Army's race to Baghdad exposes risks in battle plan

By James Kitfield

March 28, 2003

V CORPS FORWARD TACTICAL COMMAND, Central Iraq-The sound came with such suddenness and ferocity that all heads craned skyward as if in supplication: An Iraqi Scud missile was boring back through the atmosphere at terminal velocity. Just to the right of the 110-vehicle convoy, a Patriot anti-missile battery answered, with the sparkling contrails of two missiles clearly visible as they soared toward an impact point nearly six miles overhead.

Along the shoulder of the road, hundreds of soldiers scrambled to don chemical protection suits as a multiwheeled Fox detection vehicle ran down the column "sniffing" for lethal chemical agents. Within minutes, the Patriot battery reported a successful intercept and confirmed that the Scud would have hit the ground less than a third of a mile in front of the convoy.

In one of the convoy's three command vehicles, Lt. Col. Rick Nohmer, a tightly wound Army Ranger and West Pointer with the infantryman's ability to grow more calm as situations become increasingly tense, turned to check the occupants of his Humvee. "Well, I guess that will get everyone's head in the game," he said.

Only hours into the first day of the campaign, or "G-Day," the ground war for control of Iraq was joined.

As the convoy crested a ridge at dusk on March 20, the vista brought home the enormity of the endeavor ahead. Spread out on a high-desert bluff on the far western flank of U.S. forces in Kuwait were the 300-plus vehicles of the 3rd Infantry Division's main command headquarters. Clearly visible in attack position on the desert floor beyond was the "heavy metal"-M1-A2 tanks and armored Bradley fighting vehicles, all painted desert camouflage-part of the division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

Other 3rd Infantry elements and a Marine expeditionary force were assigned the objectives nearest to Kuwait in southeastern Iraq and encountered both the most fighting and the majority of the press coverage in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nevertheless, the secret battle plan always envisioned this western task force as the main effort and linchpin of the campaign.

V Corps commander Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the officer in charge of all Army maneuver forces and the one responsible for overseeing the battle for Baghdad, continually drums into his senior commanders that Iraqi Freedom is about regime change and liberation. The objective is Baghdad. From the earliest stages, planners identified the center of gravity in that fight as the Republican Guard's elite Medina Division, which is guarding the southern approaches to the Iraqi capital. If the Medina chooses to stand and fight, V Corps commanders planned not only to defeat it, but also to send a message by trying to bring the war to a rapid conclusion with the division's utter destruction.

"We always regarded Baghdad as the point where we would eventually have to apply pressure in this fight, and our judgment was that the quicker and more dynamically we applied that pressure, the better off we would be," Wallace told National Journal. "As for the Medina, it's important among the Republican Guard divisions by consequence of its position to the south. And I've told my soldiers and anyone else who would listen that we shouldn't underestimate the Republican Guard, or build our battle plan on the assumption that they might not fight. I'm expecting a tough fight from the Republican Guard."

The forces gathered in the westernmost attack positions on G-Day, including advance support elements of the 101st Airborne Division, were thus poised to conduct a three-day surprise march up the desert wastelands of western Iraq. Their goal was to bring the fight early and decisively to the Republican Guard camped at Baghdad's outskirts.

In terms of tempo, distances covered, and the difficulty of the terrain involved, the march would be the longest and most audacious movement toward an enemy for a U.S. Army corps since Gen. George Patton ranged North Africa stalking the vaunted Afrika Korps of German Gen. Erwin Rommel.

Sometime after nightfall on the first day of the war, the officers and senior sergeants of V Corps's Forward Tactical Command Center-called a TAC-gathered on the bluff to witness the 3rd Infantry Division's expected artillery barrage of Iraqi border posts. The very fact that the tactical headquarters of a corps commanding nearly three divisions' worth of combat power would be exposing itself so close to the front line was a clear indication of the primacy put on synchronization and tempo in this campaign. Upon arriving south of Baghdad, the V Corps TAC would immediately begin managing the fight with the Medina.

