Battle Plan Under Fire

PBS Airdate: May 4, 2004
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NARRATOR: March 19, 2003: Five hours before the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military makes a sudden change in plans. In a secret message to the C.I.A., an informant claims to know exactly where the elusive Saddam Hussein will spend the night. If true, with one decisive blow, the United States can kill Saddam, sever command of the Iraqi military and perhaps end the war before it begins. If everything works, an intricate network of high technology and information could bring an enemy to his knees.

The attack is coordinated via command centers around the Earth. Satellites and computers enable quick changes in plans. Two Stealth fighters lift off from al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, forty Tomahawk cruise missiles are launched from warships and submarines.

As the sky above Baghdad begins to brighten, the Stealth fighters drop their payloads.

The most advanced technology in the world has been marshaled to kill a tyrant in his sleep, yet, in the end, the success or failure of the mission depends not on the technology but on the word of just one, very human, fallible informant.

The warheads slam precisely into the target, but Saddam Hussein is not there. The mission fails.

MAJOR GENERAL (RET.) ROBERT SCALES, JR. (Former Commandant, Army War College; Author, The Iraq War): In many ways, this first attempt to decapitate Saddam Hussein was a parable, a parable for what was about to happen.

NARRATOR: First in Afghanistan and now in Iraq, the American military is testing a new and controversial way of waging war.

VICE ADMIRAL (RET.) ARTHUR CEBROWSKI (Director, Office of Force Transformation; Former President, Naval War College): ...a speed of advance that was absolutely unheard of.

ERIC SCHMITT (New York Times Pentagon Correspondent): You had a kind of blitzkrieg on the ground and by air.

ARTHUR CEBROWSKI: You could do it because you're now operating in the information age.

NARRATOR: Under fire, science and technology are mobilized in an attempt to dominate the 21st century battlefield. The military's top secret internet provides instant communication and intelligence data. Sensors and unmanned aircraft track the location of friendly and enemy forces. Bombs and missiles are aimed with pinpoint precision, coordinates changed at a moment's notice.

DAVID OZOLEK (U.S. Joint Forces Command): Success in the 21st century is going to go to the side that more quickly adapts to the rapid change that's taking place.

NARRATOR: But in the confusion of war, do even the most advanced weapons make victory certain?

MICHAEL VICKERS (Former C.I.A. Special Operations Forces; Director of Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): Americans have developed the capability to dominate anything large on the battlefield. If something big is moving in the open, we can see it, and we can hit it, and we can kill it.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: You have to be able to tie technological superiority with what you want to achieve in the end, because simply to go against an enemy, or a society, with nothing but killing power, ultimately, you may wind up with a situation worse than the situation when you started.

NARRATOR: Technology may win battles, but can it win wars? Battle Plan Under Fire, up next on NOVA.

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NARRATOR: One year after major hostilities in Iraq were declared over, America is still at war. In the city of Mosul, these soldiers patrol the streets as part of the most technologically advanced brigade in the world.

These two million dollar vehicles, called "Strykers," were designed to be flown into combat anywhere in the world in just 96 hours. Portable, lighter and faster than tanks, rolling on tires instead of treads, they carry teams of specially trained light infantry soldiers.

MAJOR YVETTE HOPKINS (Stryker Brigade Intelligence Officer): The Stryker enables us to get from Point A to Point B very quickly, and as we're traversing and going to those different points, able to quickly get that intelligence or that key piece of information.

NARRATOR: The Stryker crew's ability to gather and share information is at the vanguard of a new doctrine of military planning and warfare. Each vehicle has a state of the art video system and thermal imaging to see the enemy day or night. A data connection hooks them up via satellite to the military internet. They can transmit files, troop coordinates and battlefield video back and forth to each other and their superior officers at headquarters.

COLONEL MICHAEL ROUNDS (Stryker Brigade Commander): You can send information, you can send reports, but the best thing is that you can send graphics. And so I can look at where I'm at, where they're at, where I want them to go, and post graphics on my system which is instantaneously visible on theirs. That's tremendously powerful.

NARRATOR: Some of that power comes from a system called Blue Force Tracking, which keeps tabs on all friendly ground forces. A global positioning device in each Stryker emits a signal tracked by satellite. That signal pinpoints their exact location, enabling better coordination and reducing the risk of friendly fire.

FIRST LIEUTENANT DEREK ANDREJESKI (Stryker Brigade Platoon Leader): This has a couple of advantages for us. One is that it allows us to focus all of our efforts in the same direction, so we don't have squads running into each other and mistaking themselves for Iraqis or other forces.

MICHAEL ROUNDS: Once everybody gets used to the ability to see everything on the battlefield, all sharing the same information, and transmitting that and sharing it quickly, you can turn operations much quicker.

