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Iraq War Strategies

March 19, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: We get three perspectives on the night and war ahead. Retired Col. John Warden was Air Force deputy director for strategy, doctrine and war fighting during the 1991 Gulf War, and architect of the war’s air campaign. Retired Army Col. W. Patrick Lang was a Special Forces officer, a defense attaché in the Middle East, and in the last Gulf War, chief Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. And retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner teaches military operations and planning and is a longtime consultant to the Defense Department. Welcome back, gentlemen.

Col. Warden as we all wait for the war to begin, help us understand what factors go into the decision for the president and his top commanders about when actually to begin an air assault like this.

COL. JOHN WARDEN: If you could take yourself back in time and look forward you obviously would try to set the thing up to start at the time when you forecast ideal weather, ideal moon conditions and a variety of other things like that — that you had everything laid out. But in reality, the war is really a far more driven particularly now by the political necessities that have arisen from the president’s 48-hour ultimatum. So in reality, that as soon as the president says this is the time to go, then the operations will execute and those other considerations that may have loomed large earlier become significantly less.

MARGARET WARNER: Does the fact that it’s (a) a full moon and (b) there are a lot of — we hear — and we see sandstorms in Kuwait — does that affect the air operation at all?

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Only marginally, if obviously if we talked to the people that were flying the Stealth air planes, the B2′s and the 117′s, they would say they would prefer to go in with no moon, however they will be quite successful. From the standpoint of the sandstorms one of the, obviously, values of air power is that you are way, way up above where that sand is and certainly all of the strategic and the operational level targets, those things can be hit almost without any concern for the weather below.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you want to add something?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I just want to add one thing: We almost forget as military people that one of the biggest traditions in military operations is secrecy. That has seemed to — because of the press or whatever because of politics — to have gone away. There is very little about this operation I think we don’t know and we haven’t known for a while. So it’s important that we remember that.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I was just going to add to what Col. Warden said — that from the point of view of the ground commander, the sandstorm and the mucky weather is good because it makes — we see much better in the dark than anyplace else.

MARGARET WARNER: And much better than anyone else.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Yes. And better than the other side. So it’s possible to move around in this kind of mess without — them having even less chance to see you.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that brings up, Col. Lang, one of the developments of today, which is reports, going back to your point about no real secrecy, that most of the ground forces, the U.S. and British have moved from their back position in Kuwait right up to the border. What is the significance of that? What do you think that means?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, it’s quite significant because in planning large scale ground operations or any ground operations, you initially put the troops into what are called an assembly area back away from the line of departure, where the attacks are, so then when you are ready to go, you move up into what is called an attack position just behind the line of departure, they issue ammunition, all these things, and everybody sits down and waits for the time to go. And that’s what’s happened; all these troops have moved up from their assembly areas to their attack positions and are ready to go.

MARGARET WARNER: But could that mean that far from the air war going on for three or four days as we have all been led to believe, or chose to believe, before ground forces went in, that they thing might go in a lot sooner?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I think you have to keep both ideas in mind. And that is they may not go for 72 hours but you have to be ready in case Saddam Hussein decides to do something. So one of the reasons you go to attack positions is to be ready. If he begins to burn the oil field, you could well want to put forces in there now.

MARGARET WARNER: Col. Lang — we just heard — it was really Gwen’s report with John Burns talking about the hunt for Saddam Hussein. As a former special forces officer yourself, can we assume — we shouldn’t assume anything — but is it possible that Special Forces would also go in almost concurrently with an air assault?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: If, as Mr. Burns indicated, there are a large number of people in Baghdad who are really disaffected with the regime and who could provide shelter for teams searching for Saddam Hussein, then I think it’s likely we go in early because the two things you need in Special Forces in the field are water and a place to hide because only a few of you, you only have light weapons. So if that is the case, then it’s likely, that we’ll go in early to start looking for the people.

MARGARET WARNER: Col. Warden, the other significant military development today was Turkey said allied forces may use their air space. What is the significance of that in terms of designing the air assault, what will be possible that might not have been?

