By Stan Crock On the road to Baghdad, an Iraqi soldier rushed an Abrams tank and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at point-blank range. When the grenade hit the 69-ton tank's armor, the explosion killed the Iraqi -- leaving the GIs inside unharmed. Score one for the tank -- and the old-fashioned, plodding U.S. Army.
Yet, the Army deployed the Abrams, which first rolled off production lines two decades ago, in new and innovative ways, too. It doubled as a mobile command post in the heat of combat. Equipped with the latest high-tech gear, tank commanders had an unprecendented view of the battlefield, enabling them to talk to each other, order precision air strikes, and consult with headquarters -- and even the Pentagon -- in real time.
POTENT MIX. And there you have it. For all the arguing on cable TV between retired generals and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about shock and awe, the value of troop strength, and how war would change because of new technology, it turns out both sides in this debate were right. A combination of the old and the new made the U.S. war machine so potent on the Iraqi battlefield. "The tank is cool again," crows Kendall Pease, vice-president for communications of General Dynamics (GD), which makes the Abrams.
There's a lesson here for Rummy. He's intent on transforming the armed forces into a military that's light, agile, digitized, and increasingly reliant on air power. He wants information to replace massive ground-troop deployments.
However, while detailed analysis of how weapons worked in Iraq won't be available for months or even years, it's already clear that without heavy artillery, big tanks, and A-10 Warthogs providing close air support, coalition forces couldn't have taken Iraq with such dispatch. "Wars get won only when there's a soldier standing in the village square," says retired General Barry McCaffrey.
ON THE DRAWING BOARD. To call Iraq a victory for a so-called Rumsfeld Doctrine is far-fetched on several counts. As Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), points out, much of the transformational hardware and software Rumsfeld wants is still in development. It can hardly be credited with the victory. And the stuff that was used was under development long before Rumsfeld came on board.
That said, some of the gear Rumsfeld likes certainly contributed mightily to the war effort. Everything from networked communications and unmanned surveillance aircraft to precision-guided munitions helped the military move through the desert nimbly and pack the wallop of a much larger force.
Under the Rumsfeld Doctrine, however, the kind of "decapitating" aerial campaign launched at the beginning of the conflict should have caused the Iraqi regime to collapse. It didn't. Nor has it ever. From the London Blitz to Belgrade to Baghdad, air power alone -- even when jazzed up with digital gadgetry -- has been unable to control territory or make a government fall. "High-tech weapons are great," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and author of several books on military strategy. "But the Iraq war really demonstrated the need to have balanced forces."
NO CHALLENGE IN THE AIR. Rumsfeld might have been right in scuttling the lumbering Crusader howitzer. But it was the time-tested Paladin howitzer that proved its mettle from the initial breach of the berm at the Kuwait border through the drive to Baghdad. 'We don't need the Crusader," says James Andrew Lewis, director of technology policy at CSIS. "But that doesn't mean we can leave the self-propelled artillery at home."
This critical blend of old and new has big implications for both future strategy and weapons acquisitions. If Iraq is any indication, in most future wars, U.S. air superiority won't be an issue. No potential enemy is building an air force to match America's or buying advanced antiaircraft systems in any great numbers. "If we can avoid fighting the Brits and the Israelis, we'll be O.K.," quips Barry D. Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank.
The upshot: The U.S. really doesn't need an advanced fighter like the F-22 Raptor, which is scheduled to enter the fleet in 2005 -- or at least not the 300 or so the Air Force wants to buy. By slashing purchases of the overbudget F-22 and instead buying F-15s to replace aging aircraft -- at a third of the cost -- the Pentagon could save billions.
FIGHTING WITH GENERALS. At the same time, the Iraq war showed that the military may need to buy some items that aren't on its shopping list. Turkey's refusal to let the 4th Infantry Division deploy from the north taught military planners a lesson: Better to plan on providing your own deployment sites, whether it's aircraft carriers, home to a variety of aircraft and troops, or long-range bombers deployed thousands of miles away.
And on the ground, the Iraq war demonstrated that the weapon of choice -- even in urban combat -- is still the Abrams tank. Yet, Rumsfeld doesn't want to spend a dime to modernize more of the heavy tanks. Big mistake. He should rethink that strategy.
Ever since Rumsfeld came into office, he has fought with the generals and admirals about the pace of transformation. He sees an unimaginative, hidebound military bureaucracy, and he wants change to proceed at double time or faster. The services have been less willing to abandon what they have always done. While you can't assume the next war will be like the last one, you can't assume it will be different, either. Anyone who thought after Desert Storm that America would never fight another battle in the Iraqi desert obviously was wrong.
The armed services have argued for transformation at a gradual rather than radical pace, and they have largely won these fights. Judging from the military's performance on the road to Baghdad, it seems to me that was the right call all along. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online