NARRATOR: The nine billion dollar Stryker program is just part of a down payment on the army of the future. The new electronic networks and other emerging technologies have helped give birth to a new doctrine of waging war. The doctrine is called "Transformation." It's based on three ideas.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: The three key elements of transformation thus far are knowledge, speed and precision. Knowledge, in the sense of being able to use the technical means at our disposal to seek, to track and to find out what the enemy is all about; speed: strategic speed, the ability to project forces over great distances very, very quickly; and precision is the ability to strike the enemy with sort of surgical strikes to kill the enemy quickly.

GENERAL GREG MARTIN (U.S. Air Force Materiel Command): The challenge that we have is to be able to get battle space knowledge at the touch of a screen, to present it in such a way that our decision makers can make decisions now, and then attack or accomplish the desired effect in near real-time. So what we're going to do is we're going to move from breaking the sound barrier to breaking the time barrier.

NARRATOR: Since his confirmation hearing in January, 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been Transformation's most vocal advocate.

DONALD H. RUMSFELD (U.S. Secretary of Defense): The development and deployment of a truly modern, effective command, control, communication and intelligence system is fundamental to the transformation of U.S. military forces.

NARRATOR: But Secretary Rumsfeld also believes that Transformation means fewer troops are needed to fight wars. That has stirred up bitter disagreement among the military, so that for years Transformation remained only a theory—until a national tragedy and an international crisis changed everything.

ARTHUR CEBROWSKI: The events of September 11th, the global war on terrorism, the operation in Afghanistan, later on, the operation in Iraq, all served as a great catalyst for Transformation, sharply accelerated the rate of change. You might say that necessity is the mother of invention. Perhaps another way of looking at that is that no one learns faster than someone who's being shot at.

RONALD SEGA (Director, Defense Research and Engineering.): On September 11th, I was in my office here in the Pentagon, and then felt a shake of the, the room that we were in, and then as we were then evacuating the building, then learned that an aircraft had actually hit the Pentagon.

NARRATOR: Former astronaut Ron Sega oversees the Pentagon's more than $60 billion annual budget for research, development and testing.

RONALD SEGA: As we arrived at work on September 12th, with, then, a skeleton crew, we, uh, came together and asked the question, "What can we do? What can the research and engineering community within the Department of Defense do to support what we were about to engage in?"

NARRATOR: That skeleton crew of scientists, analysts, and engineers became the Combating Terrorism Technology Task Force. Members of the F.B.I., C.I.A., and other defense and intelligence agencies met in a secure conference room, deep within the Pentagon, thinking, tinkering, devising solutions. In just three days they produced a list of 150 technologies that could be fast-tracked in the war against terror.

New bomb detectors use a system called nuclear quadrupole resonance—it senses nitrogen in explosives; another innovation: electronic translators for soldiers that can help calm crowds or interrogate prisoners of war; a 3-D face identification system measures physical or even behavioral characteristics to tell friend from foe; and this anti-terrorist weapon: the thermobaric bomb, a dozen times more destructive than conventional high explosives. Detonated chemicals create shock waves of heat and pressure that penetrate bunkers and caves. It was rushed from laboratory to battlefield in just 90 days. The battlefield was Afghanistan, which was to become a testing ground for Transformation.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: The thing that was most unique about the war in Afghanistan was the melding of the new and the old, of our ability to get to a theater very quickly with special operating forces. And then to allow those special operating forces to transition into the old, to be able to mount themselves on horses, and bond with uh, members of the Northern Alliance, to form a coalition, on the fly, that was very effective on the ground.

MICHAEL VICKERS: In the Persian Gulf war, about seven percent of the munitions were precision guided, and they weren't all-weather. They required a laser beam to be shone on the target, so things like smoke could interfere with the laser beam. By Afghanistan, we had satellite-guided munitions that could pierce through clouds or oil field fires or anything else, and we had a lot more of these precision weapons in our arsenal.

RAY SCARCELLO (HR Textron): When 9/11 hit, the whole game changed, obviously. The U.S. government needed an ample supply immediately. So my phone started ringing, we started getting requests for, "How fast? How many? What would it take to get there?"

NARRATOR: The orders flooding in were for precision weapons, lots of them. Textron Systems makes the tail-steering mechanism of the JDAM. That stands for Joint Direct Attack Munition. Strap one of these harnesses onto a bomb and JDAM delivers the weapon right to the target. It's accurate to less than nine feet. These new bombs use G.P.S., a more precise version of the same Global Positioning System in cars and boats.

JOHN MARSHALL (HR Textron): The weapon receives G.P.S. coordinates from anywhere from three to seven satellites, takes that data, determines its current position, calculates the position of the target to attack, and from there, commands the tail actuation system to respond with particular fin movements.

RAY SCARCELLO: Technology has developed, over the years, to allow us to guide bombs to hit specific targets—that being a car, a bridge, a house—with 99 percent reliability.

NARRATOR: High precision bombing was a crucial strategy in Afghanistan, speeding operations and reducing the need for planes and troops. But transformation called for another vital ingredient: unprecedented cooperation among all the branches of the military.

