I've said my piece on the upcoming war in Iraq, and I don't want to restate what was put there. Rather I want to use this to record my thoughts on the more recent events related to the topic, because I can't think of a better place.
Last week the White House budget office released its cost estimate ffor the cost in the upcoming war. The estimate was between $50 and $60 billion dollars. A lot of money, to be sure, but far less than the $100 billion cost of the 1991 Gulf War. The US had a lot of support in that war, and a lot more allies than can be expected now. The Gulf War was also one of the biggest blow-outs in the history of war, and overwhelming victories cost a lot less than hard fights. Iraqi soldiers can be expected to fight a lot harder for Iraq than they did for Kuwait. So what gives?
First of all, Iraq is a lot weaker militarily than it was in 1991. They lost a lot in the first war, and despite an active black market haven't been able to replace a lot of what they had. Much other equipment lies idled by lack of spare parts. So it is reasonable to expect less resistance on that score. The continual confrontations with Saddam Hussein and the Gulf War experience has permitted Pentagon planners to turn a lot of attention toward Iraq, much more than they ever would have during the Cold War. Military professionals can do a lot with years to plan. But they had enough time in 1990-1.
Still, I think the real reasons for the low cost are domestic politics and hubris. George W. Bush has reintroduced America to the budget deficit, and in a big way. While some of that can be attributed to the battle against al Quaeda, and a bit more to cyclical cycles, it can also be argued that a lot of blame falls upon the President's tax cuts. He is expected to use the State of the Union Address to introduce even more tax cuts. An expensive war will make it easy for Democrats to attack his fiscal proposals as irresponsible. War on the cheap preserves his domestic agenda.
So most of the press I'm hearing suggests that the US ground force will consist of about three army mechanized divisions, with Marines and the Brits in support. A healthy force, but a fraction of what his father sent. If the President chose to send the force his father used it would cost a LOT more. He'd also have to call up many more reserve units. Reservists have jobs and are thus important for the slowly recovering economy. Plus their families lose income while they serve. Which is not good for his domestic agenda.
So what makes W. think he can get away with this? The answer, I believe is air power. Heavy bombing in the Balkans forced Serbia to make peace in Bosnia and to withdraw from Kosovo. US air power was the hammer that allowed the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taleban. The President is betting that overwhelming air power will tip the scales, allowing his much smaller force to do what the larger army was not permitted to do in 1991.
I'd like for a moment to look at why air power proved so decisive in those other conflicts, and why it might or might not in Iraq. When the Bosnian Serbs had begun attacking NATO peacekeepers, or ignoring them to commit massacres, very few analysts --including me-- thought bombing alone would would bring the Serbs to heel. The Serbs had along history of ferocity bred from being stuck int he middle of Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Austria/Hungary with a dash of Hitler. Bombing alone certainly did not bring North Vietnam to surrender, though heavy bombing did improve their peace proposals. In fact, up until then bombing hadn't induced anyone to surrender, with the exception of Japan, who got to experience Nuclear War firsthand.
The first and most important difference betweent those wars and today is the widespread use of precision guided munitions, or PGM's. Before they arrived on the scene, there were too ways of being ensuring the destruction of a target: mass bombing, or getting in really, really close. Mass bombing requires lots and lots of aircraft, which is very expensive, and often doesn't do the job. After all, much of the damage done by the 8th Air Force during World War II was put right quickly. Mass bombing works best for mass targets, and is less effective against small things like foxholes or a dug-in tank.
The other solution is to get in really, really close. The problem is that when you do that, you become vulnerable to anti aircraft fire. That kind of bombing is expensive in both men and aircraft. And it is good for the defender's morale. Nothing terrifies a soldier more than to just cower in his hole and take it, hoping he won't be next. When planes get low enough and slow enough it becomes very worthwhile to shoot back. That gives the defenders something to do besides think about how scared they are.
The introduction of PGM's changed all of that. Suddenly high value targets, like bridges, started falling down in a hurry. In Vietnam bridges and dams that had endured dozens of raids dropped overnight. Since Vietnam the microprocessor has ensured that PGMs are both better and cheaper than ever.
They transformed air power, which is now blessed with the tools do carry out the dreams of Billy Mitchell and Guido Douhet. PGM's allowed aircraft to attack from much father away, out of the range of small arms. Radar homing missiles such as the HARM and Wild Weasel SAM hunters have made flying high safer.
Now the poor guy on the ground can only lie there and cower. No burning planes on the ground to cheer him. No utility in shooting back, in fact, it attracts Death so he can't submerge his fear in activity. And the new PGM's are deadly. Every time the planes come calling a few more buddies are vaporized. The desire to fight vanishes when fighting seems futile.
In many ways this is what accounted for the cheap, relatively bloodless victories of the nineties. Iraqi artillery unites refused to shoot, figuring it would be suicidal. Serbia decided to make peace. The Taleban cracked when the Nothern Alliance attacked.
But there are some important differences that come about when you are talking of invading Iraq. Serbia wasn't fighting for Serbia, they were fighting because Slobodan Milosevic had used racism to gain power, and having let the nationalist genie out the bottle, he had no choice but to ride it to its logical conclusion. War. Which would have gone rather well had NATO not decided to intervene. Serbs found themselves in the dark, and carrying water in buckets , but for Bosnia, not Serbia. The Taleban were true believers, but many of their allies were not. In fine Afghan tradition they swapped sides, or surrendered when the winds of war went against them. The remaining Taleban, outnumbered now and harassed from above, broke.
Iraqis also fled in Kuwait. But they were fighting for Kuwait, not Iraq, and the basic Iraqi soldier never bought into the "19th province" argument. But this time they'll be fighting for home, against an enemy they believe hates all Iraqis, whether it is true or not.
People are generally a lot more serious about fighting for their own country than someone else's. They find backbone when their family and homes lay behind them. And the tactical situation is different as well. The need to defend Kuwait forced Iraqis to move out in the desert, away from home. That made it fairly easy for alliance forces to isolate and cut them off in a mobile battle. The US Army is very, very fast, and with the kind of forces we employed, operating in their rear, cracked what little will remained in the Iraqi Army. They surrendered in droves.
But 2003 is not 1991. The Iraqis don't have the armored forces they once had, but they didn't do them any good in '91 and don't see that a forward battle will help them now. The lack of operational equipment might even prove an advantage, as it might have tempted them to fight the US in the desert, where they would be annihilated. Most analysts expect them to fight in their cities. True, that will lead to massive civilian casualties, but when has Saddam Hussein ever cared about dead civilians?
Fighting in urban areas may allow Iraqi soldiers to adopt the "bearhug tactics" first developed by the North Vietnamese (see the film We Were Soldiers for an illustration). By moving very close to US units they hope to negate American firepower, because of the fear of hitting friendlies. They will kill Americans.
It will become the kind of slugging match Ohio State imposed on Miami to win the Fiesta Bowl. America will win, but at what cost? If a quick and easy victory is not forthcoming you can use White House budget estimates to line your litter box because that's what they'll be worth.
Furthermore, said fighting will leave Iraq's cities in ruins. Millions will be homeless, and hungry. Guess who gets to feed them? House them? Find them jobs? Arrange a decent government? Rebuild trashed oil fields?
Even if everything goes exactly right and the war does cost less than $60 bn, the peace will cost a LOT more than that.