Behind the decision to engage Iraq's elite forces on multiple fronts was the U.S. commanders' conviction that such relentless pressure might overwhelm Iraqi command-and-control capabilities and maximize chances that the enemy would quit the fight. Iraqi forces reeling from simultaneous onslaughts were also thought to be less likely to mount a coordinated attack with chemical or biological weapons. The greatest defense against such weapons, U.S. commanders reasoned, would be the rapid maneuvering of U.S. forces. Finally, and perhaps most important, keeping Iraqi forces continually on the defensive would mask vulnerabilities and risks inherent in the bold U.S. battle plan.

Right on time at 1700 "Zulu," or Greenwich Mean Time, the big guns and multiple-launch rocket systems of the 3rd Infantry Division artillery brigade opened up on Iraqi border posts. Muzzle blasts flashed across the dark desert floor, the thunderous impact sounding in the far distance like the approach of an agitated giant. For men on the eve of battle, the barrage elicited only quiet commentary. Everyone understood without saying so that, somewhere out there, real people were dying.

Standing on the bluff, Lt. Col. Rob Baker, field commander of the V Corps forward headquarters unit and the corps's deputy operations officer, wondered what daylight would reveal. "I don't think until you see the physical carnage of battle-the dead and bloated bodies-does the reality sink in of what this business is all about," said Baker, a West Point graduate who served as an infantry platoon leader during the 1983 invasion of Grenada. A man with the quiet air of natural command, and Wallace's designated eyes and ears for the battle to come, Baker had thought long and hard about what the next days would bring.

"My greatest concern in the early stages of this campaign will be getting all my personnel and equipment to our forward objective as fast as possible, because the move we're about to make will be unprecedented in terms of the pace of our operations and the distance covered," Baker said. "We'll be moving in a matter of days forces that would have taken months to advance during World War II. That's why it's so important that we keep the pressure on the Iraqi army nonstop with deep attack, with Air Force close-air support, and with our maneuver ground forces. We know we're superior technologically to the Iraqi army. The place we'll be taking risks is in stretching our logistics lines over 500 kilometers through territory that may not be that secure once our lead elements have passed."

Modern-Day Blitzkrieg

The genesis of the battle plan was a what-if session over beers among a handful of Army majors nearly 17 months ago. They were all students at the Army's School for Advanced Military Studies, known colloquially as SAMS, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where the Army's most promising planners take a graduate course in strategic campaigns. The young majors brainstormed about a march on Baghdad to dispose of Saddam Hussein. In its earliest versions, the plan envisioned a 125-day campaign by a U.S. force nearly twice the size of that now in Iraq.

Maj. Kevin Marcus, a SAMS graduate now attached to V Corps headquarters, helped develop the plan from a back-of-an-envelope exercise into a PowerPoint presentation that within days of being finished ended up on the desk of the president of the United States. Though any military campaign plan of the size of Iraqi Freedom has many midwives-and for this one, they include Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself, who prodded planners to think outside the box-Marcus saw it develop from infancy to fruition.

From the very beginning, he says, the need to synchronize a rapid, combined-arms campaign to seize the initiative with "shock and awe"-roughly the modern-day equivalent of armored blitzkrieg warfare-leapt out at planners determined to limit the opportunity for Iraqi forces to employ chemical weapons, wreak environmental havoc, or organize a coordinated defense. In bullfighter parlance, they wanted to go for a quick kill before the bull learned the trick of the cape.

"The essence of this challenge was always our advantage in technology and mobility against the Iraqi forces' advantage in terrain, because they are occupying defensible terrain," said Marcus, who along with Lt. Col. E.J. Degen is responsible for constantly updating the battle plan at the mobile V Corps headquarters. "That means synchronization and operations tempo are critical to this battle plan. We need to do this fast, so that Iraqi forces can't tell from where they are being hit or how we are hitting them. That way, they can't effectively counter our attack."

From the plan's very inception, the emphasis on rapid movement, and the difficulty of the variable terrain between Kuwait and Baghdad, presented unique challenges. U.S. maneuver forces would be moving and fighting not only over the flat brown expanses of the vast Iraqi desert, but through the fertile and lush Euphrates River valley.

