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

Lessons from the New Romans

May 15, 2003

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

The Anglo-American war in Iraq set a new benchmark in intervention. It is possible now to draw military lessons from it, and see how these might be relevant for India.

With the fall of Baghdad, the military phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom ended on April 9, within 21 days of the start of the war. The next seven days saw mopping-up operations, which included the surrender of Tikrit.

In an asymmetric war, the coalition forces had advanced to within 50 miles of Baghdad in seven days, the fastest advance in military history. Some of the world's elite fighting forces from the US and the UK were involved. But behind the overt war were large-scale clandestine operations by special forces belonging to the UK, US, Australia and Poland.

Look at recent wars. These were preceded by long bombing campaigns, the idea being to win the war from the air. The 1991 Gulf War lasted 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 ground offensive. Kosovo (1999) lasted 78 days, again all fought from the air. Afghanistan (2001) lasted 76 days: 65 days of an air campaign, 11 days of a ground offensive.

But the Iraq war was different. The air and ground campaigns began together. This reflected a newfound willingness among the coalition forces to commit ground troops ab initio. It also revived the abiding principle that at the end of the day, no matter how lethal and effective an air campaign, you need soldiers to seize and hold ground.

What was the planning process of this war?

This was the third Gulf war, the first being the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait led to Gulf War II in 1991. In a sense, Gulf War II never ended in 1991. Ever since, Iraq has been subject to severe sanctions and aerial bombardment in the no-flying zones in the north and south. It was, therefore, the unfinished agenda of George Bush, Senior, that his son took to its logical conclusion.

Thus came about OpPlan 1003 Victor, alias Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was the outcome of intense arguments between the old-school Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force (put forward by Secretary of State Colin Powell) and the more refined Rumsfeld strategy (of Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld) of using small, smart forces. The latter prevailed even over the theatre commander, General Tommy Franks' call for a long bombing campaign followed by a ground offensive with large ground forces.

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

The original D-Day was March 21, but this was brought forward to March 20 with the decapitating strike to get Saddam. The planning process was intelligence-driven and involved the best of elite forces to be applied in a simultaneous air and land offensive. The preparation of the battlefield was done by nearly 9,000 special forces drawn from the US, UK, Australia and Poland. The hallmark of the plan was speed, flexibility, adaptability and precision.

What assumptions had the coalition command made for the war?

a. There would be an uprising among the people in the north 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 Arab neighbours.

Barring the first, the others were actualised.

What were the fears for the planners?

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

What were the strategic objectives?

a. Securing oilfields
b. Seizing WMDs
c. Breaking terrorist links with Al Qaeda and other organisations
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 its neighbours, 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 the responsibility of securing the southern Al Faw peninsula, which included the Rumaila oilfields. The rest of Iraq was with the US forces. The northern sector was allotted to the newly created special forces command.

Some 350,000 US and British troops were facing 450,000 Iraqi armed forces, including 60,000 Republican Guards. Conventional wisdom had it that an invading army should be at least three times larger than the defending force. But this time the disparity was provided by the firepower. Battlefield commanders had access to near-instant operational data owing to surveillance facilities like unmanned aerial vehicles, satellites, handheld computers, and human intelligence. These operations saw the revolution in military affairs in action. The time-tested principle of fire and movement was revolutionised by fire from the ground being augmented, at times replaced, by fire from the air. The open terrain played a key role in the use of force multipliers.

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

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

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

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

In the north, special forces and local Kurdish rebels took the honours by capturing Mosul and Tikrit without a fight. After the initial advance of seven to 10 days, there was an operational pause. This was misread as the advance being stalled and instantly critics of the plan started recalling quagmires like Vietnam.

One has to remember, however, that the ground offensive was launched under the most asymmetric of conditions. Coalition forces enjoyed air supremacy. The near simultaneity of air and ground operations made the Iraqi military deaf, dumb, blind, and immobile. They were totally unprepared to fight. Special forces infiltrated the country much before the war and played a signal role in the collapse of the Iraqi forces by designating targets for air attacks.

The air campaign was one of shock and awe, something never seen before. Officially, the air battle started 48 hours later. Nearly 40,000 strikes and sorties, of which 23,000 used precision-guided munitions, were delivered over Iraq. Some of them achieved the incredible accuracy of a CEP (Circle of Error Probability) of 2 metres.

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

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

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

How difficult were the logistics and stage management of the war?

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

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

Why did the Iraqi military not fight?

The armed forces had been emasculated by two previous wars and 12 years of sanctions. They were highly politicised and barring the elite Republican Guard, who were loyal to Saddam, the rest was a force of conscripts. The command and control was highly centralised and levels of motivation and morale, rather low. There was no concept of a people's army or any military tradition. The Indian army and air force were involved in training them for about 20 years from 1972 to 1991. In fact, the training team was in Iraq during the war with Iran.

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

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

The Americans, on the other hand, penetrated Baghdad swiftly and surprised everyone, including themselves, with the ease with which they got in. The daring of the US commanders reinforced the shock and awe delivered unceasingly from the air. In many respects, Baghdad was won from the air.

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

The preparation for the liberation of East Pakistan took nine months. The Indians enjoyed air superiority. It was Dacca first at all costs. Six columns converged on Dacca, bypassing opposition en route. The Mukti Bahini, acting like special forces, were operating inside East Pakistan well before the start of the war. The city was bombarded with leaflets. Psywar was waged through commercial radio as well as military transmissions. A big disinformation campaign was also launched.

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

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

What were the main difficulties faced by the coalition forces?

The biggest upset of the war was Turkey not allowing the use of its soil for the thrust from the north. There was no collapse from within either the Iraqi army or the people, at least not within the first few days, as expected. On the other hand, troops faced intense hostility from the Iraqis,especially the Shias. The operations stalled (this was called an operational pause) after the first 10 days because lines of supply had not been secured. Sandstorms added to the adversity.

After some token resistance the Iraqi army collapsed and fled. Civilians then took to the streets, looting and plundering. The total anarchy was not anticipated. Worse, there were no footsoldiers for pacification operations and specialists for restoring essential services. This was a big command failure. The military phase ended so quickly that no interim administration was ready to take over. As the troops employed were not trained in urban fighting, young tankmen and marines became edgy. Engaging the Palestine Hotel with tankfire would never have happened if the troops had been better trained for such a contingency.

What are the main lessons for the Indian armed forces?

a. The need to forge a coercive military strategy that includes the clear delineation of tolerance thresholds for the continuing proxy war.
b. The need to devise a joint air-land doctrine. The time lag between sensor and shooter in Iraq was often just 20 minutes. The Indian Air Force takes 75 minutes to deliver immediate close air support to the army. This time must be at least halved.
c. The use of more and robust special forces organised under 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 deployment procedures, and laying and lifting of minefields.
f. The need to develop techniques to defeat suicide attacks.
g. Acquisition of smarter weapons and smart munitions.
h. Enhancement of psywar and infowar capabilities.

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

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

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