MICHAEL VICKERS: For the first time, in Afghanistan, we had forces from different services—ground forces from the Special Forces and Air Force aircraft or Navy aircraft—lashed up together in very, very micro task forces, and so there was a level of integration we just hadn't seen before in war.

DAVID OZOLEK: What we saw in the opening phases of that campaign was a clear indication that we were moving now into the 21st century, beginning to leverage capability that we had never seen before.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: A Northern Alliance soldier could point to a bunker, or a tank on a ridge line, and within minutes a precision weapon would appear out of nowhere and make that tank or that bunker go away. And you only had to do that a couple of times before the Northern Alliance realized, "There's something here." Also, what they saw was the Taliban response to precision, the confusion, the sense of hopelessness that permeated the Taliban very quickly and caused their frontline forces to dissolve.

NARRATOR: One case starkly exposes the Taliban's vulnerability to high technology: a C.I.A. spy gets a tip from the Northern Alliance, a convoy of Taliban and al Qaeda officials is driving to a mosque outside the city of Kandahar. An unmanned Predator reconnaissance drone searches for the convoy. It's flown by remote control from Kyrgyzstan in central Asia, 600 miles away.

The drone locates its prey. Quietly circling above the target, the high tech Predator feeds live video to command headquarters around the world and to an old, Vietnam-era AC-130 gunship. The plane slowly moves into position for the kill.

MICHAEL VICKERS: The ability to share digital data made possible the transfer of the Predator video feed directly into the AC-130.

VOICE: That square, rectangular building is the mosque.

VOICE: Roger that.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: The Predator is the ideal vehicle for tracking individual targets, and the AC-130 is the ideal weapon for striking individual targets.

VOICE: There are people coming out of the mosque right now.

NARRATOR: An attack plan is made and orders given.

VOICE: Do not engage the mosque!

VOICE: Roger.

NARRATOR: The unsuspecting Taliban and al Qaeda emerge from the meeting.

VOICE: You are now cleared to engage any personnel around you see.

NARRATOR: Precise targeting enables the AC-130 gunners to avoid the mosque while picking off the enemy. These images are one face of modern warfare. From a distance, the targets are small white, moving forms. They are killed, one after another, after another.

VOICE: Already cut down the other guy...going to town, man.

NARRATOR: Seven minutes later, all are believed dead. The mosque, just a few feet away, is unscathed.

VOICE: Yeah, I got that guy, too.

DAVID OZOLEK: The Taliban did not anticipate the speed and power at which we would be able to move, the ability to which we would be able to confront them with integrated action. And we presented them with a problem set that was too complex for their systems to keep up with.

NARRATOR: Fewer, better-coordinated troops, acting with speed and precision, toppled the Taliban regime, but failed to find Osama bin Laden or secure all but a few Afghan cities. Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters had responded with tactics that exposed the limitations of U.S. technology: they dispersed; they hid.

ERIC SCHMITT: Despite the fact that Osama bin Laden was able to escape, the advocates of Transformation pointed to that war as a laboratory for what they had been talking about. And so, here, you had, kind of, the great example of what Rumsfeld had been waiting for, an opportunity to demonstrate how you could employ transformational concepts on the ground and rapidly defeat an enemy with relatively small numbers of American forces.

DONALD H. RUMSFELD: Transformation is an ongoing process. It is not something that ends. It is a continuum, because the world is not static. And it's a process in which we create an effective fighting force with new ways of thinking, with new culture, and with new ways of fighting, and, to be sure, in some instances, with new weapons systems and platforms, but also how they are used together, as we have seen in Afghanistan.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: What the Afghan war showed was that transformation is more than just the ability to develop new high tech weapons of war. It really dealt more with our ability to fight a joint campaign, to tear down the walls of inter-service competition.

NARRATOR: Tearing down those walls demands a new concept of acquiring and sharing information, a concept called network-centric warfare. In theory, everyone is electronically connected from the top down. Information once known only to generals and admirals is shared all the way to the frontlines. Past inter-service rivalries are put aside. All of the branches of the military work together.

CAPTAIN HOWARD THORP (U.S. Joint Forces Command): The battlefield has changed. There probably will never be another time in, in the U.S. fighting mentality that a single service will take on a conflict.

NARRATOR: Network-centric warfare's central nervous system is the military's battlefield internet.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL LEN MCWERTHER (Stryker Brigade): You're not feeding your higher headquarters; your higher headquarters is reaching down into the computer of a subordinate battalion headquarters and can see all of that information without ever making a radio call that says, "Tell me where you're located." I know where you're located 'cause it's populating on my screen back here.

NARRATOR: At Fort Lewis, in Washington State, a Stryker brigade trains for future deployment, practicing with its new equipment. Network-centric warfare transforms its command tent into information central. Monitors display data on the movement of enemy as well as friendly forces, minimizing the potential for friendly fire.