To take the fight quickly into Baghdad-a city of more than 5 million that dwarfs in size and population either Stalingrad or Berlin during World War II-these forces would need to seize key bridges and make multiple river crossings with the help of combat engineers. The logistics train supplying critical fuel, ammunition, and food to front-line forces would stretch hundreds of miles. At one point, Army planners even looked at moving supplies by barge up the Euphrates to speed the supply chain, and a special Army railroad unit studied the feasibility of quickly repairing Iraq's north-south railroad line.

And right up until the launch of the war, the plan kept changing. Although every soldier knows that no plan survives the firing of the first shot, in truth the battle plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom barely survived the dawning of the war's first day. An intelligence intercept of Iraqi signals traffic prompted U.S. commanders to authorize a surprise cruise missile attack in the early hours of March 20. "We almost got the bastard," said an intelligence source at V Corps headquarters. The decision to launch that "decapitation strike" pushed the timelines for the ground offensive up 24 hours and threw off the air-tasking order that determined what aircraft were available to support forward ground troops.

Just days before the war began, U.S. commanders had also seriously considered changing the battle plan to allow for a strategic pause at the key southern crossroads city of An Nasiriya. Such a pause would give U.S. forces time to accept the expected surrender of the 11th Division of the regular Iraqi army that defends that city, and give Republican Guard forces near Baghdad an opportunity to capitulate as well. The plan was dropped at the last minute.

Likewise, the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division's inability to launch a northern front through Turkey, although played down to the media, was also a major setback, because it raised the risk of instability in the north and the possible freeing of the Republican Guard's Nebuchadnezzar Division north of Baghdad to reinforce its sister units ringing the city.

Scrapping the Plan

By far the most dramatic and disruptive change to the battle plan, however, was Rumsfeld's decision last November to slash Central Command's request for forces. This single decision essentially cut the size of the anticipated assault force in half in the final stages of planning, and it had a ripple effect on Central Command and Army planning that continues to color operations to this day.

Notably, the Pentagon scrapped the Time Phased Force Deployment Data, or "TipFid," by which regional commanders would identify forces needed for a specific campaign, and the individual armed services would manage their deployments by order of priority. The result has meant that even as Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks was launching the war, forces identified for the fight continued to pour off ships in the Kuwaiti port of Doha, and not necessarily in the order of first priority.

"A lot of people around here can get very emotional talking about the lack of a TipFid for this operation," said a knowledgeable source at V Corps headquarters. "It would also be awfully nice to have another division to secure the supply routes and cities between An Nasiriya in the south and Baghdad, because we assume a lot of risk [by] leaving that much territory largely unguarded."

The lack of a TipFid and the piecemeal nature of the deployment also necessitated this "rolling start" to the war. In essence, Central Command and V Corps commanders are focusing on fighting the forward battle while trying to manage the unloading and flow of additional forces into the rear. The extra strain this has placed on an already-stressed supply chain has been exacerbated by the fact that critical additional support forces were eliminated when the decision was made to cut the forces in half.

"We basically spent a year building a force package that included very robust command-and-control for our support elements," said Brig. Gen. Charles Fletcher, who heads the 3rd Corps Support Command, called COSCOM, which is responsible for supplying Army forces in the Iraq theater. "When the decision was made to only go with half our force, we only had a very short time to adjust" the shipping orders that would enable us to get the right forces to Kuwait. He continued: "So while that decision may have been smart from a strategic viewpoint, it has had a trickle-down impact on all our operations. I have never received my entire communications package, for instance, complicating secure communications over a supply chain stretching hundreds of kilometers."

The Pentagon's decision not to activate many transportation Reserve units before last Christmas also created personnel shortages. Meanwhile, COSCOM itself has only 150 heavy transport trucks for an operation that Army planners estimate requires 700.

"We're going to war not with what we need, but with what we have on the ground, so we threw away the doctrinal books on this operation a long time ago," said Fletcher, noting that his transport units also have far less maintenance support than normal. "I believe we will still make it all work, but I don't doubt that we face some hard choices in the coming days between supporting our soldiers forward with ammo, fuel, and equipment, and facilitating the continued offloading of ships in port and movement of forces forward."

