Audacious Mission, Awesome Risks
Bold War Plan Emphasizes Lightning Attacks and Complex Logistics
Rick Atkinson and Thomas E. Ricks, The Washington Post, March 16
CAMP NEW JERSEY, Kuwait, March 15 -- With a force only one-third the size of the one that liberated Kuwait 12 years ago, U.S. commanders poised to attack Iraq have been given a far more ambitious mission: March hundreds of miles to Baghdad, neutralize the Iraqi military, overthrow President Saddam Hussein and then prevent a country the size of California from disintegrating into chaos.
The war plan they have devised to do all this is by
most accounts innovative, even daring. "We literally could be in Baghdad in
three or four days," said one general here in the field. "How
audacious do you want to be?"
But those qualities also make this mission riskier than
other recent U.S. military operations. Retired Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, a
former chief of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the
Middle East, noted that danger is "what comes with being bold and audacious."
The aspects of the operation that most worry planners
here, and Pentagon insiders and experts in the United States, are the emphasis
on lightning, simultaneous operations that could result in "friendly fire"
incidents; the dependence on a 350-mile supply line; and the heavy reliance on
Special Operations troops behind enemy lines. Overhanging the entire operation
is the prospect that Iraq could use chemical or biological weapons. The other
major fear is that U.S. forces could be bogged down in an urban battle that
could turn Baghdad into a modern Stalingrad -- a possibility that has resulted
in some troops here being issued battle axes and battering rams.
Commanders and planners here stay up to the small hours
of the morning, every morning, refining ways to achieve their goals with as few
casualties as possible. The challenges are enormous, the opportunities rife for
misfortune, even disaster. "There are a thousand 'what-ifs' going through
your mind," said the general in the field.
A defining element of the plan is its requirement of
speed, with multiple combat actions occurring nearly simultaneously in three
arenas -- air attacks, ground combat and Special Operations activities behind
Strategists continue to calibrate the relationship
between "A-day," when an air attack begins to reduce Iraqi air
defenses and other key targets, and "G-day," the launching of a ground
attack. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, ground action came after five weeks of
bombing. This time the two attacks are likely to be only a few days apart and
could be nearly simultaneous, depending on how Iraq reacts to the initial
pummeling by cruise missiles and other air-delivered munitions.
"The campaign will move very fast," said one
senior Air Force officer. The speed of the attacks is intended to sap the Iraqi
military's ability to coordinate its response.
But that pace can also cause deadly confusion on the
battlefield. "Simultaneity is . . . a fertile breeding ground for risk,"
noted John F. Guilmartin Jr., a retired Air Force pilot who teaches military
history at Ohio State University.
Whenever G-day comes, the ground forces coiled in
Kuwait -- including the 3rd Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne Division and
the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force -- anticipate attacking with Patton-like
audacity. Roughly 350 miles of road separate the northern border of Kuwait from
Baghdad, and substantial mechanized forces are expected to be on the outskirts
of the Iraqi capital within a few days, even as attack helicopters are
conducting deep strikes far beyond the U.S. vanguard.
All those moving parts will place unusual stresses on
U.S. forces, especially on commanders trying to ensure that there are multiple
actions occurring across Iraq. One defense analyst involved in reviewing the war
plan worries that U.S. "command and control" systems -- both the
communications systems and the people who operate them -- could be overwhelmed.
Breakdowns in tracking the locations of units could
lead to friendly fire accidents, with the nightmare being a recurrence of the
sort of mistakes that accounted for 35 deaths in the Gulf War, one-quarter of
the U.S. combat total.
