Despite Opening Successes, Urban War May Still Lie Ahead

The opening phases of the war with Iraq unfolded in some unexpected ways, and there could be many more surprises to come. But even as specific battle plans changed, the administration as of Saturday appeared to be sticking with the spirit of an innovative war strategy developed months ago—one meant to try to topple Saddam Hussein without crippling his country or killing vast numbers of civilians.

To meet those goals, the aerial bombardment of Baghdad and other cities, while intense, appeared to target elite military units and political buildings rather than key assets like oil fields that will be needed to get Iraq quickly back on its feet after the war. By demonstrating massive firepower, U.S. military planners hoped that Iraqi resistance would quickly collapse—before a bloody battle for Baghdad.

As of early Saturday night, those military planners hadn’t yet gotten their wish, perhaps in part because of missteps in Wednesday’s attempt to kill Saddam. But other aspects of the military operation were going well; thousands of Iraqi soldiers reportedly surrendered or deserted, and U.S. soldiers were progressing quickly in their march toward the capital. That may mean that the next crucial hurdle the troops could face would be a ground assault on Baghdad, and the possible block-to-block fighting that planners had been hoping to avoid.

The first surprise of the war came with its opening salvo: Wednesday’s strike on a bunker where Saddam was believed to be holed up. The thinking behind the strike was pretty much the same as for the general military strategy—it was meant to prompt an early surrender.

The military had long hinted that Day One was supposed to be the beginning of a massive, several-day air and cruise-missile campaign against Baghdad. It was described as a plan to create “shock and awe” among Iraqis, especially the large numbers of military forces not believed to be strongly loyal to Saddam.

Instead, we witnessed the attempted “decapitation” of Saddam’s regime using about three dozen cruise missiles and two F-117 fighters, before any attacks against the dense air defenses around Baghdad. In principle, the change in plans was a good idea, since our quarrel is with Saddam, not the Iraqi people. (Indeed, it may even have worked in killing Saddam, though my instinct is that it did not, given subsequent events in Baghdad.)

Need for speed

It was probably made possible, at least in part, by a new kind of intelligence from Iraq—CIA operatives on the ground, for example, or remote-controlled aircraft overflying Baghdad and taking continuous high-resolution video photos—because it seems doubtful that Saddam would use satellite phones or otherwise leave himself vulnerable to traditional intelligence tools. (It is possible that someone in his entourage made that mistake, but my money is still with human intelligence.)

The big question, however, is why did it take almost six hours from the time we learned of Saddam’s whereabouts to the moment when bombs struck targets? The question may be academic in this case, but in any future strikes of this kind, we need faster procedures. This type of opportunity should have been foreseen, with procedures already in place to expedite rapid decision making on whether to attack.

The F-117s could have been sortied almost as soon as CIA Director George Tenet had the intelligence; President Bush, having thought about this type of scenario in advance, could have then quickly made a decision to let them strike the targets. By then, aircraft would have been approaching Baghdad.

It might have been necessary to use more planes—four, eight, even a dozen—since cruise missiles were not appropriate for this mission (given the long time it takes for them to travel from ships to their targets and because they cannot be recalled if intelligence changes). But we certainly had enough airplanes in Kuwait and Qatar to generate that type of force.

The entire procedure might have taken 1 1/2 hours under those circumstances, perhaps with a greater chance of success. Bombs would have begun to fall before the formal expiration of the 48-hour deadline President Bush gave Saddam on Monday night, but as we were told all week, that deadline was crafted in such a way that it would become irrelevant once Saddam refused it—as he already had.

If the war continues to go well, however, this potentially missed opportunity may not matter very much in the end.

Another notable surprise from Day One was that the Iraqis lobbed ballistic missiles against American forces in the field, a relatively dispersed and well-protected target. This development may have pressured coalition forces to start their invasion of Iraq sooner than expected, but that has hardly caused any negative consequences.

Less surprising, since Saddam has not been able to test his missile force very much since 1991, was that those missiles’ capacity for delivering chemical or biological agents probably remains mediocre. That may explain why the Iraqis reportedly used conventional explosives rather than weapons of mass destruction atop the missiles. Ballistic missiles need special submunitions to deliver chemical or biological agents effectively, and those submunitions need good fuses to release the agent at the proper altitude for covering a broad region.

It is also possible that the improved version of the Patriot missile-defense system—actually, in most ways a whole new system—has intercepted some of the missiles. Early reports suggest that the Patriot may have intercepted half or fewer of the ballistic missiles fired, a respectable if less than excellent performance.

One thing all those changes in war plans proves is that predicting what happens next in war, even a well-planned one, is impossible. The “shock and awe” campaign, which began Friday, is a well-crafted, careful plan that should spare most civilians’ lives and infrastructure. But how well will it do at winning the war?