Desert Dash

In the end, the tremendous synchronization that this rapid operation requires could be seen one night when two Army convoys suddenly converged on a lonely goat trail. The tempers of the convoys' officers were short, and the officers' reflexes were dulled by a more than 30-hour road march through the treacherous wadis and axle-deep sands of the western Iraqi desert.

With the 2nd Brigade's armor screening out front, V Corps's tactical headquarters convoy and its numerous combat support columns topped 1,000 vehicles-and all were jockeying for position throughout the night. At numerous clogged crossroads, senior officers from different units shouted and gestured at one another, trying to maintain the integrity of their convoys in a dust cloud and possibly gain a precious few hours in the march northward. Occasionally, cruise missiles, with their unearthly whine, would fly low overhead on their way to Baghdad.

At the first of three refuel-on-the-move sites, the convoys gathered around fuel trucks at an allotted Global Positioning System set of coordinates on a patch of featureless desert. Soldiers acting as refuelers appeared asleep on their feet, standing under arc lights in a cold rain as they topped off endless lines of vehicles with fuel for the next leg of the trip north. Over the next 18 hours, refuelers would service more than 1,500 vehicles. Nevertheless, before the road march was done after more than 50 hours, some of the convoys would stall in place for lack of fuel.

After the 30-hour mark of ceaseless desert travel, the accidents came in clusters. Riding herd on a convoy of massive machinery stretching eight miles over broken and treacherous terrain may seem simple, but it requires intricate orchestration. By midafternoon on the war's second day, glassy-eyed convoy commanders struggled even to remember their radio call signs, and the heads of many drivers drooped to their chests at each stop.

All along the route, overturned cargo vehicles, fuel trucks, and broken Humvees littered the landscape. Those vehicles that could not be immediately serviced were either left behind or hooked to massive tow trucks, lest a delay encourage the trailing convoy to try to jump the line. But after yet another accident, Baker decided to halt the convoy and let its weary members bed down for the night: A V Corps TAC soldier had fallen asleep at the wheel of a 5-ton transport truck and rear-ended a Humvee and trailer, destroying a generator and in turn being rear-ended by a tow truck, whose radiator was smashed.

Pulling into a "box formation" reminiscent of settlers circling the wagons in Indian territory, Baker placed military police vehicles on the perimeter to guard his soldiers and gave his charges a few hours of well-earned rest. A nine-person maintenance pit crew worked overtime to cannibalize parts and patch together broken vehicles for tomorrow's march. Under a brilliant star-studded sky, the lights of similar encampments were visible stretched across the desert flatlands.

Pointing out the belt of Orion, Sgt. 1st Class David Ball kept an ear to a shortwave radio broadcasting BBC war reports. News of the first American soldiers and marines killed in action came in over the airwaves. "You know, this whole operation is so similar to how we train, that in a way it's hard to grasp that it's real this time," said Ball, a 17-year veteran whose competence and indefatigable good cheer are typical of the noncommissioned officer corps, the backbone of the U.S. Army. "Hearing about those KIAs and casualties kind of makes it hit home," he said.

"Can you pick up any basketball on that radio?" asked Maj. Joe Samek, an engineer attached to the V Corps TAC. "I'm missing March Madness again. Then again, I guess we're having our own March Madness out here."

Stretched Thin

On the 50th anniversary commemorating the Battle of the Bulge, COSCOM commander Fletcher went to Europe and bicycled the same route between Cherbourg and Bastogne in France that Patton's 3rd Army had followed on its famous march to relieve Army forces surrounded by German troops during a last-ditch counteroffensive that began on December 16, 1944. In a desperate attempt to keep Patton from outrunning his supply lines, the Army launched the "Red Ball Express," a transportation bucket brigade that pushed supplies across France hurriedly in the 3rd Army's burning wake.

Fletcher sees strong similarities between that operation and the current effort to resupply V Corps along a 310-mile logistics trail stretching from Kuwait to Baghdad's outskirts. "The Red Ball Express was a defining moment in the establishment of the transportation corps, because it was really the first attempt at resupplying a mobile armored force on a breakout offensive," said Fletcher. "This operation is similar, because we've never operated on these long lines of supply before."

