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Strategy Boiled Down to Light vs. Heavy

Civilian war planners hoped to use high-tech weapons and elite units. Army leaders preferred armor and infantry. A compromise was found.

March 19, 2003|Richard T. Cooper and John Hendren | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The looming conflict with Iraq catches many senior leaders of U.S. ground forces in an awkward position: one foot in the future, one in the past, and passionately separated from the civilian leaders whose authority they accept but whose military judgment they do not always respect.

As a result, the U.S. battle plan for invading Iraq reflects an uneasy compromise between civilian leaders who put their faith in new strategies and technologies and ground commanders who believe that the underlying realities of war do not change.

The sometimes bitter debate has haunted the planning of military action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein for more than a year.

The dispute has focused on how important a role to assign to armor and heavy infantry -- the 70-ton Abrams tanks used by the Army and the Marines, the armor-plated Bradley fighting vehicles, the mechanized artillery, the tank-killing helicopters and the vast supply train needed to keep them rolling.

On one side are Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and some of his closest aides, who consider the armed forces -- especially the Army -- too slow, too heavy and too inflexible to meet the challenges of the post-Cold War world.

Rumsfeld and his inner circle want what he once called "new ways of thinking, and new ways of fighting." That translates into greater reliance on high-tech weapons, especially air power, and on the light, fast-moving capabilities of special operations forces who won a quick, low-cost victory in Afghanistan.

In this view, the nature of the threat has fundamentally changed since the Cold War ended and the United States became the world's only superpower. Instead of conventional armies, the nation would now face unconventional forces using tactics that avoid head-on confrontations with U.S. power.

On the other side are many of the senior leaders of the Army and other ground forces. They, too, favor "transformation" to a lighter, more agile force, but they insist that this force must retain the overwhelming battlefield superiority of today's heavy ground units.

And, they have argued, until such new capabilities arrive -- sometime in the next decade -- there is a vital role for the tank brigades and heavy infantry designed decades ago for a war against the Soviet Union.

These military leaders say Iraq and other potential adversaries possess enough tanks and other conventional forces to threaten all but the strongest American units. They see over-reliance on Special Forces troops and other so-called "light" units as a dangerous infatuation.

"I thought it was the generals who always fought the last war," a senior general said recently, referring to the "light infantry" tactics used in Afghanistan and expressing frustration with what he considered "the one-dimensionality" of some civilian leaders' thinking.

Although the United States will ultimately prevail, the commanders believe, things always go wrong in the chaos of war. There is no such thing as victory on the cheap. The only sensible approach is to mobilize the strongest force possible, backed by maximum support to cope with the inevitable mishaps.

"These people believe in perfection," a senior ground commander declared several months ago, giving vent to the frustration he felt in dealing with the Pentagon's senior leadership. "They believe 'surgical' is possible. We don't."

The dispute has churned beneath the surface in Pentagon conference rooms, obscure military journals and little-noticed skirmishes over military budgets. It came to a head last year as the Pentagon planned for war with Iraq.

For months last summer and through the fall, Rumsfeld and his senior aides challenged plans for the kind of massive buildup of troops and materiel that characterized the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Why, senior officials asked, did ground commanders need so many troops, so much heavy equipment, such mountains of supplies? Why couldn't the planners be more imaginative? Why couldn't they do the job with surgical applications of air power and the fast-moving, light and flexible tactics of the Afghanistan war?

The answer, senior Army leaders said, is that "going heavy" with the forces that many civilian Pentagon officials consider outmoded would ultimately promote a quicker, cleaner victory at lower cost in American and Iraqi lives -- even if a U.S. invasion leads to warfare in the streets of Baghdad.

"That's a force no one in the world can stand against," said Lt. Gen. John M. Riggs, who heads the Army's effort to develop new war fighting systems but considers the heavy forces developed in the Cold War indispensable for now.

To be sure, some analysts believe that a U.S. invasion could end almost before it begins. Sensing imminent defeat, Hussein's lieutenants might turn on him in the first hours of war. Regular Iraqi troops might surrender en masse. Or, as happened in 1991, air power could shatter Iraqi military units before they can engage U.S. ground forces, turning the war into a rout.

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