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Will 'Shock and Awe' Be Sufficient?

March 16, 2003|William M. Arkin | William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@igc .org.

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — "Analysts write about war as if it's a ballet," Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf said after Operation Desert Storm, "like it's choreographed ahead of time, and when the orchestra strikes up and starts playing, everyone goes out there and plays a set piece."

"It is choreographed," he continued, but "what happens is, the orchestra starts playing and some son of a bitch climbs out of the orchestra pit with a bayonet and starts chasing you around the stage. And the choreography goes right out the window."

Senior leaders of the U.S. military believe they have planned for the unexpected problems they're certain to face. "What you do is you go down through all the worst-case scenarios," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters March 4. "We worry about many, many worst-case scenarios."

A week earlier, Myers told the Economic Club of New York that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has worked with the uniformed leadership to compile a list of "what can go wrong." It is now "quite a long list," Myers said.

Yet as the eleventh hour approaches, Myers seems torn.

His military conservatism and the inherent duty of professional soldiers lead him, like Schwarzkopf, to consider the worst case, to expect that man with a bayonet. But an equally strong impulse urges Myers to believe in the beautiful choreography made possible by American military and technological supremacy.

Let's call that beautiful choreography Plan A. What happens if the war gods turn against us? That, we'll call Plan B.

And, though senior leaders have not ignored Plan B, they have lost their hearts to Plan A.

Myers may warn about all the things that could go wrong, but the chairman -- like others in the Defense Department's inner circle these days -- has become captivated by the latest packaging of an ancient concept known as "shock and awe." He embodies a fundamental tension between hope and memory: between hope of a postindustrial form of combat in which one side wins without carnage, and memory of war's almost-unbroken record of destruction.

"Shock and awe" is the latest Pentagon buzzword for an American blitz against Iraq that, if war comes, will seek to defeat Saddam Hussein with "effects" rather than the physical destruction of enemy troops or their resources.

"What you would like," Myers says, is to ". . . have it be a short conflict. The best way to do that is to have such a shock on the system that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on that the end is inevitable." Rumsfeld echoed that idea last week, saying the goal "is to have the capabilities of the coalition so clear and so obvious that there is an enormous disincentive for the Iraqi military to fight."

The choreography of Plan A takes advantage of what the military calls "preparation of the battlefield." Twelve years of isolation and sanctions have severely weakened the Iraqi armed forces. U.S. patrolling of the no-fly zones has yielded a wealth of new intelligence and targeting information. Allied bombing in retaliation for Iraqi violations of the no-fly rules has inflicted heavy damage on Iraqi air defenses and communications. Just since Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, the United States and its allies have flown more than 50,000 sorties over Iraq's airspace, half the number flown during Desert Storm itself.

Hussein's conscripts have been further battered psychologically by tens of millions of leaflets and American broadcasts describing the hopelessness of their situation and offering safety if they do not fight.

At the same time, the U.S. military has made enormous technological advances since 1991. Satellite-guided bombs now allow precision attacks day and night in all weather. Unmanned drones such as Predator and Global Hawk provide persistent surveillance, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Military computer systems and networks have become so advanced (Desert Storm was practically fought in the paper age) that tons of information can be aggregated and processed as never before. And military communications are immeasurably improved.

When war comes, military sources say, the overture will be some 3,000 precision-guided weapons: cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs and the newer satellite-guided weapons. All fired in the first 48 hours, they will target communications, early warning and air defenses, command facilities and "regime" targets such as palaces, security forces and the secret police.

There have been reports that computer networks will be attacked and exotic directed-energy weapons such as high-powered microwaves could be employed. Electrical power will be disrupted. U.S. and coalition ground forces and special operations will come at the Iraqi capital from north, south and west.

This three-dimensional shock-and-awe attack, it is hoped, will stun the Iraqi system and plunge it into such disarray that mutinies, coups or civil unrest will break out, isolating Hussein from his forces.

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