E-bombs: Boots, Bytes and Bombs
The military's new high-tech road map for taking out Saddam -- And how he might fight back
February 09, 2003
By John Barry and Evan Thomas
It's called the "E-bomb." Delivered by a cruise missile, the E-bomb is a warhead that explodes to emit a high-energy pulse that, like a bolt of lightning, will fuse any electrical equipment within range. The E-bomb has been more than a little temperamental in testing, and engineers would still like another year to work out the bugs, but on the first night of the war against Iraq, E-bombs will detonate over President Saddam Hussein's key command-and-control bunkers in and around Baghdad. If all goes according to plan, lights will blink out, computers will melt down, phones will go silent. Saddam and his lieutenants will be left shivering in silent darkness, alone and waiting to die.
The desired effect of the first night's bombing, in the expression commonly used by military planners, is "shock and awe." The overall goal of the American blitz against Iraq will be to so stun and demoralize the Iraqi Army that Saddam's forces will quickly give up. The Iraqis will realize that resistance is futile and throw down their weapons--or turn them on Saddam. In the first 48 hours of the attack, the United States armed forces are expected to rain some 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles on Iraqi air defenses, command-and-control, WMD sites and "leadership targets," which is to say they will try to kill Saddam, his sons and their closest followers.
But what if they miss? What if Saddam succeeds in going underground and fomenting a guerrilla war in the streets of Baghdad? (He is said to have several doubles; he could hang one, vanish, then come back from the dead.) What if Saddam hits back with chemical and biological weapons against American troops, Israel -- or Washington or New York? What if Saddam does not patiently await his doom but decides to strike first? "Because Saddam knows we're coming to get him this time, he will not be reluctant to use all the weapons at his disposal," says former White House national-security aide and retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, commander of U.S. Special Forces in the first gulf war.
All the more reason to strike as hard and as quick-ly as possible. The U.S. invasion force will not be at full strength until mid-March, but an earlier "rolling start" is not out of the question. President George W. Bush and his war cabinet may want to paralyze Saddam before he can hit back -- or execute some kind of Gotterdammerung strategy, burning oilfields or gassing his own people. With all the war talk and the accelerating buildup of troops and forces, America cannot hope for true surprise. Rather, the battle planners are counting on a new kind of war to oust Saddam without wrecking Iraq in the process.
It may be the first war of the Information Age. Battlefields are usually murky and chaotic. Troops get lost, orders are bungled, bombs go astray. Historically, American armies have tried to cut through the fog of war with brute force: by slowly, ponderously grinding down the enemy with overwhelming firepower. This war will be different, say the planners. They use buzzwords like simultaneity, agility and effects-based targeting. What they mean is the creation of a nimble force that can see the whole battlefield and act quickly, using its superior information and its high-precision firepower to strike deep and fast, enveloping and disabling enemy units before they can mount a coherent defense. The concepts, and the high technology to carry them out, have been in the works for some years. But they have never before been tested on such a grand scale. High-tech forces are smart, even brilliant. But they can also be fragile. Sandstorms can blind eye-in-the-sky satellites and crash helicopters, communication links can go down, and some of the new gizmos have never been battle-tested. Indeed, a runthrough for the war at Gen. Tommy Franks's new CENTCOM headquarters in Qatar last month was a blizzard of computer glitches.
Gulf War II will bear only a superficial resemblance to Gulf War I. Many of the weapons will look the same: Abrams main battle tanks, Apache helicopters, F-14, -15, -16, -18 warplanes. But look a little closer. That odd black drum poised over the rotor shaft on the Apache is a new targeting system, called a Longbow, that allows the chopper to target 16 enemy tanks at once. That extra aerial sticking up from the Abrams is for GPS -- Global Positioning System -- which allows every vehicle commander to know precisely where he is. And the bombs hanging from the warplanes are JDAMS, equipped with minicomputers and GP systems to steer themselves within, on average, 10 feet of their targets. (In Gulf War I, less than 10 percent of bombs were "smart"; in Gulf War II, old-fashioned "dumb bombs" will account for less than a tenth of payloads.)
Gulf War I "was the last of the machine-age wars," says retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who ran the Army's official history of the gulf war and, more recently, the Army's study of its future, the "Army After Next" project. The military essentially took the weapons and tactics developed during the cold war to confront the Red Army on the plains of Europe and moved them to the desert. Saddam foolishly accommodated by arraying his tanks and troops out in the open, where they could be slowly, methodically destroyed. The preparatory air war lasted 39 days, wave after wave of aging B-52s dropping dumb bombs, followed by a tank and infantry assault that would have been easily recognizable to General Patton. Indeed, the speed of the "left hook" advance to cut off Saddam's forces was a stately 10 miles an hour. Because of the usual battlefield confusion, much of Saddam's Army escaped.
