As U.S. and allied military forces in the Persian Gulf contemplate shifting from an air campaign to a massive ground engagement, some independent military analysts caution that the amazing technical efficiency those forces have demonstrated in the skies may not continue closer to earth.
Although many proponents of air power argue that the massive bombing will cause Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, and thereby eliminate the need for an invasion, many analysts predict that a bloody ground assault is inevitable.
Some critics contend that much of the U.S. military arsenal has not been sufficiently proven, and that many highly criticized weapons systems, such as the M-1A1 tank, the Apache attack helicopter and the Bradley fighting vehicle, could present unforeseen difficulties.
“The battlefield is no place to find out how good these systems are,” said James Burton, a retired colonel who did armored vehicle testing for the Army.
No matter how many tests a new system has gone through, it is going to perform differently in a combat situation, when its operators are stressed and conditions are less than optimum, added Piers Wood, a former Army artillery officer who is chief of staff for the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank that has opposed U.S. involvement in the conflict between Iraq and Kuwait.
“When bullets start snapping around you, you’re in a different element,” Wood said.
Still, Burton said, “If our guys are good enough and quick enough to adjust to the problems, they will be all right.”
The manufacturers and the Pentagon contend that the critics exaggerate the potential problems. And to the extent the equipment does work, all agree it is likely to have profound effects.
“It is going to be the type of warfare people never realized, or could have expected,” Brig. Patrick Cordingly, the head of Britain’s armored brigade in Saudi Arabia, told a press conference recently. “Modern equipment and the effect it has are more powerful than in any previous war. The results are going to be fairly terrific when they are used.”
“I believe that with all things working and going well, we could conduct something as brilliant as the Six-Day War,” Wood said, referring to the conflict between Israeli and Arab forces in 1967. “But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s probably more likely to turn out like the Falklands War.”
Wood said the British competently executed the 1982 Falklands War against Argentina, but they still suffered significant casualties and lost a destroyer.
For U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, one of the biggest potential problems is the 63-ton M-1A1 tank, the mainstay of the U.S. ground forces. The 120-millimeter cannon on the $3-million tank fires long metal rods of tungsten or uranium designed to melt or vaporize tank armor that they hit, sending a lethal shower of molten metal into the interior. Unlike older tanks, the M-1A1 can fire its guns even when it is on the move.
But “according to the Army’s own documentation, it just doesn’t do what it is supposed to do,” said Kevin Page, a research associate at the Project on Government Procurement, a self-styled military reform group that has prepared a report cataloguing the tank’s perceived shortcomings.
The weak link of the tank is its powerful turbine engine, which proponents say gives it unprecedented speed and agility on the battlefield. “But it’s more complicated than a conventional diesel engine, uses much more filtered air and uses more fuel,” said the project’s Greg Williams, who wrote the M-1A1 report. Congressional critics have made similar charges.
In fact, the M-1A1 requires about nine gallons of fuel for every mile traveled over the desert, more than twice as much as comparable German tanks need, Williams said. “You’re going to have bunches of unarmored fuel trucks running around in rear areas to keep it supplied,” he said.
The massive amount of air required for the turbine must be heavily filtered to protect the motor, and those filters clog up even in normal operating conditions. In the desert, Williams said, it is likely that tank crews will have to shut down their engines frequently and get out to clean the air filters.
All that air is also exhausted at temperatures so high that crew members are warned not to get near the exhaust without protective clothing. The exhaust gives the tank a “heat signature” that could render it unusually vulnerable to heat-seeking missiles.
The tank has also exhibited severe maintenance and reliability problems. During training exercises, according to Army reports, it suffered a failure of some sort--either mechanical or electrical--every 21 minutes and a disabling breakdown every 151 miles, about twice as often as older tanks.
And finally, its vaunted nimbleness may be offset at least in part by its disarming penchant for throwing a tread off its wheels during high-speed maneuvers. Tread loss disables a tank completely. If the tread does begin to become untracked because of sand or mud, Williams said, the operator’s manual suggests that the tank be driven back and forth in a straight line for a few minutes.
“That’s not a very good maneuver on a battlefield,” he said.
Donald L. Gilleland, director of communications for General Dynamics, the tank’s builder, charges the Project on Government Procurement and other critics with “dredging up irrelevant and misleading historical data to indict a proven, mature weapons system that is the envy of the free world.”
Gilleland noted that the turbine was chosen, in part, because of its light weight, which enables the tank to carry 1,000 pounds of extra armor protection, which is “more directly related to the basic mission of the tank.”
Equally worrisome to critics is the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, an armored personnel carrier designed to transport nine soldiers. The tracked vehicle also carries wire-guided TOW missiles and a 25mm cannon.
