Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine Grossman
March 18, 2004
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Inside the Command Center
Decision To Hasten Ground Attack Into Iraq Presented New Risks
As war plans against Saddam Hussein’s regime were finally being honed in mid-March one year ago, top U.S. commanders remained deeply divided behind the scenes over when to unleash the nearly 200,000 ground troops poised for attack along the Kuwait-Iraq border.
Earlier plans called for days or even weeks of air strikes against Iraqi leadership and military targets to precede the ground offensive, paving the way for the troops’ dash north to Baghdad, senior military officials told Inside the Pentagon during and after the war.
But as war drew closer, Army Gen. Tommy Franks – the top U.S. war commander in the region – became convinced 24 hours of intensive attacks from the air might be enough to “decapitate” the Baghdad regime and destroy Iraqi command and control, laying the groundwork for the coalition land advance, senior officials said.
Just a single day of the air campaign that Bush administration officials dubbed “shock and awe” would usher in the ground attack. Simultaneous coalition assaults from the air and ground would make the job of Iraqi defense exceedingly more difficult, commanders said.
But what appeared to the world to unfold in a smooth array of synchronized ground and air attacks actually was fraught with competing risks, commanders told ITP. A detailed look behind the scenes at a Kuwait City command center reveals top generals were making significant changes to the war plan up to the very moment combat began.
Clashing strategic and tactical aims
Over the course of a decade, the United States had already battered many military targets from the air north of the Kuwaiti border as part of Operation Southern Watch.
The region’s senior air commander, then-Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, would later reveal the Pentagon also had undertaken a conscious effort in summer 2002 to weaken Saddam’s military capability in southern Iraq with a stepped-up series of air strikes against 391 targets. Dubbed “Southern Focus,” those attacks were described after-the-fact as a quiet air campaign against Iraq months before the war debate began in the United States or at the United Nations (ITP, July 24, 2003, p1). Moseley, now a four-star general, is Air Force vice chief of staff.
But leading up to the war, Moseley became increasingly anxious he could not achieve in 24 hours all the strategic objectives he had been assigned by Franks – and ultimately President Bush – to complete before ground combat commenced, senior officials said.
Those top objectives included the planned decapitation strikes, degradation of military command and control over the Republican Guard and other fielded forces, attacks on suspected weapons of mass destruction sites, and a bid to destroy any lingering Iraqi ability to target Israel with long-range missiles from its western desert, these officials said.
The air commander “was concerned as the timing compressed . . . that he would not be able to properly address all of his responsibilities fully with limited assets,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Dan Leaf recalled earlier this month. “He was especially concerned about having his support assets spread too thin.”
As a two-star general, Leaf served as Moseley’s senior representative at the ground combat headquarters during the war.
Key air assets in short supply included spy aircraft, electronic jamming planes, tankers to refuel airborne jets and aircraft capable of attacking enemy air defense radars, Leaf told ITP.
“Some of the ‘stretching’ was geographic, not just [in terms of] multiple missions,” Leaf said. Before ground combat began, the aircraft provided support primarily for operations in central and western Iraq. Once land hostilities commenced, Moseley would have to relocate a number of them 500 miles or more south to support U.S. and British ground troops, he said.
“In a country the size of Iraq, [it was] difficult to position a KC-135 to support a fight in An Nasiriyah and another in the western desert simultaneously,” Leaf said.
After a ground campaign had begun, Moseley’s aircraft would be responsible for “establishing a sufficient degree of air superiority to enable forward positioning of [surveillance] and other support assets, destruction [or] isolation of major ground headquarters, and attrition of specific units, especially Republican Guard forces,” Leaf said.
Moseley’s strategic tasks took even higher priority over tactical air support to ground forces, Army Maj. Gen. William Webster, who served as deputy commander for ground combat operations, said in an interview last week.