MAJOR HUGO JACKSON (Stryker Brigade): If there was an enemy location here, let's say five individuals, then we just go ahead and send it. And it would pop up exactly where I pointed to it on the map. So everybody has situational awareness. Everybody sees that there is an enemy vehicle at this location.

NARRATOR: The advocates of Transformation see network-centric warfare as a force multiplier. That means fewer soldiers with better information and equipment may be as effective as an opposing force many times larger.

But how do all these ideas work out in practice? A major test of the new tactics and systems was planned in the summer of 2002. This exercise was called Millennium Challenge.

ARTHUR CEBROWSKI: Millennium Challenge was a very large-scale experimentation effort, very, very broad, covered many items.

NARRATOR: Millennium Challenge was a $250 million war game involving all the branches of the military. In this massive mock battle, Transformation was confronted by a tougher enemy than it had faced in Afghanistan.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL (RET.) PAUL VAN RIPER (Former President, Marine War University): There was a simulation which was done in Suffolk, Virginia. Then there were actual forces, real units in the field, at sea and in the air, out in the southwestern portion of the United States.

NARRATOR: July, 2002: Thirty thousand participants were split into two teams: one representing American forces, the other a foreign country, the identity of which was kept secret. Everyone presumed it was Iraq. Instead, it was America's principal ally in the Middle East, Israel. Planners believed that in that region, only Israel had the advanced technology capable of challenging their new doctrine.

To command the opposition and imitate Israeli tactics, U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper was brought out of retirement. The planners got more than they bargained for.

PAUL VAN RIPER: Three days into Millennium Challenge, we attacked with more cruise missiles from more directions and more locations at sea and the air and on land than I knew their systems were capable of handling. And the results? At least in the simulation, they lost 16 U.S. Navy ships.

NARRATOR: Van Riper scored his victory by resorting to low tech, guerilla tactics. Orders were hand-delivered to evade electronic snooping. Missiles were hidden on fishing boats, small craft rammed battleships in suicide missions. The victory exposed the weakness of Transformation's reliance on high technology. An unorthodox sneak attack could cripple U.S. forces.

MICHAEL VICKERS: We've had terrorist attacks on our forces like the U.S.S. Cole, but we haven't had anything on the scale of Millennium Challenge, where someone is actually attacking our forces before they can get ready to fight. So we ought to pay a lot of attention to it and figure out how to counter it.

NARRATOR: But according to Van Riper, instead of addressing what went wrong, the planners reset the game and started over.

PAUL VAN RIPER: And from that point on, the exercise was scripted. Each day there were e-mails and PowerPoint briefs saying exactly what was going to happen.

NARRATOR: The game's planners justified that scripting by saying Millennium Challenge was more experiment than exercise. It was meant to be a test of systems and technologies rather than a win-or-lose contest.

DAVID OZOLEK: By using a networked approach, we saw, in Millennium Challenge, our ability to operate across tremendously separated distances. We discovered in Millennium Challenge that these really were very powerful ideas and really did have a major impact on our ability to operate.

NARRATOR: But critics claimed that Millennium Challenge was not a true test of a transformed military.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: If you prescribe an ending to these games, you're not going to learn anything, because all the game becomes is, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So the great games are those that allow an enemy to get inside our own decision cycle, and find ways to defeat us. Because it's better to defeat the Americans in a war game, than it is to ignore the lessons of a really good war game, and get defeated on the battlefield.

NARRATOR: But there was no time for those lessons to be learned. By the late summer of 2002, when Millennium Challenge ended, a real, but unofficial, shooting war had already begun. It was called, "Operation Southern Focus." On the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lincoln, precision bombs were loaded onto Navy fighters patrolling the no-fly zones over Iraq. Pilots now were told, "When attacked, go after Iraqi communications and command centers to soften up the battlefield for the fight to come."

CAPTAIN KEVIN ALBRIGHT (Commander, Carrier Air Wing 14): We are in the theater. We are basically in the same environment that the weapon and the weapon systems are going to have to work in. So you get a very, very good feel for what range you're going to see break out, start to recognize targets.

NARRATOR: Supplying the maps and targets for this undeclared "war before the war" was the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, N.G.A. N.G.A. used data from sensors that scoured the cities and deserts. Satellites and spy planes photographed every inch of Iraq. All this surveillance was vital preparation for the campaign to come.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL (RET.) JAMES CLAPPER (Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency): Iraq is a good case in point. We had a six or seven month run-up period, for that, to get ready to satisfy the exacting and demanding requirements that a military commander will have to ensure the accurate location of targets.

NARRATOR: From outer space, satellite imagery was so detailed, it could reveal individuals on the ground hundreds of miles below. N.G.A. amassed additional intelligence from government and commercial sources, everything from Iraqi soil surveys to Baghdad telephone books. All the information was visualized on electronic maps with the exact latitude, longitude and elevation.

