Schwarzkopf’s War Plan Based on Deception


The battle plan for vanquishing the Iraqi army mapped out by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was one of the most complex military campaigns ever devised, yet it rested upon a fundamental principle as old as human conflict--deception.

From the opening minutes of the air war in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 17 to the climactic battle with the Republican Guard, the plan was to render Iraq’s army deaf and blind, deceive it on the allies’ true intentions, and then suddenly--and violently--encircle and annihilate it.

Like all successful military undertakings, the U.S.-allied strategy incorporated a set of calculated risks and employed a wealth of weapons--both seen and unseen--to overwhelm a reeling foe.


The plan relied heavily on air supremacy and massive bombardments--blunt tools for killing men and tanks.

But it also employed such subtle touches as well-publicized prewar amphibious exercises to convince the Iraqis that the allies were planning to mount a major seaborne assault; covert operations deep behind enemy lines, and phony radio transmissions that masked the gigantic movement of a seven-division allied force far to the west of the point in southern Kuwait where the coalition troops were expected to attack.

“Once we had taken out his (the enemy’s) eyes,” the ebullient Schwarzkopf said, “we did what could best be described as the ‘Hail Mary’ play in football.

“This was absolutely an extraordinary move,” the American commander said. “I must tell you, I can’t recall any time in the annals of military history when this number of forces have moved over this distance to put themselves in a position to be able to attack.”

Summarizing the campaign on the eve of conquest, the obviously elated general suppressed an instinct to swagger and said, in an understatement: “I think it was pretty effective.”

Military analysts are already calling the Schwarzkopf plan a masterpiece that will be studied for generations and change the way armies fight forever.

The strategy drew on the lessons of a hundred past battles, from Hannibal’s deception and defeat of the Romans at Cannae to the D-Day landing in 1944, during which the Germans were so convinced that the allies were coming ashore at Calais that they did not reinforce their small garrison at Normandy until several allied divisions had already hit the beach.

Roger Spiller, director of the Combat Studies Institute at the Army’s Command and General Staff College, compared it to the plan devised by German Count Alfred von Schlieffen, who swept his forces around the French army in the early days of World War I and crushed it against its own immobile defenses.

Similarly, Spiller said, the frontal assault against the Iraqi army in Kuwait was little more than a sideshow to the massive enveloping maneuver, in which a “tremendous wave of combat power moved in a very elegant and artful way.”

The Army’s AirLand Battle doctrine, on which the Gulf War plan was based, represents the collective wisdom of American generals and strategists, who concluded after years of study that successful military campaigns should be founded on a handful of clearly defined concepts.

Among the doctrine’s guiding principles: Mobile armies almost always defeat static defenses; control of the air and the airwaves is crucial; “synchronization” of air, land and sea forces multiplies the attacker’s natural advantages; force should be concentrated on the opponent’s weakness; success should be exploited and failure abandoned; and planners should identify the “center of gravity” of the opposing force, determine how best to neutralize it, and plan backwards from that point.

The Schwarzkopf plan embodied all those tenets.

While the general’s presentation highlighted the action of the land war that began just four days ago, the execution of the plan began with the arrival of the first cruise missiles and F-117 Stealth fighters over downtown Baghdad during the opening minutes of the war.

Their mission was to “decapitate” the Iraqi high command by cutting communications links, destroying key government ministries and leveling places of refuge of Iraq’s civilian and military leadership. Attacks on Iraq’s command and control network continued throughout the entire air campaign.

Simultaneously, Iraq’s airfields and air defense network were targeted--to deny the enemy the opportunity to challenge the allied aerial onslaught. As a result, Iraq’s air force was never a factor in the war, and allied warplanes operated with impunity from the Turkish border to southern Kuwait.

With much of Iraq’s internal communications network destroyed, the allies could begin to plant false messages with Iraqi field commanders, leaving them confused not only about the allies’ plans but also about the wishes of their own high command.

Meanwhile, U.S. and allied officials further misled the Iraqis with diversionary actions such as amphibious exercises and, later, the saturation bombing of the Iraqi front lines to leave the enemy guessing about where the breach would occur.

These moves prompted the Iraqis to keep numerous divisions pinned to the Kuwaiti coast to guard against the anticipated amphibious assault, and to deploy additional infantry divisions along the Kuwaiti-Saudi border to block the anticipated allied land attack, Schwarzkopf said.

“Our plan initially had been to . . . do exactly what the Iraqis thought we were going to do--and that’s take them on head-on into their most heavily defended area (in southern Kuwait),” the general said.

“Also, at the same time, we launched amphibious feints and naval gunfire (along the coast) so that they continued to think that we were going to be attacking along this coast and, therefore, fixed their forces in this position.”

Schwarzkopf said the goal was to freeze the Iraqi army in Kuwait while unleashing a huge, high-speed wheeling maneuver involving two full Army corps from as far as 200 miles west of the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border. The Army units were to sweep up to the Euphrates River and establish a military as well as a natural barrier to Iraqi escape.

“And I believe we succeeded in that very well,” Schwarzkopf said.

Schwarzkopf unnerved some policy-makers in Washington when he stated flatly that there was “a lot more purpose to this war than to just get the Iraqis out of Kuwait.” U.S. officials have insisted, in public at least, that the ejection of the Iraqi army from occupied Kuwait was the sole military objective of the war.

