Good evening, Vietnam

There's a saying around military circles that the generals always want to refight the last war.

May 1st, 2003
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WASHINGTON — There's a saying around military circles that the generals always want to refight the last war.


John Rhea
"Nonetheless, after what I thought was an ill-advised initial step of launching air and ground operations concurrently, the campaign went remarkably well."
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I suspect I'm not the only person who would have preferred a replay of the 1991 Desert Storm campaign, when that war's coalition swept to victory after 100 days of aerial bombardment and 100 hours of ground operations — and I'm no general.

But Iraqi Freedom is not Desert Storm. With apologies to Abraham Lincoln, as our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. Iraqi Freedom also, mercifully, is not Vietnam or President Carter's farcical attempt in 1980 to retrieve the hostages from Iran.

Those failures hung over Desert Storm and raised grave concerns whether our vaunted military technology would be adequate to the task. Anyone who lived through those days will never be entirely comfortable with any demanding military ventures.

As a Pentagon reporter, I spent an agonizing evening in the Pentagon pressroom on the night in April 1975 that Saigon fell. I never want to do that again. My son was with the Third Armored Division in Desert Storm, and I spent an inordinate amount of time watching CNN. I'm sure there are military families doing that today.

The reason why our case is new this time around is that the ground rules are new. We had a much more formidable task to accomplish than merely driving the Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait, backed by a mandate from the United Nations and accompanied by substantial financial support ($50 billion out of the estimated total cost of $60 billion, in 1991 dollars) from our allies to do so.

This time we didn't have that United Nations mandate, but we did have the increased responsibility of minimizing damage to the infrastructure of Iraq in preparation for a regime change while seeking those elusive weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless, after what I thought was an ill-advised initial step of launching air and ground operations concurrently, the campaign went remarkably well.

What has yet to be determined is the role of such high-technology weapons as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and precision munitions, of which so much was expected. Predator UAVs firing Hellfire missiles were used successfully against hardened targets in Baghdad, as they were in Afghanistan, but it doesn't seem that they turned the tide.

Cruise missiles, developed toward the end of the Vietnam War but never used there, also played a key role. However, they lack sufficient explosive power to take out hardened installations and had to be supplemented by B-1 bombers employing GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs). Those bombers had to run a gauntlet of antiaircraft fire that could have been prevented by starting air operations, including UAVs, earlier.

The improved Patriot air defense system did successfully intercept Scud missiles, as they did earlier in Desert Storm. In that context, I think the criticism of Patriot for not knocking out more Scuds during Desert storm is unfair. They were originally intended only to counter enemy aircraft and were pressed into service upon the escalation of the Scud threat.

Based on our experiences to date in homeland defense and the war in Iraq, it seems that non-hardware innovations such as computer architectures to achieve new levels of performance in command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) will dominate future military planning.

For example, while it may seem like carping to point this out, I think improved intelligence would have pinpointed those weapons of mass destruction and facilitated the elimination of Saddam Hussein and others of his ilk.

This current war should keep analysts busy for years, but I think we can at least say at this point that the new generation of electronics-laden weapons has changed the nature of warfare and given an edge to countries like the United States that possess it.

What remains to be done is to quantify that edge. That's what analysts do. As military stocks are drawn down by the current conflict, fundamental decisions will have to be made — probably before the submission of the Fiscal Year 2005 defense budget to Congress next February — on which weapons programs to sustain and which to back off from on the grounds that they are likely to play a diminished role in the changing global environment.

For example, the big-ticket fighter aircraft programs of the past look increasingly marginal in countering terrorism and fighting localized wars such as the present one in Iraq. These programs have their own constituencies at the Pentagon and in Congress, so you can look for some serious infighting in the months to come.

Even the role of technology is coming under scrutiny. In a study by two German political scientists, Ralph Rotte and Christoph Schmidt, cited in this month's issue of the Atlantic Monthly, the scientists rated intelligence and the element of surprise as far more important in determining the outcome of a battle.

In their study of 625 battles fought between 1600 and 1973, the two rated leadership as the most important factor of all. In their analysis, that factor accounted for 50 percent of the marginal cause of the outcome. Intelligence and surprise trailed with 25 percent and 15 percent, respectively, while superior technology only had a sporadic effect.

While one academic study is hardly conclusive, it does raise fundamental questions. The quality of leadership in American military forces is demonstrably of the highest order, but it is unlikely to achieve the dominance of American technology.

It's too early at this point to determine which facets of Iraqi Freedom will be the ones that future generals will want to refight. My own appraisal is that it will certainly carry less negative weight than Vietnam and probably less positive weight than Desert Storm.

What Iraqi Freedom will not be is what Lincoln's secretary (and later secretary of state) John Hay called the Spanish-American War: "a splendid little war."

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