JAMES CLAPPER: And the reason the elevation is important? Because that determines angles of attack for a weapon. And as our weapons get ever smaller—which they are—and ever more precise, knowing with certitude exactly where that point on the earth is, is more important.

NARRATOR: With such astoundingly accurate maps, pilots not only knew where to go and what to hit, but how to get there without being shot down. These electronic charts marked out danger zones around ground threats such as surface to air missiles or anti-aircraft batteries.

COLONEL TOM SORRELL (Director, Precision Engagement Division, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency): If you fly through those red cones, you're in its lethal range. You can take, geospatially, the angles, and know that, if you're in this spot, "Where can you be seen? Where can you not be seen?" And then you can figure out the best way to attack a target.

NARRATOR: What sensors and satellites couldn't do was see inside the buildings. Were they making chemical and biological weapons or medicine? Was that really a radar installation or a decoy? With America on the verge of war, the N.G.A. had to rely on information from human intelligence: spies in the field and special operations forces dropped surreptitiously behind enemy lines.

MICHAEL VICKERS: This was a Special Operations-intensive war, there were more Special Forces A-teams, or Green Berets, put into Iraq than in, in Vietnam at the height. And one in 10 soldiers, roughly, was a Special Operations soldier in Iraq.

NARRATOR: By the time President Bush announced the official commencement of hostilities, American and British Special Operations forces already controlled a quarter of Iraqi territory. March 20th, 2003: With cruise missiles and JDAM guided bombs, the Shock and Awe precision air strikes, viewed by millions on television, are Transformation made real.

The warheads are so accurate, most hit not only the right building but also the exact floor.

JOHN BURNS (New York Times Foreign Correspondent): The B.B.C. had told us that B-52s had taken off from bases in the west of England. We knew when it was coming, so we were gathered on the roof at eight o'clock in the evening for what we expected to begin at nine. And not one second before, and not one second afterwards, we heard the first cruise missiles—that sound of a low-flying jet aircraft—and then these huge balls of smoke and flame.

NARRATOR: Pentagon planners had hoped the impressive aerial fireworks and destruction might be enough to bring down the Iraqi regime. But they are not.

ERIC SCHMITT: This whole idea of shock and awe became the mantra of the Pentagon: that if you could somehow either decapitate the regime, or within the first few days, overwhelm it with a series of strikes, this military, the regime of Saddam Hussein, would crumble. This would have been the ultimate vindication of Transformation, and that is what they were all striving for.

NARRATOR: From the Kuwaiti border, 100,000 U.S. troops struck out across the desert. It was a fraction of the 540,000 Americans deployed in 1991, during the first Gulf War. Inside the Pentagon, there was intense debate over the size of the force. Prior to the war, the outgoing Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, raised hackles when he testified, at a Congressional hearing, that more troops were needed than Secretary Rumsfeld had ordered deployed.

ERIC K. SHINSEKI (Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff): Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are know, figure that would be required. We're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant, so it takes significant ground force presence.

DONALD H. RUMSFELD: I will say this: what is, I think, reasonably certain is...the idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces, I think, is far from the mark.

NARRATOR: Rumsfeld's view prevailed, and as the 100,000-strong force sped into Iraq, the military scrambled to get Blue Force Tracking, similar to the system now used by the Stryker Brigades, to as many troops as possible. Each unit's movements were monitored by satellite. Spy planes like U-2s, and unmanned reconnaissance drones like the Predator, searched for the enemy. Network-centric warfare brought all of this information together on a single screen.

JAMES CLAPPER: Laptops are everywhere, and that is the medium of communication. Operation Iraqi Freedom was indeed a chat room war. Clearly, the computer revolution and the automation capability and the communications capability that gives us, I think, is quite profound.

NARRATOR: Computer-based tracking also helped prevent accidental death or injury from friendly fire. In the 1991 Gulf war, 24 percent of the 146 Americans killed in combat died from friendly fire. In the 2003 Iraqi war, the percentage was reduced by nearly half. But the Blue Force Tracking systems sometimes proved fragile. In one battle, the failure of electronic tracking was especially lethal.

An Nasiriya, the first city entered by American troops on their way to Baghdad: Three companies of a Marine battalion of armored vehicles cross the first of three bridges. The town looks empty. Suddenly, gunfire erupts from a nearby building.

The Marines return fire, and the shooting stops, only to resume from another building. Iraqi soldiers, out of uniform, pretend to be civilians and move from one building to the next.

One of the companies gets stuck in the mud. Another, Charlie Company, pushes ahead across the second bridge. Charlie Company is equipped with Blue Force Tracking, but for unknown reasons the tracking system stops working.

In a command tent near the front line, the battalion commander monitors the fight. He is not consulted when a forward air controller of the unit stuck in the mud orders in air support. The controller cannot see that Charlie Company has moved forward.

Two Air Force A-10 Warthogs arrive on the scene. Thinking they are attacking the enemy, the planes drop bombs, fire missiles and strafe the battlefield with armor-piercing bullets, not knowing they actually are hitting the men of Charlie Company.

