Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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March 4, 2003

What Will Drive Defense Procurement in the “Post-Iraq” Era?

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. Perceived threats drive reactive strategies; perceived opportunities, balanced with perceived threats, drive planned strategies.

Strategies, which define goals and missions, drive — or should drive — military doctrine, and doctrine and strategy combined should drive defense procurement policies and choices. That’s the theory. The reality is that hindsight, inherent inertia, tunnel vision and turf protection are such that existing, evolved doctrine mostly drives strategy and often, de facto, creates threats or perceived threats.

The matter is compounded when the strategic framework is imprecise, the future uncertain, and when the threat transcends the formal, or conventional, pattern.

The post-Cold War decade of imploding defense budgets and unfocused national security strategies (the "peace dividend" years), appear to have led only to conflict, instability and new threats. The global strategic outlook is messy, uncertain and unconducive to rational planning. The 21st Century is beginning to look a lot like the 19th Century; the world has many overlapping cauldrons of trouble, and the cyclical nature of warfare has not dissipated; nor has human nature changed. Technology merely seems to have heightened and hastened the processes.

Politicians are moving haltingly toward the reconstruction of national security capabilities to ensure a stable balance of power and deterrence, but the onset of significant, world-engaging conflicts — Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism — has already set the agenda for the evolution of defense doctrine, technologies and force structures.

But for all that, the 1990s were not years in which defense technologies stood still.

The "precision revolution" occurred. It was waiting to happen as the Cold War ended, but was demonstrated significantly in the 1991 Gulf War. But the "precision revolution" failed in the air attacks against Yugoslavia in 1999, when NATO air forces appeared to hold no special surprises, failing to reduce any meaningful Yugoslav military targets. It is probable that the divisiveness created in NATO by the Balkan wars may have overshadowed the capabilities which were being developed in the West.

The "precision revolution" has had a profound effect on operations in Afghanistan in 2002 and warfare against Iraq in 2003. But the asymmetry of the opposing doctrines has become stark: where the West was striving for greater precision, fewer casualties, more decisive success on the battlefield, it was being answered by mass effect, dispersal of impact, and political and symbolic goals. Just as the West was embracing a counter-force doctrine, its opponents embraced a counter-city philosophy. In many ways, this mirrored the Cold War, in which there was a strong professional bias toward counter-force targeting of special (ie: nuclear) weapons. But this was a strategy unmatched by the USSR: its lack of precision forced it toward a doctrine of political warfare: counter-city targeting (Mutually Assured Destruction: MAD).

The West, and particularly the US, today continues the focus on "surgical" counter-force doctrine; its opponents, lacking the technology, embrace political, counter-population approaches. They have no other choice. The 1991 Gulf War set the tone, which was to gradually become codified in asymmetric warfare doctrine: a "code" which enabled both the "precision powers" and the "mass effect" forces to develop their respective doctrines.

The rôle of Navstar GPS (Global Positioning System) in the 1990-91 Gulf War was critical. If ever the decisive nature of technology was demonstrated in warfare, and specifically the value of precise and rapidly-available navigational data, this was it. Michael Russell Rip and James M. Hasik, in their landmark 2002 book, The Precision Revolution: GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare, noted that although GPS had a central rôle in that war, "its potential contribution was grossly underestimated by all but its enthusiasts prior to the war". The Coalition, with a half-million troops, had less than 6,000 GPS receivers.

Today, GPS works down to the smallest unit levels, and to individuals in the field.

If Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991 highlighted the profound impact of the GPS on war, the little-studied follow-up, Operation Desert Strike, on September 3-4, 1996, demonstrated just how much further the technology had evolved in five years. Yet US Operation Desert Strike — which utilized only remotely-delivered ordnance, and did not put troops on the ground in Iraq — did not deliver a strategic victory to the US Clinton Administration.

The Clinton Administration, the leadership of which failed to study history, did not comprehend not only the fact that air power alone is insufficient to win wars, but that the total reliance on air power or remotely-delivered weapons in fact encouraged opposition from opponents who regarded as a sign of weakness the refusal to risk manpower on the battlefield.

The Clinton Administration saw in the GPS-dependent weapons systems a solution which obviated the need for comprehensive, layered and coordinated strategic actions. By relying solely on technology, in both Operation Desert Strike and in Yugoslavia in 1999, the success of precision air strikes was wasted because of poor target selection (implying poor intelligence), poor psychological strategy, and no contextual follow up. The failure to match air power to force on the ground meant that no decisive success was possible. The fact no ground force follow-up was likely perpetuated the impression that the US would not risk the lives to fight for their principles, something which gave a psychological advantage to the defenders.

