In the Iraqi Freedom conflict, network-centric warfare concepts were not an option for the warriors at the front. Maneuver warfare techniques—as used by Major General James Mattis, here defining for the First Marine Division each unit's role in the campaign—were what built success.
Retired Marine Major General Ray Smith and I accompanied the First Marine Division (1stMarDiv) to write a book about its fight from Kuwait to Baghdad. Over the course of 1,100 kilometers we shifted among 18 units that engaged in combat on 16 days. Most officers will participate in major theater wars only a few times in their careers. When a once-in-a-decade war such as Iraqi Freedom occurs, it is wise to compare the operational experience with written theories such as network-centric warfare.
The I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) was comprised of a logistics support group, an air wing, and three major ground maneuver units: 1stMarDiv, a separate brigade-size force from the Second Marine Division called Task Force Tarawa, and British units totaling more than a division. All Marine units were a mixture of active-duty and reserve forces. Task Force Tarawa and the British were assigned to control the south of Iraq, while the 1stMarDiv marched on Baghdad. As things turned out, either the Army's Fifth Corps (the main effort) or I MEF (the supporting effort) could have taken Baghdad alone, such was the traumatizing effect on the Iraqi military of tactical air and the Abrams tank.
Under Central Command's direction, 1stMarDiv had been preparing to attack Saddam's forces for years. The planning inside the division had the advantage of exceptional continuity. One division commander, General Michael Hagee, became Commandant; the next commander, Lieutenant General James Conway, became the MEF commander; and the next commander, Major General James Mattis, led the division in Iraqi Freedom, secure in the knowledge that Generals Hagee and Conway knew exactly what he intended to do, as they had helped design the plan.
The plan was the first major test of the maneuver warfare doctrine, designed for commanders to defeat an enemy by clever movement rather than by brute force that relied on two-sided attrition. Although Desert Storm in 1991 applied the doctrine at the then-commander-in-chief level, the Marines still had attacked along a small front in their constrained area of operations, with scant opportunity to maneuver. As the supporting effort in Iraqi Freedom, the MEF by design confronted more Iraqi divisions than did the Army. The MEF was supposed to draw off Iraqi forces so that Army Fifth Corps could get to Baghdad faster and with less opposition.
There were six Iraqi divisions guarding the area assigned to the Marines, stretching roughly from the Euphrates River east to the Iranian border. Because the traditional invasion route followed the Tigris River northwesterly from Basra to Baghdad, Saddam had four divisions stacked along that route, with a fifth in the southern Rumalia oil fields and a sixth near Baghdad. The war began after only a few hours of aerial bombing, with 1stMarDiv seizing the oil fields before Saddam could torch them. When the division attacked the Basra airport, Iraqi commanders were convinced that was the opening move in an offensive that would follow the historical path up the Tigris.
After a day's fighting, however, General Mattis suddenly shifted the division 100 kilometers to the west and attacked up two highways between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Previously a vast swamp harboring Shiites who were opposed to the Baath Party, the area had been drained by Saddam following the Shiite uprising after Desert Storm. The spongy ground could not support the weight of armor and was left relatively undefended. General Mattis advanced three regimental combat teams, each with about 1,000 vehicles, in a 100-kilometer single file up two highways, one so rickety each bridge had to be tested before a tank rolled across. This stratagem got off to a rocky start at Nasariah, where Private First Class Jessica Lynch was captured amid confusion, uncertainty, and substantial casualties, compounded by losses from friendly air. The passage through Nasariah proved to be the roughest spot in the war for the MEF and it set back the timetable for one regimental combat team by a full day.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR
Colonel Joe Dunford (left), commander of the Fifth Regimental Combat Team in Iraqi Freedom, directs troops from the front; General Mattis also used basic communications modes in what has been called a "colonels' war."
The other two teams had charged ahead and in a few days all three were ready to sprint to Baghdad. Two regimental combat teams were poised on Highway One, which led to Baghdad, and the Iraqis had deployed a division to block the road. Again, General Mattis employed maneuver warfare, sending the regiments east along a side road and crossing the Tigris at a spot between the artillery fans of the two Iraqi divisions defending on the east side of the Tigris. Once across the river, General Mattis sent two battalions south to attack the Republican Guard division at al Kut from an unexpected direction. At the same time, he ordered the Fifth Marine Regiment to attack up Route Six straight toward Baghdad. After a spectacular "run and gun" tank charge of 110 kilometers in two days, General Mattis had his division poised at the Baghdad Bridge.
Instead of to seize the city, the verbal order from the Coalition Forces Land Component Commander (CFLCC) was to conduct raids into Baghdad. This was prudent for the Army's Fifth Corps to the west, which had tanks but few infantry. With tanks and perhaps four times as many infantry (6,000 dismounted riflemen), however, raids back and forth across a war-damaged bridge did not make sense to I MEF and 1stMarDiv. The Marines had come to Baghdad to seize and liberate it, not to lay siege to it. So the MEF divided East Baghdad into 36 zones, designated "targets of interest" in each zone, and sent the three regiments across the bridge with orders to "raid" from one target to the next until they occupied all the zones.
