Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Military Lessons of Operation Iraqi Freedom

The Military Lessons of Operation Iraqi Freedom

The initial military phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom has been a stunning success. In just twenty-one days the United States drove Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime from power and destroyed its military and security apparatus. This is more than remarkable. As many have pointed out, this operation took less than half as long as Operation Desert Storm, with about one-third as many troops, and accomplished a goal far grander than the stated goals of twelve years ago. What does this portend for the future of American military power and capabilities?

Many lessons learned may be drawn from this first phase. In fact, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has appointed Admiral Edward Giambastiani and his staff at the Joint Forces Command to compile the official lessons learned for the Department of Defense. Far from being a mundane academic exercise, these compiled lessons will most certainly drive change and reinforce the need for transformation across the services. In the zero-sum game of the defense budgetary process, however, this will create winners and losers. More important, these lessons will determine the types and numbers of forces that the nation maintains to provide for the common defense. Therefore, it is essential to study the macro-level lessons of Operation Iraqi Freedom rather than the lessons that support specific weapons platforms or that deal with the combat experienced in that specific environment. In short, what are the lessons for how the United States projects its military in a complex world?

Theories of War

Attrition warfare. Maneuver warfare. Airpower. Counterinsurgency warfare. Expeditionary warfare. Information operations. Effects-based operations. Rapid decisive operations. These are but a few of the schools of thought that can be assessed as either successes or failures from the experiences thus far, and moving forward, in Iraq. Of course, in terms of reputations, doctrines, and funding priorities, much is at stake in what Joint Forces Command deem as what worked well, what needs improvement, and what did not work in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

While much was made of “shock and awe” and other concepts prior to the war, perhaps the most amazing aspect of the war has been how it was accomplished in such an a la carte fashion. The degree of jointness and combined operations (as evidenced by the successful integration of Australian, British, and Polish forces into the war plan) shows a remarkable evolution even from the manner of operations undertaken in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. Air-ground coordination, special operations forces (SOF)-main force cooperation (best illustrated by an operation where Delta Force commandos were assisted by a platoon of M1 tanks searching for Ba’athist leadership on the highway connecting Baghdad and Tikrit), and the application of both rapid maneuver/precision strike and close combat techniques depending on the tactical situation enabled a synergy of effect— aided by massive amounts of information — that allowed our forces to achieve results larger than might be expected from the number of forces committed to the fight. When Iraqi units countered our tactics, we were able to shift on the fly and change our methods to achieve the desired results. (This perhaps is best illustrated from an example from northern Iraq. Iraqi forces began to look for the vapor trails of U.S. aircraft in order to anticipate SOF-directed pinpoint air strikes. The Iraqi forces then dug in and hid, which allowed them to remain combat effective. But U.S. forces were able to break the will of Iraqi forces by bringing in two 105mm howitzers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade that shattered Iraqi resistance by letting them know that they were not safe anywhere and anytime from the offensive onslaught.)

Conventional vs. Unconventional Operations?

At a broad cultural level, Operation Iraqi Freedom reaffirms the lessons of the last decade that the U.S. military must be capable of performing operations across the entire spectrum of conflict. It is not helpful— indeed, it is damaging— to claim that all operations aside from warfighting are antithetical to the military ethos. Our men and women in uniform must be prepared to transition rapidly from warfighting to peacekeeping — and back again, if necessary . As V Corps Commander LTG William Wallace told National Journal’s James Kitfield, “One day our troops are kicking down doors, and the next they’re passing out Band-Aids. And in some cases, they’re kicking down doors without really knowing if they are going to have to pull a trigger or pass out a Band-Aid on the other side. And it’s really a remarkable tribute to the mental acuity of our soldiers that they are able to do that.”

Superior leadership and intense and realistic training will ensure that this continues to be the case. Culturally, this needs to be ingrained in our land forces, particularly the Army. Luckily, or unluckily depending on one’s perspective, there is an opportunity to reinforce this as President Bush will soon be filling appointments for a new civilian Secretary of the Army and two general officers for the posts of Chief and Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. And while the Marine Corps has historically been the closest thing the United States has had to “colonial infantry” (as retired LTG Bernard Trainor so eloquently puts it), their doctrinal shift from amphibious to expeditionary warfare will also require additional emphasis on the intricacies of “operations other than war.” The lessons of the Marine Corps’ own Small Wars Manual (1940) should be especially heeded — particularly the notion that military forces may be the supporting, rather than supported, element carrying out the broader political objectives in an ambiguous environment.

