The Big Breakthrough?

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Even if it proves somewhat exaggerated, the assessment of CENTCOM spokesman General Brooks this morning that Republican Guard divisions south of Iraq’s capital have been seriously damaged, and that the Baghdad division in particular has been “destroyed,” is extremely good news. More work remains to be done on the road to Baghdad, and the likely urban fight ahead could still be tough as well. But if U.S. forces seriously degrade Iraq’s half-dozen Republican Guard divisions before that final battle, and only have to face perhaps 30,000 Special Republican Guard, fedayeen, and related personnel, the task will not be as hard as it might have been.

It is not only very good news, but quite surprising news, that the coalition has soundly defeated a substantial fraction of Iraq’s elite military within two weeks of the beginning of the war—and after less than 48 hours of intensive ground-force contact. It is worth pausing and taking note of the impressive military accomplishment that seems to be taking place, and speculating a bit about why it has been possible.

First, according to Joint Chiefs Chairman General Myers and others, U.S. and U.K. airpower managed to weaken many Republican Guard units by 50 percent or so even before the ground battles began. This is remarkable if true. An attrition threshold of 50 percent was the U.S. goal in Desert Storm. After 40 days of bombing, however, the United States had achieved no better than a loss rate of about 25 percent in Iraqi formations. True, Iraqi armor was more plentiful then, meaning there was a great deal more to destroy. Also true, fewer U.S. planes carried precision munitions in those days, meaning that the 200 or so aircraft with laser-guided bombs had to do most of the work on their own. But the United States also had the ability to conduct “tank plinking” of Iraqi armor that was badly camouflaged in the desert terrain of Kuwait. Now, by contrast, coalition forces are facing Iraqi units in terrain where vegetation is plentiful, human dwellings are much more numerous, and Iraqi forces are more experienced at hiding from airpower than they were 12 years ago. Targets are also further away from air bases than they were during Desert Storm.

In technical terms, the capabilities of U.S. sensors are still severely challenged when looking for stationary vehicles against a complex backdrop. That was also true in Kosovo, where U.S. forces thought they had destroyed one-third of all enemy armor by late May of 1999, only to discover after the June 10 termination of the war that actual Serb losses were no more than 25 percent of initial totals—and probably much less. The United States has more JSTARS reconnaissance aircraft today than in 1991 or 1999, but they are better at finding moving vehicles than stationary, dug-in objects. U.S. forces also have unmanned aircraft or UAVs, but they are relatively few in number, and better at monitoring one or two dozen sites of extremely high importance than in surveying an entire battlefield for thousands of armored vehicles.

Yet somehow, coalition forces found Iraqi forces and hit them very heavily in recent days. What might have been the key was the interaction between Apache helicopters, ground forces, and combat jets. The coalition could use the lower-flying and ground-based assets to monitor the battlefield and try to draw Iraqi fire or induce Iraqi vehicles to move about. Either way, they would have revealed their locations. That targeting information could then be passed to fighter jets above, and to counterartillery batteries and other ground weapons, enabling powerful attacks.

It is also possible that Iraqi forces made major mistakes again, just as in Desert Storm. They may have done a bad job of digging in, or may have believed they could move about the battlefield at night or in bad weather without being seen.

It is too soon to say because the battles against the Medina division and other Republican Guard forces south of Baghdad continue as of this writing. But the accomplishments of recent days and hours are remarkable, and bode quite well for the future course of the battle.