As Chaos Mounts In Iraq, U.S. Army Rethinks Its Future
Amid Signs Its Plan Fell Short,
Service Sees Benefits
Of Big Tanks, Translators
Mock Raids and Reading Lists
By GREG JAFFE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 8, 2004; Page A1
Shortly after the U.S. deposed Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003, the Army kicked off its annual "war game," a mock battle in which U.S. forces set out to topple another Middle Eastern regime.
Set 10 years in the future, the game featured a force built around a light, fast, armored vehicle that the Army planned to start producing in 2010.
The Army attacked from seven dizzying directions and, when the game
ended, appeared on the verge of shattering the enemy force.
"We walked out and patted ourselves on the back and said ‘marvelous
job,’ " says retired Lt. Gen. William Carter, who commanded U.S. forces
in the game. "We didn’t understand that what we were seeing in those games wasn’t victory."
Today, the exercise stands as a stark example of how senior
Army leaders and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the years leading
up to the Iraq invasion were guided by a flawed understanding of how
future enemies would fight.
The Iraq attack was built on the premise that speed and high-tech equipment could radically change the way war was fought. Short, swift
attacks against key targets — such as communications stations and
headquarters — could confuse enemy forces and isolate them from their
commanders, according to both Army and Defense Department doctrine.
If you chopped off the enemy’s head, the theory went, the whole body
would die. Getting to the fight faster became the focus of
modernization plans for the Army and all other U.S. armed services.
Now, the escalating insurgency in Iraq is showing that lightning
assaults can quickly topple a regime — but also unleash problems for
which small, fast, high-tech U.S. forces are ill-equipped.
"We’re realizing strategic victory is about a lot more than annihilating the enemy," says one senior defense official in Mr. Rumsfeld’s office. Victory also requires winning the support of locals and tracking down insurgents, who can easily elude advanced surveillance technology and precision strikes. In some cases, a slower,
more methodical attack, one that allows U.S. troops to stabilize one
area and hold it up as an example of what is possible for the rest of
the country, could produce better results, according to emerging Army thinking.
acknowledges that the military, which is still organized "to fight big
armies, navies and air forces on a conventional basis," must change in
order to deal with guerrilla fighters and terrorists. "The department
simply has to be much more facile and agile," he says in an interview. "We have got to focus more on the post-combat phase."
But he adds that the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the "critical importance of speed and precision as opposed to mass or sheer numbers."
Before the war began, Middle East experts, along with some Army
officials, warned that stabilizing and governing a fractious and
ethnically divided Iraq would be much harder than toppling Saddam
A recent directive, prepared by Mr. Rumsfeld’s office and still in draft form, now yields to that view. It mandates that in the future, units’ readiness for war should be judged not only by traditional standards, such as how well they fire their tanks, but by the number of foreign speakers in their ranks, their awareness of the local culture where they will fight, and their ability to train and equip local security forces. It orders the military’s four-star regional commanders to "develop and maintain" new plans for battle, hoping to prevent the sort of postwar chaos that engulfed Iraq.
The Army is discarding or delaying big parts of its longstanding plans . It recently announced it has pushed back introduction of its new lightweight fighting vehicle for several years, to 2014, freeing up $9 billion.
Earlier plans had called for all of the service’s combat units to be
built around the light, quick, armored vehicle. The Army now thinks it
will need a mix of slower-to-deploy, heavy tanks as well as light
fighting vehicles. This will allow commanders to swing quickly between
tasks, the Army says, from handing out emergency rations on one block
to conducting an all-out battle with insurgents on another. Commanders
in Iraq have found that 70-ton tanks, which literally shake the ground as they move, can help ward off guerrilla attacks simply through intimidation.
"The answer to complexity, volatility and uncertainty is always
diversity," says Brig. Gen. David Fastabend, a senior officer in the
Army’s Futures Center, which does long-range planning.
The service recently canceled its $12.9 billion program for Comanche helicopters. Instead of spending the money on 121 stealthy Comanches — designed to evade high-tech enemy radar — the Army is spending the money to buy 825 attack and cargo helicopters and planes of the sort being used daily in Iraq.
It’s also investing about $1 billion over the next six years in a new computerized system to speed the flow of intelligence, which today must move up and down a rigid hierarchy. Soon the Army says each
of its 800-soldier battalions in Iraq will have immediate access to
intelligence reports from units scattered across the country. The
system will help intelligence analysts sort through data and identify
connections between attacks or terror cells in different parts of the
"I’ve said we are a hierarchy trying to fight a network. I still believe that. But I also believe we are getting better," says Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff.
