The success of the U.S. military campaign that begins this week in Iraq will depend on ground forces. Air power can defeat enemies, but it can’t occupy territory or impose a new political order. On the other hand, ground forces face challenges in reaching the war zone that air forces do not. The long delay in beginning Gulf War II has less to do with diplomacy than the difficulty of deploying heavy forces from America to the other side of the world. Enough forces are now deployed, though, to commence a distinctly unconventional campaign.
Rolling Start. As Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt noted in the Sunday New York Times, it is unprecedented for the U.S. military to begin a campaign with so many of the required forces still in transit. The difficulty of moving heavy forces has combined with limited port facilities in Kuwait, Turkish refusal to grant base access, and concerns about the onset of April heat and windstorms to force an early start to hostilities before all military assets are in place. Any shortfall in ground-based firepower will have to be covered by air power — including the Army’s AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter, the world’s most lethal tank-killer.
Special Operations. The campaign plan assigns key missions to special forces. The most important was disclosed by Rick Atkinson and Thomas Ricks in yesterday’s Washington Post — the capturing or killing of “specific Iraqi political and military leaders,” including Saddam. That job may have been given to the super-secret Delta Force. Other special operations include Scud-hunters flying out of Jordan, seizure of chem-bio weapons sites, and securing of oilfields before they can be blown up. A brigade of the Army’s fast-moving 82nd Airborne Division has been tasked to accomplish related unconventional missions (and therefore kept out of the normal command chain).
Air-Ground Integration. Greg Jaffe correctly reported in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal that 30% of sorties in the master attack plan are for “close air support,” meaning airborne coverage of ground forces. Ground units are unlikely to begin their northward thrust from Kuwait until 72 hours of bombing have reduced Iraqi forces, but once they move the pace will be fast all the way to Baghdad. Careful coordination between ground and airborne elements will be required to assure maximum firepower and minimum fratricide at the forward edge of advance. Although the First Marine Expeditionary Force has organic air support, Army units will be heavily dependent on coverage from Air Force fighter-bombers for tactical success – a test of joint warfighting skills.
Vertical Envelopment. Many of the key moves in modern ground warfare actually occur in the air. The U.S. Army plans to implement a transformational concept in the Iraqi campaign called “vertical envelopment,” which means flanking an enemy by going over him rather than around him. Instead of presenting defenders with a clearly-defined forward line advancing along predictable axes, the Army intends to use its helicopters and other airlift to land throughout Iraq, disorienting defenders. Special forces have identified airstrips where C-130s and C-17s can deposit mobile forces, including heavy armor. One virtue of hopscotching across Iraq is that defenders may never get a chance to use chemical weapons against an attacker whose movements are unpredictable.
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