Iraq's exaggerated military threat

Edward N. Luttwak

January 15, 1991|By Edward N. Luttwak

IN THE LAST few days, the Iraqi regime has indulged in much bombast that the world has taken much too seriously. Saddam Hussein's threat to U.S. troops, Israel and to Western cities (through terrorism) has been hugely exaggerated.

First, U.S. losses in a war would depend not on Iraqi actions but on our own military plans. Iraqi aircraft could not hope to get through our air defenses, while Iraqi missiles -- even with gas warheads -- could do little against troops dispersed and protected (unlike Kurdish villagers).

But if tens of thousands of Marines on the ground were inexcusably sent into a frontal attack against the Iraqi minefields, entrenched infantry, dug-in tanks and ample artillery now in Kuwait, many would die. Further Marine losses must be expected if the planned landings are carried out.

By contrast, nonstop air attacks against Iraqi trucks supplying Kuwait would force Iraq's troops to desert to the south, retreat north or starve in place within a week or so. In the meantime, the repeated bombing of military factories, laboratories and bases could disarm the Iraqi regime, removing another reason to invade.

But if the U.S. Army mounts the offensive around Kuwait that it reportedly intends, more than 80,000 U.S. troops would be sent into close combat, suffering inevitable -- and avoidable -- losses.

Then there is the hugely inflated threat to Israel. Most of the Iraqi army is now in or near Kuwait. If Iraq were to denude its own defenses in order to mount a wildly improbable offensive across King Hussein's complaisant Jordan, the Israeli army would easily defeat whatever Iraqi forces survived the long desert trek, during which they would be fully exposed to air attacks.

Nor could more than a handful of Iraq's 32 assorted bombers make it through Israeli air defenses -- and then only at very low altitude, diminishing their ability to locate targets.

That leaves the famous Iraqi missiles. Out of some 400 to 500 of them, most are reportedly aimed at Saudi targets. Only 35 launchers, with re-loads, are targeted against Israel. Very inaccurate and with payloads of 180 kilos in the longer-range versions (modern fighter-bombers carry at least 4,000 kilos), Iraq's missiles armed with high explosives pose not much of a threat.

Even gas warheads are not particularly threatening. For maximum potency, nerve agents must be relased as a fine mist. But they can be scattered hundreds of miles by the wind, into the sea or anywhere else. Large droplets, which would not blow around, are less effective than high explosives. Anthrax and other biological agents could work for terrorism (in airport air-conditioning systems, for example). In the open, they kill only if swallowed as they descend.

In any case, only an accidental hit on a crowded target such as an Israeli cinema or a U.S. Army camp in Saudi Arabia could inflict many casualties.

The threat to Israel warrants attention only because the White House took it seriously enough to extract a major Israeli concession. Fearing a coalition-splitting Israeli response to an Iraqi attack, the president asked Israel to leave any military reaction to the U.S. Because self-reliance in combat is the essence of Zionism, it was hard for the Israelis to agree, but eventually they did.

In military terms, however, the agreement is almost meaningless. If the Iraqis launched their missiles when attacked by the U.S., Israel could hardly react in any case: Its fighters could not fly in the same airspace as hundreds of U.S. aircraft without much risk of an accidental clash.

If, by contrast, Israel were attacked out of the blue, all otherwise being quiet, it would be highly unlikely that the U.S. would in fact respond on Israel's behalf. Any U.S. response would start a war, because the U.S. would not send in air power without simultaneously suppressing Iraqi air defenses in hundreds of sorties.

Finally, because no missile attack would threaten Israel's basic security, the Israeli government would respond not by starting a general war but with a small air strike against any remaining missiles within range of Israel, and a symbolic target in Baghdad. Such a limited action certainly would not jeopardize the anti-Iraq coalition.

The story so far has been one of hysteria and exaggeration, compounded most recently by the State Department's decision to evacuate U.S. diplomatic families from Israel -- to Washington, of all places.

Edward N. Luttwak is a strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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