Perhaps the most striking changes are taking place on Army posts such as Fort Carson, Colo., where the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment is getting ready for an Iraq deployment early next year.
Since taking command of the 5,000-soldier regiment this summer, Col.
H.R. McMaster, an early critic of the Army’s vision of fast, high-tech
wars, has put his troops through weeks of mock raids. He has staged
convoy ambushes and meetings with role players acting as local Iraqi
leaders. Such training is becoming common throughout the Army.
In a training exercise last month, Lt. Doug Armstrong sat down with two
fellow soldiers — both Iraq veterans — who were pretending to be the
mayor and police chief of an Iraqi village. Lt. Armstrong, 23 years
old, quickly asked where the insurgents in the town were hiding. The
mock mayor shrugged and demanded food and water for the people. He
chastised the lieutenant for parking his Humvee in the village wheat
About five minutes into the meeting, Col. McMaster cut it short. "Be a
little more personable," he told the young officer. "Ask about the
mayor’s family. Build a relationship before you ask him where the bad
Col. McMaster then asked the lieutenant if he noticed anything unusual
in the room where he was meeting with the mayor. The lieutenant shook
his head no.
"Who is that dude on the wall?" Col. McMaster asked, pointing to the
only poster tacked to the small office’s walls. The lieutenant
shrugged. A sergeant standing nearby answered that it was Muqtada al
Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric.
"You’ve got to notice those things," Col. McMaster said.
Trying to win the cooperation of locals is a huge change for a service
that until recently saw war primarily as the clash of traditional
armies. Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, the top U.S. commander in Iraq
during the first months of the war, recently told colleagues he recalls
watching Iraqis loot chairs, artillery shells and other weapons.
Instead of having his troops intervene, he and his commanders were
focused on finding senior military and Baath Party leaders. Gen.
Wallace now says those leaders had become largely irrelevant to the
chaos breaking out around the country.
"There was a point when the regime was no longer relevant, no longer
running the country. We were slow to pick up on that," Gen. Wallace
As a result, U.S. commanders missed an opportunity to shift forces to
other tasks — such as policing and reconstruction — that would have
helped win the support of a deeply skeptical population. Some senior
officers were simply overwhelmed by the number of tasks facing them as
the country came apart.
"The complexity was much greater than what we trained and exercised for prior to this campaign," Gen. Wallace says.
The notion of swift, high-tech wars was first championed by the Air
Force in the early 1990s. After the 1999 Kosovo war, the Army began
reluctantly to buy into the idea.
Kosovo had been a huge embarrassment for the Army
. Gen. Wesley Clark, who led the operation, asked the Army to send 24
Apache helicopters to the Balkans to conduct strikes against Serb
forces. The helicopters, accompanied by tanks and heavy Bradley
fighting vehicles, arrived later than many expected. They were never
employed. Two helicopters crashed during training exercises, killing
two soldiers. The tanks were too heavy to cross key bridges.
Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army’s chief of staff at the time, came away
from the fiasco believing the Army needed to get faster and lighter . New fighting vehicles would rely on information technology and speed to protect them instead of heavy armor. Army doctrine, written after Kosovo, boasted troops using new equipment would "see first, understand first, and act first" allowing them to kill the adversary without being hit.
Among some senior Army officers , though, there was great discomfort
with the notion that the U.S. could ever achieve the kind of quick
victories that top Army officials and Mr. Rumsfeld seemed to be
promising. Even if high-tech surveillance tools could pinpoint the
location of enemy tanks, they couldn’t find fighters hiding in buildings. Technology couldn’t measure the will of shadowy insurgents or the likelihood the populace would resist.
In a paper published by the Army War College and circulated widely within the Army’s officer corps, Col. McMaster wrote in early 2003 that the Army’s modernization program was being built on "an unrealistic vision of future war…that overlooked wars’ human and psychological dimensions."
The annual war game, conducted at the U.S. Army War College in
Carlisle, Pa., is intended to test the Army’s fighting strategies.
During the week-long exercise, which involves about 600 officers,
consultants and defense-department civilians, the U.S. force makes a
mock attack against an adversary modeled on an actual country. Military
and regional experts judge U.S. and enemy moves with the aid of
sophisticated computer programs. Results are then reported to the
Army’s top general and the deputy defense secretary.