Sensors, satellites, reconnaissance planes large and small, fighter jets, attack helicopters, even small surveillance drones, called "Dragon Eyes," can see the attack. But they cannot save the Marines.

Close by, an Iraqi soldier stands ready with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. His command center, in the middle of an Nasiriya has been abandoned. His geospatial intelligence is a model made of cardboard and wood, lying in tatters on the floor. There is no way to transmit his coordinates; American planes destroyed the radio towers months ago. And the only tracking system his senior commanders have is Aljazeera and C.N.N.

Blinded by the fog of war, in this moment, the Iraqi soldiers and the Marines are evenly matched.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: If the enemy can see you, and range you with his weapons, he doesn't need a U.A.V. to locate you or a precision weapon to kill you. All he needs is a 13-cent bullet.

NARRATOR: The Iraqi points his R.P.G. launcher and fires. An armored vehicle explodes, killing the Marines inside. After ten days, the Marines finally secure an Nasiriya, but with heavy losses: over 60 wounded and 30 dead, one fifth of American combat fatalities during the entire ground war. Twenty have been killed by the enemy. Ten have been killed by friendly fire.

Despite the tragedy and systems failure at an Nasiriya, on other battlefields, airstrikes are precise and well-coordinated. They destroy not only high value targets but something perhaps even more important.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: The purpose of wars is to attack the will of the enemy, to convince the enemy that the battle is lost, and to cause him to walk away from the battlefield, not necessarily because he's destroyed, but because his resolve dissipates and disappears.

NARRATOR: Two weeks into the war, a new high tech bomb is revealed. Southeast of Baghdad, a Marine patrol encounters a column of 40 Iraqi tanks. Far outnumbered, they radio for air support. What arrives stuns both friend and foe. Flying to the rescue, in less than seven minutes, is a decades-old Air Force B-52 bomber. Its crew unleashes a weapon that took Joel Bernstein seventeen years to develop.

JOEL BERNSTEIN (Textron Systems): This is the sensor-fused weapon. It is called a "thousand-pound bomb." When it reaches its target, the panel peels away to reveal ten smaller bombs. As it descends, four smaller bombs are revealed from this bomb, and these smaller bombs are then spun up by a rocket motor, which then allows them to go after four individual targets.

CAPTAIN SARAH HALL (B-52 Crew Member): It's specifically seeking out an infrared target. In this case, a tank is creating an infrared signature that allows the weapon to home in on that.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL CHRIS STOCKTON (B-52 Pilot): And since all the Iraqi tanks were kind of in a row, we got coordinates of the front half of that column. We're way higher than they can see or hear when suddenly, out of the blue, tanks start blowing up in front of them. In a space of about two seconds, the entire front third to half of that column just went away.

NARRATOR: The stunned crews of the surviving tanks pour out in surrender. The coordination of ground troops and air power has worked perfectly.

MICHAEL VICKERS: In Iraqi Freedom, we really saw the benefits of this continued transformation of war that's taking place. We saw the benefits of all-weather precision strikes, of persistent surveillance. We saw the force networked together so that the Navy or the Air Force could support the Army far better than they ever have in the past.

NARRATOR: With that support, it only took 19 days for the Army and Marines to reach Baghdad. But the speed of advance was so fast, they almost outran themselves. According to an Army report issued after the war, supply lines could not keep up with the advancing troops.

ERIC SCHMITT: These logistics problems were so severe in some cases that you had unit commanders warning that they were basically on the verge of running out of spare parts. And you run out of spare parts in the military, you basically are grounded, you can't continue.

NARRATOR: In that rush to Baghdad, other problems plagued the military. One estimate puts the number of Iraqi civilians dead or wounded during the invasion at around 10,000. Many casualties come from 50 decapitation air strikes aimed at Iraqi leaders. Like the attempt to kill Saddam the first night of the war, each warhead precisely hits its target, but because of faulty or outdated intelligence, not one of the leaders is killed.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: There's an old saying that no operational plan survives the first bullet. To some extent that happened here.

NARRATOR: As American troops entered Baghdad, it wasn't the technology of precision-guided weapons that carried the day, nor was it sophisticated assault vehicles like the Stryker, which hadn't yet been deployed. It was boots-on-the-ground and the brute force of heavily armored, 70-ton Abrams tanks.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: So what, at first glance, appeared to be an action that was foolishly audacious, actually turned out to be spot-on. And that was the idea to conduct two major raids into the city, to move into the heart of the city and hold it. What's the object of that? It was to prove to the Iraqis that the U.S. had control of the city. It was just the sight of American tanks and Bradleys occupying the palace district, owning the region that used to belong to Saddam, that finally convinced them that it was time to at least give up the conventional phase of the war, and leave us alone.

BRIGADIER GENERAL SABHI NAZIM TAWFIK (Former Iraqi Army): The Americans won the war from a military standpoint, but, in my opinion, they thought, unfortunately, that the fall of Saddam's statue in Al Ferdous Square, meant the fall of Saddam's regime.

