspectors left Iraq in 1998, they made a list of the weapons that Iraq had still not accounted for. These included almost four tons of VX, the deadliest form of nerve gas, and at least 600 tons of ingredients to make more of it. Also missing were up to 3,000 tons of other poison gas agents, some 550 artillery shells filled with mustard gas, and some 31,000 chemical munitions, both filled and empty. Also on the list were germ agents like anthrax, botulinum and gas gangrene, plus spraying equipment to deliver these agents by helicopter. In addition, Iraq retained enough growth media to generate three or four times the amount of anthrax it admitted producing.
That was in 1998. Since then, Iraq has made even more chemical and biological agents, according to a dossier released recently by the British government. The dossier said that Iraq was ready to deploy the agents within 45 minutes and could deliver them by "artillery shells, free-fall bombs, sprayers and ballistic missiles." It also said that Iraq's current military planning "specifically envisages the use of chemical and biological weapons."
Anyone planning a war must put these fearful poisons at the top of the target list. Preventing their use will be the litmus test of a successful operation. After all, it would be hard to justify fighting a war against mass destruction weapons if the war itself caused such weapons to be used.
If they are used, casualties to U.S. troops could be high. This was the judgment of a panel of retired four-star generals that our organization convened over the summer to consider how the war might be fought. The panel's greatest concern was Iraq's chemically armed artillery. If Iraq employed its artillery effectively, chemical shells could wreak extensive damage on U.S. troop formations. That would be so regardless of the troops' protective gear. This judgment was based on assessments made at the time of the first Gulf war, when U.S. commanders had to prepare for Iraqi chemical attacks that, mercifully, did not happen.
The panel had first-hand experience with these assessments. It consisted of General Walter Boomer, who commanded U.S. Marine Corps forces during the first Gulf war, General Charles A. Horner, who commanded the U.S. Air Force, and General J. H. Binford Peay III, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army.
They were clear that Panama would have to be the model for any use of ground troops. The goal would be to rapidly capture and control any Iraqi site or military unit that had mass destruction weapons. Commanders would try to get troops in fast and defeat any Iraqi troops that might resist, such as the Republican Guard divisions. Thus, rapid deployment of large U.S. forces would be essential.
There are other reasons why more troops would be better. By overwhelming Panama's armed resistance quickly, U.S. troops were able to preserve the Canal and safeguard Panama's infrastructure for use after the war. In Iraq, the oil fields and civilian infrastructure will have to be protected for the same reason. In fact, even the Iraqi army will have to be preserved. After the war, Iraq will need a military strong enough to keep Iran at bay and to control the country. That means reducing Iraqi armed strength by roughly 50 or 60 percent, but not more. To limit Iraqi casualties, the United States needs to force a quick surrender.
And there is Israel. Iraq is thought to have retained a small number of Scud-type missiles, which could be fired against Israel with chemical warheads. If this happens, and Israel retaliates, any coalition with regional allies could come apart. Saddam Hussein has always wanted to meld Iraq, Israel and the Palestinians into one big conflict - an outcome the United States cannot afford. Thus, we are not likely to see a long build up of U.S. forces along the Iraqi border, or a separate preliminary bombing campaign. Either of these gives Saddam too much time to provoke Israel. Instead, we are likely to see lots of troops arriving quickly in the Iraqi desert to look for Scuds or drone aircraft that could deliver chemical agents.
While all of these necessities argue for size, they also argue for speed. The panel predicted that just as U.S. forces pounced from all directions at once on Panama, they would have to do the same for Iraq. The panel foresaw simultaneous attacks by forces staged from the United States, Europe, the Gulf region, and the sea, including at least five Marine and Army divisions. There would also be simultaneous use of all service forces and national capabilities (CIA, Delta Force, psychological warfare), to join a massive buildup of forces in the region, initially unannounced, in an effort to rapidly encircle and destroy the Iraqi leadership and military forces.
In this long-range blitzkrieg, air power would be engaged within hours, naval and initial troop deployment within weeks, and full troop deployment within one to two months. All of this would happen much faster than previously thought possible. The first troops would be taken from those already in the region for training or the Afghan war. Other Marines and Army troops would be loaded on civilian and military aircraft and flown into the region in a massive airlift. Their pre-positioned assets would be launched to link up simultaneously. The Army, for example, has pre-positioned assets in Qatar and Kuwait, and other "pre-po" is in Diego Garcia. One division could be pulled out of Europe.
