TCS Daily

Theory Meets Reality

By Melana Zyla Vickers - October 7, 2002 12:00 AM

Members of Congress preparing for this week's debate on military intervention in Iraq can afford, in general, to draw on their knowledge of the 1991 Gulf War to inform their views. They'll be in trouble, though, if they rely on old information to guide their understanding of U.S. military capabilities.

In numerous ways, a U.S. intervention in Iraq in the coming months will look rather different than it did in 1991. Among the areas of change are: speed, stealth, precision, surveillance, and the basic strategy.

Speed: It took the U.S. Army six months to deploy for the 1991 Gulf War - a pace for which the service has been chided. This time, the army should be ready for action within 30-60 days. That's not exactly lighting quick, but it's an improvement. It comes from the army having pre-positioned equipment - hundreds of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, helicopters, and the like - in Kuwait, Qatar, and on ships in the Indian Ocean. In addition to the army's "prepo," the Marines have two squadrons of three ships apiece, with each squadron supporting some 17,000 troops, stocked full of equipment ready to be put to use in Iraq. Add to this forward presence the troops and equipment that are being placed in the region for military exercises, and the deployment time to Iraq is shortened considerably.

Long-range stealth: Where the first Gulf War saw the first significant use of the stealthy F-117, the military is now a generation ahead in stealth technology. The U.S. now relies on B-2 stealth bombers to launch its campaigns against countries with tough air defenses, flying round trips from the U.S. or Diego Garcia to bomb the defenses and other targets without being detected. The B-2 wasn't needed in Afghanistan because the country had no air defenses. But in the Kosovo war it performed remarkably, flying only 1% of the sorties yet striking 11% of the targets. The only shame of the B-2 record is that the Pentagon, which has only 21 of the bombers, has not seen fit to buy more of them or to develop a new, stealthy, long-range bomber.

Precision: The televised trajectories of "smart bombs" were perhaps the most memorable feature of the 1991 Gulf War. In practice, though, those smart bombs didn't strike as many targets as the military had hoped. With a decade of improvements behind them - including a change from laser guidance that is limited by cloud cover to satellite guidance that is unrestricted by weather - precision-guided munitions now dominate warfare. They strike targets with such accuracy that they've taken over numerous missions previously reserved for soldiers on the ground. Consider the following
transformation: Some 60% of munitions that planners used in Afghanistan were precision-guided, compared with some 35% in Kosovo and 7% in the Gulf War. Adding to the precise munitions' effectiveness is what the military calls "mass" - the fact that so many of the munitions can now be dropped at once. Bombers equipped with PGMs flew only 10% of the sorties in Afghanistan, yet struck 70% of the targets.

Persistent surveillance and unmanned strike: In 1991, the U.S. was unable to track Iraq's positioning of its Scud missiles, and as a result Saddam was able to fire many dozens of the missiles at Israel and at Saudi Arabia. Finding Iraq's missile launchers won't be as much of a problem this time; the U.S. can scan wide areas of the desert with the help of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can loiter over a given location for some 24 hours. The Predators that were so successful in Afghanistan can also now be armed - indeed a Predator helped killing high-level Al Qaeda operative Mohammed Atef in Afghanistan. In addition to surveillance from Global Hawks and Predators, the U.S. can now also watch the battlefield with JSTARS, an airplane-mounted radar-detection system that maps moving targets on the battlefield. In 1991, the U.S. had only two prototype aircraft. It now has numerous fully functional ones. JSTARS has its limits - it's sure to become vulnerable to enemy air defenses in the future. But it's valuable for this Iraq war.

Strategy: In 1991 the U.S. sought to remove Saddam's army from Kuwait. This time, the U.S. will seek to remove Saddam from his army. Where the U.S. used 500,000 troops last time, it could use fewer than 100,000 this time. The troops will necessarily march on Baghdad in order to depose the government - something they didn't do last time. In addition, the U.S. will probably seize large amounts of Iraqi territory early on, to constrain Saddam's options. For example, the U.S. will try to seize territory in the western desert to keep Saddam from firing Scuds from there. For all its differences from 1991, the Iraq war won't look entirely like Afghanistan, where a handful of Special Forces leveraged local forces to overthrow the Taliban regime. But it will be a kind of hybrid between the 1991 Gulf War and Afghanistan, wherein U.S. forces are fewer in number, move faster, are stealthier and more precise, and are aided by technology to a greater degree than ever before.

It was the 1991 Gulf War that signaled to many foreign and domestic military theorists that a "Revolution in Military Affairs" was underway, led by the United States. The next Gulf War is likely to show how right those theorists were. What's the lesson for Congress from all this? Fund long-range, stealthy strike, persistent surveillance, unmanned systems, precision, and rapidly deployable ground forces, because these are the capabilities that are not only improving, but also dominating the way the U.S. fights wars.



TCS Daily Archives