Magazine

Storming the Streets of Baghdad


Assuring Americans that war with Iraq remains an option of "last resort," President George W. Bush used an Oct. 7 speech to prod Congress toward passing a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein--and to put more pressure on a wary U.N. Security Council to follow suit. But despite the political and diplomatic maneuvers, both the American public and the Arab world increasingly see hostilities as inevitable. Indeed, the U.S. military and defense contractors are still preparing for an offensive that may begin as early as December.

If push does come to shove, how will the fighting play out? Pentagon strategists are hoping that the campaign will follow the script of the 1991 gulf war: a pulverizing bombardment followed by a lightning ground attack and capitulation. But this may not turn out to be the antiseptic, largely casualty-free affair the U.S. has grown accustomed to.

True, the U.S. will deploy a devastating arsenal of high-tech wizardry, from missiles that strike within feet of their intended targets to bombs capable of burrowing deep into bunkers before exploding at the right subterranean level. But while U.S. military planners think in terms of Star Wars, Saddam wants a battle more like Somalia, where the U.S. would be forced into difficult and bloody urban combat. "The U.S. is gambling that precision weapons and rapid land maneuvers will cause the spontaneous combustion of Saddam's regime," says John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank. "Saddam is gambling that won't work."

The reason: If the battle does end up in Baghdad, much of America's dazzling high-tech weaponry will be less effective in the gritty, house-by-house fight likely to ensue. In fact, some new technologies for close-in combat, like migraine-producing sound blasters, are not ready for prime time. And current high-tech gear may not work well in the urban environment. "Iraq will try to pull our guys into fighting building-by-building because this is the chink in our technological superiority," says Ralph Petroff, chief executive of Huntsville (Ala.)-based Time Domain Corp., a pioneer in ultrawideband radar, which may be deployed in Iraq to peer through the walls of buildings.

Still, the Pentagon is betting that improved communications technology and other innovations will make the U.S. military edge even wider than it was during Operation Desert Storm. Commanders are now equipped to know exactly what's happening on the battlefield at any time. Moreover, the U.S. has far more smart bombs. The main weapon in the first, largely aerial, phase of the war will be Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), which use satellite signals to hit predetermined targets.

The idea is to overwhelm and demoralize Iraqi forces by knocking out air defenses and command posts, picking off troops, and cutting links between commanders and soldiers. One wrinkle: U.S. troops are likely to use top-secret radio frequency or microwave bombs able to fry electronic equipment to take out Iraqi targets such as computers and the refrigeration systems needed for biological weapons.

To prevent Saddam from counterattacking after the bombardment, unmanned drones--General Atomics' Predators and Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Global Hawk--are expected to keep a constant eye on everything that moves on the ground. That's key because Iraq's mobile Scud launchers moved too quickly to be hit in Desert Storm. This time, U.S. planners figure they will be able to attack mobile targets within minutes. In an approach first used in Afghanistan, Predators will send live video directly to the cockpits of AC-130 gunships. And the drones themselves will wield missiles.

To prepare for the massive aerial campaign, the Pentagon is speeding up smart-bomb production. At Raytheon Co., Paveway laser-guided missiles are rolling off the line at three times the pace planned before September 11, while a partial third shift was added to make Tomahawk cruise missiles. Boeing Co.'s production of JDAMs is set to rise from 700 a month to 2,300.

As soon as the aerial assault subsides, thousands of U.S. troops are expected on the outskirts of Baghdad, aiming to overwhelm Saddam's Republican Guard. If the Iraqis don't quickly surrender, the U.S. faces a potential nightmare: a siege of Baghdad in which forces must take the city street by street. The toll could be high. Up to 3 of every 10 U.S. soldiers could be killed or wounded in street fighting, says retired Rear Admiral Stephen H. Baker, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information.

The reason: While few doubt the U.S. would ultimately prevail, the advantage gained from its high-tech weaponry will be limited. Take Predators, whose view of the battlefield is the equivalent of "looking through a soda straw," says Franklin C. Spinney, a Pentagon tactical-aircraft analyst. They were most effective in Afghanistan when spotters on the ground told the drones exactly where to point. In the city, pinpointing targets will be tough.

Smart bombs could be less useful, as well, when key targets are hidden in hospitals or highly populated residential districts. "If you're not too concerned about morality and public opinion and human life, you just obliterate the city block," says Russell W. Glenn, an urban-warfare specialist at RAND. "There are constraints on our forces." One possible approach: If buildings are heavily fortified, the U.S. could simply isolate them from the battle instead of making a costly assault. After all, the goal would be to topple Saddam, not defeat every Iraqi soldier.

Other technologies could come into play. Superior night-vision gear that uses infrared sensors will enable U.S. troops to see the enemy but not be seen. PackBots, small robots armed with weapons and sensors, first used in Afghanistan, could patrol dicey areas before putting troops in harm's way. And Dragon Eyes, tiny 5.5-lb. planes developed to fit into a backpack, could locate enemy troop placements.

For all the new gadgetry, though, the Americans' biggest advantage in the cities may come from applying proven technology and upgraded communications. The Marines will not only know where all their buddies are in the heat of battle, but will also be able to talk to them with handheld radios. They'll also call on heavy tanks to provide protective firepower and to move obstacles. "The tank may be the preeminent weapons system for use in urban terrain, along with the bulldozer," says Colonel Barry M. Ford, chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.

A tough urban war is a long way from a futuristic Star Wars smackdown. The White House and Pentagon don't expect it to come to that. But the truth is, no one really knows how the Iraqis will react under fire, much less whether all of America's advanced gizmos will prove their mettle again. By Stan Crock and John Carey, with Paul Magnusson in Washington, Geoffrey Smith in Boston, and Otis Port in New York


Silicon Valley State of Mind
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW

(enter your email)
(enter up to 5 email addresses, separated by commas)

Max 250 characters

 
blog comments powered by Disqus