War Analysts Delving Into What Went Wrong : Military: U.S. seeks lessons in Desert Storm’s failings. Problems include friendly fire, faulty communications.
In the darkness of the third night of the ground war, a platoon of U.S. combat engineers met the enemy. It was us.
As American units wheeled and maneuvered to execute the huge flanking movement that was to encircle and destroy Iraqi ground forces, the fringes of two U.S. Army corps became entangled. An armored cavalry unit, spotting the combat engineers on its perimeter, grew convinced that they were Iraqis; the engineers thought the same of the cavalry. What followed was chilling and tragic:
The troopers issued a radio challenge, followed by a warning in Arabic. They fired shots over the engineers’ heads. Then the cavalry advanced. The engineers ran. From a pursuing Bradley Fighting Vehicle came a machine-gun burst whose memory still haunts the officers involved.
“Friendlies! Friendlies!” cavalrymen shouted, according to those familiar with the incident. But the shouts came too late: One Army soldier was dead, a fellow engineer badly wounded--victims of the oxymoron known as “friendly fire.”
The initial view that friendly fire casualties always have and always will be a tragic but inevitable byproduct of war have given way to a more critical judgment. With better ways and means of managing today’s highly fluid and lethal battlefield, many such deaths can be avoided, senior U.S. officers now say.
Even in the glow of the allies’ massive victory in the Persian Gulf, the American military has begun to examine episodes such as this one for the lessons they can teach for the future. And already a consensus is forming that perhaps the single most urgent imperative of the war is to find a better way to distinguish friend from foe.
“We’ve tried a lot of different things, and we haven’t arrived at the right solution yet,” Brig. Gen. Steven Arnold, chief of Army operations in the war, acknowledged in an interview.
Moreover, the agonizing problem of friendly fire appears to be part of a larger, systemic problem in the basic U.S. system for fighting on the ground.
The Pentagon has developed tactics and weapons capable of delivering shattering armored and artillery attacks against enemy forces with devastating speed and maneuverability. But the communications, coordination and logistic capabilities needed to maintain safe and effective control over this daunting war machine lag dangerously behind.
The “sharp end of the spear"--guns, tanks, missiles, aircraft and the whole range of American killing systems--proved stunningly effective. But the shaft of the spear--mundane items like command-and-control mechanisms, radios, fuel trucks, night-vision gear, mine-clearing equipment, intelligence-gathering assets--produced a far more ambiguous record.
“It’s a matter of balance. And too often the balance has placed all the attention on the things that shoot other things,” one senior Army officer concluded.
Indeed, while American forces hammered Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s command-and-control system relentlessly, knowledgeable American officers now say that problems in their own command-and-control mechanisms sometimes loomed so large that the U.S. war machine had to slow down to avoid posing a significant danger to itself.
Air support of ground troops--a key part of the fundamental American battle doctrine--wound up being kept on an unusually tight rein in the climactic battle because of bad weather and commanders’ fears of friendly fire deaths.
And in some cases, troops in the invasion force were left to communicate with hand signals, in part because 30-year-old field radios were in a state of decay.
Had the Iraqi troops put up effective resistance rather than bolting and surrendering in droves, officers acknowledged last week, the support weaknesses could have caused significantly greater American losses.
“We faced an enemy who, by the time we were in the attack, had lost a lot of his motivation and desire to fight,” said Lt. Gen. Walter E. Boomer, commander of all Marine forces in the theater. “And so as a result, the battle wasn’t as difficult as it could have been. It would be very unwise to believe that all future battles will be as bloodless as this one was.”
While the problem most widely cited by American officers was the difficulty in telling who was who on the battlefield, other significant difficulties were disclosed in more than two dozen interviews since the war ended, as well as from a correspondent’s firsthand view of the battle in the company of a lead Army brigade:
* The strained, aging communication system left officers periodically out of touch with battlefield units or forced them into hasty improvisations to retain control. Some Army units had to carry wounded soldiers with them for days because radio problems made it impossible to arrange evacuation by helicopter.
* The limited fuel transportation system proved an ominous weak link in a strategy built on speed. Officials confirm that the Army sustained its charge into Iraq only through an emergency, middle-of-the-night transfer of fuel from one division to another. Dozens of heavy fuel tankers got bogged down in rain-sodden sand at the border, leaving gas-guzzling M-1A1 tanks on empty and units vulnerable to counterattack.
