'Lessons' of Desert Storm

JEFFREY RECORD

May 16, 1991|By JEFFREY RECORD

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA — Arlington, Virginia. -- The U.S. defense analytical community is erupting with instant ''lessons learned'' from the recent war against Iraq. Lessons abound about everything from strategy and tactics to the performance of ''smart'' munitions and the All-Volunteer Force.

Caution, however, is in order. From a purely military standpoint, it is far from clear just how much Operation Desert Storm ''proved,'' in terms of lessons meaningful for future U.S. military operations.

The stunning U.S. and allied victory over Iraqi forces in Kuwait was in large measure the product of a unique set of highly favorable diplomatic, political, strategic, operational and other conditions that are most unlikely ever again to be replicated.

Moreover, the term ''war'' may not accurately capture what took place in the northern Persian Gulf from Jan. 16 to Feb. 28. A real war involves continuous and reciprocal lethal activity on both sides, whereas the most remarkable aspect of Iraq's military performance was its extraordinary inertia. Desert Storm was a campaign against a zomble-like enemy whose own fire proved less of a threat to our forces than did friendly fire.

The Iraqis never had a chance. For openers, the United States enjoyed a crushing qualitative superiority in both people and weapons. Neither Iraq's sullen conscripts nor its overrated Republican Guards could hold a candle to the highly motivated and superbly trained American volunteers, and Iraqi tanks and warplanes proved to be clay pigeons for the U.S. Army's Abrams main battle tank and the Air Force's F-15s, F-16s, FB-111s and A-10s.

The United States also had the luxury of almost six months to deploy forces to the Gulf and provide them on-the-spot training, and Iraq was in no position to disrupt U.S. and allied supply lines to the Gulf or (after mid-September 1990) inside Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia itself was a logistical cornucopia without equal anywhere in the Third World; the kingdom had not only a plentitude of refined petroleum products but also a robust network of huge air bases and port facilities constructed in the 1980s in anticipation of precisely such a contingency.

There was, too, the fact that Desert Storm fell upon a country that was already effectively sealed off from any significant external military support. No Ho Chi Minh Trails or Yalu River crossings were available to Saddam Hussein, thanks to U.N. sanctions and the U.S. Navy.

The Iraqi economy and military machine were also acutely vulnerable to overwhelming air attack. This was no primitive peasant society, but a well-developed country that presented a host of exposed targets whose destruction could (and did) take down its entire economy; and Iraq's fat, target-rich, conventional army, sitting in the middle of the desert, offered little more than a shooting gallery for American and allied pilots.

But by far and away the greatest advantage Desert Storm had going for it was Iraq's strategic and military incompetence. Saddam Hussein's sense of strategic timing was on a par with Benito Mussolini's. He chose to make his move against Kuwait after the collapse of the Cold War (which made possible the transfer from Europe to the Gulf of an entire U.S. armored corps), but before he had The Bomb and before large-scale, HTC budget-driven cuts in U.S. military forces really got rolling. (Some of the U.S. Army divisions sent to the Gulf were in the initial stages of deactivation when Iraq invaded Kuwait.)

Mr. Hussein proceeded to do nothing as U.S. and allied forces began gathering in Saudi Arabia. He blew his only chance of thwarting Desert Storm: an early invasion of Saudi Arabia with the aim of denying coalition forces use of critical air bases and ports.

It is clear in retrospect that Saddam Hussein utterly misread the intentions and tenacity of the Bush administration although not without cause, given the White House's pre-war policy of appeasing Iraq and U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie's disgustingly servile interview with the dictator a week before the invasion of Kuwait.

It is equally clear that Mr. Hussein and his military minions had no real grasp of modern warfare, especially air power. During the Iraq-Iran war, the Iranians provided Iraqi gunners little more than ill-trained and poorly-equipped cannon fodder; and though the Iraqi army was always good at bashing its own people, murdering civilians was not the same as taking on the world's only superpower.

Also working against Iraq was the very nature of Saddam's regime, whose megalomania and Stalinist chain of command suffocated the initiative and flexibility that subordinate commanders must have to deal effectively with rapidly changing events on the modern battlefield.

Desert Storm was, under the circumstances, a war that the United States could not have failed to win. The United States held virtually all of the high military and non-military cards, and played them all at the times and places of its choosing.

Against no other opponent in history has the U.S. military enjoyed so swift and unqualified a success. The Plains Indians put up a better fight against the U.S. Cavalry.

All of this suggests that great care should be taken in assessing the more general lessons of Desert Storm. The unique strategic, political and logistical conditions that made Desert Storm such a success may be absent in future crises, and Iraq's military

incompetence cannot be duplicated on demand elsewhere. Indeed, our future adversaries are drawing their own lessons from Desert Storm, and are not likely to be caught as flat-footed as the Iraqi army was in Kuwait.

Jeffrey Record comments on military affairs for The Sun.

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