As the adage goes, armchair strategists talk forces while military professionals talk logistics. And the logistics of Iraqi Freedom break down to a set of daunting statistics. An armored or air-mobile division on the move consumes roughly 550,000 gallons of fuel a day. COSCOM, just to supply V Corps's forward forces with the requisite 1 million gallons of fuel, must have 3 million gallons in its pipeline. Each of the tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in the Iraqi theater, meanwhile, consumes at least a liter of water an hour. The harder those units and soldiers fight, the higher their ammunition, fuel, and water requirements climb. The longer the logistics pipeline stretches, the greater the strain on inadequate transportation equipment.

Fletcher's COSCOM forces, which outnumber any U.S. fighting division in the theater, are attempting to fill those gaps in capability on the ground with technology and synchronization. "Doctrinally, we typically travel in large formations with short communications lines, so trucks without GPS, and radios with only a 30-kilometer range, are standard," Fletcher said. "With our logistics lines now stretching over 500 kilometers in some cases, we had to turn to satellite communications and other technology."

COSCOM purchased 400 commercial satellite trackers off the shelf so it could always locate its highest-priority vehicles, including many fuel trucks, ambulances, and MP command vehicles. Satellite phones were purchased for many drivers. High-priority cargo containers were labeled with radio-frequency tags that reveal their location and contents at a simple query from headquarters. An Army Movement Tracking System that uses technology similar to "E-ZPass" highway tollbooth cards identifies much of the other cargo. Movement-control teams armed with computer software that has analyzed optimum traffic flow and detours at every key crossroads and intersection on the road to Baghdad will also help manage traffic congestion. In the event all of that should fail, plans are in place to airdrop supplies to isolated units or those running dangerously low on critical supplies.

However, the capture and apparent execution of some members of a lost U.S. maintenance crew, as well as spot reports that some U.S. combat units at the front were running low on fuel and ammo, clearly reveal the substantial risks that U.S. commanders assumed by pushing combat forces so far on such short timelines while leaving hundreds of miles of Iraqi territory unsecured.

Despite the obvious strains on logistics forces, Fletcher pledged to write a new ending for the modern-day Red Ball Express by avoiding a repeat of every logistician's worst nightmare, as occurred in World War II: Patton's lead tank companies ran out of gas and stalled outside of Metz, France, where they became fodder for German Panzers.

"We've accepted some significant risks given the mission and our battle plan, which is all the more reason why we need to win this war quickly," said Fletcher. "But our forces are not going to run out of gas."

Final Dash

Soldiers of the V Corps TAC convoy were pulled reluctantly out of their sleeping bags at 0600 on March 23, and told to pack up and be ready to leave two hours ahead of schedule. Lead elements of the 3rd Infantry Division had gotten into a firefight with two Iraqi battalions of loyalists called Fedayeen Saddam at the convoy's forward objective, and they needed the TAC to move forward and set up a "hot" zone in order to be able to call in Air Force close-air support. The MP detachment was warned to prepare to test-fire their weapons, and every soldier in the convoy locked magazines into their M-16 rifles and 9 mm sidearms.

At the oasis town of Al Salman, in the shadow of an old fortress on a hill, the empty western desert finally gave way to palm orchards and camel herds. Many of the villagers lined the sides of the street in flowing robes, with the children and teenagers waving American flags and shouting encouragement. The heady sense of liberation visibly lifted the spirits of American soldiers, most of whom were in a foreign country, uninvited, for the very first time.

"I volunteered for this operation because I only have one more year in the Army, and I wanted to do something with it," said Pfc. Eric Juarez, who was on loan from his normal artillery unit at Fort Sill, Okla. "Seeing these people wave American flags and shout at us, that makes me feel like we're doing something right."

Was the experience enough to make him consider re-enlisting?

"No," Juarez said. "I don't know where the next war will be, but I think I'll catch it on TV."