With ground and air operations beginning nearly simultaneously, as Franks was contemplating, Moseley’s balancing act became tougher. The air chief was concerned ground troops might face greater risk if air support assets were spread thin, Leaf said. If air attacks against potential Scud launch sites and Iraqi leadership targets could precede the ground war by even just a few days, Moseley could then swing more assets south in support of coalition troops, the air chief’s thinking went.
When the Turkish parliament voted March 1 to bar the 4th Infantry Division’s 16,000 forces from their anticipated southward offensive, some argued a longer air campaign was needed more than ever to compensate for the weaker-than-anticipated coalition troop strength.
But ground commanders were adamant: They wanted to get on with the land attack.
Sitting ducks and threat of fire
U.S. and British ground forces were tightly massed along the border, potentially making them sitting ducks for artillery or missile attack. Generals at the Army-dominated ground command center were on razor’s edge, believing Iraqi forces had the capacity to dispatch chemical or biological weapons with little or no notice. And they were closely watching Iraq’s Rumaila oil fields just over the border, alert to any sign Saddam might order these facilities torched as he had during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
After President Bush delivered his final ultimatum to Iraq’s governing regime on March 17, 2003 – “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours” – another option moved to the fore. Army generals leading the Coalition Force Land Component Command at Camp Doha, Kuwait, began discussing how “G-Day” – the start of the ground advance – might actually be moved up by one day, senior officials told ITP.
“There were two very important strategic objectives, literally more than 500 kilometers apart,” said Webster, interviewed March 21, 2003, in his office just off the war room at Camp Doha. Those were removing Saddam’s Baghdad-centered regime and securing the oil fields, he said. The most valuable fields were in the south at Rumaila, with about 500 wells capable of producing several million barrels of crude oil a day, according to experts.
“What we didn’t want to have happen is him run in there and destroy that whole oil infrastructure, and then we’ve got an economic and environmental disaster,” Army Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, who served as assistant chief of staff for ground combat operations during the war, told ITP in an interview this week.
At the same time, the artillery threat – potentially carrying a deadly payload – particularly worried Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. ground commander.
In a teleconference with his forces on the morning of March 20, McKiernan asked how many times coalition forces along the border had been painted by Iraqi radar. “I need to know if he’s looking to fire artillery,” the ground commander said.
McKiernan’s deputies pressed to get the Iraqi artillery positions hit by aircraft still patrolling the southern “no-fly-zone” over Iraq. The rules of engagement for Operation Southern Watch generally limited attacks to targets in the Iraqi air defense system, unless special permission was granted, officials say.
But in the days leading up to the war, ground commanders sought to use the longtime overflights for an urgent new purpose: striking Iraqi artillery systems within range of U.S. and British troops, senior officials said.
Air commanders held off on hitting artillery with Operation Southern Watch aircraft until March 19, when other initial hostile operations quietly began inside Iraq, military officials said.
“It’s a sensitivity [about] not [triggering] a war until diplomatic options run their course,” said one air officer.
Getting on the move
Still uneasy about the potential ground force vulnerability to Iraqi artillery and missiles, land commanders were eager to get the troops moving. But assaulting Iraq a day earlier also meant receiving less support from Moseley’s strained air assets, at least at the war’s outset.
It was a question of “how you synchronize the fight,” Thurman said. “How much of the air piece do you want to do . . . prior to putting land maneuver forces across?”
There was yet another trade-off involved in waiting longer: Seizing the oil fields and capping a large number of fires could delay the Army V Corps and I Marine Expeditionary Force advance north to Baghdad to seize the capital, Webster said.
The ground commanders, led by McKiernan, prepared for a number of alternatives. They sharpened their plan for forces to be ready to cross the border on a moment’s notice, up to 24 hours earlier than officially planned. But for the time being, the standing plan for G-Day would remain Saturday, March 22, at 6 a.m. local time.
