At this moment we can take pride that the last combat-assigned brigade has left Iraq and that the country itself is at a point where it may be able to rebuild itself economically and politically. Operation Iraqi Freedom has had a profound impact on everyone associated with it, most importantly, of course, the Iraqi people. It also shaped the course of the American political discourse and elections in 2004, 2006 and 2008. This date marks a stage not only in the evolution of Iraq but also in the American position in the Middle East.
The part of the U.S. government most affected by the experience in Iraq is, not surprisingly, the military. The military suffered its greatest number of casualties since the Vietnam War, over 4,400 killed and more than 45,000 wounded. Once it had achieved the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the military found itself in a war for which it was unprepared in almost every respect. It had the wrong equipment, organization, tactics, bases and even people. The military’s vision of future war was shattered.
Over a period of three or four years, the U.S. military, particularly the Army and the Marine Corps, remade itself. It changed the equipment it used, for example introducing first the Stryker wheeled combat vehicle and then the MRAP. To address just the threat posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) it developed new organizations such as the Joint IED Defeat Organization. It altered how it collected, distributed and exploited intelligence information employing UAVs such as the Scan Eagle and Predator. The military developed a new set of combat tactics for dealing with low-intensity engagements in complex terrain. The lessons learned from this experience gave rise to the requirement by the Army for a new capability, the Ground Combat Vehicle. Finally the military became not just a learning organization but a teaching one, training almost half a million Iraqi security forces. There are still approximately six U.S. advise-and-assist brigades in that country.
Almost from the moment the first special operations forces entered combat in the region, they discovered that their equipment sets were not always adequate to the stresses of the environment and demands of their missions. Urgent requests flew back to the United States for everything from better uniforms, boots, helmets, and laser designators to body armor, night vision gear and radios. Even saddles for the SOF “horse soldiers” riding alongside their Afghan allies. In Iraq the problem was compounded by the need to deal with the IED threat and intensive urban combat in places like Fallujah.
One of the little noticed but vitally important decisions the Army made was to create the Rapid Equipping Force (REF) in 2002. As the name suggests, the purpose of the REF was to respond to the urgent requirements of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and get the needed equipment in their hands without delay. In order to avoid delays, REF often went outside established defense companies, for example, going to companies that produce outdoor clothing, camping and hiking equipment to manufacturers of hunting gear, gun sights and electronic devices. Over time the REF created a full kit of equipment for the soldier that includes improved spotting scopes, weapons accessories, optics, lasers, climbing gear, as well as improved basics like socks, boots and camouflage uniforms.
The REF is a small victory to emerge from Iraq. This victory was achieved not against an enemy but for the men and women in uniform. It was also as much a victory over established ways of doing business by the Pentagon’s acquisition system as it was a success in the field.
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