THE war on Iraq by the US and less than a handful of allies, chiefly Britain, would probably have commenced by the time this goes to press. With George Bush’s infamous 48-hour deadline almost coming to an end, and massive troop build-up taking place in Kuwait just across the Iraqi border and 35-25-metre wide gaps in the border fence having already been made a fortnight ago for tanks to roll through, it is clear that, in the cowboy language now current in the corridors of the White House and among US president Bush’s closest advisors, the gun is cocked and only the trigger has to be pulled. The hegemonic designs of the US have been clearly exposed when, in open defiance of international law and the United Nations charter as made explicit by no less than the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the US and Britain have decided to militarily attack a sovereign nation with the incredible demand that its president leave office or face war! These self-proclaimed champions of democracy have simply ignored the overwhelming opposition to this course by the international community, and public opinion even in their own countries, with over 60 per cent in the US and over 80 per cent in Britain opposed to the impending war. At the time of writing, the Chief Weapons Inspector, Hans Blix, has once again reported to the UN Security Council that the inspections had made substantial progress, had been able to prepare a verifiable and credible road-map towards full disarmament of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. All sadly to no avail.
However, this article does not intend to discuss the political aspects of the impending war on Iraq, which would surely be done elsewhere, but to discuss the probable military course of the war and the major strategic implications of its aftermath so that readers may be better placed to follow unfolding events in the coming days and weeks.
US Military Superiority
The first aspect to be clearly understood is the vast asymmetry between the military strength of the US-British forces and that of Iraq. Nominally, the Iraqi army is said to be 350,000 strong but a large proportion of these troops are known to be untrained and poorly equipped conscripts whose preparedness and willingness to face combat under present circumstances are not rated highly. Iraq’s military strength in general has been severely depleted since the previous Gulf War of 1991. Iraq’s veteran T-54 and T-72 tanks and armoured vehicles are in poor condition and are down to a tenth of the numbers it had a decade ago both because of the numbers destroyed then and due to severe shortage of spares. Iraqi tanks are no match for their US Abrams counterparts which can take the former out even before they themselves are detected. Iraq’s best equipped and reliable forces are possibly its elite Special and regular Republican Guard numbering about 85,000 in all, deployed mostly in Baghdad and at Tikrit 160 km to the north-west, president Saddam Hussein’s home town where many expect him to make his last stand.
The Iraqi air force is worse off. Iraq is left with only 90 ageing MiGs of unknown condition and combat worthiness, compared with 750 it had during the first Gulf War, operating from just 10 air bases compared to 38 earlier. In any case, with the rigid enforcement of no-fly zones by the US and Britain over many years in the south and north of Iraq, and with overwhelming air-strike capability and satellite-based intelligence, it is extremely unlikely that Iraqi military aircraft will even be able to operate at all.
All through the past several months of diplomatic attrition in the UN, US planes have been striking at radar and other surveillance stations, air bases and anti-aircraft positions throughout southern Iraq supposedly to enforce the no-fly zone. Even as this piece is being written, US aircraft have dropped over 2 million leaflets in south and south-east Iraq with total impunity warning Iraqi soldiers not to resist invading US forces. Iraq may have a few short-range Scud missiles and a few unmanned drones which are likely to be able to inflict any damage. With even the vintage but still deadly US B-52 bombers, not to speak of the stealth-technology B-1s being able to operate beyond the range of antiquated Iraqi anti-aircraft weapons, hampered by inability to use radar or other detection systems because such use will immediately be detected and used for pin-point attacks by the US, Iraq’s ability to offer any resistance in the air is virtually zero.
Ranged against this rag-tag military is among the mightiest military machine ever to have been deployed in one theatre, all under the US Central Command or Centcom, a uniquely US military institution with no forces of its own but with command centres and numerous military units placed at its disposal and under its direct command. Centcom is also simultaneously conducting operations in Afghanistan and its commander, General Tommy Franks, is slated to head an “interim” US-led administration in Iraq after its conquest. US forces are deployed strategically all around Iraq giving the US the ability to launch simultaneous full-scale assaults from several directions.
