The tenth anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) has produced an expected flood of articles and blogs discussing the events and decisions that led up to the invasion of Iraq as well as lessons learned from this war. Not surprisingly, most of them have focused on questions of politics, strategy and intelligence. There are also important operational lessons from OIF that need to be recognized and absorbed. These are particularly important as the Pentagon struggles to deal with a trillion dollars in budget cuts and the need to reshape the U.S. military.
• It’s all about Transportation, Logistics and Sustainment
The United States has twice fought Iraq. Both times it deployed large, joint and combined forces halfway around the world and sustained them there for months and years. Other nations have large armies, modern air forces and capable navies. None but the U.S. has the ability to transport and support major joint and combined forces not hundreds, but thousands of miles away from home. The U.S. has the world’s largest and best fleet of airlifters, the C-17s, C-5s and C-130s along with the hundreds of aerial refueling tankers to create and sustain the air bridge to another continent. This capability is supported by a prepositioned equipment stock aboard a fleet of commercially-maintained vessels as well as on contract civil aircraft and commercial transport and supply ships.
The ability to get to the theater is one thing. Equally important is the ability to support and sustain forces once they are deployed. Here again, a combination of military personnel, government civilians and private contractors provided a world-class capability. Private contractors such as KBR, Parsons, Maersk Line Limited and DynCorp were major players in the sustainment campaign. There were mistakes made but the fact that the U.S was able to build a logistics and sustainment system that successfully supported hundreds of thousands of people at many hundreds of facilities was remarkable.
• Air Dominance is the key to success in modern warfare
OIF was primarily about operations on land. However, it would have been impossible to conduct the March Upcountry or the subsequent decade of stability operations without absolute air dominance. Air dominance at the outset of the conflict set the conditions that determined the course and outcome of the initial period of the war. The seeds for air dominance in OIF were planted during the air campaign in Desert Storm and in the subsequent air watch operations over Northern and Southern Iraq. OIF saw the complete destruction of Iraq’s air defenses and an unrelenting bombing campaign that decimated what was left of the Iraqi military. B-1 and B-2 bombers outfitted for conventional operations and equipped with precision weapons such as the JDAM joined by F-15, F-16 and F-18 fighters, some equipped with targeting pods, conducted round-the-clock air strikes.
Air dominance also allowed for the use of the third dimension to provide critical support to ground forces. With absolute control of the air, forces in theater could employ a variety of platforms and capabilities such as unmanned Predators, Global Hawks and Scan Eagles but also manned systems such as JSTARs, RC-12s, EA-6B and EA-18G Growlers to conduct continuous ISR. Air transport via C-130, C-27 and rotary wing platforms allowed ground commanders to deploy and sustain tactical units at great distances from main operating bases, in terrible terrain, for protracted periods of time.
No future adversary can hope to defeat the U.S. so long as its military maintains air dominance. They can hope to “go to ground” and wait the U.S. out, using classic low intensity tactics to inflict casualties and raise costs. But with air dominance in hand, it will be our choice whether to stay or leave.
• But Air Dominance is not Enough – It takes an Army (and Marine Corps) to Prevail
Wars are won on the ground, by controlling terrain, infrastructure and populations. Superior logistics and air power are necessary but not determinative of victory in war. Nations have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to withstand even protracted air and naval assault. Other means of warfare can impose costs on an adversary and even, on occasion, deny him his objectives. But winning wars generally requires destroying his means for resistance and controlling that which he values or which is critical to his survival.
Controlling territory, infrastructure and populations requires boots on the ground, often for substantial periods of time. We now know that the former Chief of Staff of the Army, General Eric Shinseki, was right when he said it would take a very large ground force to prevail in Iraq. When decision makers confront the question of the future of the Army and Marine Corps it would be well to remember that size does matter.
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