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Well, obviously it’s better to be able to use the air space that be not be able to use it at all but the thing that was I think obviously disappointing was the apparent withholding of the right to use the existing bases from which to fly; however, my recollection the last time was that the Turks withheld that until the very, very last instant, and then said you can fly out of Incirlik, so that might change. In the previous Gulf War, there were significant military targets in the northern part of Iraq, now most of which or many of which are in the Turkish autonomous zone — or the Kurdish autonomous zone — so the necessity to get up there is less than what it was in the previous conflict.

MARGARET WARNER: How serious a setback is it that the Turks are also saying not only can the U.S. not use the bases to — the planes to leave from — they can’t even stop there to refuel? Do these fighter planes need refueling?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Well, obviously with tankers we can refuel. I don’t think that is as much a problem but I think what this continues to point to is the problem of the risk of the northern operation. And that is that we have, we will have troops extended out there — relatively light infantry with a lot, not having the armor they need to take those oil fields, which is I think going to be an important part early in the operation, the oil fields around Karkuk.

MARGARET WARNER: Col. Lang, go back to this point about surprise, no tactical surprise, how much after problem is that?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, it would be a very big problem, the lack of real tactical surprise here, which there isn’t very much of, if it were not for the fact that the preponderance of combat power is so heavily on our side in the shape of all this air power that we have been talking about, smart weapons, and the very great skill of the ground forces on our side, that this is such a great advantage to us that I think it probably doesn’t make a lot of difference really.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s turn back in more detail to the air assault. You said last night, Col. Warden, that the aim of this very intense first twenty-four/forty-eight hours would be “to impose a strategic paralysis on Iraq.” Describe what you meant and what that would dictate in terms of targets.

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Well, strategic paralysis really is the state where it becomes almost impossible for the state at a political or military level to do anything to repair damage, to change its plan, to put together counter offenses, or anything else of that sort. Strategic paralysis comes when so many things are affected in such a compressed time frame that it simply overloads all of the senses sort of like here in Washington. If all the lights, the traffic lights went out, the electricity went out, the phones went out, and all the bridges over the Potomac disappeared in 30 minutes, we would be utterly frozen. Now magnify that over a much larger area, over an entire country, and it really is something that is very difficult to deal with. Saddam Hussein is isolated.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I think I would add that also is part of the problem. When the electricity goes out, that is when the humanitarian problems begin. So it’s a very fine line that the United States is on between inflecting paralysis on a regime and paralysis on a humanitarian system inside the country.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: It’s one thing, though, to paralyze them by the speed of your maneuver and the shock action of your rapidity of movement, things like that. It’s a different thing to paralyze them by destroying their civilian infrastructure, which would then create tremendous humanitarian problems. And I don’t think we’re going to do that.

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Well I really need to point out that in the Gulf War the last time around although we shut off the electricity, we very carefully chose targets in such a way they could, that the electricity could be restored right after the war and there was very, very little damage to Iraqi infrastructure.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I really need to point out that the electrical system is very fragile and the water system is even more fragile and even power fluctuations in the electrical system will freeze up the pumps in the 1,500 water plants in southern Iraq so that even if we don’t shut it down, if we cause significant multi-fluctuations there are 10 million people without water.

COL. JOHN WARDEN: They may not be intending to hit the electricity, however if you made the point by cutting off the electricity you would reduce the duration the war by two to three days, I guarantee you would save more lives than would be lost as a result of that electricity being turned off.

MARGARET WARNER: We have a very short time. Let me just ask you, Col. Lang, do the Iraqis have any defenses — any serious defenses against the air assault?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: No, I don’t think so. They have a lot of air defense guns that they are dangerous to low flying aircraft, so you have to be careful about what you fly in this vicinity of them and their missile systems I think these gentlemen and their colleagues are very capable of dealing with them. They really have no ability to deal with what is going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We’re going to leave it there for now. Thank you all three very much.