Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Future of the U.S. Military

Did Operation Iraqi Freedom validate a new theory of warfare in which special forces, high technology, and creative war plans will replace America’s traditional assets of firepower, maneuver, and brute strength? Some say yes, and now expect Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to push for the radical overhaul or “transformation” of the U.S. armed forces that he reportedly wanted back in early 2001 but felt politically unable to pursue. Although different defense scholars hold different views, most expect Rumsfeld to make deep cuts in Army forces in order to fund greater capabilities in air power, naval forces, missile defenses, space weapons, and special forces.

However, what is most striking about the recent war to overthrow Saddam is just how much traditional combat capabilities still mattered. Yes, special forces and modern air power were important, but so were Abrams tanks, 5-ton supply trucks, rifle-wielding soldiers and marines, and old-fashioned infantry combat skills. When U.S. forces met the Republican Guard’s Madinah Munawrah Armored and Baghdad Infantry divisions south of the Iraqi capital in the decisive battle of the war, they did so with numerical superiority, dominant air support, and tremendous firepower. The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have essentially been won with the military the Bush administration inherited from Bill Clinton, the first President Bush, and Ronald Reagan—a force constantly but gradually modernized—not with a reinvented force built by proponents of defense revolution. As such, those who would jettison the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force in favor of a Rumsfeld doctrine of stealth, surprise, finesse, and small coalitions of the willing should temper their views.

All defense strategists know not to assume that the next war will be like the last one, or to over-learn the lessons of one conflict in anticipation of subsequent military operations. That said, wars are hugely informative events for the discipline of military analysis, and must be mined fully for information and insights whenever they occur. In addition, this particular war is reshaping the basic strategic context of the Persian Gulf region. In particular, it raises questions about the U.S. two-war requirement, which has formed the basis for force planning for over a decade, and about the normal overseas deployments of American forces. For these reasons, it is appropriate to review the war’s basic lessons and then suggest preliminary thoughts on their significance for future American defense planning. On balance, they argue for a less radical realignment of the U.S. military than observers have often alleged in the war’s immediate aftermath. But changes do not have to be radical to be important, or difficult to get right.


American, British, and Australian forces accomplished a remarkable feat between March 19 and April 9, the rough boundaries of the main combat phase of military operations in Iraq. They defeated a 400,000-man military, overthrew a dictator, and successfully prosecuted major urban combat operations while suffering fewer than 200 combat deaths—even smaller coalition losses than in Operation Desert Storm a decade ago. Although American-led forces were poorly prepared for the initial demands of stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq, that was more a reflection of poor planning at the Pentagon and CENTCOM than of any inherent lack of capacity on the part of the deployed troops.

What was responsible for this remarkable battlefield success? In particular, were Vice President Dick Cheney and Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers right when they claimed that the strategy devised by General Tommy Franks and his colleagues at CENTCOM was brilliant? Will war colleges around the world be teaching it to their students decades from now? Or will the conflict tend to be seen primarily as a case of overwhelming military capability prevailing over a mediocre army from a mid-sized developing country?

Whether the war’s concept deserves to be called “brilliant,” as some claimed during and right after the war, is debatable. On balance, U.S. military performance was so good and military supremacy so overwhelming that the American-led coalition probably could have won this war without a brilliant, or even a very good, war plan. That said, there were major elements of military creativity in the Iraq campaign as well as some that were not new at all.

Consider several key elements:

  • Shock and awe. This was of course the bumper sticker for how the war would begin, well advertised weeks in advance. But the idea was not so new. Selectively hitting military targets while sparing civilian infrastructure is an idea that builds on the U.S. experience in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Desert Storm. Avoiding attacks against regular Iraqi military units was smart, but it was well known that these forces were much less loyal to Saddam than were the Special Republican Guard, Republican Guard, and Fedayeen units. Striking hard in a war’s early hours is a strategy that air-power proponents have counseled for decades. In the end, the shock-and-awe concept was not really followed because plans apparently changed with the attempt to kill Saddam on March 19. Given the degree to which Iraqi forces had become accustomed to coalition bombing in the preceding decade, there probably would not have been much shock or awe in any case, however.

