Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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May 5, 2003

A Look at the Naval Lessons Available to the US from the Iraq War

n      It seems that the major navies — especially the US Navy — after every major conflict in which small combatants have played a critical rôle in the conduct of that same war, become intent on wiping out that same capability [provided by small combatants].  Then they have to learn what they found out the hard way all over again.”  — Defense analyst currently employed as a contractor to US Navy.

By GIS Naval Analysis Team. An important lesson to be learned from the March-April 2003 Iraq War (Gulf War II) by the US Navy, which was not learned from previous wars, is that small combatant vessels are critical to the task of force-projection not simply force-protection. These two “buzz-phrases” — force-projection and force-protection — have been considered by some as mutually exclusive; they are not so. The US Navy approach to ship acquisition is viewed by the author as “all-or-nothing”.  Lessons not learned are noted as “LNL”.

The phrase “force-projection” connotes aircraft carrier battlegroups (CVBG), surface action groups (SAG), and amphibious ready groups (ARG), steaming well out to sea beyond the reach of enemy coastal defenses and land-based aircraft.  The CVBGs and SAGs, as seen in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), would launch devastating strikes on targets critical to the opponent’s capacity to conduct hostilities. The ARGs would deliver US Marines to the beach or cause an enemy to tie down numbers of his own forces to repel such an attack.  In 1991, Operation Desert Storm (ODS) saw US Marines as an important part of the liberation of Kuwait, but sizeable numbers of Iraqi troops were assigned to the coastal defense mission and the movement of a large ARG was monitored as it sailed up the coastline. During OIF, the US Marines acted in concert with the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division to the vicinity of Baghdad that provided a nasty surprise to the Iraqi Republican Guard divisions.

The phrase “force-protection” connotes the terminal defenses for the CVBGs, SAGs, and ARGs at sea, in close waters, or in port. The US Navy operates on the assumption that detection the threat as far away as possible and dealing with it is the best force-protection; this assumption does not extend to the rôle of small combatants and should be put in some perspective. 

A tremendous effort has been made by the US Navy over the past decades to defend the fleet while at sea from attack from the air, enemy warships, and underwater attack. The Aegis weapon system is the primary tool for defense against air attack from sea level to over 100,000 feet. Air threats to the fleet may come from anti-ship missiles and fighters ranging from the out-of-date to the most sophisticated. Repelling surface threats is a task shared by naval aviation and surface warfare (SUW) weapons such as the Harpoon anti-ship missile and the Mk.45 5-inch gun.  The defense against undersea warfare (USW) threats relies upon detection of the USW threat outside of the engagement zone and prosecution of such contacts by P-3 Orions, S-3B Vikings, SH-60B Seahawks, and SH-60F Oceanhawks. The Mk.46 series torpedoes provide the close-in defense of CVBGs, SAGs, and ARGs.  The follow-on to the Mk46 is the Mk50 torpedo and is arriving slowly to fleet units.  The primary countermeasure to defeat enemy homing torpedoes is the AN/SLQ-25A NIXIE towed torpedo decoy.  This is a rough sketch of how the fleet defends itself at sea from high-technology threats.

But what of strategy, tactics, and weapons aimed at providing an asymmetrical warfare capability? 

The US Navy prides itself on creating a seamless defense against anti-ship missiles, although much work is needed still to provide adequate defense against wake-homing torpedoes. Mine warfare (MIW), offensive and defensive, remains a serious gap at best and presents an overall embarrassing picture within the US Navy. 

However, when the focus is placed on defending the fleet against attacks in port, close to land, or in shallow waters, the picture is downright painful for the US Navy. The failure to provide adequate protection in port resulted in the attack conducted on the USS Cole in Aden harbor in September 2000. The attack on the Cole was not the first time that US Navy assets have come under attack in port. The LNLs from the Vietnam War include a lesson learned not learned by the sinking of a World War II-vintage escort aircraft carrier which was being employed as a transport for aircraft. Several other vessels were damaged by enemy action. Even in 2002, al-Qaida affiliates within Jamaah Islamiyyah were caught before they could execute attacks on US Navy vessels in Singapore anchorages.