The fighting in 2002-03 is different: the US is putting its ground forces into operation along with air and naval forces. And yet the doctrine still has some way to evolve to meet the "asymmetric threat". The 2003 war with Iraq should help refine the new doctrines necessary to fight wars in the future. As well, the fact that North Korea (DPRK) and Iran both used the Iraq crisis as an optimum time to declare their military nuclear capabilities meant that the US also had to re-think its commitment to strategic missile defense.

Would not the nuclear missile threats posed by the DPRK, Iran and others have become containable if the Clinton Administration — and even the first Bush Administration — not downgraded the work toward the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as a global, space-based anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system? The original concept, the brainchild of the late Dr Stefan Possony in the beginning of the 1970s, was for a global-coverage, space-based, energy-derived ABM system which would have been automated and under international control, obviating the ability of any nation to launch unauthorized ballistic missiles.

Today’s terrestrially-based national ABM systems are a pale shadow of Possony’s concept, which Pres. Ronald Reagan embraced. By today, conceivably, nuclear weapons and ballistic missile delivery of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) payloads would have been obsolete. The FY2003-04 Defense Budget request of $7-billion for 10 land-based interceptors (ABM systems) in Alaska and California, with funding for sea based missiles to be included in the FY-2004-05 budget, is only a token acknowledgement of the importance of strategic-level defenses.

But, then, in Washington, the first maxim is: "The urgent always overtakes the important."

So, in today’s confused strategic mélange, the US defense budget and procurement process — which in many ways guides global defense thinking — remains only cautiously on the upswing, despite the commitment of Pres. George W. Bush to national security. The new Department of Homeland Security will free some Defense assets for global operations, but the war against Iraq consumes vast quantities of the budget which could otherwise go toward R&D and procurement.

The Administration’s assertion that separate funds would be sought for warfighting — leaving the Defense budget unharmed by the war — is hollow. Wars always cut into the budget, through the attrition of systems and the diversion of funds to operational consumables.

The Bush Administration on February 3, 2003, released its proposed FY2004 Defense Budget due to begin on October 1, 2003, and under the theme of "Meeting today’s threats while preparing for tomorrow’s challenges". The proposed $379.9-billion budget, yet to be approved by Congress, would be only $15.3-billion above that of FY-2003, a 4.2 percent increase, after a decade of attrition. The budget request covers only ongoing programs, as separate Congressional appropriations would be required for any military actions.

Congress will, in fact, approve any defense requests from the Administration.

The FY2004 budget marks another milestone in the transformation of the US military from the Cold War to the war on terrorism. This may take a decade to complete. But while "transformation" is the Pentagon buzzword for making the individual services faster, agile, lethal and more networked, there remains no coherent macro perspective of the long-term threats and requirements. As long as this remains the case, and as long as the defense procurement budget is not skewed by "the urgent", many of the mainstream programs — the F/A-22 Raptor fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F/A-18E/F (and EF-18G Growler), the V-22 Osprey, and so on —will continue to develop, but in some instances with continuing degradation of numbers.

Some programs, such as the F/A-22 and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), have become skewed either by cost overruns or by planners who have forgotten the originally intended mission (as in the case of the LCS). They may suffer from political axes when politicians are forced to make hard budgetary decisions in a year or two. Indeed, the LCS has grown from a light, flexible vessel, capable of high speed and shallow-water operations to a vessel of 4,000 to 5,000 ton displacement, with two heavy ASW helicopters and an OH-50 Kiowa/Warrior helo plus VTUAVs, Sea-RAM missiles, Phalanx Block 1B CIWS, and the option for Sea Sparrow SAMs, and so on. As a heavy displacement ship the size of a World War II light cruiser, the LCS would be unable to achieve the hull-speeds originally sought. As a result, a second vessel, tentatively known as the Littoral Surface Craft Experimental (LSC[X]), would fulfill the original mission, and this project — a low-cost, high-speed option such as the Australian INCAT catamaran design being proposed by INCAT-Bollinger — would achieve the 50kt speeds originally sought. But, then, it would outpace the vessel it is meant to support.

These are the kinds of bureaucracy-driven procurement decisions which thwart or distort the intent of policies originally based on sound strategies. But then, the second Washington maxim is: "No good deed goes unpunished."

There will be those who argue that no-one, at this stage, can have a clear view beyond the Fog of War, and therefore no coherent, long-range planning can be undertaken, nor procurement guidelines adequately established. In fact, there is never a time when the future can be viewed with any real clarity; the future can only be anticipated well by those with a strong grounding of experience and a knowledge of history. This time is no different from any other.

What must we anticipate "after the war" between Iraq’s Pres. Saddam Hussein and the opposing Coalition? To a large degree, the outcome of the war, and the global perceptions of the outcome, will determine certain future scenarios, some of which will be:

How will all of these scenarios — and others — play out in the US defense procurement environment? The answer to that lies in the third maxim of official Washington: "It may be possible to fight two wars at once, but it is only possible to think about the one which is at the top of the political agenda."

Or, for clarity: "The urgent overtakes the important."