Adding to worries about friendly fire is a sense that
expectations of a short war will fuel a broad clamor for action, said retired
Marine Lt. Col. Jay A. Stout, a career fighter pilot. "There are going to
be some eager, eager beavers," he said. "Everyone has lots of neat,
new toys to support that grunt on the ground -- and they all want to use
Measures have been taken to forestall tragedies, but
some commanders privately wonder whether they are enough. Special thermal panels
and infrared signal lights on vehicles, as well as reflective "glint tape"
on individual soldiers, will help distinguish friend from foe. But the lights
are powered by batteries that must be changed nightly, and the mass of lights
may "confuse the hell out of everybody," according to one aviator.
"It gets down to the leaders forward deciding if
they're friendly forces or enemy forces ahead," said Brig. Gen. Benjamin C.
Freakley, assistant division commander of the 101st. "One of the things I
always ask is, 'Are you being engaged?' If you're not being shot at, then you've
Such practices are being refined, including the
insistence on "PID" -- positive identification of potential targets --
and the imposition of "no-fire" zones where scouts and other forward
troops operate. Commanders incessantly stress "situational awareness"
-- knowing where you are and who is around you -- which is made somewhat easier
by the proliferation in the ranks of global positioning devices. A new system
called "Blue Force Tracker" uses satellite-based transmitters on
select vehicles or aircraft to let senior commanders see on a computer screen
whether their units are where they should be.
One risk of a bold war plan is that it will be executed
too cautiously. A potential flaw in the current plan, said defense analyst
Harlan Ullman, is that "we may not be sufficiently audacious."
In particular, some military experts question whether
Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the top U.S. commander for the war, is inclined to
implement an approach that, by some accounts, was foisted on him by Defense
Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other advocates of greater risk-taking by the
"Tommy Franks is a cautious guy," said Tom
Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington
think tank. A spike in U.S. casualties early on could make Franks and other
commanders back away from the boldness of the plan and radically curtail the
pace of operations, another expert said.
Slowing the invasion could compromise the plan's intent
of sending U.S. ground forces against Baghdad while the Iraqi leadership is
still stunned by the ferocity of the initial air volley. To capitalize
decisively on the shock of that bombing, said Michael Vickers, a former Special
Forces officer who is now a Pentagon consultant, U.S. ground forces need to
reach Baghdad within four days of the outset of the air campaign.
That requirement to keep U.S. ground forces rolling
toward Baghdad will make logistics key. The prospect of supplies and troops
stalled somewhere between Kuwait and Baghdad is a major worry among commanders.
"I cannot overstate the distance issue," said a general.
Traffic management of the "ground assault convoys"
will be critical to keeping the path clear. Care has been lavished on
calculating which units will roll when, and on which routes -- particularly
after early exercises showed the potential for a snarled convergence of tanks
and trucks deep in Iraq. The 3rd Division alone has roughly 5,000 vehicles.
"We describe it as going to Logan Airport [in Boston] when eight lanes
suddenly become two," a senior officer said.
As in the Gulf War, getting fuel forward is probably
the hardest task -- "the long pole in the tent," one planner called
it. M-1A2 tanks are notorious fuel hogs, getting just over half a mile to the
gallon. Two Apache helicopter battalions can guzzle 60,000 gallons of JP-8 fuel
in a single night of intense flying -- and as many as seven Apache battalions
may be flying.
A fuel pipeline extends to northern Kuwait, but the
heavy lifting will be done by scores of 5,000-gallon tankers, supplemented by
2,500-gallon tankers fitted with the special filters needed to fuel helicopters.
Lt. Col. Richard W. Thomas, chief medical officer of the 101st, observed,
"Rommel said, 'The battle is decided by the quartermasters before the first
shot is fired.' That's true."
Commanders know that fuel trucks and bladders make fat
targets. A major risk is that Iraqi units might try to lie low as the ground
attack thrusts northward and then try to attack the vulnerable supply columns
that follow. "The Viet Minh would let the French mobile columns far into
'Indian Country,' then close the door behind them," noted one Marine.
An even darker scenario would involve a key chokepoint,
such as a major river crossing, being "smeared" by a persistent
chemical weapon. Even the fear of such at attack can foul operations. "All
it takes is one guy driving off the road and yelling, 'Gas!' to stop the whole
damned corps," said one infantry commander here.
