TCS Daily

Battle-Softened Foe

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - April 2, 2003 12:00 AM

"God and country, baby! That's why were doin' this! And we're gonna' win!"

I hope you saw that guy in a tank helmet on Fox News, pumped with adrenaline, standing atop his turret after a skirmish Monday. It was one of those great little moments that captured the fighting spirit of American troops as they step up the pace of probing attacks against the Republican Guard south of Baghdad.

By the way, let's just stop here for a minute to do a bit of analytical housekeeping. Could all reporters, pundits, analysts, armchair generals and other commentators please stop using the word "elite" when describing the Republican Guard? These are not elite troops in any sense of the word. These are a bunch of strutting bullies who have abused their own people and spent a lot of time parading in front of His Nibs, the guy with the ridiculous fedora who shoots his pistol in the air and is now notably missing.

Now they are having their sorry asses handed to them by real elite troops - British and American Special Forces and the "ordinary" fighting men of the British and American infantry and the Royal and U.S. Marines, not to mention naval and air forces.

And it is only going to get worse for Saddam's "vaunted" troops. Somebody on TV the other day described them as "hardened." Well, they are about to get "softened." Softening up is the rather innocuous term that has long been used for the process of hitting troops in defensive positions with artillery and aerial bombardment. It is an interesting, destructive and sometimes tedious business.

During the Gulf War this process was somewhat simplified by the fact that most Iraqi units were dug into open desert defensive positions. They received the classic pounding with tons of artillery and bombs. In the present situation Republican Guard units are maneuvering to array themselves in a more "textured" area - buildings and houses, hills and ravines, a fair amount of vegetation. In many cases they have made the serious mistake of digging their tanks into earthen revetments. While this gives them some protection against the guns of our Abrams tanks, it reduces their mobility and, worse, makes them ideal targets for air attack.

The name of the game for U.S. forces around Baghdad is to conduct probes designed to draw the Iraqis out into the open. This will help Centcom determine the "shape" of the battlefield. Consider the situation if you were, say, an Iraqi brigade commander right now:

  • If you sit still you will see your armor, vehicles and artillery methodically decimated by artillery fire and carefully coordinated air attacks.
  • If you move you immediately give yourself away and subject yourself to directed artillery fire or, worse, an attack from a loitering attack aircraft like an A-10 "Warthog" with its Hellfire missiles or 30 mm Gatling gun.
  • If you attempt to mass troops or armor into any force large enough to do battle with the mechanized forces converging on your position you merely make a bigger target.

Your choices are grim and dangerous to the civilian populace you are supposedly defending. You can climb into a bunker somewhere and hunker down. You can attempt to hide tanks in mosques or hospitals or schools. You can commandeer houses and apartment buildings and hide literally behind the robes of women and old men.

Above the battlefield, satellites, JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System) aircraft and smaller observer aircraft, both manned and unmanned, are watching you breathe. Start up a tank motor, switch on a radar or a radio and you give yourself away. Run across a street from one building to another in the imagined cover of darkness and your body heat gives off a signature.

JSTARS is a highly modified Boeing 707 stuffed with radars, electronic surveillance equipment and computers. Circling high, high above Iraq, its operators hunched over their consoles can cover hundreds of thousands of square miles. Looking down onto battlefields from Kirkuk to Basrah, they can direct aircraft, missiles or artillery fire where they are needed. They can follow individual vehicles night or day and in all kinds of weather. They can determine if a vehicle is tracked or on wheels. They can give a field officer, who may be aware of, say 10 tanks in his immediate area, an immediate big picture of what enemy assets may lie 10, 15, 20 miles around him. They can help direct traffic as aircraft stack up in holding areas waiting to be directed to specific targets.

It is precisely because we have such good "eyes" over the battlefield that the process of softening up will be more effective than ever before. We have seen this past weekend and will see in coming days, the increased use of precision guided munitions (PGMs) against discrete targets as they are picked out in the area around Baghdad. The Pentagon reported that around 3000 precision weapons were delivered over the past weekend alone. It released strike videos of individual aircraft (yes, the Iraqis have some aircraft, although not a one has apparently left the ground) and armor being strafed or bombed. These vehicles, caught here and there in the open were evidence that the Republic Guard is increasingly unable to operate as a cohesive force of any useful size.

The media seems to be chomping at the bit to make a dash into Baghdad. But why? This softening up period could, and indeed should, last for a week or more. Meanwhile, every probing attack by U.S. forces will probably be greeted as "the start of the ground attack." But the coming days could be seemingly slow, even tedious. If the "Guard" will not or cannot come out and fight then it must be slowly dismantled tank-by-tank, missile launcher-by-missile launcher, field gun-by-field gun. We have the tools to do it. All we need is the patience.


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