NARRATOR: Within hours of Baghdad's fall, widespread looting, riots and arson broke out. The U.S. may have won the ground war, but insurgents quickly set out to prove that their war was really just beginning.

JOHN BURNS: There may have only been, then, 5,000 of them. But that made for a pretty effective guerrilla force with very large supplies of weapons and ammunition stored away in basements and bunkers all over the country and what looks like a pretty good, coordinated plan.

NARRATOR: The insurgency reignited the controversy over whether the U.S. had committed enough troops to the fight. The debate continues to this day, as U.S. forces are still hard-pressed to contain the insurgents' violent attacks.

PAUL VAN RIPER: There were sufficient forces to capture Baghdad, but what we call follow-up forces—exploitation forces and reserves—were not available. Anyone who understands Operations and Tactics 101 would have had an adequate reserve, so, if you had success, you could reinforce that success.

NARRATOR: In the year after Baghdad fell, guerrilla attacks, bombs and rocket-propelled grenades have taken the lives of nearly 500 Americans G.I.s, over three times more than were killed in the 19-day ground war.

Could the technology that functioned so well in the ground assault work against the tactics of an insurgency? The military went back to the team of engineers and scientists first convened after 9/11. The Pentagon's Combating Terrorism Technology Task Force now focused on Iraq's guerrilla war.

RONALD SEGA: It's important for us to put forth as much effort as we can to do that, knowing that those in Iraq have it much harder than, than we do.

NARRATOR: The task force was given oversight of $335 million for ways to staunch further American bloodshed. Among them: more sensors and unmanned reconnaissance drones and blast-resistant materials to reduce the damage of terrorist bombs.

MAJOR GENERAL PAUL NIELSEN (Commander, Air Force Research Lab): Another clever application of technology has been in the use of robotics. We have been interested in robotics, for some time, to clear fields of mines.

NARRATOR: This new robot uses a remote-controlled machine gun to destroy land mines and improvised explosive devices, I.E.D.s, from a safe distance.

PAUL NIELSEN: We can put these robotics in to further understand what's there, before we expose people to these new challenges.

NARRATOR: In their Baghdad headquarters, specialists from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency face formidable problems in countering guerrilla war.

COLONEL JEAN-PIERRE MANLEY (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Specialist, Baghdad): Our targets are much more difficult to assess. When you're going after a bomb maker, someone who makes an I.E.D., you're not going to see the large tank formations we had at the beginning of the war, you're not going to see the buildings that house the Republican Guard. What you then have to go to is combine our form of intelligence, the geo-int, with all these other sources, the human intelligence, the signals intelligence, and mesh that together.

NARRATOR: It was human intelligence, not technology that finally cornered Saddam Hussein. In December, 2003, an Iraqi informant pointed the military to Saddam's hiding place. But even the capture of Saddam did not quell the insurgency.

CHIEF BRIGADIER GENERAL MOHAMMED AL ASKRRAY (Former Iraqi Republican Guard): Technology helps in many things, but in such cases where a person is willing to blow himself up, that has to do with an idea. You cannot really stop him with technology. You have to fight him with his own weapon: fight ideas with ideas, and weapons with weapons.

NARRATOR: More than a year after the fall of Baghdad, the insurgency continues to challenge even the most technologically advanced units of the ground forces. Heading through an overpass near the city of Mosul, a convoy of Stryker vehicles is attacked. An improvised explosive device was triggered by remote control.

VOICE: Okay. Spread these guys out.

VOICE: Get them out of the car.

VOICE: Where'd the bomb go off?

VOICE: Right on the other side of the overpass. That car was sitting there.

NARRATOR: Frightened, the soldiers stop a motorist parked nearby.

VOICE: Get security over here to search this car.

VOICE: Why were you at the overpass when that blew up?

VOICE: No, I...

VOICE: Yeah? What'd you see when you were standing there?

VOICE: No, I haven't seen anything.

DEREK ANDREJESKI: The bomb went off on the left side of the road as we were traveling, targeted towards our vehicles. Luckily, they missed all of us. No American casualties were reported.

MICHAEL ROUNDS: There's always friction, no matter what type of conflict you're in. In this case, the friction of fighting an elusive enemy is that you have to find them in and amongst the populace.

NARRATOR: To find and arrest one such enemy, the Strykers quickly and quietly enter a small village where they're told a known Iraqi insurgent is hiding.

VOICE: Can we have all the women in this room go into this room right here?

NARRATOR: The suspect's wife, her children and all the neighbors are rounded up and questioned. The tip turns out to be wrong. The suspect is not here. They claim he hasn't been there for some time.

WIFE: He left two months ago.

NARRATOR: These raids create enormous resentment, but American commanders believe one-on-one contact is the best way to get the intelligence they need.

