Tuesday | March 04, 2003
The logistics of a one-front war
There has been much hand-wringing from various quarters about Turkey's decision to deny US troops overland access into Iraq. While many have argued that Turkey's decision will lead to higher American casualties, in reality it shouldn't make much of a difference.
Turkey's decision has presented the US with several tactical problems (we already know the political damage the decision wrought). For one, it makes it difficult for the US to secure the northern oil fields. It also prevents the US from trying to stabilize the region before it is sundered apart by fighting between seperate Kurdish factions, Turks, Shi'ites and god knows who else.
But the biggest problem of a one-front war is logistical -- and could ultimately lead to a longer war.
Before I get started, take a look at this map (it will open up in a new window). Note the scarcity of good roads from Kuwait to Baghdad. We essentially have one highway and several capillaries. The highway crosses both the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, as well as at least one canal. The capillary roads have even more river crossings.
Now take a look at Northern Iraq, heading south from the Turkish border -- we see a far more established road network.
By confining US forces to the south, the US will be forced to move hundreds of thousands of forces north on a single highway and a few smaller roads. While tanks can cross short distances in rough terrain (read: desert), the distances here foreclose that possibility. (Military equipment breaks down a lot -- and that's in optimum conditions). The preferred solution will be to send cavalry units to spearhead the assault, secure forward locations, and then truck in the heavy armor. With a more established road network, this would be a faster proposition (heck, tanks might be able to rumble the 300 miles north on their own), but there's not enough road to allow for this kind of tactic and still attack Baghdad with full force.
Now factor in the bridges. Military tactics 101 dictates that Iraq will blow each bridge before US forces can reach the rivers. The US has bridge-building engineer units that can and will conquer the rivers, but each will take days to cross (and it's not just one bridge -- it will be dozens to handle the large number of invading troops). Thankfully, US troops won't be harrassed from the opposite shore, as might be the case against a more able enemy.
In the initial first few days, most military traffic will be moving north, but once combat operations ensue, it will be two-way traffic further clogging the roads. While troops and supplies are ferried toward Baghdad, we'll have heavy traffic heading south -- empty supply trucks, casualties, broken down vehicles, etc. And if I was Saddam, I would unleash a flood of refugees, all streaming south on that same highway US forces will need to move north.
By having a concentrated supply line supporting the entire invasion force, the US will have to double efforts to protect it -- soaking up valuable manpower. The supply line will be vulnerable to crippling sabotage. Bridges can be bombed. Suicide bombers can hit supply and ammo depots. Heck, take out a field repair shop and dozens of armored and wheeled vehicles could be stranded unrepaired for days, out of action. And critical water supplies could be open to sabotage or even chemical attack (US Army water tanks are not sealed against such attacks).
And if Saddam has WMDs, there would be no better target than the supply line. A dirty bomb would wreak havoc on US resupply operations, almost forcing the US to build its own road bypassing whatever region was irradiated. (Engineers will be building roads regardless, from day one, to help increase capacity.)
I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: air supply is not an option. We can use air to resupply isolated special forces, or even small lightly armored infantry units (like elements of our airborne divisions), but full-scale battle conditions require massive resupply operations, and there's no way to transport M1 tanks or heavy artillery (like the MLRS rocket systems I worked with in the Army) via air. (Update: C-17 cargo planes can carry M1s and just about every other vehicle in the Army arsenal. However, their numbers are limited.)
Ultimately, Turkey's decision nearly doubles the necessary time frame for victory (assuming Iraqi troops resist), while letting the political and military situation in northern Iraq go to hell. Will it cost American lives? Probably not. Longer doesn't mean costlier in terms of lives. But it does mean the task will be far more difficult to accomplish.Posted March 04, 2003 05:05 PM | Comments (64)