* Intelligence information provided to field commanders on Iraqi strengths was sometimes vague, often delayed. Reconnaissance photographs of crucial Iraqi troop positions in some cases got to ground commanders only days before the offensive began. The result is uneasiness about relying for tactical intelligence on systems that operate on a national, rather than battlefield, level.
* Helicopters and fighter planes played a smaller role in supporting the ground attack than had been envisioned. Beyond concern about friendly fire incidents, bad weather put unexpected limits on the Army’s AirLand battle doctrine.
Tellingly, despite the American military’s major emphasis on superiority through high-tech night fighting capabilities, its forces chose, in the end, to fight primarily by day and conditions of near-maximum moonlight because darkness tended to compound command-and-control problems.
To be sure, once the ground war began, the M-1A1 tank proved itself an awesome killer, untouchable by the Soviet-made T-72 tanks of the Iraqi Republican Guard. Other previously untested weapons that emerged with high marks include the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Marine Light Attack Vehicle and the Apache helicopter.
Some commanders called the shortcomings of other equipment minor and easily correctable.
“We brought six divisions on line against Iraq at the time when we were supposed to, and we destroyed his army,” said Lt. Gen. John J. Yeosock, commander of all Army forces in the theater. “That’s the acid test.”
But other officers reviewing the war also make it plain that such assessments--while accurate as far as they go--must not be permitted to obscure important problems.
More American soldiers died in the weeks before the ground war began from friendly fire than by shots fired by the Iraqis. Although some combat deaths remain under investigation, at least 12 of the 124 U.S. troops killed in action died as a result of friendly fire. Nine British soldiers also were killed when a U.S. Air Force A-10 mistakenly blew up two of their armored vehicles.
And while the rate of friendly casualties dropped off once the ground war began, officials said this was partly because bad weather and commanders’ cautions grounded the bulk of Army and Air Force close-support aircraft during the rapid, sometimes chaotic armored charge into Iraq.
On the same stormy night that an engineer on one flank of the 1st Armored Division was gunned down by elements of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, radios came alive with the call to cease fire as soldiers elsewhere in the division opened up on a U.S. vehicle towing another back from the front.
Only hours later, on the division’s other flank, a tank suddenly exploded, leaving soldiers badly wounded. It turned out that it had been fired on by an Apache helicopter from the neighboring 3rd Armored Division.
In another illustration of the constant constraints imposed by friendly fire concerns, the division was forced to halt as it prepared its final offensive against the Iraqis because the 3rd Armored reported elements under fire from U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
“After this is over,” a frustrated division commander, Maj. Gen. Ronald H. Griffith, told his subordinates by radio, “we need to write a book on flank coordination.”
Some commanders argue that the relatively small numbers of U.S. soldiers killed in same-side incidents represents a marked success. But others see a disturbing contrast between the air war and the ground war in this regard.
Although the weeks-long air war involved tens of thousands of allied sorties in sometimes congested airspace, there were no reported cases of friendly planes firing on each other or collisions in the air. These problems were avoided by careful planning of attack routes and because every allied airplane carried a radio transmitter that emits a distinctive “squawk” to identify itself to friendly forces--but not to the enemy.
The chief means of identifying allied ground vehicles, by contrast, was an inverted “V” painted on the side of each tank, truck or armored vehicle, along with information relayed by Air Force officers who were deployed with Army units to coordinate air support.
In a last-minute addition, officers confirmed, infrared strobe lights, to be attached to the lead vehicles of allied columns, were delivered to forward base camps only days before the ground attack began.
But the lights often proved difficult to spot from the skies, air officers said.
The Army has established a special task force to try to design a system to distinguish friendly from hostile vehicles. Such a system could be modeled on the transponders on military aircraft. But Army leaders fear that even a no-frills transmitter for the thousands of Army vehicles would be prohibitively expensive.
“Is it feasible? Sure,” said an aide to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl E. Vuono. “Is it affordable? I doubt it.”
As U.S. forces advanced across Iraq, Army helicopters were to have whirred overhead, always ready to respond to a call to evacuate American wounded. But getting the choppers to the wounded depended on reliable communications, which Army doctors and others often found to be unavailable.
