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It Ain't Broke After All

April 27, 2003|William M. Arkin | William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail:

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — At first glance, the Iraq war appears to have produced a quick and efficient victory. On closer inspection, things look even better.

The military services and the defense industry, however, have already produced a grand new wish list of military hardware based on the war's supposed "lessons." We won't face such an inept opponent again, they warn. Future wars will demand lighter vehicles, smarter weapons, stealthier fighters, longer-range missiles, better satellites, more communications bandwidth. In the longer term we must develop revolutionary new weapons employing lasers and high-powered microwaves and unmanned combat craft.

But a more basic lesson of this war is not that our military needs more but that our military should be at peace with itself. American firepower is overwhelming. The American military, far from being dysfunctional, is capable and flexible. And then there's the matter of American weaponry.

With the dawn of the Cold War, America's weapons focus changed dramatically. Planners feared that American conventional military forces were inadequate to stop a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe, and so efforts and funds were poured into building thousands of nuclear weapons. Conventional weapons were given short shrift, as were less quantifiable facets of conventional military preparedness -- leadership, technology, inter-service coordination and training.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 showed up the problems with America's nuclear focus during the Cold War. Conventional firepower was now required, precision weapons were sorely needed and there was an urgent demand for better coordination among all the services. Special operations and intelligence needed to be better integrated into the war plan. Weapons put to the test for the first time were found to have significant shortcomings, like laser-guided bombs that tended not to work in bad weather.

The U.S. military was certainly up to the job, ejecting Hussein's forces from Kuwait and declaring victory in 43 days. But after the war, planners quickly got to work solving the problems the fighting had highlighted.

The result? This time out, in just 21 days, with a force that many thought was too small, America decisively won the war. The mathematics of the victory, of the new firepower equation, is only beginning to emerge. Military aircraft flew 15,825 strike sorties and dropped 27,250 weapons. Coalition ground forces fired tens of thousands of artillery and mortar projectiles, rockets and tank-gun rounds.

In less than half the time of the 1991 Gulf War, with fewer than one-third of the strikes and with one-tenth the number of bombs, victory was achieved on the battlefield and the regime was overthrown.

And what happened to Iraq's military -- to the infantry and the Republican Guards and the Special Republican Guards and the Fedayeen Saddam? Firepower happened. By Day 2 of the war, U.S. planes were flying as many as 1,000 strikes against Iraqi ground forces.

But what was especially new was that the integration of all services and of intelligence, together with all of the advantages of the information age, gave each of those bombs unprecedented bang. "It's just awesome the number of tanks, APCs [armored personnel carriers], track vehicles and enemy positions that were attacked," one Air Force wing commander told the Chicago Tribune.

Air attacks on Iraqi forces were quickly followed by rapid Army and Marine advances that overwhelmed defenders. By the time it was all over, Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim estimated at an April 16 press conference, U.S. forces had exploded an estimated $3 billion worth of bombs, bullets, missiles, shells, rockets and mortars.

Those who proselytize for a military "transformation" say the Iraq war proves the value of speed and agility for U.S. forces. In the future, they suggest, slow and heavy needs to make way for sleek and light.

But the lessons of Iraq suggest that calls for wholesale transformation of the military may be overkill. As the war demonstrated, the "delivery platforms" behind the firepower -- the planes, the tanks, the guns themselves -- can't be evaluated in isolation but must be considered in the context of the weapons they are firing.

Take the case of the large and seemingly obsolete B-1 bomber. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced soon after taking office that, as a step toward military transformation, the B-1, a nuclear-era bomber employed in conventional combat for the first time in December 1998, would be retired.

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