Changing pace

The secret to victory in war is not any one perfect plan, but the ability to adapt.

No war plan survives first contact with the enemy unchanged. After all, notes military columnist Richard Hart Sinnreich, a retired Army colonel, "the Iraqis get a vote."

Still, a look at the new thinking that has swept the U.S. military since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and at some timeless principles of war, illuminates the dilemmas confronting American commanders as they prepare for war with Iraq-and the likely course of a conflict. In interviews with retired senior officers and other experts, the broad outlines of a three-phase war emerge.

First, a fierce but brief air attack that would compress the fury of the month-plus air war of 1991 into a few days.

Second, a cross-country dash by ground troops, under cover of the continuing air bombardment, with helicopters carrying lightly equipped soldiers striking dozens of targets, while the main armored force simply bypassed most Iraqi strongholds.

Third, a siege of Baghdad itself.

Each successive phase would look like a different-and a progressively more difficult-kind of war. The Iraqis can hardly touch high-flying, high-tech jets. But even the most cautious ground force would run into an occasional ambush, at the likely cost of dozens or even hundreds of American lives, especially if chemical weapons were involved. And the initial lightning sweep through largely undefended desert would inevitably slow down in the densely populated, river-riven countryside around Baghdad.

In each phase, the United States would strive for a far faster and more fluid style of fighting than in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "The attack in Desert Storm was a fairly swift exercise, but it was still a fairly traditional exercise," said Sinnreich. "There was concern that the forces not become isolated, that they not get out of contact with one another." So, after a long air bombardment, the main ground force advanced in a line abreast; every unit had friends on its flanks, and no unit ranged far ahead on its own. (Gen. Fred Franks, who would head the invasion of Iraq, was particularly cautious in 1991, to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's fury.) Then the whole formation swung round like a door to close off the Iraqi army's retreat from Kuwait-almost: The Republican Guard escaped to save Saddam Hussein's regime from postwar revolts.

Many officers felt that a less methodical advance might have made for a more lasting victory. Following 10 years of technological advances, they have embraced a new vision of war. Instead of distinct phases and neat formations, a mix of air, airborne, and ground forces would hit dozens of targets across Iraq at once. Widely dispersed ground units would rely on digital data links to coordinate their actions, on long-range sensors to let them see and avoid enemy strong points, and on precision air strikes to disrupt any counterattack before it could threaten their exposed flanks. It would be the greatest innovation in warfare since the blitzkrieg, if it works.

The United States is likely to risk such ambitious operations against Iraq both because it can (thanks to better technology) and because it must. In 1991, noted George Friedman, head of Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting), "we took Kuwait with 500,000 people. We're now trying to take all of Iraq with under 250,000."

That means taking risks. And either a slow, methodical onslaught or a lightning dash carries its own dangers. At first glance, slow and steady seems obviously safer. But the more time U.S. forces take to prepare their attack, the more time the Iraqis would have to prepare their defense-or a counterblow of their own, an especially unnerving prospect with nerve gas and anthrax reportedly in their arsenal. And the longer the U.S. attack goes on, the more damage it will inflict-but the more time the Iraqis will have to learn how to adapt and fight back. These dangers drive most experts to urge a short air war. In 1991, U.S. and allied aircraft rained bombs on Iraq for nearly 40 days and nights, grinding the Iraqis down until Schwarzkopf felt confident about sending his ground troops in. In 2003, Saddam might use that time to launch chemical and biological attacks (or he might not, hunkering down in the hope that world opinion would mobilize to save him if he avoids using such weapons and if stray U.S. bombs kill enough innocent Iraqis). Either way, delay helps Saddam.

With nearly 10 times as many precision weapons as in 1991, U.S. airpower probably would not need a month to do the same amount of damage-if so much killing is even necessary, given the low morale of most Iraqi units. In any case, experience since World War I has shown that prolonged bombardments yield diminishing returns over time: The greatest damage, physical and psychological, is done in the early hours, before the survivors have learned how best to protect their bodies and to harden their minds. So most military experts advocate charging in fairly quickly, confronting the enemy with a second problem-fighting ground troops-before he has figured out the first-enduring the bombardment.