Several observations follow from this short recapitulation of the march up to Baghdad. First, maneuver warfare was conducted by issuing mission-type orders, under which the commander states why a mission is to be accomplished but does not dictate how the mission is to be carried out tactically. Before the war, General Mattis had shared his plan with the entire division; every Marine knew the basic scheme and the intent. In prewar meetings, the three regimental commanders repeatedly went over their routes and objectives. Once the war got rolling, each regimental commander operated on his own; General Mattis or his deputy, Brigadier General John Kelly, would drop in on a regiment every two days or so. The battalions were equally independent. The distances were too vast, helicopter availability at the distant fronts too scarce, and the queues on the few roads too long for centralized control.
Desert Storm in 1991 was described as the "generals' war" because on the open desert, the generals were at the head of their intact divisions, deciding on each objective. Iraqi Freedom was a "colonels' war"; the regimental and battalion commanders were the key decision makers. Each night every battalion would "coil" separately, and each battalion commander and sergeant major visited with all key subordinates inside the lines. Conversely, the war did not lend itself to small-unit initiative by captains, lieutenants, and sergeants. Patrolling was limited to security missions, and in the major firefights in the open terrain, the battalion commanders could direct the movements of their companies.
In Iraqi Freedom, 1stMarDiv employed maneuver warfare under decentralized control in accord with mission-type orders. Network-centric warfare, on the other hand, means that digital pipes enable the key players at all levels of command in a battle to share information in near-real time, resulting in faster and better-informed decisions. To some, the frame of reference implied is that of fighting the ship: a set of subordinate officers has explicit responsibilities and reports relevant data, perhaps by digital connection, to a commanding officer, who makes the critical decisions.
The problem, or perhaps the blessing, in Iraqi Freedom is that the fighters on the ground were disconnected from network-centric command and control, which is based on digital connectivity. The Marine program to employ FM-based radios, with relays to report digitally the location of units, failed. What worked was the Army blue force tracker, a vehicle-mounted digital satellite communications (satcom) system that showed the location of all units on the net and allowed text messages. The Marines did not have many of these, though.
Voice, not digital data, was the essential tool in the division for command and control. The battalions in each regiment were connected by voice radio, with the backbone from battalion down being the PRC-119 radio, which works well for short distances. On the move, the distances were such that often the satcom cell phone was the link from battalion to regiment to division. Once the battle got rolling, 1stMarDiv received scant exploitable intelligence from outside the division. The division commander was issuing verbal mission orders, and the regiments were executing so quickly that the senior staffs at MEF and CFLCC, sending operational guidance plans via written (digital) format, were a day or two behind the battle. From the perspective of those in the division fighting the battles, the senior staffs with their laptops, e-mail, and other accoutrements of digital network centricity were self-licking ice cream cones: they did not add value inside the division's zone of operations.
This is not an argument for Luddite revisionism. Digital connectivities were the communications backbone for coordinating fires beyond the fire support coordination line. The MEF was shaping the battlefield in front of the division, a task made much easier by digital connections. After the war, when the division transitioned to stability operations, digital connectivities from the division to battalions with headquarters in five cities 50-100 kilometers away played a key role.
Network centricity, however, is of limited utility in a ground war until there is digital connectivity down to at least the rifle company and individual combat patrol. The Army's blue force tracker points the way toward all vehicle locations being shared digitally, as well as succinct reporting by text, and voice radio is the primary link among the fighters in those vehicles during engagements.
If senior joint and corps-level staffs keep their hands off the battlefield and issue only brief mission-type orders, then the size and the communications budgets of those staffs can be reduced. Too much network-centric digital money goes to senior headquarters while the fighters struggle with voice radios. Full fielding for a "dismounted" rifleman to carry a lightweight digital device with acceptable battery endurance is years away and very expensive. Until it is deployed, ground warfare will feature two distinct communications paths: voice at the battalion level and below, where the fight takes place, and digital plus voice at the division level and above.
Even with digital connectivity down to the fighting level, the concept of network centricity is suspect if the underlying model envisions all stations reporting so the captain can fight the ship. The wisdom of flowing information from higher-level intelligence assets to a central fusion center and then down to the tactical units is questionable. Of the four critical junctures faced by 1stMarDiv in Iraqi Freedom, better digital connectivity would have reduced the confusion at Nasariah, where an A-10 attacked Marine amtracs and where senior commanders had only periodic contact with their rifle companies. Network centricity would have played a minor role at the other three junctures: whether to halt in the desert, whether to charge 110 kilometers up to Baghdad, and whether to raid versus seize the city.
Maneuver warfare and mission-type orders worked. It is time to review the critical decisions made during Iraqi Freedom and ask which systems and which associated network-centric concepts would have improved which decision, at what cost, and who pays for it.
F. J. Bing West, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense, is most recently the coauthor, with Major General Ray L. Smith, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), of The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division (New York: Random House, 2003).
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