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General Walter Boomer
General Charles A. Horner
General J. H. Binford Peay III

Gary Milhollin and Kelly Motz
Editors of



If the present international effort to disarm Iraq leads to war, it will be the first war in history fought specifically to stop the spread of mass destruction weapons. Because such a war will be different in its objective from all others, it is important to ask how such a military action would be carried out, what forces would be required, and what specific outcome should be achieved.

To shed light on this question, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control hosted a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. on May 23, 2002. The three panelists - all retired four-star generals - were chosen on the basis of their experience in Iraq: during the Gulf war, General Walter Boomer commanded US Marine Corps forces, General Charles Horner commanded the US Air Force, and General J. H. Binford Peay III commanded the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army. They took up the following questions:

  • What would be the goals of a war in Iraq?

  • What sort of military campaign would reach these goals?

  • What are the costs and benefits of each possible military strategy?

The panelists found, in sum, that the next war in Iraq is likely to be entirely different from the last. It must eliminate mass destruction weapons and the regime that built them, and minimize the risk that they will be used against US or coalition troops. The preferred way to accomplish this goal is to provoke a revolt by the Iraqi army that would replace Saddam Hussein with a regime willing to disarm. But that has not yet proved feasible. The alternative, then, in the opinion of a majority of the panel, is likely to be a "blitzkrieg" military campaign, which would have the following features:

    • massive buildup of forces in the region, initially unannounced;

    • simultaneous attack by forces staged from the United States, Europe, the Gulf region, and the sea, including at least five Marine and Army divisions;

    • simultaneous use of all service forces and national capabilities (CIA, Delta Force, psychological warfare) to rapidly encircle and destroy the Iraqi leadership and military and to stabilize the population and control events;

    • rapid capture and control of mass destruction weapons and units;

    • air assets engaged within days, naval and initial troop deployments within weeks, full troop deployment within one-two months;

    • no prolonged bombing campaign or troop build-up on Iraq's borders.

One member of the panel emphasized that the number of troops needed and the duration of the air campaign would depend on the urgency of the threat and the military objectives. As a result, he was not prepared to agree at this time that five divisions would be needed; he did agree that some ground force would be needed at the outset to show US commitment. He also was unwilling to conclude that a prolonged air campaign should be ruled out if it made sense in reducing the threat to US troops and achieving the objectives of the campaign.

In the opinion of the panel, designing the military campaign is the easiest piece of the Iraqi puzzle to solve; the harder questions are whether there is adequate public and coalition support for military action, and what end-state in Iraq can be achieved. Agreement on a satisfactory regime to replace Saddam should be a condition for going to war, and so should a sense of urgency about the threat Iraq poses.

These findings are a composite of the panelists' individual views; no particular finding should be attributed to any single panelist, nor should the findings be thought to represent the views of any organization with which a panelist is affiliated. The full text of the panel's findings follows.


A New kind of war

The war on Iraq that the Bush administration is currently pondering is an historical departure. It would be the first in history clearly fought to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It would also be the first preemptive strike by our country to prevent the use of such weapons against the United States or its allies.

After September 11th, American attitudes towards combating terrorism and arms proliferation have changed. There is now the will to take the offense, whereas before the United States was in a reaction mode. There is even a willingness to accept losses on the battlefield if they seem justified.

The ultimate war aim in Iraq is to destroy its mass destruction arsenal and prevent its spread to terrorist groups or other states. This will probably require overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein, which built the weapons and is protecting them. It will also require new tactics to protect troops and allies from the use of these weapons in combat.

If Iraq used such weapons, US casualties could be high. The largest risk is from chemically armed artillery. If employed effectively, chemical shells could wreak extensive damage on US troop formations. Iraq has rebuilt several plants formerly used to make chemical artillery rounds and agent, and without UN inspections, it is difficult to know what might be going on at these facilities.

There is also a risk from chemically armed Scud missiles. Iraq is thought to have retained a small number of these weapons since the Gulf war, which could be launched against Israel. If that were to happen, and Israel entered the war, any coalition with local allies would be destroyed.