  • Special operations raids. These were more impressive than the early air campaign. Dozens of small special operations teams disrupted Iraqi command and control, seized oil infrastructure, prevented dams from being demolished, and took hold of airfields in regions where Scud missiles might have been launched at Israel. Special operations and intelligence units also appear to have disrupted Iraqi lines of communication in Baghdad and elsewhere, perhaps hastening the collapse of Iraqi forces once the urban fights began. These operations were brave, creative, and effective. They also prevented some nightmare scenarios.

  • Bypassing southeastern cities while rushing to Baghdad. In the war’s first 10 days, it was not clear that coalition ground forces could sufficiently protect their flanks in areas that they preferred not to seize. The ensuing debate was somewhat overblown; in a worst case, coalition forces could have waited a couple of weeks for other units to arrive with little harm done to the broader strategy. Regardless, this approach, which placed a premium on speed and deep penetration, was hardly new. Hitler’s generals did not make pit stops in Strasbourg or Luxembourg or northeastern France; they drove straight for the French coast to cut off the French army, and then for Paris.

  • Striking Iraqi forces with a powerful preparatory air bombardment. The combination of GPS-guided all-weather bombs, better all-weather sensors such as JSTARS aircraft flying well within Iraqi airspace, and real-time joint communications networks denied Iraqi forces any sanctuary. Even if the Iraqis tried to move during sandstorms, or at night, coalition forces could see and strike them. In addition, due to the rapid movements of coalition ground forces, any Iraqi redeployments had to happen quickly if they were to help frontline forces under attack. That made it more likely they would move in large formations on roadways. They were badly hurt as a result. Again, this was textbook doctrine, applied with devastating effectiveness, rather than brilliant generalship.

  • Decimating combined-arms attacks against the Republican Guard. In addition to the above combat dynamics, coalition forces were remarkably effective when air and ground units worked together. By the last days of March and early days of April, U.S. forces were mauling Republican Guard forces deployed outside of Baghdad. Saddam made a major mistake in keeping them there, perhaps out of fear that they would turn against him if allowed into Baghdad or perhaps out of overconfidence that they could hide in the complex terrain of the Tigris-Euphrates valley. The coalition did employ some tactics—such as the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division’s “bump and run” move to outflank part of the Madinah Division near Karbala—but what won that fight was a devastating display of combined-arms warfare. It built on a decades-old concept with dramatically improved technology that was acquired and integrated into American military doctrine and tactics during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years. It was less brilliance than sheer dominance.

  • The fights for Baghdad and Basra. Here, there was some genuine cleverness and creativity. To try to seize the cities quickly probably would have produced high casualties on all sides. By contrast, to wait patiently for the 4th Mechanized Infantry Division and other reinforcements would have given Saddam’s forces confidence as well as time to regroup and devise new tactics. So the middle ground—using increasingly assertive “reconnaissance in force” operations to gain information, disrupt Saddam’s forces, embolden the Iraqi population to resist, and engage selectively in firefights against elite Iraqi forces—was just right.

On balance, the main pillars of the coalition’s success in Iraq—new technology and traditional skills—provided a remarkable pair of capabilities. In terms of equipment, of particular note were the all-weather reconnaissance systems, all-weather bombs, and modern communications networks developed in the last decade. (This was during a period when, ironically, advocates of defense revolution were often frustrated at the pace of change in the U.S. armed forces.) In addition, one is struck by the competence of American and British troops and their commanders, and the excellence of their doctrine and training. Indeed, old-fashioned tanks performed extremely well, and urban combat operations were executed magnificently.


According to various press pieces, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is now determined to make the radical changes in the U.S. military he desired two years ago, but was not able to effect. Now coming off two successful wars, Rumsefeld is viewed as one of the most influential cabinet secretaries since Kissinger. Perhaps the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force, including use of large land armies to win wars, will soon be replaced by a new Rumsfeld doctrine emphasizing high technology, special operations units, and sheer brainpower to defeat future foes. Yet such a radical change seems less likely or desirable than many have been inclined to assert in the immediate aftermath of the war.

