War Stories

For Want of a Bolt …

How the Iraq war could have been lost.

For all the talk about “military transformation” and the “cybernetic battlefield,” the war in Iraq—the battlefield phase of the war, fought in March and April of last year—was won (and could nearly have been lost) as much by nuts, bolts, and logistics as by computers, smart bombs, and grand strategy.

Such is the conclusion of an official 542-page report, written by a team of U.S. Army colonels at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., who conducted 2,300 interviews and examined 119,000 documents. The study was declassified over a month ago, but has received scant attention—a single story (albeit on the front page) by David Zucchino in the July 3 Los Angeles Times —mainly because the Army released it in a way that seems designed to impede its discovery and, on the chance that someone does find it, inhibit its digestion. (For the document, click here or here. For more on the study’s release, click here.)

The report, cryptically titled “On Point,” is generally positive. It properly hails the U.S. armed forces’ decadelong development of a new war-fighting doctrine emphasizing “joint” (i.e., interservice) training, coordination, and operations. It salutes the high quality of the troops, the resourcefulness of staff officers, and the ingenuity of commanders. And, even though this is an Army report with a clear Army bias, it sings the praises of the “precision-guided munitions” (or smart bombs) fired by Air Force pilots.

And yet, it also concludes that things could have gone very wrong—and that, in any case, the lightning victories along the long sprint to Baghdad depended on conditions “unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.”

The most critical of these possibly unique conditions was the massive military base that U.S. Central Command had been constructing over the previous decade in neighboring Kuwait—consisting of a maritime port, an international airport, and Camp Wolf, where hundreds of thousands of troops could hook up with the equipment that had been flown or shipped in.

Yet the report notes that in the months of the U.S. military deployment leading up to the war, “Iraq made no direct effort to impede the buildup.” Our own military planners, the authors gulp, might “wonder what the outcome would have been if Iraq had attacked U.S. forces in Kuwait before they were ready.”

Even with the relatively free running start, crucial parts of the military machine creaked nearly to the point of breakdown. For instance:

The distribution system for spare parts “never worked, despite heroic efforts.” Thousands of tons of parts successfully made their way to the theater from military bases in the United States and Western Europe only to gather dust on Kuwaiti warehouse shelves.

“Literally every” commander in the 3rd Infantry Division—the Army unit that swept up the desert to Baghdad—told the study group that, without more spare parts, “he could not have continued offensive operations for another two weeks.”

“Fortunately,” the report goes on, “major combat operations ended before the failure of the parts distribution system affected operations in a meaningful way.”

Other logistical supplies were distributed at “just barely above subsistence levels.” The supply of food “barely met demand”; some soldiers occasionally went without MREs. Petroleum supplies often had to be foraged and drained from Iraqi vehicles. Engineering explosives  were often captured from Iraqi troops or improvised. On a few occasions, the 3rd Infantry had to ask the 101st Airborne Division for extra ammunition. The medical supply system “failed.” There were not enough trucks; there was no single cargo distribution manager.

The report’s authors don’t ascribe blame. This is just the way of large-scale military mobilizations in general:

The deployment system is large, complex, and sensitive to mistakes and serendipity. A unit that shows up at the airfield out of sequence or late causes a ripple effect that can take days to overcome. Weather delays, vessel breakdowns at sea, and a host of other problems are common, and have similar effects. … Many things can go wrong.

In the case of this particular war, one aspect of the troops’ success—the unprecedented speed with which the 3rd Infantry (and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force) dashed through the desert toward Baghdad—exacerbated these problems. The supply lines grew too long, too quickly, for the suppliers to catch up.

The speed also took a toll on tactical communications systems, which relied mainly on radios and phones with line-of-sight antennas. It was like moving in and out of a cellular telephone network without a “roaming” capability; the gaps in coverage were extensive (though, apparently, never critical).

The point is that, to a far greater extent than the Pentagon’s theoreticians would like, war in the early 21st century—while certainly altered (and, yes, in some ways “transformed”) by high technology—remains, at bottom, a hard, bloody, boots-on-the-ground, wheels-on-the-road enterprise.

A couple of the report’s more digressive topics also make for instructive reading. Far more firmly than any previous U.S. Army report I’ve read, it criticizes the performance of the Army’s AH-64 attack helicopters. It recalls in great detail the disaster of March 23-24, when 32 AH-64s mounted an offensive against Iraq’s Medina Division and 31 of them came back shot up; the other chopper was shot down. It took a full month to restore the regiment to full combat capability. The report blames the failure on delayed convoys, confusing terrain management, and “an indomitable warrior spirit to get into the fight”—a trait that the report describes elsewhere, less euphemistically, as “the human ego in war.”

On the other hand, the report notes the critical role played by air power—especially by the Air Force’s A-10 attack plane, the only aircraft in the U.S. arsenal designed explicitly and solely for supporting troops on the ground. It quotes Lt. Col. J.R. Sanderson, an Army task force commander, as saying, “The F15s and F16s were good. The A10s were absolutely fantastic. It’s my favorite airplane. … You can move, and when that A10 starts his strafing run, you can do anything you want to do … because the bad guy’s head is not coming off the hard deck.”

These two points are remarkable, in two ways. First, here we have a team of Army officers criticizing the attack helicopter—the Army’s own weapon of air support—while gushing over the Air Force’s weapon. Second, the A-10 scarcely exists anymore. The Air Force, which never wanted to build it in the first place, stopped production in the mid-1980s and would have melted them down to scrap metal had they not performed so well in the 1991 Gulf War.

The latest military budget, just passed by Congress, contains plenty of money for more attack helicopters—none for a resumption of the A-10 or something like it. Here’s one place where the lessons learned from Gulf War II could be applied to great effect.