Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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May 15, 2003

Special Report

Performance in the 2003 Iraq War of Pivotal Concern in Planning New Doctrine, Systems

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. The operational and technology lessons of the US-led Coalition war against Iraq in March-April 2003 are now the subject of intense scrutiny, not only in the US and among Coalition partners, but also by the defense communities of literally all countries. It was a war which will improve the defense capabilities of literally every defense force which cares to study the lessons, which are more widely available — because of open discussion of them, down to the most minute detail, on internet sites with input from troops in the field — than for any other previous war.

The strategic lessons have been studied in less detail, and the conclusions will be open to wide interpretation for many years, but they, too, need review. But from a defense standpoint, the military and operational lessons vitally affect budgets as well as government and private sector research and development directions. The US Defense Department, the individual Armed Services, the US Congress and the defense industrial community is currently absorbing, literally down to a microscopic level, the lessons learned.

GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily has, before and during the conflict, covered some aspects of the ongoing “lessons learned”, and will continue to provide updates on this aspect of conflict analysis.

What was starkly apparent when comparing US military operations Gulf War 1 (1990) with those of Gulf War 2 (2003) was not so much the difference in the technologies employed, but in the use of technologies. Gulf War 2 demonstrated a dramatic improvement in US military doctrinal approach and strategic flexibility over the 1991 conflict; it was the difference between, effectively, a re-run of a World War II operation with a 21st Century approach.

The 2003 conflict showed a far greater use of special operations than in the past, and this proved decisive in preventing Iraq from employing its pre-determined gambit: bringing Israel into the war by launching strikes against it from the Iraqi Western bases. The 2003 conflict also showed that Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Gen. Tommy Franks studiously avoided direct confrontation and Iraqi attempts to “channel” Coalition forces into urban warfare. Instead, Gen. Franks moved to isolate and bypass urban-focused Iraqi forces from Basra northwards, focusing rather on suppressing Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein’s strategic options in the West while cutting off Baghdad.

The 2003 conflict also saw the most intense and effective use by the US of preparatory and operational psychological warfare since World War II. This was matched by improved (but still inadequate) human intelligence (HUMINT) and the ability to reach and influence Iraqi military commanders before and during the war.

Perhaps most significantly, Gulf War 2 was the most integrated major military operation conducted by the US, demonstrating a sense of “jointness” never seen before between the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, as well as with Coalition partners. And given the fluidity of joint operations with US partners who had not benefited from almost a half-century of NATO emphasis on interoperability — such as Australia and Poland — it was evident that much of the success could be attributed to new approaches to cooperation and integration, and better approaches and technology related to command. control, communications and surveillance.

It is possible, also, that Gulf War 2 saw the most active conduct of “lessons learned” monitoring of any US conflict. The US Armed Forces were already in the midst of an almost painful process of “transition” from their Cold War structures and doctrines when it became apparent — as early as mid-2002, and probably before — that the war with Iraq was likely. The new conflict, then, was to be an important test of new thinking and new approaches to the use of technology.

From the beginning of the War, US Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk, Virginia, were in Iraq conducting “lesson learned” surveys which continued through and beyond the end of hostilities. Survey notes were continually transmitted directly to the Joint Forces Command, Joint Warfighting Center, for analysis.

Given the neglect of the US Armed Forces during the Clinton Administration in the US (1993-2001), much of the US force structure utilized in Iraq reflected "legacy systems": weapons and force structures which were more attuned to Vietnam era thinking and the Cold War than to the 21st Century and its need for greater flexibility in asymmetric warfare environments.

Possibly the most significant "lessons learned" with regard to technology may not be readily apparent, given the rapidity with which the US-led Coalition prosecuted the war, and due to the fact that a critical element of it — the "special operations war" in the West and in other parts of Iraq — were conducted without embedded media. The level of close air support (CAS) available to the US, UK and Australian special forces in the Western desert was only possible, according to the brief reports initially available, because of the forward basing of Harrier VSTOL combat aircraft on improvised forward bases inside Iraq. This critical capability may have been insufficient, given the fact that these special forces teams monitored the entry of Iraqi theater-strategic surface-to-surface missiles (Scud family of weapons) back into Iraq from hides just across the border in Syria on the night of March 27-28, 2003.1 The SSMs moved to firing positions to launch against Israel, and then, after exercising this capability, quickly moved back, without firing, into Syria, before Coalition aircraft could strike.

Significantly, the SSMs could have been launched with near impunity at this time, which would have dramatically changed the nature of the entire war: Israel would have been dragged into the conflict, significantly skewing regional perspectives on the conflict, and perhaps lengthening and confusing it. Fortunately, the Iraqi command and control structure collapsed before the SSMs could be moved back to their tested launch positions to fulfill this pre-planned — and now tested — mission.

The rôle of the Harriers, which were outside the normal media purview, was significant, because of ongoing problems with the Harrier’s replacement, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), for three of its key users in the VSTOL mode: the US Marine Corps, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Preliminary design reviews of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) show a 20 percent overweight problem. In the F-35 case, aircraft weight is critically important to the Marine Corps and the Royal Navy/Royal Air Force configurations which require a shaft-driven fan to create enough downward thrust for vertical/short take off and landing. Given the growing Australian commitment to special operations, it is likely that the F-35’s VSTOL capabilities would also be important there.