FIRST LIEUTENANT SEAN NOLAN (Stryker Brigade): We are searching the building, we're collecting up all the paperwork, we're having the interpreters go through it. We're also looking for weapons, or anything that could be used to initiate an I.E.D.

NARRATOR: American forces, armed with the best training and gear to fight a conventional enemy, struggle to adapt to the volatile Iraqi insurgency.

MICHAEL ROUNDS: We went away from the type of conflict where I can bring precision-guided munitions and engage them without seeing them. But we're doing this person-to-person now, even though we have incredibly good information equipment, communications equipment and weapons systems. But it's still very personal in this type of fight.

ARTHUR CEBROWSKI: You have tactical moves to counter technologies, and you have technology moves to counter tactics, and that's the dynamic that goes on.

NARRATOR: The Stryker Brigades have been envisioned as the tip of the spear, the first step toward the army of the future. The question is what kind of war that army will be expected to fight and who the future enemy will be.

GREG MARTIN: As the only major superpower in the world, we have to be the best at everything, because someone who's better than we are in one area can perhaps cause great chaos by exploiting one technique. So we have to look across the entire spectrum of conflict and be prepared for any eventuality.

PAUL VAN RIPER: The first thing you have to understand is how is it we plan to fight in the future or in a particular war. And once you understand how you're going to fight, then you bring the technology to it. If you lead leaning on the technology, I think you're bound to make mistakes.

ROBERT SCALES, JR.: This focus, this, perhaps, obsession on technology blinded us, to some degree, to this countervailing universe that inhabits all wars. And that's this cultural side of war. It's your ability to understand your enemy, his intents, his motives, his will.

ARTHUR CEBROWSKI: Transformation is about creating the future or, at very least, anticipating it. The stark alternative is either we'll create our future or we'll become the victims of a future that someone else creates for us. That's why you must do something like Transformation: a decided, serious effort not to be static. Because if you are static, you are a fixed target, you're at risk.

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Battle Plan Under Fire

Produced and directed by
C. Scott Willis

Written by
Michael Winship

Reported by
Calvin Sims
C. Scott Willis

Edited by
Dan Flaherty
Geoff Gruetzmacher
Sakae Ishikawa

Field Producer
Alex Vlack

Associate Producer
Joshua Koffman

Narrated by
Will Lyman

Neil Barrett
Philip L. Geyelin, Jr.
Gilberto Nobrega
Curt Worden

Sound Recordists
Anthony Cooper
Thomas Craca
Brent Lestage
Keith McManus

Assistant Editor
Jeremy Siefer

Christopher Tin

Jed Schwartz

Online Editor
Björn Bellenbaum

Audio Mix
David Wilson

Archival Footage
ABC News Videosource
Al Jazeera
BBC Worldwide
CBS News Archives
CNN Imagesource
Earthdata Technologies
ITN Archive
Jack Brown and Metro Productions
Master Sergeant Timothy E. Lancaster
Quantum Magnetics, Inc., subsidiary of InVision Technologies
Vox Tech (subsidy of Marine Acoustics, Inc.)

Archival Stills
AP Wideworld Images
Corbis Images
Getty Images
NY Times/Ruth Fremson
NY Times/Chang Lee
NY Times/Ozier Muhammad
Philip Greenspun

Special Thanks
Space Imaging
EarthData Technologies

For New York Times Television

Unit Production Manager
Andre Lanoie

Senior Production Coordinator
Alyssa Morell

Director of Operations
Jonathan Epner

Production Supervisor
David C. Tuttle

Post Production Supervisor
Bob Solomon

Executive Producers
Ann Derry
Lawrie Mifflin

Executives In Charge
William Abrams
Michael Oreskes


NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
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Post Production Online Editor
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Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Jonathan Renes
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Senior Researcher
Ethan Herberman

Production Coordinator
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Unit Manager
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Legal Counsel
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Post Production Assistant
Patrick Carey

Associate Producer, Post Production
Nathan Gunner

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editor
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Post Production Manager
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Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart

Producer, Special Projects
Susanne Simpson

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Senior Science Editor
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Senior Series Producer
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Managing Director
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Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A New York Times Television Production for NOVA/WGBH Boston in association with ZDF and ZDF Enterprises.

© 2004 WGBH Educational Foundation and New York Times Television

All rights reserved

Battle Plan Under Fire

Unconventional Combat

Unconventional Combat
An excerpt from The Iraq War on fighting the conflict's latest phase.

Transforming Warfare

Transforming Warfare
Arthur Cebrowski on how "network-centric warfare" is changing war.

The Immutable Nature of War

The Immutable Nature of War
Paul Van Riper on how technology will never alter the essence of war.

Time Line of UAVs

Time Line of UAVs
Explore the history of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Imaging with Radar

Imaging with Radar
See what synthetic aperture radar can "see" in this interactive.

Designing For Stealth

Designing For Stealth
How do you render a 15-ton hunk of flying metal nearly invisible?


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