This spring, the enemy commanders in the game adopted a strategy
similar to what is actually happening in Iraq. "We rapidly
decentralized ," says Gary Phillips, a senior Army official who played an enemy commander. "We assigned units areas of operation and told them they were on their own."
But U.S. commanders continued to attack as if the enemy leaders were
trying to control their forces from a central point. The U.S. attacks
had little impact . "What’s the point of whacking a headquarters if it is not doing anything?" says Gen. Fastabend, who oversaw the game.
In past war games, Army commanders assumed locals in the Middle Eastern
country where the game was set would be supportive or neutral toward
the U.S. assault. This year, Gen. Fastabend brought in cultural
experts to advise on what local reactions would be. They said that even
citizens hostile to the enemy regime would be driven by nationalism to
resist a U.S. invasion.
"I had soldiers stand up and shout at me and storm out of the room when I suggested this," says Jo-Ann Hart, a professor at Brown University and Middle East scholar. "The
military has such a strong belief in the purity of its purposes, it has
a hard time understanding why others wouldn’t take the same view."
The game ended with U.S. forces scattered piecemeal throughout the
country, controlling only the small bases on which they sat. "The game
looked an awful lot like Iraq right now. And I say that with
great pain as someone who has two sons over there," says Mr. Phillips,
a senior official in the intelligence section of the Army’s Training
and Doctrine Command.
Next year, the Army will re-fight the same war-game scenario . For their hypothetical attack, U.S. commanders
are planning a slower approach. They will seize a section of the
country, stabilize it and begin reconstruction. "We can use the region
as an example of what is possible in the rest of the country," Gen.
For the first time, Gen. Fastabend has tapped historians,
anthropologists, humanitarian-aid officials, and city planners to take
part in the games. "We’re trying to get some insights about how you
define a culture," he says. "We have got to be able to make judgments about what people are willing to die for and what they can tolerate."
Gen. Wallace, who led Army forces during the attack on Baghdad and now
oversees the Army’s officer-education system, is puzzling over the
basic skills that officers will need to prevail in future wars. He’s
adding a new course on the impact of culture on military operations for midcareer officers at the Army’s Command and General Staff College. To teach it, he plans on importing cultural anthropologists and marketing experts who sell to foreign audiences. "We have to start asking companies like Pepsi how it sells soda on the streets of Baghdad," Gen. Wallace says.
At Fort Sill, Okla., artillery officers, who until recently spent their
careers synchronizing blasts from earth-shaking cannons, are being
retrained to coordinate projects by civil-affairs teams, construction
engineers and psychological-operations soldiers, who lead propaganda
At Fort Carson, Col. McMaster’s soldiers, who deploy to Iraq this
spring, are learning that even a simple training raid on an insurgent
safe house can be fraught with complications.
On a cool November evening, one of Col. McMaster’s units readied for a
raid on a three-story building outfitted like a hotel. It was the third
time the unit had raided the building that day. The first time, they
made mistakes: The unit arrested all 15 of the people playing Iraqis in
the "hotel" — including the friendly mayor who had come to offer the
U.S. soldiers help. The soldiers also forgot to haul off the
insurgents’ computer, which had a roster of other enemy fighters.
In the second raid, Capt. Jay Watkins, the unit’s immediate commander,
asked the friendly mayor for help identifying insurgents in the hotel.
But once again, his men, who had to contend with doors booby-trapped to
explode and simulated sniper fire, forgot to grab the computer.
Finally, on the third raid, the unit worked with the mayor to get him
to identify and arrest five insurgents. They fended off sniper fire and
snatched the computer, which they hoisted over their head like the
Stanley Cup as they marched back to their headquarters.
Before the last raid, Capt. Watkins offered a case of beer to whoever
remembered to grab it. It was 1 a.m. Most of the soldiers had been up
since 4:45 a.m. the previous day.
In addition to putting them through months of mock raids, the colonel also gave each officer about a dozen books on Iraqi culture and counter-insurgency operations
that he expects them to read in their spare time. The Army doesn’t have
a standard reading list for troops to read before deploying to Iraq, so
Col. McMaster, who has a doctorate in history from the University of
North Carolina-Chapel Hill, prepared his own.
Col. McMaster gave his troops a quick pep talk, noting how their months
of training were preparing them. "Can you feel it building?" he asked.
The exhausted soldiers stared straight ahead. A few nodded yes. Then
they climbed into their sleeping bags for a few hours of sleep. A new
set of practice raids and meetings began at dawn.