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.

Simultaneous Attacks

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 enemy lines.

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.

Friendly Fire

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 them."

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 got time."

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 military.

"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.

Traffic Management

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.

Special Operations

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 plan.

The Endgame

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 combat belts.

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.