It must be noted that that in the Vietnam War, the US Navy was compelled to rebuild a small combatant capability almost from scratch. This same capability was disposed of almost as quickly after the Summer of 1975. There was an after-effect to the earlier USS Vincennes incident; the CO of the USS Cole in September 2000 was in an ambivalent situation. The CO of the Cole was expected to defend his ship, do so under unclear rules of engagement, and later was not supported by higher elements in his chain of command.

Operations close to land, or in restricted waters, have shown the vulnerability of US Navy ships to hostile fire and the psychological effect of such attacks. The commanding officer (CO) of the USS Vincennes, an Aegis cruiser designed for naval warfare on the Atlantic or Pacific, felt his ship to be under a two-dimensional attack from Iranian patrol boats and combat aircraft. Unfortunately, the aerial portion of the “threat” was Iran Air Flight 655, an Airbus A300B2. The training given to naval personnel emphasizes the worst-case scenario engagements; portions of the tactical picture presented to the Vincennes combat information center (CIC) crew matched slices of a worst-case scenario engagement, a simultaneous attack by surface and air units.  The value placed an Aegis cruiser by the US Navy is so great that any CO who did not shoot in wartime and let his ship be hit would be court-martialed, and rightly so. The Vincennes was not in a war, but the ship was most definitely in a combat zone.

Once more, the Navy insistence on all-or-nothing in acquiring surface units was a major factor in the loss of Iran Air Flight 655.  The task of patrolling a portion of the Persian Gulf better suited to a La Combattante or Lürrsen fast-attack missile craft was given to a warship costing a sizeable fraction of an aircraft carrier.

[As an aside, the “all-or-nothing” rules of engagement issued to Vincennes, and even the commitment of such a high-value ship itself, gets back to an understanding, or lack of understanding of the contextual environment of the operations. A clear understanding of the potential threat posed by Iran at the time would clearly have indicated that the Iranian Air Force (IAF) represented one of the assets which the Tehran clerics had been unable and/or unwilling to even hint at using against US military targets. Therefore, to allow no “grey” area, for human intervention into the engagement, was fatal, leading to the automatic destruction of the Iran Air “target”. It was this which subsequently led to the Iranian decision to bomb Pan Am Flight PA103 over Lockerbie, and the dramatic polarization of US-Iranian relations to the point that Iran’s clerics committed themselves fully to support for such radical Islamists as Osama bin Laden. — Ed.]

Operations in shallow waters are not always close to land; shallow waters permit any possible opponent to employ moored contact mines, bottom influence mines, or even in particular scenarios controlled bottom and moored mines.  In recent history, the guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts was a victim of a moored contact mine laid by Iranian Pasdaran forces in 1987; that vessel suffered considerable damage and was transported back to the US by a heavylift ship. There is another picture from the time of the Iran-Iraq War.  It is often forgotten after Kuwaiti-registered large crude carriers (LCC) were re-flagged in the US during the Iran-Iraq “Tanker” War, those same ships were provided with a US Navy escort.  The danger of naval mines had been overlooked and the SS Sea Isle City struck a moored contact mine; the US Navy escorts were forced to take up positions astern of the tankers they were supposed to protect.  This became a major LNL.

During ODS, two US Navy ships – USS Princeton (an Aegis-type cruiser) and the USS Tripoli (an amphibious warfare ship) – were both damaged by Iraqi naval mines, with the guided-missile cruiser Princeton nearly being lost.  This became another major LNL.

Since the US Navy did not have small combatants to escort minesweepers working in the area where the Princeton was damaged, once more a sister ship to the Vincennes was placed in harm’s way. A smaller combatant may not have survived the underwater detonation of one or more bottom mines, but the same mines may have been calibrated to ignore smaller ships and go for the “big boys”. Although there has been plenty of time for the US Navy to develop mine countermeasures (MCM) for littoral warfare, the progress has been as painfully slow. It should be noted that the MCM assets and personnel are as dedicated as those in any other navy, but many other navies appear to regard mine warfare as a serious threat.

