Attrition: The Untold Casualty Story

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February 1, 2006: While the media didn't notice it, the people in the Pentagon, and military historians, were shocked at the low casualty rate of U.S. troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The casualties (killed, wounded missing) per division per day were about SEVEN. That's a historical low. However, after two years of fighting, it's apparent that the enemy has learned, as one would expect, how to counter some of the life saving techniques American troops have come up with.

But first, let's put that low, 2003, casualty rate, into perspective. During the 1991 Gulf War there were 12 American casualties a day per division. By comparison, during World War II the daily losses per American division were usually over a hundred a day. On the Russian front, it was often several hundred casualties a day for German and Russian divisions. The spectacular six week German conquest of France in 1940, saw their combat divisions taking 30 casualties (on average) per day. But during another spectacular military victory, the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli casualties the were 110 per division per day, and that actually went down to 90 a day during the less spectacular 1973 war. So by any measure, American troops havelearned how to avoid getting hit. That continued after 2003. When the Iraqi Sunni Arabs began their terror campaign in late 2003, and the media was full of stories of American casualties, but no one pointed out that the losses were again at a historical low. In 2004, there were 4.5 casualties per division per day, while in 2005, that went down to about 3.5. All this time, the troops were heavily engaged.

There were many reasons for the low casualty rate. Some credit goes to the U.S. Air Force, which, for over half a century, has prevented enemy aircraft from attacking American ground troops. The air force also played a role in keeping down attacks by enemy artillery, although new army weapons and tactics had a lot to do with this as well.

A less prominent reason for low casualties was the more energetic use of aggressive and highly mobile tactics. American commanders were trained, in the 1970s and 80s,to make battlefield decisions quickly, and the have their troopsmove fast to, and through, each battle. This put the enemy at a big disadvantage, and actually reduced American exposure to enemy fire.

Finally, there are some basic reasons. Namely, better leadership, better training, better equipment and better troops. Improved protective armor was important, but so was higher recruiting standards for officers and troops. U.S. communications gear sets the world standard for combat units. Having the equivalent of a battlefield Internet makes a difference. Another unnoticed advantage is an ability to adapt quickly to changed conditions. When the enemy began using roadside bombs, American troops began armoring their unarmored vehicles and training non-combat troops on how to deal with all the ambushes.

But the enemy adapted as well. While casualties were down 23 percent in 2005 (compared to 2004), deaths were about the same. That had to do with the enemy paying more attention to shooting for unarmored body parts (face, limbs), and using more suicide bombers, and more powerful roadside bombs. Suicide bomber attacks on foot went from seven in 2004, to 67 in 2005. These guys, wearing explosive vests, and appearing unarmed, could get close to troops. Suicide attackers driving car bombs went from 133 in 2003, to 411 in 2005. Roadside bomber went from 5,607 in 2004, to 10,593 in 2005. While the terrorists really wanted to concentrate on foreign (mainly U.S.) troops, they took tremendous casualties while doing so. Even roadside bombs were not risk free. The terrorists were often caught while planting them, and killed by an aircraft (sometimes a Predator armed with Hellfire missiles) overhead, or snipers hidden nearby (and using a night vision scope.) Trying to ambush American troops became a new form of suicide for brave, but ill informed, Sunni Arab terrorists. There were hundreds of these attacks, where the only result was several dead Iraqi gunmen. These rarely got reported, unless it was a really spectacular ambush that got crushed. There were several of those, and by the end of 2005, the terrorists were concentrating their attacks on Iraqis. For the terrorists, this made more sense, as there was less risk, and more dead victims.

American troops knew they had the upper hand in combat. But there was still risk, and even that was useful in keeping the soldiers and marines on their toes. NCOs noticed this. Troops didn't complain about extra time spent training, or maintaining equipment. Winning most of the time, and avoiding a stupid mistake that got you killed, was the payoff. When histories of the Iraq war are written, writers will "discover" this historically low casualty rate, and the reasons why. But in the meantime, you read it here first.

 


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