5 carrier groups, which means five aircraft carriers and 40 other heavily armed frigates, destroyers and submarines are deployed in the Mediterranean north of Iraq and the Gulf to the south-east ready to unleash hundreds of deadly cruise missiles, more than 200 top-of-the-line strike aircraft and helicopters with airborne troops. The main base for land forces is of course Kuwait where about 100,000 US troops and 25,000 British troops are massed in full combat readiness along with 1200 tanks, 100 attack helicopters and 100 fighter aircraft. US Centcom’s forward headquarters is in Qatar which is host to 1000 war commanders operating from a fully computerised command centre, a US air force base with over 100 fighters and a duplicate air force command centre. Centcom’s forward naval HQ is in Bahrain, the US’ oldest ally in the region since 1971, which hosts the US 5th Fleet and 4500 troops. The UAE is the Intelligence centre mainly through airborne reconnaissance including U-2 spy planes, Global Hawk unmanned drones which can fly and gather intelligence for 24-30 hours non-stop. Oman is the main British military base in the region with a full Special Air Services (SAS) squadron apart from 10 US B-1 bombers.
At present, only the northern front is uncertain with Turkey still reluctant to allow US forces to stage assault from its territory and its parliament for now debating only allowing use of Turkish airspace by US planes from the Mediterranean. The US however still has about 60,000 troops positioned in Turkey but, at the time of writing, with war plans at an advanced stage, the US has withdrawn its 6 billion US dollars to Turkey in exchange for full land, sea and air access. The US is now ready to airlift these and other troops to airstrips already prepared by the US in the Kurd regions in northern Iraq, which are now virtually sovereign areas protected by the US no-fly zone and other military assistance, and thus open up a northern front for its invasion of Iraq.
The weaponry carried by the US forces is also awesome. Apart from the variety of satellite-guided cruise missiles fired from aircraft, ships and even submarines hundreds of kilometres away, US aircraft will be carrying their usual compliment of massive firepower but also latest-generation “smart” bombs, so-called because of their ability to seek out and strike targets, including moving ones, with the help of satellite-based guidance systems. These bombs are smarter than the ones used in the previous Gulf War over a decade ago which were laser-guided and not as accurate as the present generation ordnance. Further, smart bombs are likely to comprise about 80 per cent of US bombs compared to only 10 per cent in the previous Gulf War. The US is also deploying Massive Ordnance Air-burst Bombs or MOABs (nicknamed the “mother of all bombs”) which are 9.5 ton bombs, the biggest ever made, packing a punch equivalent to a small nuclear bomb to which it is also compared because it too is set off in mid-air, causes massive destruction in a wide radius, complete with a mushroom cloud. MOABs will heavily overshadow the earlier massive bombs such as the 6.5 ton Daisy Cutter which caused such havoc in Vietnam and more recently in Afghanistan.
The US is making much of the possibility of Iraq using chemical and biological weapons. It has equipped its troops with counter-measures and is also preparing to use “e-bombs” or massive electronic pulses to disable CBW firing and delivery systems. Iraq continues to deny that it has any chemical or biological weapons, and the UN inspections have also brought out that while Iraq may have some CBW capabilities there was no evidence of CBW weapons or delivery capability. And since Iraq will want to emphasise the wrong being done by the US, it does not appear very likely that Iraq would use CBWs.
So great is the asymmetry between the rival forces, and so stark is the Iraqi weakness in comparison with the US and British forces that, once the war starts, no one will be in any doubt of the hollowness of US and British claims that Iraq constitutes a “clear and present danger” to these countries leave alone to global security, and therefore needs to be attacked. It will be clear that, as former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Mary Robinson put it recently, this is a war of choice not of necessity.
The US is making no secret of its plans to launch the Iraq campaign with a massive assault intended to overawe and shock the Iraqi forces and political leadership into acknowledging the futility of resistance. The nature of the campaign will be shaped by the immediate and strategic objectives of the US and also be the kind of military capabilities it possesses. Of course, it is well known in military history that even the best laid plans have had to be radically altered due to unanticipated ground realities within the first week of the campaign. The same may indeed happen in Iraq but, if not, the US-led assault is likely to take the following course.
In military campaigns even a few decades ago, the main objectives were to weaken resistance by advance aerial or artillery attacks, seize territory through ground troops and overwhelm the adversary in sheer size and firepower, a large part of this being shaped by the fact that intelligence pertaining to actual ground realities was weak. While today’s overall objectives may appear similar, they take on a radically different thrust due to the “revolution in military affairs” especially the unparalleled “situational awareness”, that is, intimate knowledge of the adversary’s actions and capabilities.
During the Gulf War in 1991, missile strikes against strategic targets and waves of air attacks which destroyed the Iraqi air force, anti-aircraft capabilities and a sizable proportion of ground force assets, lasted all of 39 days followed for just 100 hours by thousands of ground troops. This time, the doctrine is “simultaneity” with overlapping air and ground campaigns.
Right at the outset, there will be hundreds of simultaneous strikes by missiles and by “smart bombs” from aircraft and other Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs on strategic targets throughout Iraq, including major garrisons, command centres and possibly the Presidential Palace in Baghdad and other similar locations. It is expected that more targets will be hit in Baghdad in the first 24 hours than in all 43 days of the earlier Gulf War.