As the convoy approached its forward objective late that afternoon, the sights and sounds of nearby combat were everywhere. Broken-down M-1 tanks blocked a shoulder of the road, and three plumes of thick smoke marred the near horizon. Over the tactical radio network, lead elements of the 3rd Infantry Division could be heard fighting the Fedayeen Saddam, the urgency of combat unmistakable in their voices. Somewhat to the surprise of U.S. commanders, the outgunned Iraqis had stood and held their ground, fighting to the death in some cases (an estimated 80 Iraqis were killed in action). Before another 48 hours had passed, the estimated death toll of Iraqis attempting to block the probing of U.S. forces near Baghdad would climb above 800.

"We all assumed there would be a higher degree of capitulation than we've seen, but intelligence indicates that Saddam has pushed these Fedayeen enforcers out of Baghdad and into the population centers, and they're stiffening resistance and preventing uprisings," Wallace said during an interview in the forward TAC. "The Iraqis are not fighting or holding back out of loyalty to the regime, but because they have a gun to their heads."

Despite the unexpectedly heavy resistance, a nearly corps-sized U.S. Army combat force had traveled 322 miles in 54 hours, over difficult and variable terrain, to strike a blow directly at the enemy's center of gravity. Among the dog-tired troops who made that journey, the knowledge that no other army in the world could have accomplished the task was a point of considerable pride. By nightfall on March 24, four days into the war, V Corps's "hot" TAC operations center was launching Apache attack helicopters from its 11th Aviation Brigade directly against elements of the Republican Guard's Medina Division.

Standing outside the TAC operations tent that night, Lt. Col. Eric Wagenaar, the deputy officer in charge of the V Corps Forward TAC, watched as a flock of Apaches roared past overhead, then became dark silhouettes against the twinkling lights of a distant city. Wagenaar is the affable offspring of Dutch immigrants whose love of their adopted country inspired all three sons to wear the uniform of the U.S. Army. Gazing at the Apaches, he expressed a sense of awe as well as anxiety at what the U.S. military was about to undertake.

"If you can't get a rise out of seeing those Apaches launch out into the night, then something is wrong with you," Wagenaar said, his voice rising to be heard above the backwash of the helicopter rotors. "I worry about those pilots, though. We're sending them against some really tough targets tonight."

A Strange Land

Within hours, Wagenaar's fears proved prophetic. One Apache did not return from the mission. Later in the day, its crew appeared as prisoners of war on Iraqi television. V Corps immediately called in an artillery strike that destroyed the downed Apache. Of the more than 30 aircraft that had taken off the night before, virtually all of the Apaches returned pocked and scarred by enemy fire.

In reviewing the gun-camera video, U.S. commanders noticed a queer thing. As the Apaches approached the outskirts of the urban area, all of the lights in the city appeared to flicker out for a moment, and then to come on again along with a curtain of anti-aircraft fire. It was as if the dimmed lights were a signal to Republican Guard gunners lying in wait.

"You may recall that we had contingency plans for a possible capitulation of Republican Guard forces," V Corps operations chief Col. Steve Hicks told his assembled commanders. "Well, I have a news flash for you. They aren't quitting."

In recent days, 3rd Infantry commanders have witnessed another disturbing phenomenon of this war. Family members of the hundreds of Fedayeen Saddam irregulars killed in recent battles approached U.S. security lines to collect their dead from the battlefield. According to U.S. soldiers who escorted the relatives, many of the Iraqis stood over the bodies of their loved ones and cursed them to Allah for dying in the name of Saddam Hussein. But they cursed the Americans, too.

Even as lead elements of the 3rd Infantry Division cross the Euphrates River and seize key bridges in preparation for the final assault, positioning V Corps for what its planners have always envisioned as perhaps the key battle in this war, a freakish storm has blown across this strange land. On March 25, the rays of a late-day sun were trapped in a massive dust cloud, turning the entire landscape an unworldly shade of burnt red. No one can recall ever seeing something so eerie. Under the circumstances, the storm seems full of portent, although its meaning is any soldier's guess. Very soon now, the storm will lift, and the battle with the Medina Division will begin.


By James Kitfield

March 28, 2003

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