The Lessons Of The Gulf War

Last week's ticker-tape extravaganza in New York for returning gulf war vets reminded me of an earlier reception at Fort Leavenworth, Kans. The electronic message board at the gate there spelled it out in big, blinking letters: WELCOME HOME. Then after a couple of days, the words disappeared. A spokesman for the fort, which houses the U.S. Army's General Staff College and its Center for Army Lessons Learned, explained there was a need to display other messages. Students at the college found it odd. They wondered if the war's lessons would be as quickly forgotten.

The U.S. military promises not to. No sooner did the white flag rise over Iraqi-occupied Kuwait than the Army began assembling a team of topflight officers to study, on a high-priority basis, the strategic and operational legacy of the desert blitzkrieg. A sign of the Army's seriousness: it upgraded the rank of the head of the Lessons Learned center from colonel - to Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Tait. The other services followed the Army's lead. The results of these studies will influence congressional views on defense policy for decades to come. They will shape decisions on how the U.S. military will be configured, how it will prepare for and fight future conflicts at a time of declining military spending. The question is: will these studies get it right? Or will the old ways of interservice rivalry and traditionalist opposition to change intervene?

One thing above all must be remembered. Desert Storm was the mother of all military anomalies. It was a war unto itself, not a model for the future. Just one example: will the United States and its allies ever again face an adversary who will give us six months to build up our strength? In the end, says Maj. Ken Sheldon, a military historian and Korean and Vietnam War veteran, the war was like a Super Bowl game in which "only our team showed. We had the only ball, too."

Still, there are lessons from the gulf. Some are as old as war itself: CHECK FEET DAILY. CHANGE SOCKS FREQUENTLY. Others concern the newest of combat technologies or the effectiveness of the AirLand Battle doctrine evolved after Vietnam. Certainly the war reinforced some of the lessons from the Southeast Asian misadventure. Gens. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, both junior officers in Vietnam, made sure they went in with overwhelming force and a clear military objective. This was also the first war in modern times in which U.S. fighting forces had a single commander and a president who left military decisions to military men.

The AirLand Battle doctrine worked pretty much as advertised. This doctrine emphasizes a closely coordinated campaign of air and armor that slices through the enemy's front and rips up his underbelly and flanks. It is a doctrine of maneuver rather than set pieces, foreshadowed in George Patton's famous phrase, "Hold 'em by the nose and kick 'em in the ass." A lot depends on technological superiority. And in fact, the commonly held view of the gulf war is that smart weapons won it, delivered by spectacular air power. There is no question that air power was the single greatest cause of the one-sided victory. But contrary to Pentagon hypesters, only 7 percent of the bombs dropped were "smart." The rest were the same dumb iron bombs that fell on Berlin, Pyongyang and Hanoi. Furthermore, while air power worked in the desert, it failed in Vietnam. It would work against Libya, say, but not against the Soviet Union. It is no magic solution. In fighting a war all things military depend on the weather, the terrain and the enemy's ability.

There is a larger point that the air campaign's success may obscure. People win wars; machines do not. There is a danger that Beltway bandits and Pentagon pundits alike will try to substitute technology for manpower for the 21st century. "They're using the desert victory to oversell a lot of expensive hardware," says Business Executives for National Security consultant James Morrison. "Careerists are touting the performance of even unbuilt gold-plated stuff with videos of pinpoint bombing."

An example: Secretary of the Air Force Donald Rice recently claimed that eight F-117 Stealth fighters could hit as many targets as a 75-plane formation. But former Pentagon systems analyst and fighter designer Pierre Sprey says the war showed that the F-117 is not "really stealthy, has a poor payload and poorer range." A useful contrast is with the unglamorous, midtech A-10, a close air-support, tank-killing aircraft. Despite a low airspeed that has earned it the nickname "Warthog," it was an extraordinary performer in the gulf. A-10s made up only 140 of the more than 1,800 fighters in theater. Yet they knocked out almost 70 percent of the tanks claimed by the Air Force. Iraqi POWs later said that the Warthog was the airplane they feared most. The Air Force resisted sending the A-10 to the gulf because the top brass don't find close air support sexy enough. Overridden on deployment by Schwarzkopf, Lt. Gen. Charles Horner told his staff later that the A-10 saved his air campaign.

With manpower as the right focus, the gulf war teaches this: the relationship among the services must be straightened out. There was needless duplication between the Army and the Marines, between the Navy and the Air Force. The U.S. military's ground elements must get the right mix of light, medium and heavy forces. Before the gulf war, the Army emphasized light divisions - highly mobile, but with little firepower. In most probable low-intensity conflicts, they could not protect themselves from air or armor. Light divisions create more flags, says retired Col. Dennis Foley, but "flags equal more generals and colonels." "It would be far better to have eight overstrength ready divisions than 12 hollow divisions," says retired Lt. Gen. Henry Emerson. But those divisions do need more mobile armor. The M-1A1 Abrams tank did well in Iraq; only nine of 2,000 were damaged by enemy fire. But in other theaters, it could prove a liability. It's a gas guzzler, and at 65 tons, it's too heavy to be moved by air or to cross most bridges around the world. We need an air-transportable tank made of lightweight space-age material and with the same main-gun firepower as the Abrams. Similarly, the Army's thin-skinned Bradley Fighting Vehicle should be replaced by a Marine machine: the Light Armored Vehicle (LAV-25), which is air transportable, carries six grunts and rockets along at speeds up to 60 mph.

