For years, the U.S. armed forces have talked about the importance of joint operations. The emphasis on teamwork among soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen/airwomen has been pronounced, especially since the 1986 Goldwater Nichols Act. Since that time, the joint chiefs of staff have been reformed, the military’s joint staff strengthened, and regional commands that combine personnel from all four services given a greater role in war planning and fighting.
But the transition to full cooperation between the various services has still been incomplete. Desert Storm was largely an air war followed by a ground mop-up. Interventions in the Balkans were air campaigns followed by ground-force stabilization operations. The Afghanistan war was characterized by a combination of airpower and modest numbers of U.S. special forces fighting in conjunction with the Afghan resistance. The 1989 invasion of Panama was primarily a ground force and special operations effort. The 1993 setback in Mogadishu was mostly an Army tragedy.
All that looks ready to change. For all the talk of an Air Force-centric “shock and awe” campaign, the Iraqi leadership does not appear to have been decapitated, and Iraq certainly has not surrendered. For all the rapid movements of the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division and 1st Marine Expeditionary Force through the Iraqi desert, they are now running into more roadblocks and more resistance.
Our troops on the ground are capable of defeating the Republican Guard without much more close air support than they received in Desert Storm, even if they must suit up in chemical gear against a quite plausible Iraqi use of poison gas. To do so, they may have to await the arrival of the 4th Mechanized Infantry Division, delayed by the U.S. dispute with Turkey over access to its territory, but the 4th should arrive via Kuwait in a bit more than a week. These two U.S. heavy divisions, aided by the 101st Air Assault and 1st Marine divisions, are much more than a match for all of Saddam’s elite forces.
But thankfully, they will not have to do it on their own. Modern air power (including Marine Corps jets and Army and Marine attack helicopters, but still primarily featuring Air Force and Navy combat aircraft) is now ready to provide a kind of help it has not really provided before.
Some historical perspective is useful. Of course, airplanes provided crucial close air support in World War II, but with limited accuracy and lethality. Precision air power began to change the situation about three decades ago. It proved it could hit buildings and infrastructure in Vietnam. In Operation Desert Storm, it hit moving armor at the battle of Al Khafji in January 1991, and conducted “tank plinking” against dug-in Iraqi armor in the desert in February 1991. It hit fixed artillery positions in the Balkan hills in 1995, and worked well in conjunction with a small Northern Alliance ground force in the plains of Afghanistan in 2001-2002.
However, air power has its limits. It had trouble going after Serb forces in Kosovo in 1999 and did not do much by way of close air support during the ground war in Desert Storm. Apaches appeared vulnerable to ground fire in their solo missions against Iraqi armor in recent days.
That means it will be necessary to use the ground-air team together. U.S. ground forces will attack Iraqi positions, obliging them to reveal their locations by firing back. At that point, sensor and information networks can identify and locate the Iraqi armor, quickly passing the coordinates not only to counterartillery batteries but to attack helicopters and combat jets as well.
The key to this is the teamwork. Without the U.S. ground forces attacking, Iraq could continue to hunker down, making its armor hard to spot by planes overhead. Without U.S. airpower, camouflaged and dug-in Iraqi tanks profiting from protection offered by urban cover and vegetation might enjoy some success against American ground troops in an armored slugfest.
We know how to do this kind of joint fight. We train to do it. We have the technology to do it. Now, we have the need to do it as well. The coming days of Operation Iraqi Freedom will be the greatest test of our military’s commitment to “jointness” in modern times. It is likely to pass with flying colors.