Leadership: April 13, 2003

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Operation Iraqi Freedom was a record breaking operation in ways most people didn't realize. The most startling event was the low number of friendly casualties. Never had there been so few friendly losses in a campaign like this. The four coalition divisions, who did most of the work in the crucial first 21 days of the operation, took seven combat casualties (dead, wounded, missing) per division per day. That's about one casualty per day for every 3,000 troops involved. The 1991 war, which involved more coalition troops, but lasted only five days (officially 100 hours, but the actual ground combat began nearly a day before the official start time, and there was some combat after the official end time) ended up with twelve casualties per division per day. 

What's going on here? It's called professional soldiers versus amateurs. The Afghanistan war was the same. With 8,000 coalition troops out in the field (not counting the peacekeepers in Kabul) for 17 months, the total combat casualties have yet to reach a hundred (only 26 dead). That's a third the rate suffered in Iraq, mainly because a higher proportion of the troops in Afghanistan are commandos and the tempo of combat is lower. 

One characteristic of commando operations is that, if the plan is well executed, there will be few, if any, friendly casualties. Since many commando operations involve less than a dozen troops, or rarely more than a few dozen, any friendly casualties are going to take someone important out of the lineup. One man killed or wounded out of a dozen is a six percent casualty rate. The 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, was a commando operation gone wrong, and the casualties (102 out of 400 troops involved) were high. The U.S. forces were outnumbered about ten to one, and inflicted about ten casualties for everyone they took. But the lesson of Somalia was that you don't go trying to be a peacekeeper when the other side wants to make war. What is generally forgotten about Mogadishu was that the Rangers wanted to go back in and finish off the Somali force that had mauled them, and the Somalis expected that with considerable dread. But president Clinton, not wanting a war, called the Rangers off and pulled them out.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, professional troops went in to win a war. And in both cases the American troops had all the advantages. But the biggest ones were that the Americans were better trained. Not just the guys manning the guns, but the officers planning and leading the operation and the far larger number of troops providing all manner of support. What happens when you go to war like that? Quick victory and low casualties. And it's not unique to 21st century America. Thousands of years of military history show the same thing happening over and over again. Yes, if you run up against a really tough opponent, you will take higher casualties. But the Afghans were tough, they drove the invading Russians out during the 1980s. But this is where the planning and leadership comes in. Pick your fights carefully. The low losses against the formidable Afghans were largely a result of American tactics that made it difficult for the Afghans to use their advantages. Studying the Russian experience in the 1980s, American planners noted that the Afghans had the hardest time with Russian commandos (Spetsnaz) operating with lots of helicopters. In Afghanistan, we avoided letting the hostile Afghans fight us on terms favorable to them. 

The same approach was used with the Iraqis in 1991 and 2003. We studied how the Iraqis operated, and figured out what they would do if invaded. The Iraqi use of guerilla warfare in 2003 was not unanticipated, that headline was created by the media. For example, when I did my daily punditry in front of the camera I simply pointed out that the guerilla attacks weren't working, and explained why. We used helicopter gunships or other aircraft to keep an eye on the route convoys were taking, and used troops trained to deal with ambushes. If an area was too favorable for an ambush, the troops went around it. Other combat units went in and used better reconnaissance and fighting skills to methodically eliminate the irregulars. The bottom line was that the American casualty rate stayed low and U.S. troops got to Baghdad in less than three weeks. There were Iraqi guerillas, but they didn't matter.

There is so much you don't see in military operations that are crucial to the success, or failure, of one side or the other. But even these behind the scenes things, like reconnaissance (with aircraft, patrols or electronic eavesdropping) make an enormous difference. Reconnaissance was inadequate in Mogadishu, it wasn't in Afghanistan and Iraq. Working out plans that can deal with everything, including the unexpected, takes a lot of practice and training. This prevented a massacre in Mogadishu. Developing combat leaders, officers and NCOs, takes decades. And you have to keep at it, for any screw up in this training, even if only for a few years, will hurt you ten years down the line. All this leads to the ability to adequately train the troops. Britain, America and a few other nations can do this well. But it's no accident, it's not a matter of luck. It's all because it was decided, decades ago, to do it right. You can still screw things up, it's just harder to do so.

 


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