These rapid reaction troops would be followed by three or four more Army divisions, and possibly more of the Marine Expeditionary Force, in four to six weeks. The full air build-up would take about two weeks, as would the naval deployment - if all went well. Military planners would tie the campaigns together as the forces arrived. Total troops would number 200,000 to 300,000.
The attack could occur at any time of year. Western troops could fight Iraq equally well in the summer or winter, despite speculation otherwise in the media. Each season has its advantages. The summer heat, while tough on soldiers in chem-suits, would burn up chemical or biological agents. Basing would not be a significant problem either. The panel was confident that Qatar, UAE, and Kuwait would cooperate willingly. In addition, forces could arrive directly from their national territories, Europe, and the sea. Saudi Arabia, though convenient, would not be necessary.
In effect, we would be looking at a new military tableau. When we sketch in the important lines, we see forces bigger than ever converging faster than ever from places more distant than ever to achieve a more difficult mission than ever - truly a new form of warfare.
What could go wrong with this picture? Plenty.
In Panama, the United States knew where everything was: the U.S. citizens, the Canal, the Panamanian forces, and Noriega himself. (He was returning from a tryst with a prostitute when he first encountered U.S. forces). In Iraq, that information won't be there. Both the British and American governments have just released dossiers proving that neither knows exactly what is happening in Saddam's chemical and biological weapon programs. The dossiers claim that Iraq is still pumping out poisons, but don't say what or where. This tells us that when our bombs start to fall, we won't necessarily know what we are hitting.
Nor will we be certain of finding Saddam. He has a legion of "body doubles," sleeps in a different place every night, and has mazes of tunnels for hiding his movements. He is more slippery by far than Noriega.
Our experience in the first Gulf war should provide a warning. We were armed then with better intelligence data than we appear to have now, yet we missed vital nuclear and chemical sites for the simple reason that we did not know they existed. The same was true of the biological program, which we did not find until five years after the war was over. And our record on missiles was even worse. We did not destroy even one operational Iraqi Scud, despite frantic efforts to find them in order to protect Israel and Saudi Arabia. Given the certain fact that Iraq has had four years without U.N. inspections to re-hide everything, and the equally certain fact that Iraq knows much more about avoiding detection now than in 1991, there is a big risk that we will fail to achieve the main goal: to find and suppress Iraq's mass destruction arsenal before it can be used.
It is tempting to think that we can reduce this risk by destroying command centers - by smothering the snake or lopping off its head before its fangs come into play. But the Panama example doesn't help here. Noriega had only four thousand combat troops with virtually no armor, all in easily scouted locations. Uncle Sam poured in twenty four thousand combat troops, backed by armor, aircraft and special forces. That is a negative ratio of six to one.
In Iraq, Saddam is protected by six to seven divisions of roughly eighty percent capable Republican Guards, numbering an estimated 80,000. There are also five or six less capable reserve divisions and thousands of tanks and artillery pieces. Unless the Republican Guards revolt, there won't be anything like the numerical advantage that the United States enjoyed in Panama. Rapid smothering is far from guaranteed.
Instead, U.S. troops may have to fight their way through clouds of chemical artillery bursts. If that happens, the blitzkrieg will have missed its major objective. The rapid-attack warfare will have defeated Iraq, but it won't have protected us from mass destruction weapons. In fact, it will have triggered their use. U.S. commanders could use "counter battery" fire to silence artillery, and try to get full control of the air so they could shoot down any spray planes, but casualties could still be high.
Might U.S. threats forestall such a result? American leaders have promised grave consequences for any Iraqi commander who uses chemical or biological weapons. When Iraqi officers were debriefed after the first Gulf war, they gave the impression of having the option to use chemical weapons if they wanted to. Thus, the United States is trying to deter Iraq's commanders as well as its leadership. But one cannot count on deterrence working in every case. Panamanian troops continued to fight even when greatly outnumbered and after Noriega had gone into hiding. Iraqi troops may do the same.
There is no escaping the bedrock fact: if the threat from mass destruction weapons is a new reason for going to war, it is also a new reason to fear casualties. War planners must do the grim calculation. Is it better to accept troop losses now, or to risk more lives later when more of these weapons will have been made, and Iraq may have gone nuclear? Neither option is good. The practical question is whether a new form of warfare will make the first option the lesser of two evils.
As of August 2006, Iraq Watch is no longer being updated. Click here for more information.
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