Some experts worry that hang-ups in logistics could
undercut the speedy nature of the U.S. war plan. "We will have to do things
we haven't done before, haven't trained for, and don't have the right planning
and support systems for," said one person familiar with the plan.
Another unusual and risky aspect of the plan is the
leading role of Special Operations troops, similar to that seen in the Afghan
war in the fall of 2001, but on a much larger scale. The nature of Special
Operations work -- going behind enemy lines, operating in small units with only
small arms -- means that it tends to be more hazardous than regular operations.
Special Operators have already been conducting missions
inside Iraq, where they have established ties with Iraqi opposition groups and
gathered intelligence on the Iraqi military. During a war they also are expected
to help detect and target enemy formations, and prevent the use of chemical and
biological weapons by watching over suspected sites. They also will be assigned
to capture or kill specific Iraqi political and military leaders, say people
familiar with the planning.
In the course of all that, "We'll lose a few
[Special Operations troops]," said one expert. But that, he said, is the
"price of doing business."
But another expert familiar with the war plan added
that the intense use of Special Operations will reduce the dangers to U.S.
forces. Their operations "can greatly reduce the risks of the operation
overall," he said.
A major mission of Special Operations will be leading
the hunt for chemical and biological weapons. A major unknown is how Hussein
will act if U.S. forces are closing in on him. In order to capture those weapons
as quickly as possible, some U.S. troops may move into cities earlier than
commanders might prefer, said one defense expert who has been briefed on the
The biggest conundrum, most military planners in Kuwait
agree, is the endgame, and whether it will involve a protracted fight through
the streets of Baghdad. "The closer you get to Baghdad and the Special
Republican Guard, the tougher the question of will," one officer said,
referring to Hussein's most loyal troops, a few thousand elite soldiers believed
to be in the capital. "That's the million-dollar question: whether they'll
have the will."
Another senior officer added, "We have no
intention of going door-to-door and house-to-house in a city of 5 million. It's
unbelievably complex, with underground tunnels and bunkers everywhere. . . . If
things go bad in a MOUT [military operations in urban terrain] environment, they
go bad quickly."
Troops here have planned extensively for urban fighting
even as they hope to avoid it. Some of the $30 million in supplementary special
equipment purchased since December by the 101st, for example, has urban
implications, if not the hint of a medieval siege: 162 battering rams, 486
grappling hooks, 81 folding assault ladders and 81 battle axes.
Other purchases, according to Lt. Col. Tony Skinner,
the division's rear commander, include 27 .50-caliber sniper rifles, 410 Kevlar
helmets with built-in radio headsets, and nearly 16,000 reusable plastic flex
cuffs; plus, fiber optic viewers for looking around corners, 9,500 backpack
"hydration systems," 42,000 new weapons magazines, and 20,000 new
Some in the military calculate that Hussein and his
government are likely to fall long before U.S. tanks roll into the capital. But
others say it is a possibility, albeit remote, that urban warfare drags on. Keep
in mind, warned one Senate staff member who is an expert in security issues,
that the U.S. military could wind up in Iraq "for a long time, maybe
fighting a low-level insurgency."
Increasing the chances of that outcome is that senior
Iraqi leaders have little incentive to surrender. "They know they'll be
facing tribunals," noted retired Marine Lt. Col. Thomas C. Linn, who served
in northern Iraq in 1991.
But perhaps the riskiest aspect of the current plan is
the character and aims of the war itself, said retired Air Force Col. John
Warden, an architect of the air campaign in the Gulf War.
"The plan is probably one of the most risky in our history as it launches us off into terra incognita for the U.S.: our first preemptive or preventive war; our first attempt to democratize an Islamic state; and establishment of a very narrow beachhead in the midst of a billion undefeated Muslims," he said.
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