Saddam Will Have To Be Beaten on the Ground

According to one school of thought, US and UK forces are poised for an easy win against Saddam Hussein’s military, thanks to their high technology and excellence in precision bombing. Another camp fears Mogadishu writ large—a scenario like that experienced by US troops in Somalia in 1993 on a vastly greater scale. But both the cakewalk and quagmire predictions are probably wrong.

In the coming days, we shall probably see a major offensive against Iraqi forces. There may be a couple of days of intensive bombing before ground forces move, but it is clear that US and British troops will begin to move north towards Baghdad very quickly after the conflict begins. In all likelihood, the war will culminate in a battle for Baghdad starting anywhere from five days to two weeks after bombs begin to fall. The war could be over within a month.

Air power, while critical for the operation’s success, is unlikely to play as dominant a role as it did during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Nato’s frustrations in fighting Serbia in 1999 may be a better guide; Nato won that war without hurting Serb forces in Kosovo much at all. 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 bombs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs) provide all-weather capabilities, but typically miss their targets by five to 10 metres and can miss by more if jammed. When firing at military targets interspersed within civilian settings, that level of accuracy, combined with the large warheads on such weapons, limits their utility. Unmanned aerial vehicles can provide television footage of key sites. But their limited number and the lack of radio bandwidth for sending data back to base make them a special- purpose tool at best. US and UK aircraft can fly lower than in 1999, but they would have to contend with some 6,000 Iraqi air defence guns and 1,500 surface-to-air missile launchers (including shoulder-borne weapons). Even then, it would be hard to find targets in an urban setting from the air.

But while the coming battle for Baghdad will not be trivial, nor should it bog down US and UK forces. They will use speed and simultaneous nighttime assaults, taking advantage of night-vision equipment, helicopters, 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.

The best model for this type of “urban blitzkrieg,” if on a smaller scale, was the 1989 US invasion of Panama. About 22,500 American personnel took part. The operation involved simultaneous night-time airborne operations against 27 targets across the country. Special forces infiltrated key sites shortly before the airborne assaults to take down Panamanian communications and prevent the Panamanians from reinforcing under attack. The massive, simultaneous assault overwhelmed Panama’s 4,400-strong defence forces and its several thousand paramilitaries. Twenty-three Americans died, as did about 125 Panamanian troops and 200-600 civilians.

There will be dangers in any such attack plan, of course, as the 1993 US experience in Mogadishu underscores. The US lost 18 soldiers 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. Two US helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades; additional American casualties were suffered in the ensuing ground rescue efforts. Such helicopters and ground-force units could be at least as vulnerable to Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles, anti-aircraft artillery and anti-tank weapons.

However, the Mogadishu debacle will not be repeated, even if elite Iraqi forces fight hard. By using the cover of night, US and UK forces will be less vulnerable to anti-aircraft and anti-tank fire. Only 2,000 US forces were deployed in Somalia; only 160 were sent on the fateful mission. Raids on Baghdad will surely involve hundreds of troops for each objective (to the extent that some have to be seized, not destroyed), with thousands in support.

Hardest to predict is how vigorously Iraqis will fight after their command structure is shattered in this urban blitzkrieg. The block-by-block fighting could be intense in places. But most likely, no more than a few tens of thousands of Mr Hussein’s elite troops will wage war once cut off from his authority. US-UK losses could number in the high hundreds or even low thousands, but the battle for Baghdad will almost surely not last more than a week or two. And its hero will be the American and British soldier, not fancy technology or awesome battle plans.