This will be almost immediately followed by the other element of the US military doctrine for the Iraq campaign, “vertical envelopment”, that is to drop troops behind Iraqi lines by parachute and helicopter and seize key targets such as airstrips, oil fields etc. The idea of this highly “kinetic” campaign is to shock and overawe the Iraqis and make them realise the futility of resistance. US leaflets are warning Iraqi military formations to turn their weapons towards the ground, the classic military gesture of surrender, and not adopt aggressive postures in which case US forces will simply pass them by towards their goal!
US ground troops will then advance, now mostly from the South but to a lesser extent from the North as well, in a pincer movement. Ground troops accompanied tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy artillery including multiple rocket launchers, with appropriate air cover, will move along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which run through Iraq roughly north-east to south-west through the upper and lower portions of the country. This trajectory will bring the troops through major towns and strategic installations, skirting the former if necessary, to Baghdad, with one flank of each pincer protected by the great rivers. The major oil fields and refineries will be prime targets for immediate capture and control, such as Basra and Ulm in the south-west near the Kuwaiti border and the strategic towns of Kirkuk and Mosul in the Kurd areas in the north. If all this goes to plan, the US expects to have control of about 75 percent of Iraq in the first week or ten days.
Needless to say, this frenetic campaign with heavy aerial bombardment, even if it prompts mass surrender by Iraqi forces as the US hopes, is going to take a heavy toll including of civilian lives and property, euphemistically termed “collateral damage” in military terminology.
A major US worry is its own casualties caused by “friendly fire” that is, by its own forces, due to the simultaneous ground and air attacks. In the first Gulf War, it is estimated that 38 out of a total 145 US dead were killed by friendly fire. This figure could go up manifold this time around.
It is also estimated that in 1991, 3500 Iraqi civilians died in the US-led invasion. No one dares to guess what this figure could climb to this time. Experience in Afghanistan has shown that even several super-smart cruise missiles, as much as 10 per cent by some estimates, missed their targets by several kilometres, and one shudders at the possible toll taken by hundreds of such munitions raining down upon Baghdad and other towns and cities. And if, contrary to expectations, street battles take place in major towns and cities, civilian casualties will be much greater. US problems on this front will this time be compounded by the presence of Al Jazeera, the independent Arabic-language TV channel, which will bring these civilian casualties to the attention of the whole world. Perhaps an even bigger incentive for the US to minimise collateral damage is the fact that, given its unilateral action, it will probably have to bear almost all the estimated 9 billion US dollars in post-war reconstruction, a task for which Europe contributed significantly the last time around. The US may try to minimise collateral damage by using delayed-fuse ordnance. Similarly, “Bugsplat” software is said to be used by the US military to predict the impact of hitting specific targets and thereby take advance action to minimise collateral damage, but none of these will help when targets are missed altogether. Nothing is as perfect or sanitised as it appears on paper or on video monitors, certainly not in war.
Of course, it is far too early to predict, even hypothetically, the course of events after the war since the war itself may bring many surprises. However, some tactical and strategic developments appear clear or at least highly likely.
There is a huge chasm between the 41-nation coalition led by the US and sanctioned by the UNSC during the first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, the wide coalition forged in the “war against terror”, and the present US-Britain axis waging an illegal war on Iraq. No amount of signed statements by a handful of virtually client states in Eastern Europe can mask the naked truth that the US is today unimaginably isolated in the international community. The gulf between the US and major European powers is especially wide and will not narrow down easily, more so as it has been widening on major global issues ever since the advent of the Bush administration such as on global treaties on greenhouse gases and climate change, de-mining, monitoring of chemical and biological weapons programmes, international court of justice, the list is endless. The enormous and wilful damage inflicted by the US and Britain on the UN and the rule of international law will not only have its own dangerous consequences but also widen this gulf between the Anglo-American coalition and “old” Europe.
The war on Iraq will also have strategic ramifications in the region and even within Iraq. Even close US allies in the middle-east such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan are opposed to the US policy and have not allowed their territory to be used for war. Extremism and fundamentalism is likely to be spurred on by the US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Within Iraq itself, ethnic and sectarian cleavages may open up dangerously in the Shi’ite-dominated south and south-east and the Kurdish-dominated north, with Iran and Turkey respectively tempted to fish in these troubled waters. The present dispensation in the region is likely to be profoundly affected with unpredictable consequences.
The US has let loose the dogs of war. And the world will be quite a different place after this one.
23 March 2003