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A changed military emerges from Iraq war

The fight against insurgents has pushed the Pentagon toward new strategies, new armor, and a transformed US force.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 2005


Hard service in Iraq is wearing out some of the US military's core weapons. Tanks, armored vehicles, and aircraft are being run at rates two to six times greater than in peacetime, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Congress earlier this month.

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The bad news here is they may need to be replaced. But there's good news too, according to Secretary Rumsfeld: It's possible they can be replaced with something better.

The need to refurbish equipment "is providing an opportunity to adjust the capabilities of the force earlier than otherwise might have been the case," Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee on March 10.

Perhaps the same might be said of the military as a whole. Two years after the invasion of Iraq, the tough work of helping rebuild a nation while fighting an insurgency has profoundly affected the organization and deployment of United States forces. Whatever Iraq becomes, the American way of war may never be the same.

Throughout the services there's a new emphasis on mobility, guerrilla-fighting skills, and special forces. These changes might have occurred whether President Bush ordered the toppling of Saddam Hussein or not. But the urgency created by war may be making it easier for Secretary Rumsfeld to pursue a long-sought transformation of the Pentagon.

"I see not so much a direct response as an accelerated implementation of a plan Bush advisers already had in place," says Loren Thompson, a defense expert at the Lexington Institute.

A look at what happened in Iraq

On one level the effect of Iraq on the structure of the US armed forces is clear, and saddening. Over 1,500 Americans have been killed, and thousands more wounded, by the fighting.

US units stormed over the border from Kuwait prepared to fight conventional battles, and that aspect of the war they handily won. It took some time for commanders in the field and in Washington to realize that in fact their mission had not been accomplished. The depth and ferocity of the insurgent resistance took many by surprise - as a shortage of armor for vehicles showed.

It's now a Washington truism that the biggest mistake made in the Iraqi operation was the lack of preparation for stability operations in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam. This may have involved more than a paucity of troops to police the streets, or unpreparedness for the dangers of roadside bombs.

Dov Zakhein, Pentagon comptroller during the first Bush administration, complained at a recent Washington seminar that at first during the occupation the military financing system didn't work. He could start money moving in Washington, but it wouldn't get to Iraq, or wouldn't get to the right place.

"It's obvious Iraq has hugely taxed the US military," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution.

Protection and recruitment

Over the past two years US commanders have scrambled to remedy this situation. The Army and Marines have created the kind of units needed for counterinsurgency. The Pentagon is increasing the size of special forces - 500 new Green Berets are scheduled to be added this year, for instance. Veteran special-forces operators are now eligible for reenlistment bonuses of up to $150,000.

Slowly, after some missteps, the military is moving to provide troops with extra protection tailored to the manner in which insurgents fight. This means body armor, and armor for Humvees and other transport vehicles. But at a recent hearing members of Congress still pleaded with Gen. John Abizaid, commander of US Central Command, to ship a stockpile of ballistic glass to Iraq, so that troops could custom-fit window shields.