U.S. military has changed dramatically since first Gulf War

V CORPS HEADQUARTERS, CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait-Gathering from points around the globe to this trackless desert that was the site of its swiftest victory in modern times, the U.S. military appears virtually indistinguishable from the force that liberated Kuwait nearly 12 years ago.

The same Abrams M-1 tanks practice desert maneuvers, their tracks pawing the sand, their deadly 120-mm snouts wagging in the wind. Overhead, the same Air Force F-16 and Navy F-18 fighters rehearse midair acrobatics, the starbursts of their defensive flares tracing wide arcs in a brilliant blue sky. In the distance, formations of Marine Corps Chinook 46 helicopters ferry equipment from the so-called "gator" Navy's amphibious ships sailing in the nearby Persian Gulf to a Marine Expeditionary Force camped on the Army's right flank. This is all just as it was.

And once again, American troops endure life in the inhospitable desert-and they wait. They wait in endless lines for chow, for a warm Coke and snacks from the makeshift post exchange, for a call home, and even for a shower. They crouch inside concrete bunkers in bug-eyed gas masks that make every breath an effort and wait for the intermittent air-raid drills to end. They huddle in the dark caverns of snapping and thrashing tents, waiting for sandstorms to pass in the night.

Above all, they await word from Washington. They are in the clattering bowels of a military machine so massive and complex that few of them have ever seen all of its parts gathered in one place. It's been more than a decade since such a force has been assembled for war, and the steady accumulation of so much lethal weaponry, along with the troops' growing impatience, has once again acquired a momentum all its own. In the blunt assessment of the grunts on the ground, it's getting very near time to "go north, and then go home."

Yet even if, to the casual observer, the U.S. military that stands once again on the precipice of war in the Middle East looks indistinguishable from its Desert Storm counterpart, in reality it is an altogether different force. Sure, its ranks are still filled with volunteers-professional soldiers who are, on average, better-educated, older, and more likely to be married than were the troops who served in America's draft-era military. Look more closely, however, and you will see that this military force in Kuwait has changed in subtle but important ways over the past decade.

Many of the newly "embedded" media here who are unfamiliar with the military have been struck, for instance, by the number of rifle-toting, gun-slinging female sergeants and officers strolling about Camp Virginia. They follow in the footsteps of the 41,000 women who deployed in Desert Storm, a milestone of shared sacrifice that led to the opening of many combat and combat-support posts to women, including jobs on warships, in the cockpits of combat aircraft, and in Army air defense brigades. In fact, the commander of the V Corps 31st Air-Defense Artillery Brigade in Kuwait is Col. Heidi Brown, from Fort Bliss, Texas.

Peer a little closer beneath the headgear, and you will notice more gray at the temples of many soldiers, a telltale sign of the full integration of the "citizen-soldier" reservists into the human fabric of the all-volunteer force. While there were only two presidential activations of the National Guard and Reserves during nearly four decades of the Cold War, there have been frequent presidential call-ups in just the past 12 years (for Desert Storm, the Balkans, the northern and southern no-fly zones over Iraq, Afghanistan, and now again Iraq). With thousands of reservists here in the unforgiving Kuwaiti desert going through many Groundhog Days of numbing monotony, the idea of "weekend warriors" who train at home bases for one weekend a month seems a quaint anachronism.

Peel the onion a bit further, talk to the young sergeants and lieutenants in the mess tent, and you soon realize that the trend toward fewer and fewer sons and daughters of America's elites serving in the military has continued unabated over the past decade. The young people here are overwhelmingly the progeny of police officers, of schoolteachers and farmers, of former career military members. They are graduates of small-town colleges and state universities. For all the quixotic calls from a few sociologists and lawmakers for a return to the draft, the country has obviously become increasingly comfortable with a permanent warrior class, drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of America's middle and working classes, defending these far battlements of their democracy. That gap between the elites who debate and order up war, and the broad middle of Americans who will fight it, is noticeable to observers here. The troops notice it, too. They know that American and international public opinion is far more divided about the prospect of a new war with Iraq than was the case during the 1991 campaign to liberate Kuwait. And they know that after Vietnam, their political leaders promised never again to send the U.S. military to war unless they had the will of the American people behind them.

"When I make my rounds, I always make a point to talk to my soldiers, and I know there is concern among some of them that they may come home from this operation and it'll be like Vietnam, with Americans failing to embrace their soldiers because of what their country asked them to do," said V Corps's senior enlisted man in the theater, Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Preston. "The point I always stress is to trust that the leadership of the United States is doing the right thing. We talk about the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction, and my soldiers understand that their fight is with him and not the Iraqi people. And if it comes to war," Preston said, "we will go in as a combat force and then turn around quickly and embrace the Iraqi people. As we learned in the Balkans, that American flag on our shoulders means that each one of my soldiers is an American ambassador, and our actions will speak for what America is all about."

