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OCTOBER 30, 2007

MRAPs, A-10s, Personal Radios and How Genuinely “Supporting the Troops” would mean recognizing that Iraq is a real war.

There is real war and then there is “war” — the politician’s overwrought metaphor. The best-known examples of the latter are the “war on drugs” and “war on poverty”: Campaigns that were inherently open-ended and unwinnable, and which never commanded the resources of the nation’s real wars. One reason that we have not been as successful as we could and should have been, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is that top officials in the Pentagon and the White House have not treated these conflicts like real wars — with all the seriousness that a real war entails.

One can see this in the persistent failure to purge senior officers who tick all the boxes for peacetime command, but who lack what it takes to be battlefield leaders in a counterinsurgency war; Generals Abizaid and Sanchez, for example, should never have been in charge of our overall effort in Iraq. Abu Ghraib’s General Janet Karpinski apparently remained in command because politically correct Pentagon officials were more worried about removing the most senior female officer in Iraq, than about the mission she was failing to carry out. By contrast, in World War II, after defeats like Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, the U.S. military generally snapped out of its pre-war complacency and started to look for and promote genuinely able war-fighters (Patton and Eisenhower were both mere colonels in 1940 and John Gavin was only a captain). This process is only just beginning six years into the War on Terror.

One can also detect a failure to treat the war as a real war, in the apparent inability of the U.S. government and military to explain to the American (and Iraqi) people what American troops actually do in Iraq. Even worse is the failure to publicize in a wholehearted and convincing way their genuine successes. This is a public-relations self-inflicted wound with strategic implications: It has ceded the information warfare initiative to the enemy in Iraq, and to the anti-war movement at home.

Similar complacency is revealed by the ingratitude shown to America’s allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. You might expect the mainstream media to ignore the presence of some 30 allied forces in Iraq in order to promote the narrative of “unilateralism”; you don’t, however, expect the U.S. government to fail to publicize that presence. Nor would a government that is serious about winning “the long war” screw Coalition partners when it comes to divvying up the contracting pie. Yet that is exactly what the Bush administration, the CPA and the Defense Department have done.

(The governments of small countries like Denmark and the Netherlands and of poor countries like Poland, Macedonia, and Georgia have done the right thing by America and sent their men into the cauldron — only to see companies from France given major contracts. In the case of Georgia, which has deployed real combat troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has returned the new republic’s loyalty by failing to back it up against Russian aggression. And when Tony Blair was asked what economic benefit U.K. companies had gained from British participation in Iraqi construction, he could cite only two sizeable contracts. )

But perhaps you can see this lack of seriousness about the war most starkly in the way Pentagon brass spends or doesn’t spend money on personnel and equipment, the way the standard peacetime pork barrel games go on being played even though there are real lives at stake. A government that is serious about the war would snap out of business-as-usual/casual corruption mode to ensure that its forces have the weapons and vehicles they need to do their job. It would not continue to buy shiny toys designed for wars that top brass would like to fight.

It is bad enough that our troops — of whom we plainly don’t have enough — are grossly underpaid at a time when we need to provide every possible incentive to retain experienced people in the armed services. They are also subject to unnecessary physical risk. A military establishment that was serious about protecting its invaluable human assets would be seriously reconsidering the Stryker program, and would have long ago have replaced even its up-armored Humvees with Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) like the Israeli Wolf or the South African Mamba. Contrary to oft-repeated myth, the South African vehicle is available off the shelf for the same price as an up-armored Humvee. Indeed, last year the Swedish Army bought fewer than 200 of them for approximately $150,000 each.

 

 

A military establishment on a genuine, serious war footing would also be working harder to ensure that we have an enough air cover in Iraq to make up for our lack of ground troops, and to maintain control of battlespace liberated from insurgents. Too often in Iraq we have failed to use our domination of the skies to deprive the enemy of freedom of movement simply because we don’t have enough aircraft of the right kind. The main supply routes along which our convoys our travel, and which have been attacked thousands of times, should be under constant aerial surveillance. They are not, because the USAF lacks the appropriate aircraft to carry out this task. Worse, it refuses to buy such planes, and battles in Washington to make sure that the Army is not able to field its own fixed wing aircraft for close air support and forward air control. Millions have been spent on researching technological countermeasures to IEDs; much of it would be better spent on aircraft (helicopters, propeller planes with long loiter times, even blimps) that would spot the men planting the bombs on the highway.

 

For that matter, if the Air Force’s leadership were willing to live up to its patriotic responsibilities, it would be ordering a sensible successor to the A-10 Warthog. This, the most effective aircraft in the War on Terror, is flown primarily by National Guardsmen and loathed by fighter-jock AF generals because it’s ugly, slow, unglamorous, and designed specifically to support ground forces. Indeed the USAF tried to get rid of it after the first Gulf War, and only grudgingly changed its collective mind when the Army threatened to break its traditional agreement not to field fixed wing aircraft.

 

The A-10 is due to be replaced not by another rugged, highly survivable ground attack aircraft specifically designed for close air support, but by a version of the fabulously expensive and delicate F35 fighter. This has the same disadvantages as the F16s and F18s that have been responsible for so many friendly fire casualties and civilian deaths — it can’t fly slowly enough to see what’s happening on the ground, it burns up too much fuel to loiter long around the battlefield, and it’s too valuable to fly low and in range of enemy guns and missiles.

 

Meanwhile, down on the ground, G.I.s patrolling Iraqi cities should long ago have been issued personal radios like British troops have.

Personal radios enable a squad to split up and patrol down parallel streets, to let each other know when they see trouble ahead or behind, and to do so without shouting and therefore giving away their own positions. It’s a relatively cheap piece of equipment – used already by U.S. Special Forces – that could have saved hundreds of American troops from death or injury.

 

It is true, as Donald Rumsfeld said, that you go to war with the equipment you have. But we have now been fighting the Iraq war for four years.That is more than enough time for Pentagon officials to realize that foot patrols in dangerous urban areas are something that soldiers are going to have to do, in Iraq and elsewhere, if America is to have a chance of winning the “war on terror.”

 

Finally there’s the question of personal weapons. When I was first in Baghdad in the spring and early summer of 2003, the troops with whom I was embedded found several large arms caches. They contained, among other modern weapons, crates of Heckler and Koch MP5 sub machine guns. These are the weapons you see used by SWAT teams on TV and in the arms of elite units everywhere. The troops grabbed them, and used them for several weeks before they were forced to hand them over for the use of Iraqi security forces. The reason they were so keen wasn’t just because the H&Ks are accurate, reliable, and associated with “high speed” special forces. It was because unlike the G.I.s’ standard issue M16s and M4s, the H&K is ideal for the tight spaces of urban warfare – staircases, corridors, alleyways. Moreover they can be fired from inside an armored humvee or other vehicle without hitting a crew member in the face.Unfortunately this is not a factor that counts for much in a military-industrial bureaucracy awash in high tech, peacetime fantasies of networked warfare, and oblivious to the practicalities of fighting in hot dusty places, where reliance on sensitive electronic equipment can be deadly.

It is all very well to call on politicians to “support the troops.” The Pentagon should do likewise.

 

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