Once the ground troops go in, however, the consensus on pacing breaks down. The ultimate U.S. objective will almost certainly be Baghdad, which holds one-fifth of Iraq's people, the elite of its army, and many of its deadliest weapons, not to mention the leaders who would order their use. But U.S. troops would face many other dangers along the way.

The dilemma is whether the U.S. can afford to take the time to deal with secondary objectives. The key second-tier concerns are the oil fields, which Saddam may burn; the provincial cities, chiefly Basra in the south and Kirkuk in the north; and Iraq's regular army. In practice, these three problems collapse into one, since Basra and Kirkuk are in the middle of the oil fields and defended by the bulk of the non-Guard Iraqi army. These forces are unlikely to sally into the open and expose themselves to U.S. firepower, especially since the communications links to coordinate such counterattacks would probably be blown up or jammed early in the war. So U.S. ground troops could drive right past them toward Baghdad and end the war with one blow to the head. But if that blow misses, or takes too long, U.S. forces would have to settle in and lay siege to the capital with an intact enemy at their backs and all along their precarious supply lines.

"I've been to Basra ... and all the roads run through there, going north," said Patrick Lang, a retired Army colonel with extensive experience in the Middle East. "I don't think I would be comfortable ... leaving Basra behind me if the garrison there had not surrendered." So Lang and others advocate detaching substantial forces-perhaps the Marines or, as some newspapers report, the British-to seize Basra and the southern port of Um Qasr, securing U.S. supply lines and perhaps saving the southern oil fields in the process.

A handful of experts even advocate making Basra, not Baghdad, the primary objective. This plan would quickly liberate the Shiites in the south, reinforce the already rebellious Kurds in the north, and isolate the center of the country. Then, Baghdad would be slowly squeezed until it crumbled. "Time is on our side," said Robert Leonhard, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and an iconoclastic author. "As we advance slowly and make it clear to the population that we're there to stay ... the more his army is watching, and the more they begin to defect."

Paradoxically, this "slow roll to Baghdad," while seemingly cautious, is in fact a gamble. It bets that, given time, Iraqi morale would sag rather than stiffen, and that the Iraqi military would spend its energy trying to escape, not adapting to counter the U.S. onslaught. All this is plausible, and in keeping with the teachings of Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese sage who advocated "winning without fighting" by undermining enemy morale, avoiding bloody sieges, and giving a defeated foe the chance to run instead of forcing his back to the wall.

But "Sun Tzu didn't have to face WMD [weapons of mass destruction]," said retired Lt. Gen. Dan Christman, a senior planner in the 1991 Gulf War. And while air strikes, paratroops, and helicopter-borne units can attack weapons sites early in the war, they have no more chance of finding everything than do inspectors now: The only guarantee that Saddam will not order chemical or biological attacks is to overthrow him. So Christman and most other experts argue that haste will kill fewer Americans than delay, and that avoiding Baghdad is more dangerous than attacking it.

The U.S. cannot count on the capital's defenders crumbling at the first blow. But an all-out assault on the city would probably cause a large number of casualties-among both American troops and Iraqi civilians-that could turn U.S. public opinion against the war.

The solution? "I hate to use the medieval siege analogy, but it's fairly apt," said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a former commander of the Army War College and an influential author, most recently of Yellow Smoke: The Future of Land Warfare for America's Military. "Cities cannot survive on their own," Scales said. "They rely on the countryside" for food, water, and modern necessities such as fuel.

Even in a siege, Scales and others emphasize, the U.S. would not give up its advantages of agility. So instead of occupying the entire city, teams of tanks, foot troops, and helicopters could strike key centers of resistance in nighttime raids; instead of cordoning off all of Baghdad, U.S. forces could institute a selectively permeable siege that lets refugees out and relief supplies in across most of the city, while trying to isolate the diehards in a few neighborhoods.

Such tactics are tremendously difficult to pull off. With luck, they may not be necessary. But the U.S. has to prepare for either a quick Iraqi collapse or stout resistance, or anything in between. Indeed, argued Al Gray, the former commandant of the Marine Corps, there should be no single plan: "You've got to have alternatives." In the end, whether the U.S. must besiege Baghdad or not, whether it can afford to bypass Basra or not, whether it can compress the air war to a few days or not, all depends on the Iraqis. The secret to victory is not any one perfect plan, but the ability to adapt.