The moment seems ripe for big ideas and big innovations. For a decade, U.S. military forces have been sized and shaped primarily around the possibility of fighting two major regional wars at once. In principle, those wars could have been anywhere. In practice, everyone knew we were thinking mostly about Kim’s North Korea and Saddam’s Iraq. With one of those foes now gone, the old foundation for force planning has been partly demolished. The logic of a two-war capability remains compelling for the United States. But the question of which two wars, and which other military missions the country must conduct, is now open to speculation and debate.

Those who would articulate a new Rumsfeld doctrine propose several clear guidelines. Nation building and peacekeeping are out—at least in principle (though in fact, Rumsfeld’s approach to alliance and coalition management has left the U.S. Army with the lion’s share of the burden of peacekeeping and nation building in Iraq). Possible preemptive attacks against Syria, Iran, and North Korea are in. Long-term great-power competition against China is likely. Future warfare will be characterized more by space, missile, naval, and air-power operations than the ground armies of old.

But there are a number of practical constraints on how far this thinking can go—and as the man actually responsible for America’s defenses, Rumsfeld is more likely to recognize these constraints than are many defense visionaries. To begin, the Iraq war did not only validate air power and small forces, but also reaffirmed the importance of a rather large invasion army. Our quarter-million-strong force was just as big relative to Iraq’s military of 2003 as the Desert Storm force was relative to Iraq’s military of 1991. The Powell doctrine may have to be modified with a Rumsfeld corollary, but it does not appear dead.

Looking to the future, the commitment in Iraq alone could plausibly consume at least two U.S. divisions for one to five years, unless coalition partners provide much more help than now seems likely. Afghanistan continues to tie up well over a brigade, as do operations in the Balkans from which Rumsfeld has not been able to extricate American troops despite his best efforts. Other small missions remain possible in the context of the war on terror. War in Korea remains a worry as well, with the potential need for six to eight U.S. combat divisions. These real missions and plausible combat scenarios require at least 10 ready divisions (the current U.S. military has 13 active divisions, 10 in the Army and 3 in the Marine Corps). In fact, to maintain two divisions in Iraq for several years will require roughly all the ground forces the United States now possesses simply due to demands for troop rotations.

Then there are the unknowns. For example, might the United States and its allies someday be asked by a failing Pakistani government to help it restore stability before civil war led to the country’s breakup—and a potential loss of security over its nuclear arsenal? That mission would not be nation building; it would be protecting vital U.S. national security interests. Or might a major stabilization effort involving substantial U.S. participation be needed anywhere from Kashmir to Congo to Indonesia?

Overall, Rumsfeld may change the U.S. military in modest ways, but a true revolution seems unlikely. In particular, he may indeed make a modest reduction in the size and budget of the Army, using the freed funds for more space and missile defense technology, air power, and special forces. However, the argument for making changes of more than roughly 5 percent in basic budget allocations and force strengths is not strong.

The same conclusion applies to the specific new weapons Rumsfeld is likely to purchase. During the last presidential campaign, then-Governor Bush advocated “skipping a generation” of weaponry in order to hasten the arrival of a new era in which capabilities such as unmanned aircraft and submarines, stealthy bombers and ships, and space weapons would predominate. The likely losers were thought to be short-range combat aircraft, many Army weapons systems, large surface ships, and other “legacy” weapons that reflected gradual improvements of traditional capabilities more than bold new technology.

But, as noted, traditional weaponry performed brilliantly in Operation Iraqi Freedom, as did soldiers and marines using old-fashioned skills of armored maneuver and urban warfare against the Iraqi military. It was not a war won entirely, or even mostly, with shock and awe. Second, it may be harder to use special forces in other possible wars. Coalition aircraft had mapped Iraq in detail for a dozen years, enabling surgical deployment of small teams of Americans to places where they could produce the best effects with the least risk to themselves.

In addition, canceling weapons is harder than it looks. After two years in office, among dozens of large weapons programs, Rumsfeld has only canceled the Army’s Crusader artillery system—and reportedly at least in part at the behest of President Bush, who wanted to make good on a campaign pledge. And it is not just about politics. Most of these weapons have good military arguments in their favor. Some are probably not needed, but it is never trivial to figure out which to cancel. For example, the F-22 may not be needed in the quantities the Air Force desires. But given the spread of advanced surface-to-air missiles and given the possibility of a more advanced threat from a country like China over the next decade or two, some such aircraft are a wise investment at this point. Similarly, the joint strike fighter may not be needed in the enormous quantities now planned (almost 3,000 planes between the Air Force, Navy, and Marines). But several hundred of these advanced attack aircraft are a sensible investment—and we will need to buy or refurbish other aircraft to make up for any joint strike fighters not purchased given the aging of aircraft such as the F-16, AV-8B Harrier, and F-18.