Almost hourly, as the Army rumbled forward across Iraq, Maj. Paul Whittaker, a medical support officer, tried to call for assistance as the wounded began to stack up in the backs of his Humvee vehicles and ambulances. Yet he could hail no one, and as the Army continued to drive forward, his unit carried its wounded, as many as eight patients on stretchers in his vehicles bouncing across more than 100 miles of rough Iraqi desert.
Not until the fourth day of war, when Whittaker dashed across the sands waving his arms “like a madman” to flag down a passing medical helicopter, could the wounded be sent to hospitals at the rear.
“We felt cut off,” another frustrated doctor said soon after the battle, “and we were lucky. If the fighting had been any worse, who knows what would have happened?”
A senior Army official in Washington, asked about complaints that radios were a constant problem, responded simply: “Guilty as charged. Our modernization program is late.”
The Army’s newest-generation field radio was deployed with only one Army division, some special operations forces, Patriot missile batteries and a handful of Marine units. The vast majority of U.S. troops in the theater relied on a family of vehicle-mounted and portable radios known as VRC-12s, first used in the field in the early 1960s.
According to an internal Pentagon review of the Gulf War, the old VRC-12 radios broke down on average every 200 hours of operation; in contrast, the new radios operated an average of 7,000 hours between failures. The range of the VRC-12 is 10 to 12 miles under optimal conditions, grossly inadequate for an army moving at high speed over an immense area; the new radios have a range of as much as 35 miles.
To compensate for the unreliable, limited-range radios, the advancing army improvised, setting up signal relay stations.
And Col. Richard Hodory, commander of the 1st Marine Regiment, said he sometimes had to issue orders by hand signal to a deputy in an adjacent jeep.
In an atmosphere choked with dust and oily smoke, Marines could keep radios working only by periodically halting and wiping clean their antennas.
As Army forces charged across Iraq, what came closest to stopping them was not Iraqi opposition or prisoners, but a lack of fuel.
Indeed, on the third night of the ground assault, as armored forces were ordered to press the attack and to scrap plans for a two-day halt to resupply and refuel, “the 1st Armored Division was on red, and the 3rd Armored was on amber,” said Gen. Arnold, the Army operations chief. “I don’t want to give you the numbers on what that means, but the 1st Armored needed gas.”
Through the night, with fuel tankers stuck up to the axles in mud, Arnold spoke by tactical telephone to Lt. Gen. Frederick Franks, the VII Corps commander, as they sought to find a way to keep the attack going. “If we don’t get it solved soon, we’ll have to stop,” Arnold said, recounting his impression of the night.
Army planners knew that the 150-mile cross-desert sprint would tax fuel supplies: the M-1A1 main battle tank guzzles gas at the rate of six gallons a mile. The seven-division attack consumed 3 million gallons of gas a day, “more than any army in any operation in any place ever,” one Army official said.
At the height of the fight, an Apache helicopter commander whose squadron sat stranded simply held his arms out plaintively. “No fuel,” he said.
Some helicopter squadrons were refueled from 500-gallon rubber fuel “bladders” airlifted to forward bases by cargo-carrying CH-47 Chinook helicopters. But bad weather grounded many of these operations.
The Army rushed to Saudi Arabia hundreds of small HEMTT (heavy expanded mobility tactical truck) tankers, eight-wheel-drive trucks that each carry 2,500 gallons of fuel. They performed beautifully in the soggy sand, Army officials said, although 115 HEMTT tankers were still on ships on the way to the Gulf when the war broke out.
But the backbone of the fuel-hauling system--1,400 tankers capable of carrying 5,000 gallons each--proved the chief problem. The big trucks sank to their axles in the wet sand, and only by driving the more versatile small trucks up to them and unloading the fuel was the momentum of the attack maintained, officers said.
As late as four days before their attack into Kuwait was to begin, Marine commanders on the ground still had not been provided with photographs showing the layout of the Iraqi border obstacles they had been ordered to breach.
Only after weeks of complaints did they win access to what Gen. Boomer called “just what we needed.”
The episode reflects a frustration voiced all across the war zone. Tactical air intelligence “was practically nonexistent,” Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) said after an extensive briefing by theater commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. He said that under the best of circumstances, useful battlefield photos reached tactical units three days after they were taken.
