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LESSONS OF WAR

THE MILITARY LESSONS OF OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM

by Michael P. Noonan, May 1, 2003

Michael P.  Noonan is  Research Fellow  (Defense Policy) and Deputy Director  of the  Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.


 

The initial  military phase  of Operation  Iraqi Freedom has been a  stunning success. In just twenty-one days the United States drove  Saddam Hussein's  Ba'athist regime  from power and destroyed  its military and security apparatus.  This is more  than  remarkable.  As  many  have  pointed  out,  this operation took  less than  half as  long as Operation Desert Storm, with about one-third as many troops, and accomplished a goal  far grander  than the  stated goals  of twelve years ago.   What does  this portend  for the  future of  American military power and capabilities?

Many lessons learned may be drawn from this first phase.  In fact, Secretary  of Defense  Donald Rumsfeld  has  appointed Admiral Edward  Giambastiani and  his  staff  at  the  Joint Forces Command  to compile  the official lessons learned for the Department  of  Defense.    Far  from  being  a  mundane academic  exercise,   these  compiled   lessons  will   most certainly  drive   change  and   reinforce  the   need   for transformation across the services.  In the zero-sum game of the defense  budgetary process,  however, this  will  create winners and  losers.   More important,  these  lessons  will determine the  types and  numbers of  forces that the nation maintains to  provide for the common defense.  Therefore, it is essential  to study  the macro-level lessons of Operation Iraqi Freedom  rather than the lessons that support specific weapons platforms  or that  deal with the combat experienced in that  specific environment.    In  short,  what  are  the lessons for how the United States projects its military in a complex world?

THEORIES OF WAR Attrition   warfare.      Maneuver   warfare.      Airpower. Counterinsurgency   warfare.       Expeditionary    warfare. Information operations.   Effects-based  operations.   Rapid decisive operations.   These are but a few of the schools of thought that can be assessed as either successes or failures from the  experiences thus far, and moving forward, in Iraq. Of course,  in terms  of reputations, doctrines, and funding priorities, much  is at  stake in  what Joint Forces Command deem as  what worked  well, what needs improvement, and what did not work in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

While much  was made  of "shock  and awe" and other concepts prior to the war, perhaps the most amazing aspect of the war has been  how it  was accomplished  in such  an a  la  carte fashion.   The degree  of jointness  and combined operations
(as evidenced  by the  successful integration of Australian, British, and  Polish forces  into  the  war  plan)  shows  a remarkable evolution  even from  the  manner  of  operations undertaken in  Afghanistan in  2001 and  2002.    Air-ground coordination, special  operations  forces  (SOF)-main  force cooperation (best  illustrated by  an operation  where Delta Force commandos  were assisted  by a  platoon  of  M1  tanks searching for Ba'athist leadership on the highway connecting Baghdad and  Tikrit), and  the  application  of  both  rapid maneuver/precision  strike   and  close   combat  techniques depending on  the tactical  situation enabled  a synergy  of effect --  aided by  massive amounts  of information -- that allowed our  forces to  achieve results larger than might be expected from  the number  of forces committed to the fight. When Iraqi  units countered  our tactics,  we were  able  to shift on  the fly  and change  our methods  to  achieve  the desired results.   (This perhaps is best illustrated from an example from  northern Iraq.  Iraqi forces began to look for the vapor  trails of  U.S. aircraft  in order  to anticipate SOF-directed pinpoint  air strikes.   The  Iraqi forces then dug  in  and  hid,  which  allowed  them  to  remain  combat effective.   But U.S.  forces were able to break the will of Iraqi forces  by bringing  in two  105mm howitzers  from the
173rd Airborne  Brigade that  shattered Iraqi  resistance by letting them  know that  they were  not  safe  anywhere  and anytime from the offensive onslaught.)

CONVENTIONAL VS. UNCONVENTIONAL OPERATIONS? At a broad cultural level, Operation Iraqi Freedom reaffirms the lessons  of the  last decade that the U.S. military must be  capable  of  performing  operations  across  the  entire spectrum of  conflict.   It is  not helpful  - indeed, it is damaging  --   to  claim  that  all  operations  aside  from warfighting are antithetical to the military ethos.  Our men and women  in uniform must be prepared to transition rapidly from warfighting  to peacekeeping  --  and  back  again,  if necessary .  As V  Corps Commander  LTG William Wallace told the National  Journal's James  Kitfield, "One day our troops are kicking  down doors,  and the  next they're  passing out Band-Aids.   And in  some cases,  they're kicking down doors without really  knowing if  they are going to have to pull a trigger or  pass out a Band-Aid on the other side.  And it's really a  remarkable tribute  to the  mental acuity  of  our soldiers that they are able to do that."

Superior leadership  and intense and realistic training will ensure that this continues to be the case.  Culturally, this needs to  be ingrained  in our land forces, particularly the Army.  Luckily, or unluckily depending on one's perspective, there is  an opportunity to reinforce this as President Bush will  soon  be  filling  appointments  for  a  new  civilian Secretary of the Army and two general officers for the posts of Chief and Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.  And while the Marine Corps  has historically  been the  closest thing  the United States has had to "colonial infantry" (as retired LTG Bernard Trainor  so eloquently  puts  it),  their  doctrinal shift from  amphibious to  expeditionary warfare  will  also require  additional   emphasis   on   the   intricacies   of "operations other  than war."   The  lessons of  the  Marine Corps' own  Small Wars  Manual (1940)  should be  especially heeded --  particularly the  notion that military forces may be the  supporting, rather  than supported, element carrying out  the   broader  political  objectives  in  an  ambiguous environment.