Great Expectations

Perhaps the most dramatic differences between the U.S. military now on the brink of war and its Desert Storm forebear, however, are virtually undetectable to the naked eye. The tents, trucks, bulldozers, cargo containers, forklifts, portable toilets and other universal trappings of a modern army encampment certainly look just the same as in 1991. Even the major weapons platforms of Navy carriers, Air Force fighters, and Army and Marine Corps tanks and helicopters appear identical for the most part. Yet these weapons' electronic eyes, ears and precision-guided explosives, and the invisible hands that command and coordinate them through electron streams stretching deep to the rear and into space, have undergone a quiet revolution over the past decade.

"Our tanks and trucks don't drive any faster today than a decade ago, nor do our aircraft fly any faster," said Maj. Mark Shaaber, the information officer in charge of C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) integration for V Corps headquarters, which will coordinate the actions of all Army maneuver forces in Iraq. "Our soldiers still have to eat, drink water, and be resupplied from the rear by the same logistics line. What has changed dramatically, however, is our ability to gain better situational awareness of the battlefield so that we can position our weapons and forces better, make decisions faster, and transmit those orders rapidly to units on the move who can implement them with less hesitation and probing of the enemy. In the larger scheme, that has made us a much quicker-reacting force than even 10 years ago."

That transformation, in turn, has forced on the separate armed services a degree of cooperation in combined operations that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. During Desert Storm, for instance, the Navy combatant commander on his ship did not have electronic access to the "air tasking order" (the daily plan for bombing) from the Air Force air commander, because of incompatible and insufficient data and communications systems. The order had to be hand-carried. Although the pace of the military's technological transformation may not have satisfied impatient reformers back home, here in the field its power is revealed in increasingly flexible and tailored U.S. war plans.

There is a final characteristic that sets today's military firmly apart from its predecessor. The rank and file of the force that triumphed in Desert Storm were soldiers who had never seen combat during the Cold War, and they were led by combat veterans who had known bitter defeat in Vietnam. The troops here today, though only roughly half the strength of the Desert Storm force-and drawn from an American military that has shrunk by more than a third over the past decade-have been seasoned by a pace of continuing operations unprecedented in modern history. Their recent experiences include war and peace enforcement in Afghanistan; counterterrorism operations in the Philippines, Georgia, Africa and Colombia; a 1999 air war with Serbia; ongoing peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and Sinai; a near-invasion of Haiti; combat and humanitarian relief in Somalia; and continuous combat air operations over the Iraqi no-fly zones for a more than a decade. For better or worse, as the Vietnam-era generation of officers has faded almost entirely from the scene, the U.S. military now poised for war is filled with soldiers seasoned by a decade's worth of war and real-world operations, led by officers who, by and large, have known only victory.

That seasoning and success have given the U.S. military a deep reservoir of confidence, and yet saddled it with great expectations. No one on this side doubts that U.S. forces will crush the hopelessly outmatched Iraqi Republican Guard. But no one here believes that that will be enough. These troops are expected to accomplish the mission quickly while not only keeping their own casualties to a minimum, but also keeping casualty figures low for Iraqi civilians and even, to the degree possible, for enemy soldiers. They must leave Iraq's civilian infrastructure largely intact for the reconstruction to come. Soldiers and Marines in the second echelons are preparing to transition rapidly from the adrenaline rush of kill-or-be-killed combat to the compassionate mind-set of the peace-enforcer and caregiver.

Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the head of V Corps and commander of all Army maneuver forces in theater, told National Journal that this war will be more complex than Desert Storm because U.S. forces will in a sense be fighting five wars at once. Those struggles include the deployment of U.S. forces into a theater that, for many units, is halfway around the world; a 500-mile mechanized march to Baghdad over difficult and variable terrain that includes deserts, green river valleys, and urban areas; the deployment and reinforcement of forces during the war; the fight against the Iraqi military; and the need to maintain a constant U.S. operations tempo to keep the enemy off balance.

"All the while, we will be relying on the experiences of the past decade that have sensitized a whole generation of U.S. soldiers to the difference between kicking down a door and handing out a Band-Aid, and to the rapid transition you have to make when you kick down a door and find someone on the other side who needs that Band-Aid," Wallace said. "So while it may not be obvious to a layman, this is dramatically different from Desert Storm. We're always accused of fighting the last war, but I can assure you, this is not the last war. I repeat: This is not the last war."

The Nerve Center

Amid the endless peaks of tent encampments in this vast desert, a satellite dish the size of a swimming pool identifies the nerve center for all Army fighting forces in theater. Inside the V Corps main headquarters tent, three oversized projection screens are fronted by row after row of staff officers working at laptop computers, each station clearly identified by war-fighting specialty and area of responsibility. The screens glow with maps of the area of operations, and of friendly and projected enemy forces; with air defense coverage grids for Patriot anti-missile batteries; and with streaming video of enemy territory provided in near-real time by Predator unmanned aerial scouts. Largely missing, except as a potential backup, are the acetate map boards and grease pencils that were the centerpiece of U.S. Army tactical operations centers going back to Vietnam.

The operational foreman of V Corps's nerve center is Col. David W. Brown, chief of operations for the command post, and a man with the quiet intensity of a graduate professor who never believed in grading on a curve. As he contemplates the array of U.S. forces and the likely mission ahead, Brown knows that he is looking at a case study in complexity that will surely grace Army War College curricula for many years to come.