My expectations are somewhat optimistic, but not boundlessly so. While critical for success, air power may not play as dominant a role in this war as it did during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Iraq’s experience in absorbing U.S. and British bombing for 12 years has taught it something about how to hide from our weaponry—most important, by dispersing troops and placing them and their equipment near civilian populations throughout Baghdad.

Our most accurate air-delivered weapon today, the laser-guided bomb, is virtually the same one we had in 1991. New innovations such as GPS-guided JDAMs—bombs guided to their targets by satellite—provide all-weather capabilities, but typically miss their targets by five to 10 meters and can miss by more if jammed. When firing at military targets in civilian settings, that level of accuracy, combined with the large warheads on such weapons, limits their utility. Drone aircraft providing continuous television footage about key sites are useful too, but their limited supply and the limited radio bandwidth available to transmit their data back to base make them a special-purpose tool.

NATO’s frustrations in fighting Serbia in 1999 may be a better guide to how well air power will perform than is Desert Storm. Although NATO won that war, the airstrikes didn’t do nearly the damage to Serbian forces in Kosovo that the alliance hoped. So anyone hoping that we can defeat dispersed Iraqi forces in Baghdad with air power may be disappointed.

U.S. and British planes can fly lower than they did in that fight, Operation Allied Force, or during Desert Storm. But then they would have to contend with an Iraqi air-defense network that includes about 6,000 air-defense guns and 1,500 surface-to-air missile launchers. Even then, it would be hard to find targets in an urban setting from the air, and special forces can only do so much in heavily defended parts of the city.

But if the expected battle for Baghdad will not be easy, it also should not bog down. U.S. and British forces will use speed, simultaneous nighttime assaults using troops deployed by helicopter or other means against a number of sites where Iraqi forces might be holed up. The British and U.S. forces also have certain key technology advantages—such as night-vision equipment, good chemical-protective gear and real-time information networks. Most of all, they will profit from outstanding troop proficiency and a well-rehearsed battle plan.

Urban blitzkrieg

The best model for this type of “urban blitzkrieg,” if on a smaller scale, was the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama to overthrow strongman Manuel Noriega. About 22,500 American military personnel participated.

The operation involved simultaneous nighttime troop assaults and bombing attacks against 27 objectives throughout the country. Special forces infiltrated key sites shortly before the larger airborne assaults, to take down Panamanian communications and oppose any attempts by Panama to reinforce its forces under attack.

The massive, simultaneous assault overwhelmed Panama’s 4,400-strong defense forces and its paramilitary forces of several thousand more. Twenty-three Americans died, as did about 125 Panamanian soldiers and between 200 to 600 Panamanian civilians.

There will be dangers in any such attack plan, of course, as the 1993 U.S. experience in Mogadishu, Somalia, underscores. Eighteen American soldiers were killed in one night of fighting against a ragtag militia opposition armed with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and mines, but not much more than that.

The incident started when two U.S. helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades; additional American casualties were suffered in the ensuing efforts to rescue the downed soldiers. In Baghdad, helicopters and ground-force units advancing in tanks could be at least as vulnerable to Iraqi surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery and anti-tank weapons.

How will they fight?

However, it seems impossible for the Mogadishu debacle to be repeated—even if elite Iraqi forces fight hard. By using the nighttime, U.S. and British forces will reduce their vulnerability to anti-aircraft and anti-tank fire. Only 2,000 U.S. soldiers were in Somalia by October 1993; only 160 were sent on the afternoon mission in question. Raids on Baghdad will surely involve hundreds of soldiers for each main objective, with thousands in backup.

Hardest to predict is how vigorously Iraqis will fight after Saddam’s command structure is shattered in this urban blitzkrieg—if it even survives that long. The block-by-block fighting could be intense in places. But most likely, no more than a few tens of thousands of Saddam’s elite guards and special Republican Guard soldiers will wage war once cut off from his iron fist. U.S. and British losses could number in the hundreds, but the battle for Baghdad will almost surely not last more than a week or two.

I am going to go out on a limb with a prediction: Perhaps more than in the recent past, this war’s hero will be the American and British soldier, not the fancy technology the American public has been told about for weeks or “shock and awe” battle plans.

It would be nice to be wrong. If we were truly lucky, Iraqi surrenders will stop the fighting before the urban warfare begins. (Perhaps the war will even end between when I write these words Saturday and when the newspaper appears today.) But if it boils down to an urban struggle, this war will have to be won with a more traditional style of combat than seen in recent conflicts in Afghanistan or the Balkans, or even in Desert Storm.

Thankfully, the U.S. military knows not to rely only on technology—no matter how advanced—and it has not forgotten its traditional soldiering skills. It should perform extremely well in any such battle for Baghdad.