Shock and Awe in Babylon

Technology Review's unembedded columnist
shares six observations on Gulf War II

Richard Muller
Technology for Presidents
April 2, 2003

The battle rages south of Baghdad, close to the ruins of Babylon, nestled between the oft-mentioned towns of Karbala and Al Hillah. We watch the war in disconnected bites, through the eyes of embedded reporters scattered amidst boredom and battles. It is not full coverage but only a sampling. We fill in the rest by interpolation and extrapolation, but the samples are so sparse that we get an inaccurate estimate. Nevertheless, we feel compelled to draw conclusions, to decide whether the invisible war plan is going well or badly or as expected. This task is difficult enough for the military leaders, with their more complete information. From my remote vision in Berkeley, it is hopeless.

Nevertheless, I do have half a dozen observations to share, mostly technological, and mostly overlooked even in the continuous coverage offered by TV and the long supplements in the daily papers.

1. The First GPS War. In Gulf War I, many of our soldiers weren’t given GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers because military specifications had made them too expensive. But GPS was so valuable for finding their way in the desert that soldiers wrote home asking relatives to send them cheap commercial versions. The generals learned the lesson, and now our soldiers are GPS-equipped. So are our bombs. A $22,000 strap-on GPS package known as a Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) turns a previously dumb bomb smart, making it almost as effective as a million-dollar cruise missile. Those have been updated too; the Tomahawk missile, formerly guided by terrain contour matching (TERCOM) and inertial guidance, now steers primarily by GPS. GPS has become the key technology of Gulf War II.
The Iraqis report hundreds of civilian casualties. Even if that is not an exaggeration (and Iraq’s government is noted for neither honesty nor accuracy), that is far fewer than I had feared from the thousands of bombs and cruise missiles used so far. The difference is due to GPS.
(A brief note: I consider most Iraqi soldiers to be as innocent as civilians. Many were conscripted, and others were deluded. Their deaths count too.)

2. Facial recognition. The first act of the war, the United States’ attempt to kill Saddam Hussein, should not have surprised anyone who read my column “Weapons of Precise Destruction.” But it surprised me. Our most valuable assets in Iraq are spies in Saddam’s inner circles, and their very existence was presumably a highly classified secret until we attacked Saddam and his sons in their sleep. Immediately afterwards, Saddam appeared on Iraqi TV, but he made no mention of the attempt on his life. Was it really Saddam? His ex-mistress said no—but how does she know her consort was the real Saddam and not one of his doubles? My own visual comparison with a certified image concludes, “Yes, it is definitely Saddam.”

The world waited while facial recognition programs analyzed the images, a silly waste of time, done for those who misunderstand the limitations of computers. The goal of facial recognition software is to try to approach the fantastic human ability at pattern recognition, which works in ways we don’t fully understand. No computer can match your (or my) ability to recognize faces. Look at the two images of Saddam, and decide. You have just outdone every program ever written. Computers have a virtue only when given huge numbers of jobs; people get bored, and computers don’t. That’s their only advantage.

The Saddam broadcasts contained no compelling evidence that they weren’t pre-existing tapes, in fact, just the opposite. He praised a division that had already surrendered, and he talked about Basra as if it had been taken, rather than just surrounded. My guess: this was a tape prepared in case he had to sneak out of Baghdad while giving the illusion he still was there. Don’t expect more tapes with Saddam addressing the camera. I suspect he is injured or dead, and these were the last contingency tapes they had.
3. Oil well fires. At the end of Gulf War I, Saddam malevolently blew up the oil wells of Kuwait and set the gushing oil on fire. Based on prior experience, it was thought that it would take a decade to extinguish the blazes. Even worse was the pollution of spilled oil; the United Nations teams actually reset some fires to burn it off. The firefighting was opened to competition, and this resulted in a surge of technological innovation. For the first time, both sea water and liquid nitrogen were used to cool the fires. MIG-21 turbine engines mounted on Soviet T-62 tanks directed high pressure air and water at the wells. In an environmental miracle, the last of the 732 wells was extinguished and capped by November 1991.

We assumed that Saddam had also learned from our success. Next time, we believed, he would blow the well below the ground, making them more difficult to cap. In 1991, Saddam had not extensively mined the regions around the wells; he wouldn’t make that mistake again. We expected the worst.

But it didn’t happen. Only nine wells were set on fire in the south, and seven of those have already been extinguished. Many of the wells were found with explosives attached but not fired. Why were so few ignited?

Several possibilities: One, effective action by Special Operations forces, getting to wells before the Iraqis knew what was happening. Two, the suddenness of the U.S. land invasion backed up Special Ops before the Iraqis could regroup. Three, effective pamphlets telling the Iraqis not to destroy their own wealth.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the pamphlets. If they were important, and we will know someday, it will illustrate a key and underappreciated aspect of U.S. Special Operations psychological warfare. Their doctrine demands truth. It is the key to effective propaganda. Don’t lie; build trust. This strange new approach (not totally accepted by the government, or other parts of the military) is based on the observation that in most conflicts, truth will benefit the United States. This was such a case. Don’t destroy the wealth of the Iraqi people. It rang true.

4. The Sand Blizzard. For those of us old enough to remember the 1980 Iranian hostage rescue debacle, in which our helicopters foundered in the sand, the equipment survival of the great Iraq sandstorm was a remarkable achievement. The U.S. military largely sat it out, but afterwards the helicopters could still fly and equipment still functioned. The U.S. had prepared for such a sandblast, but no one could be certain the gaskets and bearing seals would do the job. They endured one of the greatest sandstorms in years, a truly remarkable technical achievement.

5. Absence of Chemical Warfare. Most people, even opponents of the war (including Hans Blix), seem to believe that the Iraqis really do have chemical weapons. Why haven’t they used them (yet)?

Chemical weapons are tricky and unreliable. In World War I, the Germans got little or no military advantage from them. They work best against a concentration of unprotected people, as in Halabja, the Kurdish village devastated in 1988 by Saddam’s chemical attack. Saddam believes that chemical weapons in his war with Iran helped him bring it to a stalemate.

In chemical suits, our soldiers are hot and slow, so they don’t put them on unless a chemical attack is believed imminent. In close-in combat, both sides must suit up; those with the greater training have the advantage. That’s the United States.

Saddam reportedly believes that it was fear of chemicals that kept us out of Baghdad in 1991. The Iraqi military may have similar hopes now. The United States has (as of today) held back from the perimeter, wary of launching an attack that could trigger chemical use and harm both soldiers and nearby civilians. Our military may defer entering Baghdad until the Iraqi military surrenders.

6. North Korea. What does this have to do with Gulf War II? I imagine that Kim Jong Il has been watching TV even more closely than you and I. He is probably thinking very hard about the depth of his tunnels, his personal safety, and the vulnerability of his command, control, and communications network. Does he have bunkers that are 300 feet deep? Does he want to start living in them? It may not be the technology that frightens him as much as the demonstrated willingness of the US to attack a foreign leader, even with UN opposition.
I expect reduced belligerency from the North Korean Supreme Leader in coming months. It will be a good time to bargain with him.

Finally, expect more surprises. As Jeremiah said, “All who go to Babylon shall be astonished.”

Richard A. Muller, a 1982 MacArthur Fellow, is a professor in the Physics Department at UC-Berkeley where he teaches a course entitled, "Physics for future Presidents." He is also a faculty senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.