Despite this, there is strong pressure within some US Defense Department and other circles to scrap the VSTOL capability of the F-35, thus dramatically limiting its utility as a Harrier replacement.

Of paramount importance to the conduct of military operations by the US, however, was the overwhelming and pervasive presence of global positioning system (GPS) receivers. This meant, among the many other benefits, that the newer Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles were able to fly more direct routes to Iraqi targets rather than having to rely on utilizing terrain-recognition features which forced them — in Gulf War 1 and later — to fly along the Zagros mountain range inside the Iranian border.

Whereas there was, in Gulf War 1, only about one GPS receiver per thousand troops, in Gulf War 2, GPS was embedded in almost all levels of operations. Equally, concerns over Iraqi GPS-jamming technology were, as it transpired, relatively easily overcome, given that the jammers, to operate, were emitters, and therefore vulnerable.

C4I — command, control, communications, computers and intelligence — was the most significant area of the entire operation, in many respects, and proved to be an area where much remained to be done. It was fortunate that Iraqi capabilities were so poor with regard to communications jamming or monitoring, given that US forces were forced to rely on commercial satellite communications (SATCOM), including the private-sector Iridium satellite telephone network, only recently resuscitated from bankruptcy. It is likely that the communications sphere will, of necessity, receive the greatest focus of attention, post-Iraq, given the fact that US forces were able to maintain their momentum and effectiveness only because of the innovation and adaptability of troops in the field.

As the Operations Officer from the US Marine Corps’ 1st LAR (Light Armored Regiment) noted: “The communications architecture is broken and the interoperability of various communications assets is virtually non-existent.”

Gulf War 2 was a test site for C4I which should lead to the development of substantially more efficient and secure communications for future conflicts in which it must be assumed that opposing forces could achieve greater ability to intercept or jam US capabilities. In many ways, Gulf War 2 should do for all aspects of C4I what Gulf War 1 did in spurring the need for accuracy of systems and the development of GPS and other precision-assisting systems.

As well, the speed and mobility demonstrated by Coalition forces on the battlefield — and which will be a constant feature where feasible in future operations — highlighted the fact that logistics trains can no longer be regarded as being "rear area" functions. The forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) is now being blurred with the support areas, highlighting the need for protection at all levels.

There were few areas of the conflict where a truly balanced perspective could be gained in measuring the effectiveness of US weapons versus Iraqi weapons, given the fact that Coalition doctrine, training and other factors so completely overwhelmed Iraqi forces. But the small quantities of Russian Kornet-E third-generation anti-tank guided weapons (ATGW) employed proved effective even against US M-1A1 main battle tanks. Even upgrades of the venerable SA-6 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system meant that it could be used effectively with infra-red (IR) or manual guidance, without having to utilize radar guidance, which would make the launch site vulnerable. It is likely that an SA-6 achieved one kill, against a USAF A-10 Thunderbolt II.2

But perhaps of greatest significance was the effectiveness, in one of the few areas where a more-or-less "conventional" battle occurred, of Iraqi small arms fire against vulnerable AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, which were supporting US ground forces. This provided the greatest shock and battlefield disadvantage — albeit for the briefest possible time — to US forces in the push toward Baghdad.

Significantly, where the US and other Coalition forces used maneuver, surprise and new doctrine, they were overwhelming successful, with small, mobile units able to achieve dramatic results. Where more conventional confrontation was seen against even poorly-trained defensive forces, the prospect for losses remained high. The extensive battle damage sustained by the AH-64s was the most significant case in point.

Equally, the US forces were totally reliant on Australian and British naval mine countermeasures (MCM) for the ability to move quickly into the port of Umm Qasr with relief supplies and humanitarian cargoes. The US demonstrated one area in which it had not learned the lessons of Gulf War 1: in the development of effective MCM vessels and personnel, and in the acquisition of shallow-draft combatant vessels, capable of assisting in mine clearance, shore bombardment and the myriad other tasks which require that a Navy — in support of combined operations — is able to close with a shore-based or littoral adversary.3

As usual, the "air power lobby" attempted to maximize the importance of air power to the military success in Iraq. And there was no doubt that the air war was prosecuted flawlessly in most respects by the US Air Force, US Navy, US Marine Corps, as well as by the Royal Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Navy. But air superiority was never an issue in this war, and even if the Iraqi Air Force had been mobilized, it was no match for the Coalition; Iraq, like most developing states, lacks the massively expensive C3I to match a developed air force, let alone the training.

And in the area of special operations, US forces did well, but not as well as their UK and Australian counterparts, man for man. The US, however, continues to recognize the need for improved SpecOps capabilities, and in January 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced an expansion of SOCOM while requesting a 50 percent funding increase from $4-billion in FY2003 to $6.7-billion in FY2004. Australia, too, having recognized the critical and disproportionately strong contribution of its Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) in Afghanistan, on May 5, 2003, announced the creation of a new national-level Special Operations Command, more than doubling the size of its special forces.4 The contribution of these Australian SAS and 4 Btn. (Commando), Royal Australian Regiment, in Western Iraq was a dramatic demonstration to US forces deployed in the same area.