As war drew nearer, “early oil field seizure” became one of Franks’ top wartime priorities, military officials said. McKiernan – known for his serious and direct command style – prodded the acceleration plan closer to implementation, officials said.
“You need to go lightning quick so [Saddam] doesn’t have time to set off explosives,” Webster said. In military terms, tactical surprise and speed in achieving the oil field objective were becoming paramount.
But planning the relative timing of the air strikes and ground attacks was a complex balancing act, affected from day-to-day by a running estimate of threat conditions in Iraq, competition between key objectives, and time available, military sources said.
Facing conflicting objectives, the Marine and Army corps commanders had been earlier told to be prepared to go either to Baghdad quickly or to the oil fields quickly, Webster said last March. “Now,” he said, “we’re trying to do both.”
On March 17, McKiernan assigned the task of capturing the Rumaila oil fields to the Marine expeditionary force. As of the next day, the Marines would be expected to be capable of seizing the oil fields with just four hours’ notice, if so ordered, according to military sources.
The war commanders worked the alternative date for launching ground combat in the strictest secrecy, not only to retain an element of military surprise but also out of deference to the ongoing political and diplomatic process, Webster said.
In the days leading up to combat, air and ground forces launched initial reconnaissance probes with a very low profile “so we wouldn’t look like we were hellbent on war,” Webster said.
First acts of war
On the 18th, McKiernan’s command directed V Corps and the Marine force to complete a “relief in place” for Kuwaiti border guards no later than 1 p.m. the following day, according to military officials.
“The next 48 hours will be a historic point for this coalition and this region,” McKiernan told his ground forces in a March 18 teleconference. “Now is the time for you to commit yourself physically and mentally to that operational order coming,” he said, noting the same focus was required regardless of rank.
The very first acts of war were carried out in secrecy, and even now, few details are publicly known.
The war actually began Wednesday, March 19, with a series of covert special operations inside western Iraq aimed at destroying any remaining capability Saddam retained to launch Scud missiles at Israel, senior officials told ITP. There was deep concern among the U.S. leadership that Saddam would seek to draw Israel into the war, lobbing missiles at Tel Aviv, Haifa and other towns as he had done 40 times in 1991.
Early the same day, coalition forces spotted the first oil well fires – three of them at the Rumaila fields, Webster said. The revelation prompted a renewed sense of determination among the war commanders that they should move G-Day to Friday, March 21, he said.
That was the same day the air war was to begin with 24 hours of missiles and bombs, envisioned as knocking out Saddam and his top 55 lieutenants. Whereas the first day of overt war was earlier imagined as late-evening “shock and awe” raining in from the darkness, the first television pictures would now feature legions of ground troops cutting through tank berms in northern Kuwait 13 hours earlier.
But there were still tensions between the air and ground commands, each deeply committed to their own assigned tasks. Ground leaders credit Leaf’s “air component coordination element” at the ground combat headquarters with playing a key role in resolving the matter. The two-star general became a conduit for dialogue between McKiernan, at Camp Doha, and Moseley, whose air command center was at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia.
“We had lots of healthy discussion” about the trade-offs, Webster said late last week.
“Discussion at lower levels began in a typically parochial tone” at both the ground and air command centers, Leaf told ITP. Airmen and ground troops have traditionally trained and fought in almost separate spheres, with limited contact between them. Over time, that has led to some serious misunderstandings, defense officials and experts say.
But before the war began, Moseley and McKiernan had agreed to keep the lines of communication open between them.
Moseley “told us before we started the war: ‘If it was a CFLCC target, it was a CFACC target,’” said Thurman, referring to the military acronyms for the land and air commands, respectively.
In the debate over G-Day timing, Leaf sought to ensure the ground commanders “understood the risk and the airman’s perspective,” he said.
An exchange over the course of several days offered ground leaders “realistic expectations” of what air could provide under the circumstances and “helped limit emotionalism,” Leaf said.
