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Fliers Rose to Occasion

In Iraq, a pause refreshed ground troops and let planes inflict major damage.

June 01, 2003|William M. Arkin | William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail:

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — "Speed kills."

That's a military axiom Gen. Tommy Franks is fond of quoting. And it has become the favored explanation for our military victory in Iraq: the high-speed drive of American ground forces straight to the heart of Saddam Hussein's power in Baghdad.

Since the war lasted only 21 days, that assessment may seem hard to argue with. And, since the lessons of the latest war are used to fight the next budget battle in Washington, the conclusions that "speed kills" and fast-moving ground forces bring victory could have an effect on what kinds of forces the United States has at its disposal next time.

Before we close the book on lessons learned in Iraq, however, decision-makers should look again at what happened. Beyond question, the Iraq war laid to rest the tempting notion that heavy ground forces no longer have a central role to play in 21st century warfare.

But a close examination of the sequence of events suggests that -- despite Franks' favorite axiom -- at a critical juncture in the invasion, it was not the forward "speed" of those ground troops that killed. It was "the pause."

Remember the pause? For nearly a week, Army and Marine tanks, infantry and artillery units had hurtled across Iraq at unprecedented speed. During its historic race through the desert, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) moved 310 miles in its first three days on the road. Then, for five days in March, near the Shiite holy city of Najaf, the breakneck advance slowed to a crawl, as troops pulled up to await much-needed supplies and to ride out a hellacious three-day sandstorm. At the same time, the Army was dealing with unexpectedly troublesome attacks by snipers and the Fedayeen Saddam.

It was this pause that killed. And the killing came from air power, in an unremitting assault by Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and British Royal Air Force planes against Hussein's most formidable ground forces. As a result, before the 3rd Infantry Division's tanks engaged a single Republican Guardsman of the Medina Division 11 days into the war, the unit considered Hussein's strongest had been pounded into oblivion.

"I find it interesting when folks say we're softening them up," Lt. Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, who commanded the air war, said during the first week in April. "We're not softening them up. We're killing them."

In that sense, in terms of overall military operations, there was no "pause." Ground forces might have slowed their forward rush, resupplied their units and made other adjustments before pressing on again, but the air war only intensified. "There should have been some embedded reporters with the Republican Guards," quipped Brig. Gen. Allen Peck of Moseley's command center. They would have reported that "there was no operational pause."

Franks' plan called for the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division to bypass populated areas and the military forces around them in order to reach the Iraqi capital quickly. Franks rejected the Desert Storm model of protracted bombing before a ground war. His plan sent Army troops and Marines on their wild ride to Baghdad simultaneously with the start of bombing.

Planners at Central Command wanted to cut by half through air attacks the combat effectiveness of the Medina Division, which was deployed near Baghdad, before American ground forces reached it. Air power was to be supplemented and eventually supplanted by artillery, rocket and helicopter strikes before tanks and infantry engaged Iraqi forces on the ground. Franks' original timeline, according to prewar briefings, had ground forces in Baghdad on Day 10.

Things did not work out quite that way -- fortuitously, as it turned out. Iraqi resistance damaged Army attack helicopters, and the 3rd Division slowed its advance to wait for its follow-on unit, the 101st Airborne Division, as well as for supplies. The weather also played a role.

But through air power, the time was put to good use, not only by redirecting strike sorties but also through the use of all-weather weapons. "We have the flexibility to be able to refocus additional air power" by using weapons "not hampered by the weather," Maj. Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., who was Franks' director of operations, told reporters March 25, six days into the war. Two months before the war started, the Medina Division had begun moving out of its Tigris River barracks at Suwayrah and into positions in the Euphrates River valley south of Baghdad. Military intelligence considered the Medina to be Iraq's best- equipped heavy unit.

With the 3rd Division slowing to a crawl and with Iraq's notorious sandstorms raging, Hussein's commanders thought they saw an opening. In reality, it was Moseley who got the opening.

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