The lag in distribution of photos from U.S. satellites and spy planes contrasted with the more timely delivery of signal intelligence. The United States could listen in on virtually every Iraqi radio transmission, whether command discussions in Baghdad or field communications in Kuwait.
In the most dramatic instance, officers said, the interception of an Iraqi order on the third day of the ground campaign caused U.S. commanders to accelerate the pace of the Army attack to prevent a planned Republican Guard escape.
But with the military forced to rely for most of its tactical intelligence on Washington-based agencies such as the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Air Force’s National Reconnaissance Office, some officers called for quick-response, battlefield systems. “We did this very well,” said Gen. Arnold, the Army chief of operations here. “But against the Soviets or against a more credible force, we would have had more difficulty with it.”
To be sure, some commanders cautioned that the military appetite for intelligence has no limits; the quality of intelligence produced for field commanders in the Gulf War was beyond precedent.
Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, commander of all allied air forces, said a combination of weak battlefield intelligence, clever Iraqi camouflage, mobile targets and bad weather frustrated bombing efforts. All told, they lengthened the air war from a projected 30 days to 39 days, Air Force officials said. “Our results were not what they should be with modern weapons,” Horner said. “On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 5. We corrected it to a 9.”
A number of other problems emerged that will cause military officials to rethink assumptions and plan differently.
* Despite brave, prewar talk about how allied forces “own the night” because of superior night-vision equipment and night-fighting gear, U.S. commanders clearly preferred to move and fight by day. On the second morning of battle, one Army division commander took to the radio to urge his forces onward, saying, “We want to fight our fight in the daylight.” Another American general said: “We talked at great length about the timing of the attack, and that was one of the things we discussed at great, great length. Breaching a minefield at night is ticklish business.”
* Questions arose about close air-support missions, often called off because of bad weather and concerns about identifying friendly ground troops. “Our big problem with (close air-support) is that as the Army moved, it moved so fast that the typical battlefield didn’t exist,” Air Force Col. Steve Plummer said.
* The principal constraint on both helicopter and fixed-wing operations was clearly the weather. In Kuwait, where Marines fought their main battles, fog kept Cobra helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft grounded until midmorning almost every day of the war. In Iraq, as the Army extended its charge, heavy rains kept even many all-weather Apaches grounded for much of the third day of war.
Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson, in Saudi Arabia, and John M. Broder, in Washington, contributed to this story.
In their post-Gulf War analysis, military officials have identified these arms as having performed below expectation:
TOW anti-tank missile: Original version of TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided) anti-tank missile recorded a significant rate of breakdowns, failures or misses. Newer TOW-2 appeared to perform nearly flawlessly, particularly when fired from a heavy, stable platform such as tank or Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
Dragon anti-tank missiles: The oldest anti-tank missile in the U.S. inventory, the Dragon requires its handler to remain exposed to retaliatory fire for a full 20 seconds while tracking weapon to its target. Soldiers appeared reluctant to use it, preferring to wait for vehicle-mounted TOW-2 or an M1-A1 tank to blow up enemy tanks.
VRC-12 field radios: These transceivers, Army’s first transistorized radios, were first acquired in early 1960s and are subject to frequent breakdowns and vulnerable to bad weather. Maximum range is 10-12 miles, grossly inadequate given speed and size of flanking operation.
Mine-clearing line charge: MICLIC is a rocket-propelled string of plastic explosives launched like giant snake from back of a vehicle, then, after it falls to the ground, detonated to clear path through minefield. Chief among its problems was that, when fired, detonation cord snapped, resulting in failure reported 40% of time, leaving U.S. forces vulnerable during obstacle-breaching missions.
Commercial Utility Cargo Vehicle: This military version of Chevrolet Blazer sport-utility vehicle proved to have virtually no utility in desert except on paved roads or hard-packed sand. All-terrain capability of newer HUMM-V, however, exceeded all expectations.
Unguided bombs: Conventional “iron bombs” dropped from variety of aircraft, while delivered with greater accuracy than in previous wars, were found to be nearly useless against pinpoint targets, such as bridges and armored vehicles. Hundreds of “dumb” bombs dropped by B-52s and aircraft carrier-based A-6s and A-7s failed to destroy such targets, which were reassigned to F-117s, F-111s and F-15s carrying laser-guided bombs.