"If the president decides to exercise the option of war, people will witness a type of large-scale operation that no one has seen in a very long time, and no one else but the U.S. military could do," Brown said. "They've seen us use pieces of our toolbox in places such as Afghanistan and the Balkans. This one has required that we assemble all of our tools in large quantities, however, from the biggest hammer to the smallest screwdriver. And because we have engaged across the whole spectrum of conflict in the past decade, from low-intensity operations in the Balkans and Somalia to complex combat operations in Afghanistan, we have had to become more flexible in our doctrine and battle planning," Brown said. "We no longer have the luxury of single-mindedly focusing on one enemy and doctrine, like during the Cold War."

For obvious reasons, details of the Iraq battle plan cannot be revealed, and Brown's every comment is prefaced with, "If the president and commander-in-chief gives the order...." But there is nothing secret about the ultimate goal of this looming war-regime change-or about the enemy's center of gravity-Baghdad. Every element of the battle plan, and the endless "what-if" calculations of war's unknowns, flows from that deceptively simple starting point.

Compared with those who led the relatively set-piece scenario of Desert Storm, where the goal was to cut off and kill the Iraqi army and liberate Kuwait, the U.S. Central Command leader, Gen. Tommy Franks, and V Corps Commander Gen. Wallace have a more complex equation, albeit one that factors in a much smaller Iraqi army. Because the goal is regime change, U.S. forces have to assume that, this time, Saddam Hussein will hold nothing back. That raises the possibility that Iraqi forces could kill massive numbers of civilians and blame the carnage on the United States; torch the oil fields again in order to saddle U.S. forces with an environmental disaster; or resort to chemical and biological weapons. All of these possibilities argue against the kind of weeks-long and deliberate bombing campaign that preceded the 100-hour ground offensive of the Persian Gulf War-and that greatly reduced the risk of U.S. and allied casualties. These what-ifs argue instead for a lightning strike designed to "shock and awe" Iraqi forces with synchronized U.S. air and ground assault forces.

The fact that the center of gravity is Baghdad likewise creates major hurdles. U.S. intelligence sources show Saddam already ringing the capital with his most elite Republican Guard divisions. He is clearly hoping to draw U.S. forces into a bloody urban battle, the kind of close-in knife fight that negates many U.S. technological advantages.

"Whether you're looking at Stalingrad, or Belfast, or Chechnya, history has shown that urban warfare is some of the toughest and bloodiest, if not the toughest, type of fight we may have to engage in," Brown said. V Corps has developed plans to avoid neighborhood-to-neighborhood fighting by identifying discrete power centers in Baghdad that will be targeted by combined air, armor, and infantry assault packages, with the goal of breaking Saddam's grip on the city. "Because urban operations are so difficult, our soldiers and marines are very well trained in them, and we'll just have to be very deliberate," Brown said. "No one is suggesting that this will be easy-because it won't-but we're confident we can accomplish this mission."

A large measure of the confidence flows from behind a curtain that blocks the entrance into V Corps's top-secret intelligence cell, or "Analytical Control Element." Inside, a series of video screens hang in front of a horseshoe-shaped bank of computers called the "targeting pit." The area is so named because intelligence officers know that when the war starts and commanders start shouting out targets to be identified, tracked and hit, the action inside the horseshoe will quickly resemble the frenzy of the New York Stock Exchange during a bull market.

Whereas Desert Storm's commanders publicly complained about the stinginess of the national intelligence community in releasing satellite imagery and strategic signals intelligence, both sets of intelligence now stream uninterruptedly into the V Corps intelligence cell in near-real time, as does information from unmanned aerial vehicles, U-2 spy planes, and Joint-Stars ground-surveillance aircraft, as well as updates from Special Forces reconnaissance units. That information is crunched and fused by a special computer algorithm that can handle 1,000 data inputs an hour, and automatically updates the positions and movements of Iraqi military units without human prodding. When the time comes-and by all indications, it is coming soon-the V Corps command center will decide exactly what kind of attention to focus on those units.

"With this technology and capability comes the expectation that we just don't shoot a rocket off anymore and hope to hit a target," said Col. Steven Bolz, V Corps's senior intelligence officer. "We want to avoid collateral damage to civilians and infrastructure, such as power plants, that civilians need to survive. In some cases, we may use lethal or nonlethal fires to convince Iraqi soldiers that it's better to give up this fight. Nor do we want to create a lot of rubble that we'll be responsible for cleaning up. By carefully picking targets for their maximum effect," Bolz said, "we hope to reinforce the president's message that this war is not against the Iraqi people. Frankly, we're the only military that has that capability."

A military adage says that the only true test of armies and warriors is warfare. If President Bush gives the order in coming days to commence the largest and most complex military campaign undertaken since 1991, the U.S. military will test its unique ability to apply the hammer, the scalpel, and the bandage all at once. Once again, the world is watching, its judgment suspended in that seemingly infinite moment between the best-laid plans and the firing of the first shot.

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