Thus, a main goal of any military action in Iraq would be to rapidly capture and control Iraq's mass destruction weapon sites and units. The objective would be to get troops into the weapon sites fast, take control, and assure that nothing escaped. To accomplish this, US troops must defeat any Iraqi forces that resist, such as the Republican Guard divisions. Thus, rapid deployment of US forces in substantial number would probably be required. It would also be desirable to rapidly engage and defeat any other Iraqi military units that could launch chemical or biological weapons. Therefore, Americans are not likely to see a slow build-up of ground forces in the Arabian desert, as in the first Gulf war.


How will the new war be fought?

Iraq is now protected by six to seven divisions of roughly eighty percent capable Iraqi Republican Guards, and five or six reserve divisions that don't have nearly as much capability. Saddam Hussein also has palace guards and personal defense forces.

These are the units that now keep Saddam Hussein in power. Under one scenario, the United States would foment an internal uprising to topple Saddam Hussein from power, but would not commit troops. There is, however, no internal group that could defeat the more numerous and capable Republican Guards, so the only chance of success would be to get some of the Republican Guard forces to rise up too. They would be in a position to defeat the palace guards. This is the option with the least risk to US interests, but is also the most elusive. So far, the United States has not been able to pull it off.

Under a second scenario, the United States would foment an internal uprising to which it would commit air strikes and light, mobile ground forces. The latter could be Marines, the 101st Air Assault, and special forces. They would be used as force multipliers - they would destroy key resisting enemy garrisons, for example, and promote a ripple effect on other holdouts. The risk, however, in the opinion of a majority of the panel, is that these forces may not be sufficient. The possibility that they could begin losing would oblige planners to have sufficient forces ready to employ in their support. And since that would mean deploying large numbers of forces to the region anyway, one might as well use all the forces simultaneously in a full-scale attack, which would carry less risk to the troops and ensure quicker results and stabilization.

A full-scale attack is a third scenario. The United States would probably deploy some 200,000 to 300,000 US troops from all services simultaneously. Total troops are likely to number one-half those committed in the first Gulf war. They are most likely to use a rapid, blitzkrieg strategy that would overwhelm Iraqi defenses quickly and minimize the risk that weapons of mass destruction would be used. This scenario has the advantage of being sure to achieve its objective. It also provides a large force to meet any occupation requirements. In addition, the credible threat of imminent force might actually foment the rebellion the United States so desires, obviating the need to actually invade.

The United States is likely to begin the war rapidly under any scenario that calls for US forces. It could use air power within hours after the order is given to commence operations. It could also begin moving rapid reaction troops into Iraq. Marines and Army troops would be loaded on civilian and military aircraft and flown into the region very quickly, and 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. The first troops would be taken from those already in the region for training or for the Afghan war, and it would be possible to pull a division out of Europe. An Army and a Marine division could be ready in approximately two weeks.

Under scenario three, after these rapid reaction troops were sent three or four more Army divisions would be sent, and there would probably be a decision whether to commit the full Marine Expeditionary Force or just one division. These troops could arrive in four to six weeks. The time would be shorter if more troops had been moved towards Iraq beforehand - under the guise of training or other operations. The full air build-up would take about two weeks, as would the naval deployment.

While additional troops were being transported, air power could target Iraqi defense systems and suspected weapon storage areas. Iraqi ground forces could also be hit as they emerged. There would also be a focus on blocking key northern access and escape routes, as well as Ba'ath party strongholds. Troops would also try to gain early control of WMD units and assets to protect both themselves and neighboring states against asymmetrical responses. The goal would be the reduction of Iraq's military forces, while minimizing damage to Iraq's infrastructure.

Military planners would tie the campaigns together as the forces arrived. They would use the full national capabilities of the United States. Despite a decade of military downsizing, which has reduced readiness, US forces would defeat the Republican Guard.

