YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

As the History of Warfare Makes Clear, Potential for Catastrophe Remains Great : Strategy: Murphy's Law and 'friction' are realities on the battlefield. Optimism must take both into account.

ON WAR: One in a series of analyses by Col. Harry G. Summers Jr.(Ret), military specialist.

January 23, 1991|HARRY G. SUMMERS Jr.

The allied campaign plan for the Gulf War appears to be unfolding practically without a hitch, despite the historical observation of Count Helmuth von Moltke the Elder that "no plan survives contact with the enemy." In the opening days of the conflict, it seemed that the war plan had not only survived, it had prospered.

Iraqi surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery fire from machine guns and cannons may have lit up the skies over Baghdad like the 4th of July, but only one allied warplane was lost in the first attack. And even by the end of the first phase of the air campaign, allied casualties remained surprisingly low. Cooperation among American, British, Canadian, Italian, French, Saudi and Kuwaiti pilots was remarkable, and allied cruise missiles, bomber and fighter-bomber aircraft were hitting their targets with unprecedented accuracy.

But instead of being elated, leaders ranging from President Bush to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin L. Powell to Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander in the gulf, were warning against undue optimism and premature euphoria.

What do they know that others do not? First there is Murphy's Law, or what that great military theorist Karl von Clausewitz called friction. "Countless minor incidents--the kind you can never really foresee--combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal," he said. Then there is the matter of luck. "This tremendous friction," Clausewitz warned, "is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance."

So far, these vicissitudes of war have balanced themselves out. On the negative side, the Iraqis evidently had more Scud missiles than the allied forces suspected, and it has been more difficult to knock them out than many had anticipated. Despite the allies' best efforts to seek out and destroy the Scud launchers in Iraq's western desert, the Iraqis were able to fire several salvos at Israel.

Earlier, luck was on the allies' side. The first Scud missiles fired at Israel did not cause widespread casualties--one landed in a parking lot between two apartment buildings. But Tuesday, luck looked the other way. A Scud attack on Tel Aviv reportedly left 70 civilians injured and three dead from heart attacks.

The firing of Scuds at allied positions in Saudi Arabia had another unintended result. It proved that the Patriot anti-missile system, untested in combat, had a higher rate of success than many people anticipated, although events Tuesday showed that, like everything else in war, it was not infallible.

But, as in all wars, the potential for catastrophe remains great. Nowhere is this more true than in the ground war that will be necessary if the Iraqi army cannot be broken by air power alone. Iraqi troops along the front lines are well dug in, and assaulting such fortified positions is always a risky business. The debacles at Cold Harbor, the Somme and Gallipoli are grim reminders of the price of failure. Even success, as at Tarawa, Okinawa or Hamburger Hill, can come at a terrible price.

The United States thinks its M-1A1 Abrams tanks, Apache attack helicopters and other high-tech equipment will give the allies the edge. But allied forces are still outnumbered in both infantry and tanks, and numbers still count on the battlefield. Of special concern is that not only are the allied forces outnumbered in field artillery, they are outranged as well. Historically, artillery is the greatest battlefield killer, and unless the enemy's artillery can be knocked out in advance, allied armor and infantry will have a tough time of it.

One of the ways the United States has always compensated for lack of long-range artillery is by reliance on close air support. But the Air Force's A-10 Warthogs and the Army's Apache attack helicopters will be facing one of the most extensive low-level air defense systems in the world. Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine lieutenant general who was a New York Times war correspondent in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, was astonished by the numbers and variety of Iraqi antiaircraft artillery machine guns and cannons, as well as their low-level surface-to-air missiles.

"It'll be tough to survive under 10,000 feet," he said.

His observations are validated by the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, where U.S. surface-to-air Stinger missiles were provided to the moujahedeen guerrillas. Soviet infantrymen bitterly complained of "close air support" missions being flown so high that they were useless, as pilots avoided flying within range of the missiles. The same thing happened in the closing days of the Vietnam War, as South Vietnamese pilots were driven from the battlefield by Soviet-supplied SA-7 Strela missiles.

The cumulative effect could spell disaster. If allied close air support aircraft are driven from the skies, the enemy's advantage in artillery could prove devastating, and could stop or even throw back allied assaults.

The saving grace is that the allied commanders are well aware of these pitfalls and vulnerabilities. The way to deal with friction, said Clausewitz, is to anticipate it. "The good general must know friction in order to overcome it whenever possible, and in order not to expect a standard of achievement in his operations which this very friction makes impossible."

But the American people must know friction as well, and also must not expect a standard of achievement in military operations that the very friction makes impossible.

Los Angeles Times Articles