IN a narrow military sense, the significance of the coalition forces' victory over Iraq will not be fully understood for a long time. We have witnessed an unprecedented military operation. Yet many of its most critical aspects may be lost to the public because of their complexity. They should not be. They may mark a major change in the nature of future war, of military industry, domestic social requirements, and coalition diplomacy. Some of the realities of this battle stand out by historical comparisons. It exceeded the largest tank battle of World War II, Kursk in Russia. About 2,500 German tanks fought 3,000 Soviet tanks for two weeks. They had small caliber guns, and air support was trivial.
The German invasion of Poland was on a similar geographical scale, but was 18 days in length as compared to 100 hours against more evenly matched ground forces. To be sure, the air phase extends the length of war to 43 days, and it should be seen as a 43-day war. The casualty ratio between the sides has been emphasized, and ``miraculous'' is not hyperbole in describing it. How are we to explain such an outcome?
Both Soviet and American military planners have recognized for nearly two decades that the microchip and laser technologies have dramatic military applications. After the Vietnam war, American planners turned their attention to the large Soviet forces on the European central front. How could they be defeated by smaller NATO forces? ``Air-Land Battle'' was the answer, a doctrine made feasible only by the new weapons.
Rather than face waves of Soviet forces at the front line as they arrive in sequence, US forces would engage such attackers long before they reached the forward area of the battle. At the same time, they would have to fight them on the front lines. Thus two battles would proceed simultaneously, a main battle at the front and the battle in the rear aimed at breaking up the enemy's offensive.
The ``deep'' battle would be conducted by artillery, rockets, and aircraft using ``smart weapons'' to slow down, if not destroy, the advancing forces. It would also be carried out by ground maneuver forces attacking gaps in the enemy's offensive, striking to depths of 25 to 50 kilometers, upsetting the enemy's formations and taking pressure off the defensive forces on the front line.
How could smaller forces succeed in such daring operations? First, US intelligence has to be able to ``see'' the deep battlefield with great precision. Second, ``smart'' munitions and long-range delivery systems are required. Third, the ground forces need cross-country vehicular speeds far above the traditional 10-12 miles per hour. Attack helicopters add to the speed and maneuverability of these forces.
Some, but not all, of the equipment for this doctrine was fielded. Tanks and infantry-fighting vehicles with 30-40 m.p.h. cross-country speeds, longer range and equally fast artillery, and new attack helicopters were developed. And several kinds of ``smart'' munitions, including rockets and bombs for tactical aircraft, were designed. Advanced optical sights and night vision gear have been provided. But what we have seen used against Iraq is only part of the set of weapons and equipment needed to complet e the full array of air-land battle weaponry.
Weapons alone never win a war. The demands of command and control in this kind of warfare far exceeded anything expected from officers in the past. Troops had to have the physical hardness of past armies, as well as higher skills in handling weaponry, communications, and map reading.
The initial phase, the air war, was no less demanding. Controlling so many aircraft effectively was a breathtaking feat. No less impressive was the tactical skill used to eliminate an effective Soviet-made air defense system. When the ground phase began, pilots faced the added challenge of not bombing friendly forces. Several senior military officers in the Pentagon warned of a large number of self-inflicted casualties from our own air, artillery, and tank fire. The actual number was lower than we are e ver likely to achieve again.
The role of close air support and attack helicopters showed a blurring of the line between ground and air war. Similarly, the performance of the Patriot battalions blurred the line between air defense missiles and anti-ballistic missiles. The implications of this are bound to be great for future inter-service arrangements as well as for weapons development.
Finally, the ``art'' of designing the operation - of overcoming the enemy's edge in force levels, of making him face our strengths where he was weak - took experience, confidence, courage, and a stubborn will to discipline the implementation. General Schwarzkopf deserves enormous credit for the operational scheme, but many of its sub-parts were independently worked out with equal competence by other air, naval, and ground commanders.
In adapting the air-land battle to the Gulf war, changes had to be made, and they were made with remarkable creativity. Equally remarkable were the distances and speed of the penetrations into Kuwait, and especially the flanking movement in the western sector of the front.
The skeptic will argue that all this was possible only because the Iraqi army was of poor quality and low morale. But it did not begin in that condition. In the fall of 1990, it was an imposing force with several years of war experience. What looked like a ``walk through'' in the last days was the result of weeks of operations and maneuver during the air phase, combined with the staggering speed of the deep battle when the ground phase began.
Had the opposing army been manned by Russians, Chinese, West Europeans, or Israelis with the same Iraqi materiel capabilities, the outcome would have been much the same. While Iraqi weaponry was not Soviet top-of-the-line, it was hardly third rate. Other forces might have shown more cohesion and resistance, perhaps lasting a few more days.
The only maneuver open to the opponent once US forces opened hostilities was rapid withdrawal before the ground campaign began. The Iraqis might have saved many more of their forces by rapid night movements to the north. After Feb. 23, the die was cast.
These thoughts give only a rough-grained image of the reality of this war. Its impact on professional officers worldwide will be profound. Imagine, for example, that both sides had relatively equal modern capabilities. We have no idea how such an engagement would turn out - with a swift victory or a stalemate.
Imagine how much modern materiel would be required for several such battles in a larger world war. How long would the stocks of weapons last? Could they be mass produced as they were during World War II? Imagine how such a high-tech battle might look at sea. Would it last even 100 hours?
What other countries could build and man such forces? How many countries could project them halfway around the world? Is ``coalition'' warfare virtually imperative in such conditions?
These technical military questions quickly lead into political questions and a fundamental reassessment, not only of a state's military potential, but also of its society, education levels, social cohesion, and political determination. It forces us to realize the importance of military alliances and prewar diplomacy. The war was hardly an ``American-only'' performance.
We have not witnessed a mere police action against a third-world, third-rate, army. We have seen the crossing of a threshold in the nature of warfare and all of the social, political, economic, and military implications it carries.