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Home > News > Columnists > Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Lessons from the New Romans

May 15, 2003

The Americans are being called the New Romans fortheir unilateralism in a world divided as probably never before.

The Anglo-American war in Iraq seta newbenchmark in intervention. It is possible nowto draw military lessons from it,and see how these might be relevant for India.

With the fall of Baghdad, the militaryphase of Operation Iraqi Freedom ended on April9, within 21 days of the start of the war. Thenext seven dayssaw mopping-up operations, which included thesurrender of Tikrit.

Inan asymmetric war, the coalition forces had advanced to within 50 miles of Baghdad inseven days, thefastest advance in military history. Some of theworld's elite fighting forces from the US and the UK wereinvolved. But behind the overt war were large-scaleclandestine operations by special forces belonging to the UK, US, Australia and Poland.

Look at recent wars. These were preceded bylong bombing campaigns, the idea being to win the warfrom the air. The 1991 Gulf Warlasted 42 days. The aerial bombardment lasted 38 days; the land offensive four days.The war in Bosnia (1995) lasted 17 days, all 17 fought from the air. There was no need for a groundoffensive. Kosovo (1999) lasted78 days,again allfought from the air. Afghanistan (2001) lasted 76 days: 65 daysof an air campaign, 11 days of a ground offensive.

But the Iraq war was different. The airand ground campaigns began together. This reflected a newfound willingness among the coalition forces to commitground troops ab initio. It also revived the abiding principle that at the end of the day, nomatter how lethal and effective an air campaign, youneed soldiers to seize and hold ground.

What was the planning process of this war?

This was the third Gulf war, the first beingthe Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988. Iraq's invasion ofKuwait led to Gulf War II in 1991. In a sense, Gulf War II never ended in 1991. Eversince, Iraq has been subject to severe sanctions andaerial bombardment in the no-flying zones in the north andsouth. It was, therefore, the unfinishedagenda of George Bush, Senior, that his sontook to its logicalconclusion.

Thus cameabout OpPlan 1003 Victor, aliasOperation Iraqi Freedom. It was the outcome of intense arguments between the old-schoolPowell Doctrine of overwhelming force(put forward by Secretaryof State Colin Powell) and the more refined Rumsfeld strategy (of Secretary of DefenceDonald Rumsfeld) of using small, smart forces.The latter prevailed even over the theatrecommander, General Tommy Franks' call for a long bombingcampaign followed by a ground offensive with largeground forces.

There was a plan A and a plan B, which wasthe contingency that precluded a ground thrust through Turkey. The operational plan and its contingencieswere out in the open and discussed threadbare in themedia. The only element of surprise left was theD-Day. Even that was predictable to anytime after March 18, the ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to come clean onweapons of mass destruction.

The original D-Daywas March 21, but this was brought forward toMarch 20 withthe decapitating strike to get Saddam. The planningprocess was intelligence-drivenand involved the best ofelite forces to be applied in a simultaneous air andland offensive. The preparation of the battlefield wasdone by nearly 9,000 special forces drawn from the US, UK, Australia and Poland. The hallmark of the plan wasspeed, flexibility, adaptability and precision.

What assumptions had the coalition command made forthe war?

a. There would be an uprising among the people in thenorth and south of Iraq.
b. The Iraqi military would offer minimal resistance.
c. The Baath Party leadership would be isolated.
d. There would be no interference from Arabneighbours.

Barring the first, the others were actualised.

What were the fears for the planners?

Foremost was the threat of chemical andbiological weapons, Iraq 'Scud-ding' Israel,the destruction of oilfields, and the risks of urban fighting.The coalition forces had to ensure that there was minimumcollateral damage to win the hearts andminds of the Iraqis. But despite the precision ofthe bombing, there was huge collateral damage, which madewinning over the Iraqi people difficult.

What were the strategic objectives?

a. Securing oilfields
b. Seizing WMDs
c. Breaking terrorist links with Al Qaeda and otherorganisations
d. Changing the Baghdad regime
e. Facilitating a resolution of the Israel-Palestine question

What were the military objectives?

a. Capture Baghdad and Basra
b. Secure the Al Faw peninsula
c. Seize the oilfields
d. Insulate Iraq from its neighbours
e. Prevent Iraqi Scuds from targeting itsneighbours, including Israel, and the coalition forces
f. Destroy the Republican Guard

How were the military operations conducted?

Iraq was divided into operational sectors.British forces were given theresponsibility of securing the southern Al Fawpeninsula, which included the Rumaila oilfields. The restof Iraq was with the US forces. The northern sectorwas allotted to the newly created specialforces command.