But the broader mission was obvious from the design and conduct of the campaign plan. The strategy was designed to crush the Iraqi military--particularly the vaunted Republican Guard--and to deny Iraq the ability to conduct offensive operations for at least a decade, a senior Pentagon official acknowledged Wednesday.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, too, apparently thought the allies’ goals were more circumscribed. “The Iraqis focused on a piece of real estate--Kuwait. We focused on their army, and destroyed it,” the official said.

During his briefing for reporters Wednesday, Schwarzkopf returned time and again in his description of the battle to the effect of air power throughout the campaign.

The interdiction of supply lines by U.S. aircraft weakened the front-line troops to the point of starvation. The bombing of bridges cut off routes for reinforcement or escape, sealing the trap in which the Iraqi army now finds itself.

Strikes and restrikes on airfields kept the Iraqi air force on the ground for the duration. The destruction of conventional munitions plants denied the Iraqis the ability to replace weaponry destroyed by the bombardment.

The bombing campaign “quarantined” the overall field of battle, Spiller said. Then the warplanes shifted south, to the immediate theater of operations.

Bombs broke down the Iraqi defensive barriers and burned off the oil-filled trenches dug to slow the allied advance. Bombs, rockets and missiles destroyed thousands of Iraqi tanks, armored vehicles and artillery pieces. Each piece of wrecked equipment reduced the tally of allied casualties, Schwarzkopf said.

Meanwhile, the savage and redundant bombing of troop emplacements in southern Iraq and Kuwait broke the morale of thousands of Iraqi troops and produced “a very, very large number of dead” in the front lines, Schwarzkopf said. Many of those who were not killed fled northward, abandoning their defensive positions.

When it came time to breach the Iraqi defenses at the outbreak of the ground war, allied troops had a much easier time of it, Schwarzkopf said. Because of the air campaign, they did not have to confront the “nightmare scenario” feared by U.S. planners--having to hack their way through minefields, ditches and barbed wire while under chemical weapons attack from massed artillery.

“I can’t say enough about the two Marine divisions” who broke through the Iraqi defenses in eastern Kuwait, Schwarzkopf said. “If I use words like brilliant, it would really be an under-description of the absolutely superb job that they did in breaching the so-called ‘impenetrable’ barrier.

“It was a classic--absolutely classic--military breaching of a very, very tough minefield with barbed wire, fire trenches-type barrier,” Schwarzkopf continued. “They went through the first barrier like it was water, then went across into the second barrier line.”

U.S., French, British, Saudi and Egyptian forces poured through their own breaches, meeting unexpectedly light resistance and encountering masses of Iraqis clamoring to surrender.

Meanwhile, worsening weather and reports of Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait confronted Schwarzkopf with a dilemma--and an opportunity.

Allied forces had a chance to accelerate their attack and close in more quickly on the pivotal Republican Guard units north and west of Kuwait. But the various elements of the plan were so intricately meshed that pushing the attacking forces too fast would risk their outrunning their supply lines.

Schwarzkopf and his top officers, assessing the weakness of the Iraqi force, decided it was a risk worth taking--and accelerated the push by half a day.

Good generals take risks, and fools gamble, one senior Army planner in Washington said. A risk-taker can rescue himself if things go bad, he added, but a gambler bets the farm.

Schwarzkopf’s risk paid off. Logistics units were able to keep up with the fast-running armor and airborne units driving toward their rendezvous with the Republican Guard. The general offered effusive praise for his supply troops, who kept fuel, water, food and ammunition close behind his advancing army.

Logistics were the province of Lt. Gen. William G. Pagonis, who said Wednesday that he borrowed his concept of constantly relocating supply bases by studying the World War II desert campaigns of North Africa fought by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Britain’s Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.

The British won the campaign because their supply trucks could keep up with their armor. The Germans couldn’t manage it, Pagonis said.

“Gen. Schwarzkopf told me, ‘Don’t get left in the dust,’ ” Pagonis said. “By that he meant don’t get caught by a fast advance that would outrun the supplies.”

By Tuesday morning, Iraq’s army was disoriented, demoralized and unaware of what was about to befall it, Schwarzkopf said. Virtually the entire Iraqi force within Kuwait collapsed in the first 48 hours of ground combat.

“When we knew that he couldn’t see us anymore, we did a massive movement of troops all the way out to the west, to the extreme west, because at that time we knew that he was still fixed in (Kuwait) with the vast majority of his forces, and once the air campaign started he would be incapable of moving out to counter this move, even if he knew we made it,” Schwarzkopf said.

The allied main force--the armor-rich U.S. VII Corps, supplemented by British and French tank divisions and two U.S. airborne divisions--covered 200 miles in two days against little opposition to assume their attack positions early Tuesday against the Republican Guard.

The French 6th Armored Division set up a screen far to the west to prevent any escape or reinforcement--and also to leave the Iraqis wondering whether they might be the vanguard of a drive toward Baghdad.

U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Proctor, operations officer for the Central Command’s support branch, called the armored sweep “the greatest tactical maneuver ever made.”

Troops from the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division secured airfields and blocked egress across the Euphrates. The 24th Mechanized Division formed a further piece of the noose closing around the Republican Guard.

The allied troops paused to rest, refuel and rearm. Then they attacked.

The ensuing battle, which began Tuesday night, was the centerpiece of the entire campaign. U.S. strategists early on identified the Republican Guard as the backbone of the Iraqi military and the power behind Saddam Hussein’s regime. They were the force that initiated the Iran-Iraq War and the troops that stormed into Kuwait on Aug. 2.

Schwarzkopf said ultimately that the war plan had as one single aim: “To put the Republican Guard out of business.”