Negotiating an accord
The issue with perhaps the greatest potential to sow differences between the two services was how much close air support Moseley’s jets could provide in the opening days. The Air Force and Army had clashed over air support in Afghanistan in 2002, and vowed to do things differently the next time around (ITP, Oct. 3, 2002, p1). Now they were suddenly at risk of scraping a wound that was just beginning to heal.
“Conducting [close air support] is the most difficult command-and-control-intensive task an air component faces,” Leaf said. “Doing that very early in a conflict increases the degree of difficulty.”
“Our plan was to allow [Moseley’s aircraft] to work in front of us, to go ahead and destroy as many of those [Iraqi armor] targets up front as he possibly could,” Thurman said. “But he’s got to balance what the theater commander’s asking him to do [with] what he allocates to the land component commander.”
Leaf and Webster emerged with a detailed air support plan for McKiernan, the ground deputy said in a March 12 telephone interview from his new command at Ft. Stewart, GA. Ultimately that accord was passed up to Franks as a recommendation.
In the plan, Moseley and McKiernan shared the risk of compressed timing in which air and ground operations were launched on the same day, senior officials say. Moseley accepted a shorter time period for conducting strategic strikes – as well as for establishing “air superiority” over Iraq – before turning more fully to close air support for ground troops. McKiernan accepted that he would not have all the close air support sorties he would have liked during the initial days of the ground fight, these officials say.
“The basic elements of the plan remained intact [but] the time lines changed,” Leaf told ITP. “For example, given the need to support ground operations earlier in the war, it was expected to take longer to accomplish the destruction of regime [or] strategic targets.” Ultimately, Saddam’s regime collapsed before the full array of targets could be struck, he said.
A decision was made. Just after 9 a.m. local time on March 19, Franks issued a “fragmentary order” to the ground component headquarters to “be prepared” to seize the southern oil fields and associated infrastructure on March 21, according to military sources. By the next morning, the presumptive date for land attack had moved back from Saturday the 22nd to Friday the 21st, senior officials said.
A surprise intelligence tip would change the war plans yet again. CIA chief George Tenet reportedly brought to the White House a location where Saddam was believed to be staying that night. At around 5:30 a.m. local time on March 20, a barrage of 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles hit Dora Farm, where Saddam’s daughters lived. This was the surprising opening salvo of the war the world would remember, though the Iraqi leader was not there.
Crossing the line
Franks’ official order for U.S. and British troops to cross the Iraqi border arrived at the ground combat command around noon local time on March 20. Later that day, at about 8:30 p.m. local time, the first coalition air and ground reconnaissance elements crossed the Iraqi border, Webster said.
At about 6 a.m. local time the next morning, on March 21, coalition ground forces crossed the border en masse, Webster said. And around 9 p.m. on the evening of March 21, the first bombs and missiles were lobbed against more than 1,300 aim points in Iraq as the air campaign began in earnest.
For those in Washington or New York, the ground war began about 10 p.m. on March 20, 2003, and the air attacks commenced about 1 p.m. the next day.
“It turned out to be a strategic surprise” when coalition forces crossed the line, Webster said last week. “That was expected but it turned out far better than we thought.” The balancing act, he said, turned out “fine.”
On the air side, the trade-offs Moseley struck in assigning sorties between the competing priorities “turned out to be sufficient,” Leaf said this week. “The initial ground attack went very well, the Iraqi air force did not fly, and there weren’t any other major surprises that further stretched air assets.”
“Good hunting to everybody,” McKiernan told ground forces in a teleconference on the eve of war. “Operation Iraqi Freedom is ongoing. There’s no finer warfighting force anywhere in the world than we have right now.”
– Elaine M. Grossman
Editor’s Note: This piece is the first in a series of periodic Inside the Command Center articles on the 2003 war in Iraq. The author spent six weeks of the war as an “embedded reporter” at the Coalition Force Land Component Command headquarters at Camp Doha, Kuwait.