One lesson to emerge from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) is that, at times, U.S. ground forces proved to be too powerful. This seems counterintuitive when the war was won in approximately five weeks with minimum casualties. Yet, there were a number of occasions when the weight of U.S. armor, the lethality of its firepower and the accuracy of its weapons were almost irrelevant. Indeed, in those instances U.S. forces struggled to find less powerful, less lethal ways of engaging the enemy. The United States prepared for so long to fight a bigger opponent, the Soviet Union, that when it came to addressing some of the lesser challenges that appeared in Iraq, the U.S. military was almost muscle bound.
This problem first came to light when Iraqi irregulars began attacking the extended U.S. supply lines. The tanks and infantry fighting vehicles of the 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division had driven deep into Iraq, bypassing Iraqi cities and leaving behind poorly protected supply columns that were being attacked by Iraqi forces. Suddenly, units had to be diverted from the push forward to protect those supply columns. What kinds of forces were sent to do convoy duty? Not those with tanks. Convoy duty and skirmishing with irregulars called for lighter forces.
Both the Army and Marine Corps found lighter units extremely valuable. As the 3rd Infantry Division’s after action report notes, while “tanks were effective against most enemy direct fire targets, they were overkill in many cases.” This was particularly true in the case of stabilization operations. But on the noncontiguous, nonlinear land battlefields of the future, lighter, agile forces will be needed to screen the flank of heavy forces, defeat enemy skirmishers, seize and control key terrain and police the area.
In OIF, the Marines made extensive and successful use of their light armored regiments (LARs). Equipped primarily with the wheeled LAV-25 that carries a 25 mm cannon, LARs were used to protect convoys, fight irregulars and patrol their sector of Iraq. The 1st Marine Division’s after action report concluded that with some important upgrades, such as a heavy gun/mortar capability, these units “can be the most lethal, versatile forces on the battlefield.”
All these problems speak to the need for so-called medium weight forces. The new Stryker medium weight brigades being deployed by the U.S. Army are exactly the kind of capability needed for the new nonlinear, noncontiguous battlefield. The Stryker is essentially a modernized derivative of the LAV. But with the vehicles multiple configurations – including a mobile gun system – Stryker-equipped units will be much more capable than, but equal in agility to, Marine Corps LARs. The first Stryker brigade will soon deploy to Iraq where it is likely to reconfirm a lesson from OIF: the value of medium-weight forces.
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