Some 350,000 US and British troops werefacing 450,000 Iraqi armed forces, including 60,000Republican Guards. Conventional wisdom had it that an invading army should be at least three times larger than the defending force. But thistime the disparity wasprovided by the firepower. Battlefieldcommanders had access to near-instant operational dataowing to surveillance facilities like unmanned aerial vehicles, satellites,handheld computers, and human intelligence. Theseoperations saw the revolution in military affairs in action. The time-testedprinciple of fire and movementwas revolutionised by fire from the ground being augmented, at times replaced, by fire from the air. Theopen terrain played a key role in the use of forcemultipliers.

The land offensive was launched from Kuwait just a fewhours after the pre-emptive strikes on March 20 to take out Saddam and his sons from his Dora Farmsresidence near Baghdad. Two main thrusts weredeveloped towards Baghdad: one by the 3rd Infantry Divisionalong the Euphrates river, the other in the eastalong the Tigris by the 1st US Marine Division. These were supported by elements of the 101st Airborne and 82ndAirborne divisions.

The tactic used by the advancing forces was to blitz Baghdad,bypassing opposition along the 600km stretch from theKuwait border. Inseven days, the 3rd Infantry Division reached to within 80km of Baghdad, unarguably the fastestadvance in military history. The marines, however,ran intotrouble near Al Kuts and were delayed in reachingthe capital. One of the marine colonels in charge of the advance was sacked.

There was no organised resistance anywhere anytimeduring the war. No pitched battles were fought. Only skirmishes took place. On the seventeenth day, Baghdadinternational airport was seized. The next day, tanksentered the capital and were surprised to encounter noopposition. By April 9, exactly three weeks after thewar began, Baghdad had fallen. The turning point was the seizure of the airport and the snap judgment onthe part of the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division to stay put withhis tanks in Baghdad at great risk.

The capture of Basra by the British 1st Division was, by contrast,slow and measured. It gathered momentum onlyafterBaghdad was penetrated. This was hailed as theBritish way of taking Basra.

In the north, special forces and local Kurdish rebels took the honours by capturingMosul and Tikrit without a fight.After the initial advance ofseven to 10 days, there was anoperational pause. This was misread as the advancebeing stalled and instantly critics of the planstarted recalling quagmires likeVietnam.

One has to remember, however, thatthe ground offensive was launchedunder the most asymmetric of conditions. Coalition forcesenjoyed air supremacy. The near simultaneity of airand ground operations made the Iraqi militarydeaf, dumb, blind, and immobile. They were totallyunprepared to fight. Special forces infiltrated the country muchbefore the war andplayed a signal role in the collapseof the Iraqi forcesby designating targets for air attacks.

The air campaign was one of shock and awe, somethingnever seen before. Officially,the air battlestarted 48 hours later. Nearly 40,000strikes and sorties, of which 23,000 usedprecision-guided munitions, were delivered over Iraq. Some of them achieved the incredible accuracy of a CEP(Circle of Error Probability) of 2 metres.

TheRepublican Guard divisions were decimated from theair and by fire from artillery, tanks and Apachegunships. Baghdad was won from the air. The truth is, no real ground battle was fought anywhere.

The controland management of air space over Iraq for so manyflying machines and objects was indeed complex. In this, the special forces have to be singled out for their keyrole. Like in Afghanistan, they directed coalition aircraft and missiles on totargets. There are reports that some of theinternational arms inspectors had designated targets,that is, provided the latest map coordinates. Upto US$500million were spent on covert operations. Now there iseven a new special forces command within the Pentagon.

The seas off the battle zone were cluttered with warships and aircraft carriers. Thousands ofmiles from the war zone, these platforms fought astandoff war, making victory a certainty.

How difficult were the logistics and stagemanagement of the war?

Very complex. The US and the UK were waging a war 10,000and 3,000 miles, respectively, from home. The sheer scale ofpreparation, movement, and stocking of material wasmindboggling. Nearly half a million troops from eight countries were involved. The buildup tooksix months and many of the troops in the war zone were initially deployed for training andlater concentrated in Kuwait. The supply of fuel, food, water, medicines, and other items had to be arrangedfor civilians too.

The difficulty in managing the movement of aircraft, missiles, bombs, artillery, andso on was evident from the friendlyfire accidents. At least three fighter aircraft were shot downand half-a-dozen other cases of mistaken fire andbombing occurred. ThePentagon placed the official toll as on April 20 at 128. Of these, 110 were combat-related and 18others were on account of non-hostile action. In all, 495 were wounded in combat with 59 more injured in accidents. TheBritish lost 31 soldiers in combat,more than half through friendly fire and accidents. These are stillthe lowest casualties of any recent war.

Why did the Iraqi military not fight?