The attack would succeed at any time of year. US troops could fight Iraq equally well in the summer or winter, despite speculation otherwise in the media. Each season has its advantages - for example, the summer heat, while tough on soldiers in chem-suits, would burn up chemical or biological agents.

Regarding ammunition requirements for a full-scale war, US troops would need significant numbers of precision-guided munitions. During the summer, the rate of production made public was about 1500/month. Even if this number were doubled, America would need about 10 months to become fully stocked. Assuming stocks were not at zero and starting counting in December 2001, at the end of the largest Afghan engagements, the United States could have been ready, at the earliest, in October 2002.

As a final note, the United States would have to work with the Iraqi opposition under any of the three scenarios. US troops would need the help of the opposition for tactical and political reasons during the war. Opposition assistance would be key, for example, to encouraging the Iraqi military to rebel and cooperate with US forces. With opposition support, US troops could be seen as liberators, not occupation forces, and indigenous Iraqi forces would be more likely to join them. In addition, a new regime will have to be created, and the opposition contains many of the people likely to populate it. And this regime will also have to help disarm Iraq, so its cooperation will be important to achieving US war aims.

Regional support is needed for a full-scale war on Iraq, and perhaps for a US-backed insurgency scenario as well. Basing, however, would not be a significant problem. Qatar, UAE, and Kuwait will cooperate willingly. In addition, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Iran should be consulted again (as in the first Gulf war) on a known announced basis or unacknowledged unannounced basis.

Even Saudi Arabia might cooperate, either requiring only that we provide a defensible position publicly and prove our threat to use force is credible, or, in the eyes of one panelist, if two or three of the Arab countries side with America, Saudi Arabia would join because it would want to participate in the Gulf peace.

Saudi Arabian bases, while useful, are not necessary. The United States could commit forces directly from its own territory, Europe, Qatar, Kuwait and from the sea. These staging areas would be sufficient if they were cleared quickly.

If the United States invades Iraq, Saddam Hussein may well decide to use chemical or biological weapons against US troops, or against Israel. The possibility of high numbers of casualties is clearly there.

The question is whether Iraqi forces will use CBW if they are ordered to do so. Army debriefs of captured senior Iraqi officers after the first Gulf war gave the impression that Iraqi commanders felt they had the option to use chemical weapons if they wanted to. In other words, command of CBW was decentralized and did not reside with Saddam Hussein alone.

Therefore, the United States could try to prevent a chemical attack by seeking to isolate Saddam Hussein from control of weapons of mass destruction and by convincing the Iraqi commanders that they will suffer if they choose to use them. Deterrence actions would be applied to the commanders, not just to Saddam Hussein.

US commanders would also attack vigorously all chemically armed artillery with "counter battery" fire, and attack chemical storage areas, if these areas can be identified. They also would attempt to shoot down Iraqi ballistic missiles and get full control of the air so Iraq could not use spray planes.


The Prelude

In Iraq, the middle part - the war fighting - is actually the easiest part. There is no question US forces can defeat Saddam Hussein and the Republican Guard. But defining what the United States needs in the prelude to war, and ensuring what happens in the aftermath, will be quite difficult.

The perceived threat from Iraq's mass destruction weapons determines the urgency of war and the degree of international and domestic support for it, as well as the tactics. This raises the question: where exactly are the weapons and how does one find them?

The United States will need better national intelligence than it had in the first Gulf war. American war planners didn't even know about some of Iraq's largest WMD programs. Better intelligence and better coordination will be required to fight the new war, since all its targets - human and WMD-related - are mobile and hard to find. The interagency process in particular needs to be improved. It will be important for all agencies to believe in the war for things to work smoothly.

In addition, deploying a large number of US forces under scenario three will require the use of substantial reserves. This means that people will leave their businesses, employers will lose employees, and a real impact will be felt - economically and emotionally. In fact, the nation will have to go on a war footing to commit 200,000 to 300,000 troops.


