No Quick Victory in Gulf

Visions of decisive air strikes and pincer movements are rose-tinted

IN the debate over US options in the Persian Gulf crisis, some observers have argued that a quick military victory can be achieved over Iraq. Their argument hinges on some assumptions. First, that US air power could severely undermine Iraq's ability to fight. Second, that US forces could mount a successful ``pincer'' operation that isolates Iraqi forces in Kuwait. And third, that opponents in Baghdad would unseat Saddam Hussein in the face of military setbacks. None of these assumptions holds up to scrutiny. Any US strike against Iraq is likely to result in a catastrophic war producing tens of thousands of casualties on both sides.

Air Power: Ever since aircraft emerged in the 1930s as a tool of modern warfare, leaders have dreamed of victory by aerial attack. In 1940, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering assured Adolf Hitler that heavy bombing would knock England out of the war. He was wrong. Allied strategists believed that air power would bring Nazi Germany to its knees by destroying its warmaking potential. In fact, US massive air raids hardly slowed German war production at all. And in Vietnam, the most extensive aerial attacks in history did not enable the US to prevail against a dedicated enemy.

Quick-victory proponents envision US air power being used against Iraq in two ways. First, bombing raids would strike at key Iraqi military and industrial targets to destroy its ability to make new weapons (particularly chemical arms and ballistic missiles), and undermine Iraqi morale by demonstrating US might. Second, air power would provide tactical cover for US forces in the field by bombing Iraqi troop concentrations and supply depots, and Iraqi armored units.

Yet like military planners of the past, today's apostles of air power are unduly optimistic.

Recent history has demonstrated that air attacks against key Iraqi assets will be difficult. Air strikes launched by the US Navy against targets in Lebanon in 1983 failed to neutralize threats to US Marines. In the 1986 bombing raid against Libya, most of the 32 bombs aimed at Qaddafi's barracks missed their target. And during the invasion of Panama last December, stray US bombs flattened heavily populated barrios near Manuel Noriega's headquarters.

Iraq has deployed some of the most advanced surface-to-air missiles made, and even in the best scenario, these weapons will take a toll on attacking US places. Ultimately, US air power will prevail and be in a position to bomb Iraqi targets at will, but dominance in the air does not guarantee victory on the ground. Even as Iraqi factories and command posts are bombed into rubble, its troops will be able to continue fighting.

Destroying large numbers of tanks from the air is no easy task. Powerful cannon of the kind mounted on US A-10 aircraft are the most lethal weapon against moving armored targets. But a plane must come in close for such cannon to be effective, and Iraqi armored columns are known to be heavily defended with short-range surface-to-air missiles and radar-guided antiaircraft guns. This leaves long-range, precision-guided munitions like the Maverick missile as the principal tank-killing weapon in the US arsenal.

Such weapons can be launched from beyond the reach of short-range air defense and have an extremely high probability of destroying their targets. However, US aircraft can only carry several Mavericks at a time, and with thousands of Iraqi tanks in the field, inflicting substantial losses from the air would prove impossible. As the Israelis have discovered, the only truly effective weapon against armored units is other armored units.

Pincer Operations: Believers in quick victory concede that US ground operations would be needed to defeat Iraq. And central to their rose-tinted thinking is the pincer operation. In theory, pincer movements work in a simple manner: fast-moving troops, striking unexpectedly, swing behind the enemy's rear, cutting off their supply lines and forcing them to fight on two fronts.

Some of the most successful military campaigns in history have relied on pincer movements. But as previous tacticians have discovered, including the German High Command in 1914, pincer movements are just as likely to get bogged down in the face of unexpected opposition as they are to succeed.

In the most popular scenario, US ground forces would sweep into northern Kuwait from the neutral zone in the West while US amphibious forces invaded from the Gulf. In a short time, the thinking goes, US troops would cut off the supply roads from Iraq to Kuwait and Iraqi forces in Kuwait would find themselves isolated. Iraqi troops in Kuwait would surrender in droves.

Absent from this scenario is an appreciation of the enormous edge Iraq has in ground forces, even after the newest US buildup. American-led forces entering northern Kuwait would have to contend with hundreds of thousands of well-equipped Iraqi troops fighting in familiar terrain. Even with control of the air, an outnumbered US invasion force would more likely be trapped itself, than to trap the Iraqis.

Coup in Baghdad. For a victory to be truly quick, successful air strikes against Iraq and an invasion to isolate Iraqi troops in Kuwait must be followed by the speedy demise of Saddam Hussein. In the minds of some experts, Saddam's overthrow would be highly likely in the face of Iraqi defeats in the field. For a decade now, ever since he invaded Iran, Saddam Hussein has brought the Iraqi people nothing but bloodshed and hardship. With such a dismal record of leadership, the reasoning goes, there must surely be a member of Baghdad's top leadership who is waiting for the right moment to step forward and kill Saddam.

Yet Adolf Hitler is only one of many dictators who led his country to disaster and survived until the bitter end. No leader is better protected than a dictator at a time of war or internal dissension. Surrounded by trusted lieutenants and bodyguards, ensconced in a fortified bunker, and on the lookout for betrayal at every moment, a beleaguered dictator is not an easy target for assassination.

Even if strategic air strikes against key Iraqi targets are successful and US troops manage to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait, the US will have to conquer all of Iraq if it wants to topple Saddam and secure total victory. Such an operation could incur tens of thousands of casualties.

The bottom line is that there is no easy way to win a war against Iraq. A diplomatic solution will not disarm Iraq or topple Saddam, but it is preferable to the bloodbath that a bid for quick victory in the Gulf would precipitate.

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