Last, the  unprecedented use of special operations forces in Operation Iraqi  Freedom, nearly  eight percent of the force package  in   theater,  further   blurs  the   line  between conventional and unconventional operations.  The tenacity of these forces  operations in  the west  and north  of Iraq -- assisted by airpower and in the latter case by the parachute landing of  the 173rd  Airborne Brigade at Bashur -- allowed the size  of the  main battlespace  to  be  reduced  from  a California-sized  proposition   to  the   scale  of  a  more manageable Connecticut-sized  space. This  in part  helps to explain why  four divisions  (three U.S.  and one  from  the U.K.) plus  a brigade  were able to achieve the results they accomplished in  the southern  and central  regions  of  the country -- assisted again by SOF.

FORCE STRUCTURES AND EMPLOYMENT As the  SOF example  points out,  we are rapidly reaching an age where it is better to conceive of military operations as autonomous or  centralized rather  than as  conventional  or unconventional.   Autonomous operations  are ones handled by generally small  forces that are hand selected and extremely well-trained and  -equipped.  SOF units, while not perfectly suited for  all manner  of missions,  are able to accomplish results disproportionate  to their size precisely because of the high  standards and  collective  experience  that  their members bring to bear in real world operational environs and the latitude  with which  they are  granted to perform their duties.    Centralized  operations,  conversely,  accomplish their goals  by using  mass and stricter command and control arrangements to  offset the lower experience levels found in the majority  of personnel  in main  force units.    In  the current strategic  environment,  both  types  of  operations serve their  purposes. Although this will continue to be the case going  into the future, economy of force considerations and the  combined arms  synergies of  our forces  will  most likely favor more autonomous units.

Educating future  officers and  noncommissioned officers for the  demands   of  autonomy  and  the  increasing  flows  of information will  be imperative.   Sound  decision-making -- with plenty  of room for innovative improvisation -- will be required to deal with and react to the deluge of information that permeates  the  21st  century  battlefield.    Emerging junior leaders  will  require  increasing  amounts  of  both formal and  practical knowledge and leadership experience in order to  make the  right decisions.   While  fast decision- making is important, it should not be held as the key factor above all  else.   As defense  analyst Mark  R. Lewis wisely cautions, "while  there is  value in  greater speed,  a  bad decision arrived  at in  one-third the  time is  still a bad decision."

The  difficulties   in  getting  the  heavy  4th  Mechanized Division to  the fight  and the  fact that most of the heavy Army and  Marine equipment was pre-positioned in the Persian Gulf region  or at  Diego Garcia  in the  Indian Ocean, show that our  forces need  to be  more  rapidly  deployable  and expeditionary.   While pre-positioning will remain essential to future  operations, our  forces  will  need  to  look  at smarter ways  to get  the equipment to where it can be used. For the  Army, this  means that  its new  leadership  should embrace a  culture of  air --  and in some cases maritime -- movement for all of its forces.  The Marine Corps, with more experience in this arena, should accept this reality, assist where  it   can,  and   focus  on  its  core  competency  of expeditionary movement  from the  sea -- particularly moving forward with the sea-basing concept.  The Navy and Air Force will remain  indispensable for providing loitering precision strike  capabilities   and   for   rapidly   deploying   and replenishing our forces.

The geostrategic  realities of the present and future do not bode well  for a  slowdown in  the operational tempos of our armed forces.   Added  to this, full spectrum operations are labor-intensive.   More forces  able to  deploy and  conduct operations across  the spectrum  of conflict  in myriad  and disparate locations  should  allow  our  forces  overall  to maintain higher  readiness levels.  This will  mean that the active-reserve component  force  mixture  will  need  to  be looked at in-depth in order to ensure that certain units and military occupational  specialties are  in places where they are more  easily available  to the combatant commanders.  It is widely  recognized that  the current  reserve  system  is clearly not  designed for such frequent and lengthy tours of duty with  the accompanying disruption of careers and family life.

CONCLUSION Our future enemies will not necessarily be like Iraq.  Iraqi strategy was  largely inept, its forces used outdated and in many cases  worn-out  equipment,  and  air  superiority  was accomplished prior  to the outbreak of hostilities.  In Iraq our fiercest  opponents were  the Saddam  Fedayeen  and  the foreign volunteers,  who were  both motivated by ideological factors.   Like al  Qaeda, these types of combatants will be the most  serious threats  to  American  men  and  women  on current and future battlefields.  In order for our forces to prevail, our  forces will  need to  bring the  best means of warfare  to   bear  to   defeat   enemies   and   to   spare noncombatants.   In the  majority of cases, these means will be carried  out within  a joint  context.   Operation  Iraqi Freedom  has,   or  should,   validate  the   importance  of jointness.   Any future  joint operating concept should look to Operation Iraqi Freedom for its singular lesson: the best way   to   achieve   goals   is   through   multidimensional capabilities able to apply the right tools at the right time across the spectrum of conflict.

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