The armed forces had been emasculated by twoprevious wars and 12 years of sanctions. They were highly politicised and barring the eliteRepublican Guard, who were loyal to Saddam, the restwas a force of conscripts. The command and control washighly centralised and levels of motivation andmorale, rather low. There was no concept of a people'sarmy or any military tradition. The Indian army andair force were involved in training them for about 20years from 1972 to 1991. In fact, the training teamwas in Iraq during the war with Iran.

Was there any major difference in operationalconcept between the battles for Basra and Baghdad?

The British, who have wide experience in fightingurban insurgency in Northern Ireland, followed a slow and steady method for reducing the opposition inBasra. They did not rush headlong into Iraq's second city, which has a population of 1.3 million. Instead, theychipped away at the hearts and minds of the people, hoping totrigger a collapse from within, while nibbling at theIraqi resistance. Unlike Baghdad, which was pulverisedfrom the air, Basra was only selectively bombed. But the resistance began to crack only after USforces had surrounded Baghdad and captured the airport. The British fought their biggest tank battlesince World War II north of Basra.

The Americans, on the other hand, penetrated Baghdadswiftly and surprised everyone, including themselves, with the ease with which they got in. Thedaring of the UScommanders reinforced the shock and awedelivered unceasingly from the air. In many respects,Baghdad was won from the air.

Is there any similarity between the fall of Baghdadand the surrender of Dacca in 1971?

The preparation for the liberation of EastPakistan took nine months. The Indians enjoyed airsuperiority. It was Dacca first at all costs. Sixcolumns converged on Dacca, bypassing oppositionen route. The Mukti Bahini, acting like special forces, were operating inside East Pakistan well before thestart of the war. The city was bombarded with leaflets. Psywar was waged through commercial radio aswell as military transmissions. A big disinformationcampaign was also launched.

The two main differences were:
a. an airdrop was carried out on the outskirts ofDacca, and
b. there was no large-scale bombing of Dacca.

The result of the warwas also different. The Pakistan Army was forced to surrender unconditionally in 13 days.

What were the main difficulties faced by the coalitionforces?

The biggest upset of the war was Turkey notallowing the use of its soil for the thrust from the north. There was no collapse from within either the Iraqiarmy or the people, at least not within thefirst few days, as expected. On the other hand, troopsfaced intense hostility from the Iraqis,especially theShias. The operations stalled (this was called an operational pause) after the first10 days becauselines of supply had not been secured. Sandstorms addedto the adversity.

After some token resistance the Iraqiarmy collapsed and fled. Civilians then took to the streets, looting and plundering. The totalanarchy wasnotanticipated. Worse, therewere no footsoldiers for pacification operations andspecialists for restoring essential services. This wasa big command failure. The military phase ended soquickly that no interim administration was ready to take over. As the troops employed were nottrained in urban fighting, young tankmen and marinesbecame edgy. Engaging the Palestine Hotel withtankfire would never have happened if the troops had beenbetter trained for such a contingency.

What are the main lessons for the Indian armedforces?

a. The need to forge a coercive militarystrategy that includes the clear delineation oftolerance thresholds for the continuing proxy war.
b. The need to devise a joint air-land doctrine. The timelag between sensor and shooter in Iraq was often just 20minutes. The Indian Air Force takes 75minutes to deliver immediate close air support to thearmy. This time must be at least halved.
c. The use of more and robust special forces organisedunder a new special operations command and driven by hard intelligence for covert operations.
d. The need for more bold and unconventional operational thinking and techniques given to greater risk-taking, and greater decentralisation of command.
e. The need to improve mobilisation and deploymentprocedures, and laying and lifting of minefields.
f. The need to develop techniques to defeat suicideattacks.
g. Acquisition of smarter weapons and smart munitions.
h. Enhancement of psywar and infowar capabilities.

Themajor lessons from the Iraq warhave been encapsulated. But only a few are applicable in our operational milieu. While drawing such lessons, one hasto also see who is waging war against whom. Moreover, as India's victory in 1971 and the recent coalition victoryhave shown, winning a war is easier than winning the peace.


Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)


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Number of User Comments: 7




Sub: excellent article

this is a very well written and thoughtful article unlike some of the routine articles by rajiv srinivasan


Posted by nagendra





Sub: excellent analysis

Excellent Analysis - could it be outdated for the future nasty wars !!


Posted by Pravin Patel





Sub: Interesting article

Hi. I'm probably a bit of an oddity here so here we go: 1. Depleted Uranium, as mentioned before, is not a nuclear weapon but ...


Posted by Edward Royce





Sub: save iraq

i thinnk that america is not a builder of iraq all muslim of iraq are r responsibility to make a stron happy iraq we pray ...


Posted by musharraf ali





Sub: iraq war

the colonisers win the war by the 3 m's money mussle and media as they always do this time with no effective opposition to the ...


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