A comment often heard by this analytical team, and from the US Navy community, has been the general theme that the US Navy does not need its own small combatants since we can always depend upon our NATO or other allies. OIF disproves that case. 

Another theme has been that the US Navy does need a larger MCM force afloat since MCM helicopters are ready to sweep the sealanes clear of any mine hazards. OIF disproved this as well, since Royal Australian Navy (RAN) vessels and specialist personnel played a key rôle in clearing the approaches to Basra, thus enabling the UK RFA Sir Galahad to deliver food supplies at the critical opening stages of the conflict. MCM surface assets are better suited to a broad range of tasks needed in postwar Iraq; these include hydrographic surveys, locating unexploded ordnance from years of war, repairing aids to navigation, and anti-smuggling patrols.

If the RAN had not been there, supplies would have to reach Iraq by overland route at great expense and with the obvious question: Why can’t the US Navy do the job of MCM?  

What have possible future opponents learned from ODS and OIF and intervening incidents?

During ODS in 1991, the Iraqi Navy quickly ceased to exist in the regular sense, but it kept up offensive and defensive mine warfare operations even when most of the assigned platforms were being destroyed by helicopters from Royal Navy (RN) and US Navy ships or tactical aircraft. Although the loss in manpower and equipment was severe, damage was inflicted on one of the largest amphibious warfare assets in the area (the Tripoli) and an Aegis cruiser (the Princeton) was nearly lost. Generally, Coalition naval operations in the northernmost part of the Gulf were curtailed – had there been a major amphibious landing – losses could have been considerable. [In the 1991 conflict, as in 2003, the RAN also played a key rôle in mine clearance when it was apparent that no viable US capability existed; as well, RAN radio warnings were ignored when, for example, USS Tripoli began venturing into a known minefield.]

During OIF in 2003, the Iraqi Navy took a different tack. Minelayers had been made to look like the many oilfield support vessels (OSV) working in the Gulf, tugboats, or other innocuous non-military craft. While the OIF Coalition naval forces suffered no mine damage as of this writing, the movement of shipping into and out of Basra was severely curtailed. This was a minor victory for the forces loyal to Saddam Hussein, but a victory nonetheless.

A place where there are valuable lessons to be learned is Sri Lanka.  The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have shown considerable ingenuity in years past in developing a host of weapons to employ against the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN).  These weapons have included moored and bottom mines, suicide attack craft, suicide swimmers, rocket-propelled grenades, and multiple rocket launchers. The Sri Lankan Navy has suffered considerable losses in manpower and personnel; these have served as psychological as well as material victories.  Despite the disparity in the correlation of forces, the LTTE has made selected areas off-limits to the Sri Lankan Navy; these waters are most often those contiguous to areas where Tamils are the ethnic majority.

Although the US Navy is not engaged in operations near Sri Lanka (although it has been negotiating for the use of port facilities in the county), LTTE successes reportedly have been studied by other nations and terrorist groups. This should be of some concern to the US Navy and other major navies. The political windfall from an action that inflicts serious damage to or causes the loss of an expensive warship would be worth the risk to many terrorist groups. In scenarios where the opponent would have insufficient naval forces to contest control of its waters, asymmetrical warfare may be the only option.

Small combatants may be the best option to deal with such threats. Platforms, such as the Norwegian Skjold-class or the INCAT-Bollinger High Speed Vessel (HSV), may provide an answer. As with small combatants used in previous conflicts, there will be a need for vessels at both ends of the spectrum light and heavy. The current trend in US Navy thinking according to industry sources is that the small combatant, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), will be unacceptable unless it is outfitted with sensors, weapons, C3I, and helicopters driving displacement above 4,000 to 5,000 tons. This displacement value range would result in a larger platform than the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigates. The only means by which displacement may be kept under control is to reduce the loadout of sensors, weapons, C3I, and helicopters. This whole evolution speaks volumes of the many LNLs by the US Navy; it is interesting to contrast this with the MEKO designs and other non-US warship designs of late.