Gulf War II is poised to proceed at a much more rapid pace. Ground troops are expected to jump off within three or four days of the first bombs' falling, and some Special Forces will move into Iraq sooner. The assault will more closely resemble the invasion of Panama in 1989 -- a sudden, go-for-broke "vertical envelopment" from many directions to take down the Manuel Noriega regime (it may not bode well that Noriega himself escaped and evaded a nationwide manhunt for several days). In Iraq's western desert, Special Forces will hunt for Saddam's handful of Scud launchers before they can be fired at Israel. Washington is worried that if a biological or chemical weapon hits Tel Aviv, Israel might strike back with a nuke. Fortunately, Israel's new Arrow anti-missile system is expected to work better than the vintage 1991 Patriot missiles, which were, despite initial reports, notably unsuccessful at hitting Scuds. Israel held off from retaliating in 1991, but Ariel Sharon may not be so patient this time around. A violent Israeli reaction or a prolonged war could inflame the whole region. American airborne troops and Marines will quickly seize Iraqi oilfields in the south and north before Saddam can torch them. The fear is that Saddam may decide that if he goes, Iraq goes with him.
From the outset, America will try to seize the Iraqi airwaves. Having used the E-bomb to knock out Saddam's ability to communicate with his troops and the Iraqi people, America will wage a war of psy-ops (psychological operations). Emanating from orbiting planes and high-powered transmitters, Arab-language broadcasts written by American propagandists will seek to convince the Iraqi people listening to their transistor radios that American forces have come as liberators, not as occupiers. The digital age creates possibilities for creative disinformation -- the residents of Baghdad may hear a voice that sounds very much like Saddam's, calling on them to lay down their arms and surrender. Army information specialists call this sort of psy-war onslaught "doing a Joshua" -- after the Biblical Joshua, whose mighty trumpet supposedly blew down the walls of Jericho.
The goal is not to massacre Saddam's Army. Saddam's soldiers will be told, in essence: we need you for the new Iraq; don't die for the old one. America will need a professional Army to keep order and help rebuild the country after Saddam falls; far better that those soldiers be Iraqi than American. The assumption is that Saddam's own troops hate the tyrant and that most of them are waiting to surrender. That is almost certainly true of the average Iraqi conscript, and Saddam's once elite Republican Guard may also be ready to switch sides. But Saddam has about 15,000 Special Republican Guard troops who are likely to fight. And the 3,000 or so goons who make up his Special Security Organization have little incentive to surrender. After years of brutal repression, any member of Saddam's palace guard stands to be strung up from the nearest lamppost by a vengeful Iraqi populace.
Saddam's wild card is his chemical-biological arsenal. The United States will want to bomb suspected CBW bunkers. But Colin Powell's U.N. briefing notwithstanding, it is far from clear that U.S. intelligence can find Saddam's hidden bugs and germs. And what if they are stashed in the basements of mosques and hospitals or tucked away in crowded urban areas? Saddam has reputedly authorized his field commanders to use CBW against American invaders. He would not hesitate to poison his own people (figuring, no doubt correctly, that many Arabs would blame the infidel invaders). On the road to Baghdad, an advancing American Army could be caught up in a grotesque humanitarian disaster, having to push past dying Iraqis who lack protective chem-bio suits. Saddam's commanders, it is hoped, would refuse to execute his most outrageous orders. In 1944, as the Allies closed in, Hitler demanded, "Is Paris burning?" but his subordinates refused to destroy the occupied city.
U.S. ground forces fully expect to get "slimed" (as GIs call a chemical attack) by Iraqi artillery and short-range rockets. American soldiers train to fight in protective gear, which is cumbersome and suffocatingly hot for desert fighting after about April 1. Americans train to fight at night, when it's cooler and the enemy lacks night-vision capability. Americans may be more at risk of killing each other in the dark. During Gulf War I, one in five U.S. casualties was from "friendly fire." New computerized systems are supposed to help American soldiers tell friend from foe, but the systems, like all computers, sometimes crash.
Saddam is not completely defenseless against American technology. Top Pentagon officials worry that he will try to jam the GP systems that give American soldiers such precision. The jamming devices mostly have short ranges, however, and the transmissions of more powerful ones would instantly attract American EA-6B Prowler aircraft, which would home in with HARM missiles.
Saddam's best bet is to try to pull his troops into a Fortress Baghdad and force the Americans to come and dig them out. In part to guard against a coup, Saddam has always been reluctant to mass armed forces inside the capital. Most of the Republican Guard units are spread out around the country. If those units do leave their barracks and head for Baghdad, American forces plan to pin them down and defeat them "in detail" -- one by one, before they reach the city. The classic model is Grant at Vicksburg, crushing one Confederate Army before it could join forces with another on the far side of the Mississippi.
