Military Lessons from Gulf War II


Successes as well as failures


Richard A. Muller


mirrored from

Technology Review Online

Technology for Presidents

March 12, 2004


War is inherently unpredictable, and often won by the side that adapts most quickly to the unexpected. For this reason, our military is already deeply engaged in evaluating what went right and what went wrong in the current war in Iraq. Last month I had the opportunity to hear a presentation by them on “lessons learned” – so far. Here is my take on several of their more salient observations.


Too much too soon. Execution of the war and the speed of advance outstripped planning. The military expected to take seven weeks to reach Baghdad, but took only two. The rapid sweep left a vacuum in its wake, and politics abhors a vacuum. Backfill put people into power who were sometimes no better than those deposed.

Yet no one would argue that we should have purposely gone slower. The surprising speed was a great help in many ways, but we hadn’t adequately prepared for it. It is not sufficient to be prepared for the worst case scenario. Unexpected success brings unique problems, as well as easily missed opportunities. We were not sufficiently prepared to transition so early into a peacekeeping mode.


Reality TV. Before the war, many military leaders opposed wartime teleconferencing. They feared it would encourage premature decisions and their promulgation before careful review. But now most have changed their minds. Face-to-face discussions convey information that can get lost in carefully composed memos. Remote commanders get a better sense of the battlefield, and troops get a better sense of what the commanders want and expect. So far, teleconferencing has led not only to quicker decisions, but to better ones.


Cities are jungles. Iraq is mostly desert, but that proved mostly irrelevant. Virtually all fighting took place in or near cities, where visibility is low, and the greatest dangers are ambush, snipers, and booby traps – more akin to the Vietnam experience than to Iraq War I. Over the past two decades, about 70% of U.S. military engagements have been urban, so we should have been better prepared. But we have grossly inadequate facilities for urban training, and our soldiers spend little time doing it. That must change.

The city environment also neutralizes much of our high tech advantage. GPS doesn’t work indoors, and often fails outdoors in narrow alleys. Our high tech communications also have problems. Some of our radios use frequency hopping (rapid changes in frequency) to avoid detection and location, but they work only when there is good propagation at all frequencies, a condition often not met in cities. So after a few weeks urban fighting, some soldiers (and officers) had their families send them citizen band walkie-talkies from Radio Shack. When you are under fire, it may be more important to be able to call for help immediately rather than maintain covert communications. This experience is reminiscent of Gulf War I, when families sent soldiers cheap GPS receivers.


Problems of precision. On D-Day in World War II, we dropped leaflets warning all French citizen who lived within 50 km of the coast to evacuate. Our bombers and artillery demolished entire towns because it was the quickest way to eliminate a handful of entrenched Nazis. Our concern for noncombatants has changed. Civilians now count for much more than they did in World War II, perhaps because we are better at counting them. Minimizing “collateral damage” has become a major constraint in modern war fighting. Our precision weapons are still not perfect, but they are getting much better; they reduced the number of noncombatant deaths to a much lower level than many predicted. As a result, most Iraqi civilians chose not to evacuate cities, and the massive refugee problem that many feared never materialized. But an unfortunate consequence of precision is that U.S. troops had to fight battles in the midst of innocents – the people they were there to save.

The military describes the current situation as “a three block war.” In block one we are feeding and giving medical care to the Iraqi people. In block two we are patrolling, acting as peacekeepers and policemen. In block three we are engaged in full combat. In Iraq all three blocks are sometimes adjacent and coincident in time. Follow a suspected sniper, but be careful; if you throw a hand grenade into his room of hiding, you may kill innocent civilians. You can’t even throw a “flash bang” stun grenade, because that could hurt a baby. This kind of fighting is so new that abstract planning is of little help; we are learning as we go along.

Insufficient psyops. Psyops, for “psychological operations,” is the modern version of propaganda war. The important aspects of current doctrine include: talk the local language, know the local culture, and speak the truth. This last requirement surprises some people, but the military wisely makes the assumption that truth is our ally and the enemy of our enemies. If you never lie, you have hope of winning the trust of the civilians. Psyops worked remarkably well in Afghanistan. Our Special Operations Forces could speak local languages, and they could leverage the help of local people. The remarkable result: Afghanistanis saw themselves liberated by fellow Muslims.

But skill at psyops is largely a specialty of the Army Special Operation Forces. With the much larger force in Iraq, psyops failed. The average Army soldier has virtually no knowledge of Arabic, and only superficial understanding of local culture. The Marines and the other forces have even less preparation in psyops.

Knowledge of culture goes well beyond not shaking with your left hand, or not showing the bottoms of your feet. For example, if you chase a terrorist into a building, you must knock before entering. Our soldiers now do this. It sounds ludicrous, but if you don’t knock, and as a result you see a woman uncovered (maybe just her face) you could capture your terrorist but create several new ones. A husband or brother or both may feel obliged to take revenge for the insult, to restore family honor, regardless of their political beliefs.

Decentralized intelligence. In the continuing conflict, a surprise success is “Dragon Eyes,” a remotely piloted vehicle that can be carried in a backpack. It looks like a model airplane, with a wingspan of only 1.2 meters and weight of 2.5 kg,. It can be launched with a toss, or with a bungee cord. Dragon Eyes is guided by GPS. It flies quietly at an altitude of 150 meters using a zinc-air battery for power, and can transmit 18 frames per second of visible or infrared video from a range up to 10 km. If spotted by the enemy, it is easily mistaken for a bird.

What makes Dragon Eyes so valuable is that it is easy to use (training takes less than a week), and it provides “actionable” intelligence – information needed immediately. Soldiers deploy it when they need to know what lies behind that building, or near that bridge. It’s cost is so low (soon to come down to $50k) that it can be “owned” at the platoon level. (Generals don’t waste time with things that cheap.) In the next two years, the marines will get 342 of these little marvels.

Despite the rise of the dragon, the most important source of actionable intelligence remains Humint, short for human intelligence. Humint exploitation teams (HETs) get reports from sympathetic Iraqis, not only for big news items (where is Saddam Hussein?), but more frequently for key but less newsworthy information such as the location of a roadside bomb. We now find a large number of these before they are set off.

Good news. It is important to learn from success too. I mentioned teleconferencing, Dragon Eyes, and the positive aspects of precision, but there are other things that went right. The oil fields were saved, even though Saddam had loaded them with explosives. His troops arrived at the huge Mosul dam to blow it up – but our military (with decisive help from local Iraqis) prevented them from doing so. A great sandstorm, the kind that had foiled President Carter’s hostage rescue in Iran, was endured without major problem. Most of the Iraqi infrastructure was preserved, so the post war recovery could proceed at a slow but measurable pace. These successes were due, in part, to the speed of the invasion. Despite the problems of the rapid pace, I know nobody who thinks we should have gone slower on purpose, as did McClellan in the Civil War.

Some say the military is always fighting the last war. That is not my impression. Our armed services do a better job of learning from their mistakes than any other large organization I know. I wish that the rest of government, and scientific establishments, could learn with similar speed. We are far from mastering the new kind of urban war in which we do battle in the midst of innocents and demand extremely low collateral damage. We are learning as we go. Our strength is enormous -- but, just as in biological evolution, it is often more important to be adaptable than to be strong.




Richard A. Muller, a 1982 MacArthur Fellow, is a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches a course called “Physics for Future Presidents.” Since 1972, he has been a Jason consultant on U.S. national security.