A remarkable run to Baghdad

April 04, 2003|By Michael O'Hanlon

WASHINGTON - Much work remains to be done on the road to Baghdad, and the likely urban fight ahead could still be tough as well, even if it is extremely good news that Republican Guard divisions south of Iraq's capital have been seriously hurt.

But if we seriously degrade several of Iraq's half-dozen Republican Guard divisions before that final battle, and have to face only perhaps 30,000 to 50,000 Special Republican Guard and fedayeen and related personnel in the engagement, the task will not be as hard as it might have been.

It is not only very good news, but surprising news, that we have soundly defeated a substantial fraction of Iraq's elite military within two weeks of the beginning of the war - and after less than 48 hours of intensive ground force contact. It is worth pausing and taking note of the impressive military accomplishment that seems to be taking place. Why has it been possible?

First, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, and others, U.S. and British air power managed to weaken many Republican Guard units by about 50 percent even before the ground battles began. This is remarkable, if true. An attrition threshold of 50 percent was our goal in Desert Storm. After 40 days of bombing, however, we had achieved no better than a loss rate of about 25 percent in Iraqi formations. True, Iraqi armor was more plentiful then, meaning there was a great deal more to destroy.

Also true, fewer U.S. planes carried precision munitions in those days, meaning that those couple hundred aircraft with laser-guided bombs had to do most of the work on their own. But we also had the ability to conduct "tank plinking" of Iraqi armor, which was badly camouflaged in the desert terrain of Kuwait. Now, by contrast, we are facing Iraqi units in a situation where vegetation is plentiful, human dwellings are much more numerous and Iraqi forces are more experienced at hiding from air power than they were 12 years ago. Targets are also farther away from air bases than they were in Desert Storm.

In technical terms, the capabilities of U.S. sensors are still severely challenged when seeking stationary vehicles against a complex backdrop. We saw that in Kosovo, where U.S. forces thought they had destroyed one-third of all enemy armor by late May 1999, only to discover after the June 10 termination of the war that actual Serb losses were no more than 25 percent of initial totals - and probably much less.

We have more JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System) reconnaissance aircraft today than in 1991 or 1999, but they are better at finding moving vehicles than stationary, dug-in objects. We also have unmanned aircraft, but they are relatively few in number, and better at monitoring one or two dozen sites of extremely high importance than in surveying an entire battlefield for thousands of armored vehicles.

Yet somehow, we found Iraqi forces and hit them very heavily in recent days. What might have been the key was the interaction between Apache helicopters, ground forces and combat jets. We could use the lower-flying and ground-based assets to monitor the battlefield and try to draw Iraqi fire or induce Iraqi vehicles to move about. Either way, they would have revealed their locations. That targeting information could then be passed to fighter jets in order to counter artillery batteries and other ground weapons, enabling powerful attacks.

It's also possible that Iraqi forces made major mistakes again, just as in Desert Storm. They may have done a bad job of digging in, or may have believed they could move about the battlefield at night or in bad weather without being seen.

It's too soon to say; indeed, the battle for Baghdad looms, and not until then will we learn how much of the Republican Guard we have already destroyed. But the accomplishments of recent days and hours are remarkable, and bode quite well for the future course of battle.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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