American forces have always avoided fighting in cities if at all possible. Urban fighting is a meat grinder. Think of the Soviet vs. Nazi death clinches in Stalingrad and Berlin. Saddam has been handing out weapons to civilians, urging them to resist American invaders. Most will probably hide in their homes. But if even relatively few fight, American forces could get caught in another Mogadishu, pinned down by wild young irregulars firing Kalashnikovs, like the Rangers in "Black Hawk Down." Although the Pentagon is trying to develop clever new tools for urban fighting, like cameras that can peer around corners, city fighting would rob American forces of their high-tech edge. Precision bombs are fine when the targets are easily identifiable. Indeed, during the air bombardment of Belgrade during the Kosovo war, Serbs living in Belgrade soon learned they were safe if they stayed away from certain government buildings. But if resistance is sustained or widespread, CENTCOM commander Tommy Franks will be faced with a bad choice: use overwhelming force and kill a lot of civilians, or show restraint and risk the lives of his soldiers.
No wonder General Franks will try to get the war over with as quickly as possible. Franks is an old artilleryman, and his early war plans looked a lot like Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's in Gulf War I: a slow and deliberate armor advance that relied on mass to crush resistance. But cajoled by his impatient boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Franks has adopted a model that draws on the lessons of Afghanistan. The Taliban's defeat was widely seen as a triumph of Special Operations: elite Army A-Teams and CIA operators, bearded and sometimes on horseback, riding to victory. But the real key was a breakthrough in the use of air power.
Air Force theorists have long touted "strategic bombing" as the best way to break the will and muscle of the enemy. Destroy their industry, shut down their infrastructure (and, in World War II, burn their cities), and no enemy will stay in the field indefinitely, or so goes the theory. But in World War II and Vietnam, this sort of bombing produced mixed results, and sometimes actually encouraged defiance. At the same time, Air Force pilots disdained the task of hitting enemy forces in the field. Close air support to rescue friendly troops in peril: that pilots did bravely. But over the wider battlefield, their planes were too fast and their ordnance too inaccurate to have much effect -- as every war from Normandy to Kosovo demonstrated. When a plane was designed for this task, the A-10, it was called "the Flying Turkey." Pilots joked that it could get rear-ended by a bird.
The war in Afghanistan shook up these old assumptions and stereotypes. The Air Force and carrier-based Navy planes exhausted their "strategic targets" after about two weeks. The Taliban and Al Qaeda did not have many "command- and-control nodes" or "logistics hubs" to bomb. Over time, however, air power proved tremendously effective in the unglamorous role it had long shunned: attacking enemy ground forces. Instant communication, GPS and laser-targeting systems meant that U.S. Special Forces on the ground could call in an airstrike at a moment's notice. Rather than take off from their carriers to attack prearranged targets, Navy warplanes would fly out to loiter, waiting for the call. With their new generation of precision weapons, the warplanes could put a bomb at the mouth of a cave or strike a column of men suddenly materializing out of the hills. The Air Force, Army and Navy do not always work well together. But communications have been revolutionized since the 1983 invasion of Grenada, when an Army paratrooper had to use a pay phone to call the Navy for fire support.
The cleverness and agility shown by U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan was an advertisement for what the secretary of Defense calls the "transformation" of the military. Rumsfeld has been dragging the conservative top brass toward a so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, a lighter, faster, smarter way of waging war. If the Army no longer has to haul around heavy weapons with long logistics tails (one armored division has as many as 10,000 vehicles), forces can be deployed around the world more quickly and easily. Not every old trooper is happy with the future, needless to say. If longer-range firepower for ground troops can come from the air, the tanker and artillerymen worry they will become obsolete. The Air Force would seem to be the big winner in the endless battle between the armed services for dollars and glory. But fighter jocks grumble that they are being turned into bus drivers, who simply dump out precision-guided weapons rather than juking and jinking into their targets. The pilots, too, may be eventually replaced -- by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The Air Force has been notably reluctant to follow the CIA's lead and use unmanned Predator drones as platforms for firing missiles at ground targets. Over the long run, UAVs mean unemployed pilots. For now, however, the problem is a shortage of Predators and Global Hawks.
These battles between rival services might seem tiresome to the average citizen, removed from things military. But the war on terror has come home. If the military cannot take down the regimes of far-off failed states that harbor terrorists and make (and possibly sell) weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones, terrorists will have a haven for staging more 9-11s. U.S. intelligence officials fear that Saddam has "flushed" some of his WMD in diplomatic pouches, to embassies that can be used to supply terrorist groups. Last week Canadian intelligence was anxiously trying to find an Iraqi chemical-weapons specialist who failed to show up for an asylum hearing. Will he show up in New York for a chemical attack? The coming war in Iraq will be a critical test of the military's role in the war on terror. It will not be the last.
With T. Trent Gegax in New York, Martha Brant and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Dan Ephron in Tel Aviv and Melinda Liu in Baghdad
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