The Aftermath

One of the main lessons learned in the first Gulf war was that US planners had not thought carefully enough about the end-state in Iraq. In the next war, a clear vision of the end-state should be made a prerequisite for military action unless the threat from Iraq becomes so urgent that there is no time to complete planning and coordination with allies and coalition partners.

In the new war of disarmament, the aftermath is as important as the war, so it must drive the way the war is prosecuted. The United States at the end of the war needs to be working with an Iraqi regime that will cooperate in fully disclosing Iraq's WMD efforts, leading inspectors to sites and helping destroy all aspects of the program. This is the overarching goal in any war on Iraq. What the United States doesn't want is for WMD to remain hidden after the war, or for the programs to start back up in a few years. It is for this reason that regime change is a part of the war aims - playing a more important role than any effort to democratize the Middle East.

Thus, the crucial factor driving the war is the degree of risk posed by Iraq's WMD effort. The urgency of this threat defines nearly everything, from how much risk to US troops is acceptable to how much force to apply and how quickly to apply it. It also determines whether the United States must have a clear vision of the end-state before taking action.

Getting to this end-state will require the US commander to ensure that disarmament has been achieved before the troops can go home. Thus, finding and destroying WMD will have to be backed up or carried out by armed forces on the ground. And it should happen quickly, as it is uncertain how long US troops are going to occupy Iraq. While US ground forces are not going to solve the problem that inspectors could not solve, ground forces can create conditions that enable the problem to be solved. Disarmament will be achieved with ground troops working arm in arm with inspectors. However, the United States really has to depend at the end of the day on the Iraqis. Soldiers might not be able to find everything, but Iraqis on the ground will be able to lead to WMD caches and sites. Therefore, it will be essential to have a regime whose interests lie in cleaning the WMD program up.

The desired end-state is also a viable Iraq with armed forces sufficient to maintain order and discourage invasion by Iran, and an infrastructure sufficient to sustain the population. Achieving a sustainable balance in the region and internal stability in Iraq will be crucial to keeping Iraq peaceful and disarmed in the future. As a result, US troops should be careful to minimize the destruction of infrastructure and should concentrate on the regime and the forces that choose to protect it.

US planners also must consider the unintended regional consequences of destroying certain groups in Iraq too efficiently. If US military action diminishes the current power of the Sunni Muslims too much, regional allies may face another undesired political mix on their borders. Yet, this Sunni apparatus has to be taken on forcefully enough to rid Iraq of its weapons. The Sunni-Shiite schism in the Middle East is a real worry in how the war is prosecuted and what the situation becomes afterward.

Another concern is that Iraq may fracture. A US invasion will have to leave somebody standing who is strong enough to rule when the war is over. If the United States destroys too much of the Iraqi army, then how does one keep the Shiites in the south from rising up or the Kurds in the north from asserting power at the expense of internal stability? US forces would need to stay in Iraq until a stable government can be created, which may take an extended period of time.

Finally, war planners must consider how to leave an Iraqi military strong enough to balance Iran, but not to threaten the region. This will be impossible without an Iraqi regime committed to peace and disarmament, as any force large enough to balance Iran would have no trouble overrunning one of its smaller neighbors. The United States must somehow destroy Saddam's power base yet leave his forces at a sufficient level - some 40% to 50% strength - to be used in the aftermath.

In sum, the future Iraqi regime will need to be strong, though not necessarily democratic, and have sufficient power to disarm and stabilize Iraq, and to prevent incursions from its neighbors. A new leader will not necessarily be pro-American, but cannot be anti-American either. The leader might still be anti-Israeli, and probably would have to be to survive. And the leader would have to rule with some force. The regime has to owe its ascension to power to a promise to get rid of weapons of mass destruction and be capable of holding the country together. A regime in Baghdad that is pro-US or democratic, while good to contemplate, may not be attainable, and is not necessary to the ultimate goal: an Iraq free of weapons of mass destruction and an Iraq that will not threaten its neighbors.






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As of August 2006, Iraq Watch is no longer being updated. Click here for more information.

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