The largest counterattack of the Iraq War unfolded in the early-morning hours of April 3, 2003, near a key Euphrates River bridge about 30 kilometers southwest of Baghdad, code-named Objective Peach. The battle was a fairly conventional fight between tanks and other armored vehicles – almost a throwback to an earlier era of war fighting, especially when viewed against the bloody chaos of the subsequent insurgency. Its scale made it the single biggest test to date of the Pentagon’s initial attempts to transform the military into a smaller, smarter, sensor-dependent, networked force.
In theory, the size of the Iraqi attack should have been clear well in advance. U.S. troops were supported by unprecedented technology deployment. During the war, hundreds of aircraft- and satellite-mounted motion sensors, heat detectors, and image and communications eavesdroppers hovered above Iraq. The four armed services coordinated their actions as never before. U.S. commanders in Qatar and Kuwait enjoyed 42 times the bandwidth available to their counterparts in the first Gulf War. High-bandwidth links were set up for intelligence units in the field. A new vehicle-tracking system marked the location of key U.S. fighting units and even allowed text e-mails to reach front-line tanks. This digital firepower convinced many in the Pentagon that the war could be fought with a far smaller force than the one it expected to encounter.
Yet at Objective Peach, Lt. Col. Ernest “Rock” Marcone, a battalion commander with the 69th Armor of the Third Infantry Division, was almost devoid of information about Iraqi strength or position. “I would argue that I was the intelligence-gathering device for my higher headquarters,” Marcone says. His unit was at the very tip of the U.S. Army’s final lunge north toward Baghdad; the marines advanced on a parallel front. Objective Peach offered a direct approach to the Saddam International Airport (since rechristened Baghdad International Airport). “Next to the fall of Baghdad,” says Marcone, “that bridge was the most important piece of terrain in the theater, and no one can tell me what’s defending it. Not how many troops, what units, what tanks, anything. There is zero information getting to me. Someone may have known above me, but the information didn’t get to me on the ground.” Marcone’s men were ambushed repeatedly on the approach to the bridge. But the scale of the intelligence deficit was clear after Marcone took the bridge on April 2.
As night fell, the situation grew threatening. Marcone arrayed his battalion in a defensive position on the far side of the bridge and awaited the arrival of bogged-down reinforcements. One communications intercept did reach him: a single Iraqi brigade was moving south from the airport. But Marcone says no sensors, no network, conveyed the far more dangerous reality, which confronted him at 3:00 a.m. April 3. He faced not one brigade but three: between 25 and 30 tanks, plus 70 to 80 armored personnel carriers, artillery, and between 5,000 and 10,000 Iraqi soldiers coming from three directions. This mass of firepower and soldiers attacked a U.S. force of 1,000 soldiers supported by just 30 tanks and 14 Bradley fighting vehicles. The Iraqi deployment was just the kind of conventional, massed force that’s easiest to detect. Yet “We got nothing until they slammed into us,” Marcone recalls.
Objective Peach was not atypical of dozens of smaller encounters in the war. Portions of a forthcoming, largely classified report on the entire Iraq campaign, under preparation by the Santa Monica, CA, think tank Rand and shared in summary with Technology Review, confirm that in this war, one key node fell off the U.S. intelligence network: the front-line troops. “What we uncovered in general in Iraq is, there appeared to be something I refer to as a ‘digital divide,’” says Walter Perry, a senior researcher at Rand’s Arlington, VA, office and a former army signals officer in Vietnam. “At the division level or above, the view of the battle space was adequate to their needs. They were getting good feeds from the sensors,” Perry says. But among front-line army commanders like Marcone – as well as his counterparts in the U.S. Marines – “Everybody said the same thing. It was a universal comment: ‘We had terrible situational awareness,’” he adds. The same verdict was delivered after the first Gulf War’s ground battle, but experts had hoped the more robust technology used in the 2003 conflict would solve the problem.
The Pentagon points to the Iraq War’s many networking successes. During the blinding sandstorm that lasted from March 25 to 28, 2003, a U.S. radar plane detected an Iraqi Republican Guard unit maneuvering near U.S. troops. Bombers moved in to attack using satellite-guided bombs that were unaffected by poor visibility. And the vehicle-tracking system (known as Blue Force Tracker) successfully ensured that commanders knew the locations of friendly units. Overall, command headquarters in Qatar and Kuwait sported “truly a very impressive digital connectivity” that “had many of the characteristics of future network warfare that we want,” Brig. Gen. Robert Cone, then director of the Pentagon’s Joint Center for Operational Analysis and Lessons Learned, said in a Pentagon briefing last year.
Yet connectivity in Qatar was matched by a data dearth in the Iraqi desert. It was a problem all the ground forces suffered. Some units outran the range of high-bandwidth communications relays. Downloads took hours. Software locked up. And the enemy was sometimes difficult to see in the first place. As the marines’ own “lessons learned” report puts it, “The [First Marine] Division found the enemy by running into them, much as forces have done since the beginning of warfare.” Describing the army’s battle at Objective Peach, John Gordon, another senior researcher at Rand and also a retired army officer, put it this way: “That’s the way it was done in 1944.”