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WAR WITH IRAQ / LOGISTICS

Former Commanders Question U.S. Strategy

Debate centers on the Pentagon's decision to enter combat with less firepower than in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

March 26, 2003|Richard T. Cooper and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's decision to enter combat with far fewer tanks, artillery and heavy infantry than in the 1991 Persian Gulf War is coming under fire -- not only from Saddam Hussein's forces in the desert but also from former U.S. commanders at home.

In addition to starting out with fewer forces, critics say, the coalition is hampered by the absence of the 4th Infantry Division -- a massive armored force that was sidelined last month when Turkey refused to allow U.S. troops to cross its territory into Iraq.

The burst of criticism -- by retired senior officers and by some officers in the Pentagon -- reflects deep-seated policy divisions over the extent to which high-tech weaponry and light infantry can replace armor and heavy ground forces in the 21st century. And the debate is likely to continue to shadow the war effort, especially if coalition forces suffer serious setbacks.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and senior military leaders insisted Tuesday that they have enough troops and firepower to complete the destruction of Hussein's regime.

"We think we have just the right forces for what we need to do now. We remind people that forces are still flowing to the region," said Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But this week, as coalition leaders sought to mass firepower around Baghdad for a potentially climactic assault on Hussein's regime, they have suddenly faced increasing demands for troops and weaponry to deal with Iraqi paramilitary units attacking the coalition's main supply route that now snakes hundreds of miles north from the Kuwaiti border.

Also, regular units of the Iraqi army have put up some of the stiffest resistance so far against troops of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force seeking to secure the route across the Euphrates River at Nasiriyah.

To critics, the emergence of the two challenges pointed up the shortcomings of Rumsfeld's decision to embrace a battle plan that stopped far short of the overwhelming force mobilized 12 years ago.

The 1991 war reflected the standard doctrine of the Reagan presidency and that of former President Bush: American troops would not fight overseas with anything less than overwhelming force.

The blueprint worked out by Rumsfeld after protracted debate with the Army and other ground force leaders took a different approach.

Like a modern-day corporation, it would avoid over-investing in capital equipment and inventory. Sufficient power would be sent against Iraq, but it would not equal the redundant forces of 1991.

The heavy ground component of the blueprint for the campaign in Iraq included the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, an armored force that has spearheaded the drive to Baghdad, the Army's 4th Infantry Division and the Marine Expeditionary Force.

The Marine force has more than 30,000 combat troops but far fewer tanks and other heavy weapons than the Army divisions.

The 101st Airborne Division is a light infantry unit in terms of armor, but its fleet of tank-killing Apache helicopters makes it a more formidable ground force.

The coalition is also bolstered by the British 7th Armored Brigade, equipped with Challenger 2 tanks that enjoy significant advantages over the Soviet-built T-72 tanks of the Iraqi army.

But the 4th Infantry Division, which accounts for nearly one-third of the coalition's ground forces planned for the Iraq war, is absent from the battlefield.

Its troops remain at Ft. Hood, Texas, and its heavy equipment is on ships now steaming to the Persian Gulf through the Suez Canal.

The division includes about 200 M1A1 Abrams tanks, 200 Bradley fighting vehicles, 50 M-109A6 Paladin self-propelled artillery pieces, 18 Apache Longbow helicopters and 450 support vehicles.

Subtracting that force from the deployment left it seriously thin, critics now argue.

"It would have been monumentally helpful for CentCom to have had that division," declared retired Lt. Gen. Thomas G. Rhame on Tuesday, referring to the U.S. Central Command, which is directing coalition operations under the supervision of Army Gen. Tommy Franks. Rhame commanded the 1st Infantry Division during Operation Desert Storm.

Franks "should have had the 4th Infantry Division," Rhame said.

The 4th Infantry division had been slated to open a second front in northern Iraq. That, Rhame said, "would have made Saddam Hussein look in more than one direction. It precludes and prevents him from using his troops in the north in any way in the south."

Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a retired former supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and former commander in chief of the U.S. European Command, voiced similar criticism in military assessments on CNN.

So did other former senior commanders now serving as military analysts for the media.

Even within the Pentagon, there was grumbling among some officers who thought that Rumsfeld had moved too slowly to reroute the 4th Infantry Division and generally had put too much faith in high-tech weaponry.

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