How the U.S. Army Triumphed in the Iraq War Mechanized Backbone

Even before the fighting in Iraq had stopped the military were already analyzing the performance of their weapons systems. The German Bundeswehr (Army) also wants to learn from the successes of the Allies.

The images coming out of Baghdad in the year 2003 remind experienced observers of Berlin in 1945. Tanks and armored vehicles thundered through the streets of the Iraqi capital, and infantry soldiers on foot combed through front yards and bombed-out houses.

The idea of quick and wide-ranging advances also seemed historically familiar to the German military officers attentively watching the distant fighting on television. They know from their history books that the first massive joint deployment of tanks and airplanes took place in August 1918 when the British and French surprised their German opponents with 500 tanks and 1,000 airplanes —leading to a turning point in the positional trench warfare of the First World War.

In 1940 German Wehrmacht General Heinz Guderian perfected this tactic in the “Blitzkrieg” against France. Accompanied by massive air force attacks, the German army advanced with its tanks in a “battle of combined arms” some 62 miles into enemy territory in only 48 hours.

The German method of attack marked a revolution in military deployment. In the 2003 war the Third Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, with its Abrams tanks and Bradley armored vehicles, covered the 300 miles from Kuwait to the gates of Baghdad in just about two weeks.

But the troops could only maintain their momentum thanks to the total air supremacy of the Allies and meager Iraqi opposition. Because of the superiority of the Allied fighter jets stationed in neighboring countries and on aircraft carriers, not a single Iraqi interceptor took off to challenge them.

Tomahawk cruise missiles as well as satellite or laser-guided glider bombs rained down on airports, command headquarters, radar and air defense units and almost all the government buildings in Baghdad, while Saddam’s army, for the most part, remained respectfully under cover. Their fear was too great: hundreds of Apache and Cobra helicopters armed with Hellfire rockets and cannons as well as A-10 ‘Warthog’ jets circling steadily over the battlefield, firing their notorious armor-piercing grenades with a nucleus of spent uranium from their 30-mm aircraft guns.

While U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised the electronic linking of high-tech weapons systems on water, land, and in the air as the new “Revolution of Military Affairs,” the weapons used in the ground fighting seemed pretty old. Actually most of them date back to the Cold War era, when millions of NATO troops and Warsaw Pact forces still confronted each other in Germany.

The U.S. Abrams tanks and Bradley armored fighting vehicles have their counterparts in the German Army’s Leopard 2 and Marder which are also developments dating to the seventies. The 63-ton Abrams (officially, M1A2) and the Leo 2 have the same 120 mm smooth barrel cannon made by the German weapons maker Rheinmetall. It is manufactured by the Americans under a license agreement.

German experts were proud that, in Sweden or in Turkey for example, their “Leo” always came out better in tests than the U.S. tank — primarily a difference in fuel consumption. The Abrams has to lug almost 500 gallons of fuel for the thirsty gas turbines that propel it, and it has to ‘fill up’ more often than a “Leo” which can travel 300 miles on 300 gallons of Diesel fuel.

On the other hand, German infantrymen become envious when their armored fighting vehicles are compared – because of the guns they carry. The Bushmaster gun of the Bradley vehicles, which together with the Abrams tanks went on reconnaissance trips into Baghdad, has a caliber of 25 mm — and consequently it obviously has a bigger bang than the elderly 20-mm gun of the Marder.

The television pictures from Baghdad — as the Balkan operations of the Bundeswehr had already proved to German Army Chief of Staff Gert Gudera — confirmed that the heavy armored vehicles still have a future. The Army, the general said, continues to require a “mechanized backbone” suited to “fighting with combined arms” even if it no longer suits the needs of national defense in the North German lowlands.

At the end of the Cold War the German Army had at least 4,000 battle tanks. In the future, says Defense Minister Peter Struck, there will only be about 800, and that includes the reserves stored in depots. Shortly after taking office last July, while the tank lobby cheered, he ordered a new fighting vehicle, nicknamed “Igel” (Hedgehog), to replace the Marder.

The artillery weapons with which the GIs fought in the Gulf were no less ancient than their tanks. The U.S. guns drawn by trucks are comparable to the German “Field Howitzer 70”; the German Army still has almost 500 of the ca. 30-ton giant armored howitzers of the M109 type rattling along on tracks. Full of pride in his weapons, Gudera says of the new German “tank howitzer 2000”: “We have the best artillery in the world.” The army has just obtained 185 of these at a cost of 500 million Euros.

There is a cynical saying about the infantry: Artillery knows neither friend nor foe, but only “worthwhile targets.” In Iraq, too, as in all previous wars they fired on their own forces. The military call it “friendly fire.” But in contrast to the heavy artillery situation, minor revolutions have taken place in the development of shells and short-range rockets since the 1991 Gulf War. The U.S. now has “smart” missiles that can scan the terrain for vehicles and other war equipment while in flight, and can adjust their trajectory to hit a tank from the air.

The multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), which the Germans also purchased in the eighties, is used by the Americans as a surface-to-surface precision weapon. Older MLRS rockets can fly a distance of about 20 miles. Fired in series of six, they each pour 644 treacherous fragmentation bombs or mines on “soft targets” — human beings as well as groups of vehicles, airports, or barracks.

A newer version, the TACMS, short for Tactical Missile System, has a range of 45 to 200 miles and is equipped with GPS-guided warheads that can destroy pinpoint targets like anti-aircraft defenses and command posts, and can even get a fix on movable objects such as Scud missile launchers. Cruise missiles, bombs, and grenades, however, don’t cause much more than destruction — and wear down an opponent. Nor are tanks alone enough to occupy cities and villages. What you have to add to that are “boots on the ground,” as former NATO Commander-in-Chief Wesley Clark determined in the1999 Kosovo war, which was waged primarily from the air. Only the infantry can search houses or clean out pockets of resistance.

The spearhead of the U.S. infantry marched into Baghdad with equipment German armored troops can only dream of: night-vision systems as well as helmets with radio facilities including a microphone at mouth-level. It makes it possible for a group of soldiers to keep in touch and issue commands in a whisper. Telltale shouting of commands is no longer necessary.

With their M4 rifles, an improvement over the standard M16 rifles, GIs can see around house corners — and thus shoot around a corner. An infrared imaging system with a removable targeting lens makes this possible. A laser targeting system assures increased accuracy.

“In an exchange of fire whoever takes aim more quickly and hits the target more accurately will win the battle” — every German recruit knows this from the old army service manual. Under the slogan, “Infantryman of the Future” the German Army is also planning to purchase all sorts of expensive high-tech equipment — precisely those same night vision systems and GPS receivers together with electronic mapping for better orientation and laser targeting systems for the new automatic G36 rifle. But for the time being, because Struck has no money left in his budget, only the Regensburg Division for Special Operations (DSO) can expect to get the new equipment.

Special forces like that played an extraordinary role in Iraq. The U.S. and British Special Forces captured several airports in the west and in the north of the country, occupied oilfields, and successfully spotted enemy positions in Baghdad.

The German Army is learning its first lessons: Commander-in-Chief Wolfgang Schneiderhan is considering whether a second DSO could be formed from paratrooper units and mountain infantrymen — at the expense of armored troops.

The Special Forces however require “extensive support,” says former army chief Helmut Willmann. He is considered the “inventor” of the DSO and the “Kommandos Spezialkräfte” (KSK) in Calw, Würtenberg: “efficient transport helicopters, readily available battle helicopters as well as air combat forces with precision and long-distance weapons and secure data connections in a integrated combat field.”

This is nothing new. But “the German Army could not make any of these available,” the former general believes.


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