Finally, today’s U.S. weapons modernization budget already contains substantial funds for new ideas and concepts. Missile defenses, unmanned aerial vehicles, space communications systems, submarines converted to cruise missile carriers, unmanned underwater vehicles, and general research and experimentation budgets are among the beneficiaries of increased funding. After September 11, the annual defense budget went up a great deal—after being just over $300 billion at the beginning of Bush’s presidency, it now totals about $400 billion (not even counting the costs of the recent war) and is expected to reach $500 billion by the end of the decade. Less than half that overall increase can be explained by the combined effects of inflation and the war on terror. In such an environment, provided that managers are careful, there is no pressing logic to severely slash Army forces or traditional weaponry to rush a defense transformation process that most cannot even clearly define at this point anyway.

What about American global military presence? Rumsfeld wants to reconsider the locations and roles of the other 250,000 U.S. forces based or deployed overseas from Germany to Korea. And deployments will clearly change in the Persian Gulf over time, beginning with reductions in troop strength in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Rumsfeld’s plan for reshaping America’s global military footprint is radical, creative, and generally smart. Take the example of Korea. U.S. forces there will remain in their current strength (37,000 overall, of which about 27,000 are US Army), but move southward on the peninsula. This move will be made in recognition of South Korea’s greater capabilities to thwart any North Korean invasion attempt and in anticipation of the allied counteroffensive that would quickly follow any such surprise attack. In fact, such a move better positions the more advanced American force to initiate a major counterattack. Adding access in southeast and central Asia makes sense too, as does getting most American forces out of Saudi Arabia now that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein is gone.

Or take the U.S. presence in Europe. Why does the United States still have 70,000 troops in heavily urbanized Germany, 55,000 of them Army soldiers, far from any combat zone? Largely because, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was easier to shrink the huge U.S. military presence in Germany than to rethink our basic role in Europe.

Rather than keep most of two of the U.S. Army’s six heavy divisions in Germany, far from any plausible combat theater, there is a good argument that the United States should go smaller, lighter, and quicker. As General James L. Jones, NATO’s top commander, suggests, bases in Europe should be viewed as “lily pads” for regional and global deployments.

This might mean eventually building the future U.S. presence in Germany around one of the Army’s new medium-weight “Stryker brigades” (units that depend on advanced electronics and communications systems, and that are neither as heavy and unwieldy as Abrams-tank formations nor as vulnerable as current light forces). The United States might also station an equivalent-sized Marine formation there. Having such lighter and more deployable forces is consistent with the likely security requirements around Europe’s periphery, and would help the United States set a good example of moving to more expeditionary military capabilities for its NATO allies to emulate. And perhaps another unit might be placed in a new NATO member such as Poland, Romania, or Bulgaria. With the Balkan wars over, the case for doing this is stronger than ever. Such a smaller, more mobile force would also face fewer problems training than it does now in heavily populated Germany.

There is a caveat, however. Adding more places where the Army would have to send troops on unescorted, temporary deployments is exactly what an overworked service does not need right now. Unless the U.S. Marine Corps and American allies help with stabilization efforts in Iraq more than now expected, or unless the mission proves much easier than historical precedent would suggest, the Army might be better served to go slowly. It might also look for places to allow troops to bring their families, and settle in for two or three years, on the territories of some of the new NATO members.

In any event, expect Rumsfeld to make some of these kinds of changes while the Iraq situation remains in flux. The latter provides good cover for certain changes that are sensible anyway, but always difficult to carry out for political reasons—such as those in Korea and Germany. It helps to be able to tell several allies at once that we are rethinking our entire global military basing concept and network. Otherwise, any one ally might misread a decision to move forces on its territory, assuming that Washington is sending it political messages when in fact it is military efficiency and strategic flexibility that are really driving American decision making.