The air elements were spectacularly effective. Again, it was partly due to the uniqueness of the theater of war. The open terrain, the limited road system and multiple bridges over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers allowed air power to close down quickly the Iraqi transportation system. The result was the world's biggest junkyard of blackened military equipment. But there were embarrassments: a nonstarter in the gulf war was the Air Force's $28 billion fleet of B-1B bombers. They were too sick to fly. And while the B-1B sat grounded, the 36-year-old B-52 bomber dropped 29 percent of all 88,500 tons of bombs released. The B-52s flew 1,624 missions and Iraqi prisoners uniformly said that the raids had a deadly effect on morale. So why does the Pentagon want to spend almost $65 billion on a new fleet of B-2 Stealth bombers when the end of the cold war has canceled its mission? If the Air Force was unwilling to risk the B-1B in the gulf, it is difficult to believe that the B-2 would be used in a similar sideshow.

Spare parts were also a major problem. The shortage resulted in hardware being stood down all over the world because of cannibalization. The services are into "show not go." Spares make things go but receive a low priority. New hardware such as aircraft can be seen, warehouses full of vital spare parts cannot.

There were software shortcomings, too. As General Schwarzkopf told Congress last week, military intelligence in the gulf was both a triumph and a failure. In the gulf, many believe, failures overwhelmed the triumphs. The intelligence community detected Iraq's intention to invade Kuwait and predicted the date. But it failed to determine the Iraqi military's strength or its disposition or nuclear and chemical capabilities. It overrated the Republican Guards' will to fight. Intelligence also failed to predict the number of Iraqi Scud missile launchers or to estimate the effectiveness of the naval blockade and economic embargo.

Satellite systems provided an unprecedented amount of information, which critics say took too long to get to the user. Cloudy days made observation spotty, bomb-damage assessment was delayed by foul weather and was far from accurate. Iraqi military codes were cracked early in the game and our intelligence people were reading their mail through radio intercepts. However, the shortage of skilled translators impeded the flow of this information. And lack of access to the Iraqi leadership doomed the allies to ignorance of Saddam Hussein's true intentions. One serving general said that he had stacks of satellite imagery, but would swap it all for "one good spy on the ground."

This war's ultimate lesson is that we have to think hard about the next one. The first question corporals and captains ask themselves when defending a piece of dirt is, what is the threat? The cold war is dead. There are no heavyweight enemies out there. "In reality," says retired Rear Adm. Gene LaRocque, the director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, "the world is, in military terms, a safer place." Yet events are still unfolding. Hard-liners could tip out Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. The Middle East continues to boil. Kim Il Sung remains at the helm with a powerful Army in North Korea. As we found out with Iraq, the unthinkable is all too thinkable.

It's a fickle world. We must develop a lean military machine with the flexibility to deal with a wide range of contingencies. The United States may be the only military superpower left. But this in itself should not make us the world's policeman. America is broke. Responsibility for world order should be shared with the world through the United Nations. But in the meantime America must hold a razor-sharp sword - a sword not built by the lowest bidder.

Pentagon reductions currently in the works dictate that by 1995 the number of U.S. Navy warships will decline from 535 to 451; Army fighting divisions will fall from 28 to 18, and Air Force fighter wings will be cut from 36 to 26. More than a half-million personnel will get their walking papers by 1995 - approximately the size of Schwarzkopf's Desert Storm force. This need not be a bad thing. With the cold war dead, there is no significant military threat out there that this reduced-force level couldn't handle. As long as this force is lean and mean - with warriors, not staff bureaucrats - it can be rapidly deployed and backed up by air power. According to the The Defense Monitor: "The United States was able to defeat Iraq rapidly and decisively using only 17 percent of the U.S. active and reserve personnel and approximately one-third of its major combat units."

But to make the right choices among competing cuts in the force structure, it is vital that the United States not draw premature conclusions. The evidence for how weapons worked in the gulf war and how men performed is still not in. It would be foolhardy to make decisions now regarding how the Pentagon will spend billions of dollars and reorganize its forces without closely examining every scrap of information. And this study is far too important to be left to generals and admirals. Remember Gen. William Westmoreland's assurances of victory in Vietnam and Gen. John Vessey's sugar-coating of the record in Grenada. It was a four-star Air Force general, Robert D. Russ, who allowed Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to brag about the Stealth fighter's "pinpoint accuracy" during the 1989 Panama operation, even though he knew several bombs had missed their targets by substantial distances.

It is vital that this examination be conducted outside the Pentagon, and by "lateral" thinkers - people not bound to a hierarchy. We must find out not only what lessons were learned, but which lessons were not learned. It will take months to sift through all the data and to scrap the military and defense-contractor hype from the truth. Congressman Les Aspin, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in an April 30 letter to President Bush, recommended an independent commission "headed by civilians of impeccable reputation [to] examine the planning and execution of the U.S. military operations that resulted in victory in the war against Iraq. A comprehensive, objective review from an overall perspective that cuts across service lines and is not bound to any one organizational approach." But Pierre Sprey says, "Leaving it to the president scratches out the possibility for an independent review. Why would he hire people to attack his own defense budget?" James Morrison adds a leveling twist. "Form two teams. A Red Team and a Blue Team. Put the lateral thinkers on the Red Team. It will keep the insiders honest." Former secretary of the Navy James Webb thinks the independent commission is a good idea and that its scope should not "be limited to the gulf war, but look at America's complete military structure and functions from A to Z."

In 1950, as a 19-year-old in Korea, I witnessed firsthand what happens to an army that doesn't learn from experience: a lot of good people die. Fewer defense dollars require that cuts be made, but carefully and well thought out so present and future soldiers are not sacrificed by random pink slips or caught unprepared on a distant battlefield.