WASHINGTON — WITH the Gulf war over, the United States defense establishment is gearing up for another kind of combat: the battle over lessons learned. On one level this battle will surely go on for years. Armed forces study teams will pore over after-action reports, weapons-readiness statistics, and other data to determine what worked in the fighting against Iraq, and what didn't. ``The returns are still coming in,'' says Maj. Rick Bogdan, executive officer of the Army's combat lessons center.
On a more immediate level, this year's defense budget debate will ring with Gulf war claims. Partisans will insist their favored weapon made the victory possible, or that the war showed so-and-so technology to be vital.
Overall, picking what the US did right, and should emphasize, from what Iraq merely did wrong may be difficult. Saddam Hussein was a military opponent of almost astounding passivity and incompetence. ``There is no question he let us control the clock. That will probably not happen in the future if there's anybody else paying attention to lessons learned in the Gulf,'' says Adm. David Jeremiah, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The US military's performance in the Persian Gulf is itself a testimony to the value of learning from past military mistakes. Many of the most successful aspects of the Desert Storm operation were conscious responses to problems identified in the post-Vietnam era. Thus, the Pentagon's AirLand battle doctrine of maneuverability and deception, adopted in the mid-1980s, replaced less-imaginative contingency plans.
The centralization of power in a single chief, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, was a reaction to confusing chains of command in Vietnam and Grenada. Even the speed of shipping forces to the Gulf was improved by a late 1970s exercise, Nifty Nugget, which revealed that US deployment plans were gravely deficient.
The Army is a good example of how US services try to profit from problems. It has an official Center for Lessons Learned, part of the staff college complex at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas that many of the Army's top officers have attended.
During much of the Desert Shield/Desert Storm operation, the center had some 60 representatives in the Gulf theater, says Major Bogdan, the center's executive officer, many of them experts in particular subject matters. After-action reports from units involved are due in by the end of June. Extensive interviews with everyone from four-star generals to privates are still to come. Eventually, the center will produce an overall after-action report for Army-wide consumption.
Conclusions drawn so far are ``pretty obvious,'' Bogdan says. ``Overall, things went very well.''
In recent weeks, military officials in Washington have been pushing a number of basic points as preliminary Gulf lessons learned:
* High-tech is better than low-tech. The success of cruise missiles and Stealth fighters shows that putting money into fewer, cutting-edge weapons is better than buying lower-tech weapons in greater quantities, officials claim.
* Realistic training is essential. Desert war wasn't new to Army troops because of the extensive rehearsing most units received at the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert.
* Command-and-control may be the most important technology of all. Destruction of communications destroyed the Iraqi military's cohesiveness.
* A few precision-guided munitions can do more damage than many ``dumb bombs.'' Navy officials have already said publicly that they will shift some money from unguided to guided munitions accounts in future budgets.
* The fewer chiefs, the better. In Vietnam, there were in essence four US air forces, each with its own daily orders, leading to duplication of effort.
IN the Gulf, there was only one air boss, with authority over all aircraft: Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Horner.
Critics say the most sweeping lesson which the Pentagon is now promoting - the superiority of the high-tech approach - may be overdrawn. The high operational readiness rates of some new US weapons, such as the Apache attack helicopter, was aided by the presence of contractor personnel sent to the Gulf to help with maintenance. That would not be possible against a more threatening foe.
Some Air Force units kept up high readiness rates by borrowing extra technicians from squadrons that didn't get sent to the Gulf. The short duration of the war meant some overhauls were simply deferred. The Air Force extended the scheduled interval for F-16 landing gear removal, for instance - but by the end of Desert Storm F-16 landing gears were having to be repaired at unprecedented rates, according to Air Force officials.
Still, with the defense budget projected to shrink drastically in the years ahead, the Pentagon is rushing to wrap threatened weapons with the Desert Storm aura. The B-2 is a case in point. The B-2 is battling for its budget existence this year, so the Department of Defense had a Gulf hero, General Horner, testify to Congress as to how it would have been useful in the conflict with Iraq. So far, it hasn't worked. The House Armed Services Committee has voted to scratch the B-2 from this year's budget, th ough the plane has strong support in the Senate. Strategic Defense Initiative supporters have also seized on the perceived success of the Patriot air defense missile in their continuing ``star wars'' campaign. But SDI faces an uphill battle in the House.
As the war fades into the distance, it's already becoming difficult to sift the facts from the hype about the US military performance. House Armed Services panel chairman Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin has urged that President Bush appoint a commission, to provide an impartial judgment on what went right, and wrong, for the Pentagon in the Gulf.