From paper to the battlefield
If all goes according to plan, thousands of smart bombs raining down on Iraq will paralyze the country: Iraqi commanders will be cut off from their divisions, troops in the field will be cowed by an enemy they can't see, civilians will be so confused they don't dare confront the American invaders.Skip to next paragraph
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The goal is to "shock and awe" the Iraqi military into submission, while minimizing casualties on both sides. In a decade, "shock and awe" has grown from a theory dreamed up by retired generals to the concept undergirding current US war plans against Iraq.
In the evolution of military strategy, it's a big leap forward. Instead of focusing on the destruction of an enemy's forces and factories, the emphasis shifts to crippling its will to fight.
Critics say it sounds like an overoptimistic rehash of bombing campaigns that devastated Dresden and Hanoi, but did little to end fighting. And they worry that in Iraq it will once again be infantry on the ground, not smart bombs from the sky, that actually wins the war. Either way, the acceptance of this plan shows how an idea can percolate through Pentagon ranks and capture the military's imagination.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said earlier this month that the best way to ensure a short conflict is to "have such a shock on the system that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on that the end is inevitable." The military's war plan calls for dropping an unprecedented 3,000 precision-guided munitions in the first 48 hours, quickly followed by lightening-fast ground attacks.
The idea behind such a strategy was born in the mid-'90s when seven former cold war warriors gathered to rethink US defense strategy. At the time, they were one of many groups exploring ways to exploit US advantages in speed, weapons accuracy, and control of the electronic environment.
The group was cochaired by Harlan Ullman, a retired navy destroyer commander who had always been fascinated by "immaculate battles," where brilliant commanders devastated enemies by outthinking and overpowering them.
The study group included Charles Horner, the commander of American air power during the Gulf War, and Fred Franks, the general who led US tanks through southern Iraq.
General Horner says they hoped "to discover some hidden truths" from Desert Storm. For example, Horner recalls how instead of focusing on shooting down the entire Iraqi air force, the US neutralized it by destroying the ground-based radar stations that directed them. Iraqi pilots were left flying blind without instructions. "They became very confused and then terrified about flying," Horner says.
Ullman points out the example of American atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when, he says, "a society that was prepared to die was turned around."
Members of the group wondered whether, in a post- Hiroshima era, an adversary's will to resist could be destroyed without resorting to that same destructive firepower. Psychological means could supplement a military so advanced it moved faster than most enemies could react. They laid out their approach in a 1996 report entitled "Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance." The group met on and off in succeeding years, explaining its ideas in papers and seminars for current and former military officials.
Donald Rumsfeld, President Ford's secretary of defense, attended one of those briefings in 1999 and joined several former defense secretaries in signing a letter to the Clinton administration supporting a shift in military strategy. A year later, President-elect Bush returned Mr. Rumsfeld to his old job at the Pentagon, where he brought his enthusiasm for transforming the military's thinking.
The US military may have no equal in developing high-tech weaponry, but changes in doctrine or missions don't come as easily at the Pentagon. The last major strategic innovation, called the AirLand doctrine, was adopted in the US in the early '80s, after Israel's experience in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Designed to more fully integrate air and ground forces, the doctrine is still untried in the battle field.
But skeptics both inside and outside the military say "Shock and Awe" doesn't add much new to that body of thought beyond a catchy title.
"It says something all soldiers know: War is a test of will, not of physical strength," says retired Gen. Robert Scales. "Shock and awe" may, in fact, paralyze the enemy, he says, but the effect is only temporary. Enemy forces must still be physically incapacitated or frozen in place by occupation.
Ullman says he never claimed the idea was completely new. He cites diverse sources of inspiration: Pizarro's defeat of the Incas in the 16th century with only 100 troops but the advantage of firearms, armor, and horses; the German blitzkreig during World War II, and the bombing of Japan.
That last comparison earned Ullman the ire of antiwar activists who labeled him a modern-day "Dr. Strangelove." Ullman counters that "shock and awe" should reduce deaths. "This is not obliterating downtown Baghdad. That would be a colossal mistake," Ullman says. "Given the choice of surrender or die, our preference is for you to surrender."