Did technology almost defeat the U.S in Iraq?

Future Tense for Dec. 10, 2007

I once believed the U.S.-led coalition stomped Saddam in 21 days because of our superior military technology.

Turns out, I was wrong, both up one side of the facts and down the next. Superior technology was not the deciding factor in Saddam's defeat and, later in the war, superior technology almost led to our own defeat.

According to a study from the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. military won the opening stage of the Iraqi war mainly because the coalition forces fought an inept enemy.

Since 2003, according to a fascinating article in the December issue of Wired magazine, the United States became bogged down in Iraq because of our over-reliance on technology.

The initial confrontation in March 2003 was “a boxing match between a blind and a sighted prizefighter," according to “Toppling Saddam: Iraq and American Military Transformation,” the report from the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.

The outcome was never in doubt, the study says, but the cost could have been far higher — perhaps one coalition casualty for every Iraqi casualty in some battles — if the Iraqis hadn’t been so poorly trained and inexpertly led. For example, the Iraqis loaded troops into commandeered SUV’s and sent them up against our M-1 main battle tanks. Brave, yes, but stupid. The Iraqis would have caused far more damage to our forces if they fought from cover in the cities. Maybe Saddam and his sons just didn’t want bullet holes in their palaces.

The study’s authors — among them three full colonels — also present a very scary scenario of what could have happened if the Iraqis were trained as well as some of the al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan. Using only unsophisticated and outdated arms and communications systems, the study claims, the Iraqis could have fought us to a standstill and the U.S.-led coalition would have had to commit far more men and women, weapons and material.

So much for our having an arsenal of high-tech cruise missiles, smart bombs, sensors that see through walls, stealthed aircraft and "network-centric" command and control systems.

The War College study observes, despite what the Bush Administration said, that the U.S. did not have enough forces in the Mideast when it began the war. We had enough people to defeat Saddam's army -- we won the battles -- but nowhere near enough to stabilize the country and restore peace to Iraq. "Victory," however you define it, remains illusive and elusive. Today's military hopes to find it with a program that is high-touch, not high-tech, which is why this year's "surge" in troop strength was necessary.

This won't surprise any infantry vets, but it’s still the ground-pounding grunt who makes the difference in war, whether he or she is ours or theirs.

That's not to say that technology doesn't make a difference. I and my chlldhood friends played "war" in the summers of my youth. We plotted ambushes and raids, ran endless rounds of capture the flag and, occasionally dipping into history, we had sword fights and jousting matches. One summer we stopped pointing our fingers and yelling, "Bang! You're dead!" We discovered pea shooters and Navy-bean plants soon sprang up in every yard in the block. Next year, the arms race escalated after our scientists and engineers developed rubber-band zip guns. My penultimate model had two barrels, but Patty Kurzrock found more and better ammo: a source for stronger rubber bands. Our ultimate technological innovation was the use of walkie-talkies, but the two-way radios also ended the war games, because the kids who could afford them usually won and those without technology lost.

A decade later my brother Jim marveled at how those children’s games prepared him for a special detail in Germany. Jim led an Army squad that tested U.S. units’ security by staging mock raids and ambushes. He once posted my sister-in-law, Kathleen, on a bridge and, when the targeted Army convoy drove by, the U.S. soldiers happily waved at the pretty fraulein with her basket of flowers. Then Kath grabbed a smoke bomb out of the basket (it could have been a grenade), hurled it into a truck and pulled an automatic from under her skirt. Jim's team "captured" the startled soldiers without firing a shot. The thoroughly embarrassed officer leading the convoy complained about Jim’s using non-military personnel and low-tech tactics (not to ignore a dastardly woman's charms). Jim casually replied, “You think the bad guys won’t?”

Low-tech versus high-tech. I'd still bet on the side with more silicon chips. The Army War College’s study certainly doesn’t criticize the use of military technology. One of the study's points is that the Iraqis weren’t trained to deal with sophisticated U.S. systems. All over Iraq, you can see where the Republican Guards used bulldozers to push up sand berms into revetments for T-72 tanks. Twenty years ago, that was sound practice. Today, U.S. tank crews fire depleted-uranium rounds. In the 1991 Gulf War, tankers talked about seeing those rounds blast through a berm, through a tank, through the sand on the other side and off into the distance. Thirteen years later, the Iraqis hadn’t changed tactics to fight that technology. When you know the right thing to do but don’t do it, that’s stupid.

The U.S. military is not stupid. Slow to change, perhaps, but I would argue, and many true experts would agree, today's all-volunteer force is smarter and more capable than any in the nation's history. And it's getting better.

The military had many digitization efforts under way in 1998, but then Captains Arthur Cebrowski and John Garstka published "Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future." The article revolutionized the military's thinking about how to employ technology in modern war. "(Debrowski and Garstka) not only named the philosophy but laid out a a new direction for how the U.S. would think about war," Noah Schactman writes in Wired's December issue. "How Technology Almost Lost the War" (subtitled, "In Iraq, The Critical Networks Are Social, Not Economic") describes how the Defense Department has developed technology to give U.S. military forces an unprecedented "God's-eye view" of the battlefield.

Unfortunately, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and his civilian aides in the Pentagon came to believe technology could, by itself, make up for having thousands of "ground pounders" in Iraq. The ever-escalating violence after President Bush declared "Mission Accompished" showed the flaw in that assumption.

Schactman's article also describes how, having becoming dazzled by the sight of war displayed in glowing phosphors, the military suffered tunnel blindness as Iraq insurgency spread and intensified. Having access to massive databases can lead you forget that those numbers in the database represent real, individual people. Because they focussed their eyes on pixels, U.S. forces in Iraq (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan) lost sight of what was happening in the real world.

Gen. Petraeus and his team put eyes back on target. Whether their efforts can overcome three or four years of missed or mangled opportunities remains to be seen.

Should we scrap or stop investing in high-tech military hardware and systems? Certainly not. Our armed forces should have the best equipment, support and training we can afford. Technology can and will give those forces a decisive edge in many situations, especially on the battlefield.

However, it would be a big mistake to give too much credit or put too much reliance on our technology.

When it comes to winning wars, the superior weapon remains the Mark I, A-1 standard-issue human brain.

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Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com.



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