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War with Iraq-Predictable as Chess

New technologies undergird a potential war with Saddam.
November 15, 2002

There is still a good chance we can avoid war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein has never won a war, and his military forces surely foresee their own destruction. Numerous assassination attempts by them (some involving the Republican Guard) have failed. They are likely trying again, even now. Therein lies our best hope.

What if they fail again? Then invasion by the U.S. is inevitable.

Prior to our war in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld emphasized that the imminent war would be different from what nearly everyone expected. I don’t think he knew exactly what was going to happen, but he did know that the conventional wisdom was irrelevant. He was planning to engage in “unconventional warfare,” a paradigm developed by the Special Operations Command that involves both new doctrine and new technology. Rumsfeld was right. No newspaper pundit foresaw that the Taliban would be overthrown within months using ground troops who were predominantly Muslim.

The Iraq war too will be different from what nearly everyone expects. There will be yet new doctrine and new weapons. It will not be another Desert Storm. I can’t predict the detailed course of events; I doubt that even Secretary Rumsfeld could do that. War is no more predictable than is a game of chess. Even if we know the rules and the strengths of the players, there are two sides. Early choices made by the opponent can drastically affect the course of moves as well as the outcome.

Instead, I’ll describe one plausible scenario (out of many possible) that illustrates the technologies and doctrine that I think will prove important.

My scenario begins when the U.N. inspectors become frustrated and leave Iraq. That’s the war trigger. I don’t envy the inspectors; Saddam Hussein may try to take them hostage and keep them at targeted military facilities. Their job is even more dangerous than that of the U.S. president (9.3 percent of whom have been assassinated while in office).

The initial part of the war will seem familiar: massive bombing of military and communication facilities, with the same precise bombs used in Afghanistan. All Iraqi military and public broadcast stations will soon be shut down. New ones will appear, transmitted from airplanes and new ground stations, with native Iraqi announcers. They will update the progress of the war, with an emphasis on accuracy, so that people will eagerly listen and learn to trust the announcers. They will describe Saddam’s known horrors, the U.N.’s unanimous resolution, the backing of the Arab League (if the U.S. gets it for the war too), and surrender instructions. What is said will ring true, because the military will broadcast only the truth. Truth is more effective than propaganda. That (as well as the use of native announcers) is the doctrine of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Most of our bombs will be JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions). JDAMs are dumb bombs with relatively inexpensive guidance systems attached to their backs. JDAMs use GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites to guide them to previously programmed-in locations. This technology was not ready in time for Desert Storm, but it was used extensively in Afghanistan. It was accurate and effective.

Ground troops will first invade the thinly-populated region of western Iraq-to get control of the only part of the country that puts Israel within Iraq’s Scud missile range. Israel is Saddam’s nearest civilian target of vengeance. With this initial invasion the U.S. hopes to preempt Israel’s entrance into the war.

The war might end early. I believe that Saddam is hated by most of his own people, including the military. With the Predator unmanned air attack vehicle patrolling Baghdad skies, disgruntled Iraqi troops can do more than surrender; if they know, they can tell us where Saddam is. Again, the toughest job for us is vetting such information, particularly over a clutter of disinformation generated by Saddam. He will employ numerous look-a-likes (another job more dangerous than that of the U.S. president). He will do his best to trick us into attacking a mosque or children’s hospital. I suspect he is delighted whenever the U.S. accidentally kills Iraqi civilians.

The invasion of Baghdad (if necessary) will take place on a dark night, moonless or cloud-covered. The army motto (once used exclusively by the U.S. Special Operations Forces) is now “We own the night.” Our forces not only see in the dark, they are trained to fight in the dark.

Goggles that require only starlight to give vision have been available since World War II, but now there is an entire panoply of much more advanced technology. Binoculars and gunsights can see in the far infrared (FIR) without illumination of any kind. They vividly image people from their own warmth. Far infrared surveillance cameras will fly just above the city on Predator unmanned-air vehicles. They can detect whether an automobile or tank engine is running (or has been recently running) solely from the warmth of the engine.

If you dread city warfare, perhaps based on accounts from World War II or Somalia (e.g. Black Hawk Down), recognize that it may still be bad, but in Baghdad it will be different. In a few seconds, a synthetic aperture radar carried on a Predator can take a radar image of several city blocks with a ground resolution of 30 centimeters. It looks like a sharp photo taken from directly above. The image will be delivered to the ground troops in nearly real time (we couldn’t do that in Desert Storm) using the new Joint Tactical Information Distribution System. In this city warfare, there will be fewer surprises lurking just around the corner.

When the Predator finds something interesting on radar or far infrared, it can zoom in with an optical telescope for a close look. According to the New York Times, it did this in Yemen on November 3. It (or rather, the remote pilot) fired a Hellfire missile and killed Abu Ali, the accused planner of the attack on the USS Cole. Saddam may run out of look-alikes, as the Predator spots them and kills them. Don’t be surprised if Saddam instructs all male Iraqis to grow mustaches and to dress like him.

Higher in the sky, the unmanned Global Hawk (a U-2 replacement) equipped with far infrared and Synthetic Aperture Radar (and more) will survey large areas. A Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System will locate, identify, and track most vehicles, in all weather conditions. It was used in Desert Storm, but now (as with the Predator) the information will be available to our ground troops almost instantly.

What can go wrong? Unfortunately, a lot. New technologies and new systems often fail. But my worst fear is of Saddam’s biological weapons. According to intelligence estimates, he has 7,000 liters of anthrax in readiness, over a million times the material used in the U.S. terrorist mailings. Even worse is his suspected store of smallpox virus, which (unlike anthrax) can spread through contagion around the world. He will probably save these weapons of mass destruction for the end, until he finally realizes he will lose. The U.S. already has been warning Iraqi troops to disobey any order to use such weapons, or to later be tried as war criminals. Such a warning might work. With the end near, Hitler ordered the Nazis to burn Paris, and they disobeyed.

If Saddam releases smallpox, the main victims will almost certainly be his own people and those in the under-developed world. The U.S. has advanced health care, and can distribute vaccine rapidly and treat victims effectively. But even we cannot contain smallpox. Frightened people will spread the disease as they flee contaminated regions.

Even though the moves are unpredictable, the stronger player usually wins in chess. Let me jump to the presumed end, and ask a speculative question. A few years after the war is over, which countries in the Persian Gulf region do you think will be the closest allies of the United States? I am not a political expert, but I can’t resist telling you my guess. Saudi Arabia will not be one of them. Our closest allies will be the three countries in the area that we liberated: Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Versailles and the Louvre in France, and the Hermitage in Russia, were preserved by the revolutionaries, in part to document the excesses of the Kings and Czars. Saddam’s palaces may contain weapons of mass destruction, but I hope we can avoid destroying them completely. Let us preserve as much of the palaces as we can, as monuments to Saddam’s greed and selfishness. I hope to visit one in a few years, perhaps when it is a museum.

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