No. 1 on the list of the Bradley’s potential problems is that it is constructed of aluminum, which, unlike steel, is flammable. During one practice exercise in the Nevada desert, a Bradley was hit by a training round that did not carry an explosive warhead. The vehicle caught fire and burned to the ground, Page said.
“That’s a quintessential no-no,” he added.
The Bradleys now in Saudi Arabia have been reinforced with applique steel armor. “A lot of soldiers will live rather than die because of those changes,” said a former Army officer who was involved in the testing but who asked not to be identified.
But the vehicle still has problems, he said. “The Bradley has fuel, ammunition and people inside,” he noted, creating a potentially catastrophic combination. “Two of the three should come out.” (Tanks usually feature internal barriers to separate crews from hazardous materials.)
Like the M-1A1 tank, the Apache attack helicopter has experienced maintenance and reliability problems. It carries laser-guided missiles to destroy tanks. The Army swears by its ability to lurk behind trees and ridges, picking off tanks as much as three miles away.
Unfortunately, the flat and arid deserts of the gulf region offer few such hiding places.
The Apache’s manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas, claims that the craft requires maintenance only 15% of the time, leaving it available for duty 85% of the time. But a 1990 report by the government’s General Accounting Office said that the helicopters were under repair fully 50% of the time.
McDonnell Douglas spokesman Hal Klopper charged that the GAO report was based on data that was at least 2 years old and thus well out of date. “It was a very young system then,” he said. “Since the time of the report, it has proven itself to be an effective, maintainable and reliable aircraft.”
Even if the helicopters worked perfectly, it would take time for field commanders to learn how best to use them, said military analyst William Arkin of the environmental group Greenpeace, author of the “Encyclopedia of the U.S. Military,” published last year. “We’ve never fought a war in which large-scale battlefield engagements are undertaken by helicopters,” he said. “Obviously, there are going to be some teething problems.”
The laser-guided missiles carried by the Apache, as well as those used by ground forces, lose their effectiveness in bad weather or in the presence of smoke and blowing dust that can block the laser beam, most analysts agree.
“The first time an explosion goes off, they’ll be useless,” said the former Army officer involved in the Bradley vehicle testing. “That’s been shown time and time again in (Army) tests in the (American) Southwest.”
The infrared-guided Maverick missiles carried by the A-10 Warthog close-air-support jets are also likely to prove less than sterling in combat, said David Evans, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and career artillery officer who now is an independent analyst.
Operational tests have shown, he said, that pilots were able to get a “lock” on their targets only 6% of the time. In a report in the January issue of the prestigious U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, he also cites Pentagon experts who fear the guidance system may become confused, homing in on burning tanks instead of its intended targets.
In the same article, which was based on a visit of several weeks to Saudi Arabia, Evans noted that in training, A-10 pilots have been allowed to shoot only one of the $78,000-missiles each year, and “those shots are not done over a battlefield filled with exploding, burning tanks and vehicles, either.”
Other equipment question marks include:
* Night-vision goggles, which allow helicopter pilots and others to see for night operations. But several helicopter crashes have officially been attributed to use of the goggles, which limit peripheral vision and impair depth perception. “Over sand dunes, pilots have found that it is difficult to judge depths in the middle of the day,” much less when using the goggles, Page said. These goggles are much different from the night-vision systems used on fighter aircraft.
* The LAV-25, a 15-ton lightly armored vehicle carrying six soldiers and a 25mm cannon for use against lightly armored troops. The LAVs will be the first lightly armored vehicles with wheels used by U.S. forces against a large and heavily armed enemy.
* “Joint Stars,” a developmental air surveillance system that would allow field commanders to locate troop and tank formations far behind enemy lines. The Air Force has two prototypes that have been sent to the Middle East six years before they were formally scheduled to enter service.
* New munitions, such as the rocket-assisted projectile, or RAP, which boosts the range of the 105mm howitzer from seven miles to about nine miles. Evans quotes a lieutenant in the 320th Artillery stationed in Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm who said that “we expect to do 75% of our shooting with RAP rounds, (but) we’ve never fired the RAP.” Of nine types of available artillery shells, his unit has never fired five.
If the ground war is successful, said Arkin of Greenpeace, it could ratify recent changes in military thinking.
“We’ve spent most of the 1980s putting a premium on optimizing the characteristics of weapons systems by pushing the edges of technology, rather than churning out rugged, robust systems,” he said. “It seems that the war in Iraq will be a general confirmation of that culture, or it will be a repudiation of that culture,” depending upon its success.
“People are going to be skeptical of all this new stuff,” Wood said. “But if it pans out, we’ll exploit the hell out of it.”