Last, the unprecedented use of special operations forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom, nearly eight percent of the force package in theater, further blurs the line between conventional and unconventional operations. The tenacity of these forces operations in the west and north of Iraq — assisted by airpower and in the latter case by the parachute landing of the 173rd Airborne Brigade at Bashur— allowed the size of the main battlespace to be reduced from a California-sized proposition to the scale of a more manageable Connecticut-sized space. This in part helps to explain why four divisions (three U.S. and one from the U.K.) plus a brigade were able to achieve the results they accomplished in the southern and central regions of the country— assisted again by SOF.

Force Structures and Employment

As the SOF example points out, we are rapidly reaching an age where it is better to conceive of military operations as autonomous or centralized rather than as conventional or unconventional. Autonomous operations are ones handled by generally small forces that are hand selected and extremely well-trained and -equipped. SOF units, while not perfectly suited for all manner of missions, are able to accomplish results disproportionate to their size precisely because of the high standards and collective experience that their members bring to bear in real world operational environs and the latitude with which they are granted to perform their duties. Centralized operations, conversely, accomplish their goals by using mass and stricter command and control arrangements to offset the lower experience levels found in the majority of personnel in main force units. In the current strategic environment, both types of operations serve their purposes. Although this will continue to be the case going into the future, economy of force considerations and the combined arms synergies of our forces will most likely favor more autonomous units.

Educating future officers and noncommissioned officers for the demands of autonomy and the increasing flows of information will be imperative. Sound decision-making — with plenty of room for innovative improvisation — will be required to deal with and react to the deluge of information that permeates the 21st century battlefield. Emerging junior leaders will require increasing amounts of both formal and practical knowledge and leadership experience in order to make the right decisions. While fast decision-making is important, it should not be held as the key factor above all else. As defense analyst Mark R. Lewis wisely cautions, “while there is value in greater speed, a bad decision arrived at in one-third the time is still a bad decision.”

The difficulties in getting the heavy 4th Mechanized Division to the fight and the fact that most of the heavy Army and Marine equipment was pre-positioned in the Persian Gulf region or at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, show that our forces need to be more rapidly deployable and expeditionary. While pre-positioning will remain essential to future operations, our forces will need to look at smarter ways to get the equipment to where it can be used. For the Army, this means that its new leadership should embrace a culture of air — and in some cases maritime — movement for all of its forces. The Marine Corps, with more experience in this arena, should accept this reality, assist where it can, and focus on its core competency of expeditionary movement from the sea — particularly moving forward with the sea-basing concept. The Navy and Air Force will remain indispensable for providing loitering precision strike capabilities and for rapidly deploying and replenishing our forces.

The geostrategic realities of the present and future do not bode well for a slowdown in the operational tempos of our armed forces. Added to this, full spectrum operations are labor-intensive. More forces able to deploy and conduct operations across the spectrum of conflict in myriad and disparate locations should allow our forces overall to maintain higher readiness levels. This will mean that the active-reserve component force mixture will need to be looked at in-depth in order to ensure that certain units and military occupational specialties are in places where they are more easily available to the combatant commanders. It is widely recognized that the current reserve system is clearly not designed for such frequent and lengthy tours of duty with the accompanying disruption of careers and family life.


Our future enemies will not necessarily be like Iraq. Iraqi strategy was largely inept, its forces used outdated and in many cases worn-out equipment, and air superiority was accomplished prior to the outbreak of hostilities. In Iraq our fiercest opponents were the Saddam Fedayeen and the foreign volunteers, who were both motivated by ideological factors. Like al Qaeda, these types of combatants will be the most serious threats to American men and women on current and future battlefields. In order for our forces to prevail, our forces will need to bring the best means of warfare to bear to defeat enemies and to spare noncombatants. In the majority of cases, these means will be carried out within a joint context. Operation Iraqi Freedom has, or should, validate the importance of jointness. Any future joint operating concept should look to Operation Iraqi Freedom for its singular lesson: the best way to achieve goals is through multidimensional capabilities able to apply the right tools at the right time across the spectrum of conflict.

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