How the U.S. military got so good.

How the U.S. military got so good.

Military analysis.
April 10 2003 6:45 PM

Force Majeure

What lies behind the military's victory in Iraq.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

So when and how did the U.S. military get this good? The elements of swift victory in Gulf War II have been well laid-out: the agility and flexibility of our forces, the pinpoint accuracy of the bombs, the commanders' real-time view of the battlefield, the remarkable coordination among all branches of the armed services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) and special operations. But these elements, and this degree of success, have not been seen in previous wars, not even in the first Gulf War 12 years ago. Three major changes have taken hold within the military since then—a new war-fighting doctrine, advanced digital technology, and a less parochial culture.

The new doctrine was put in motion in 1983, a decade before Operation Desert Storm, when the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., created an elite, one-year post-grad program called the School for Advanced Military Studies. The school's founder was a colonel—soon promoted to brigadier general—named Huba Wass de Czege (pronounced VOSS-de-say-ga). He was in the forefront of officers who had served in Vietnam, witnessed the disaster firsthand, and were eager to change the way the Army thought about combat.


In 1982, Wass de Czege had written a major revision of the Army's war-fighting manual, FM 100-5, the official expression of Army doctrine and the foundation for all decisions about strategy, tactics, and training. The previous edition, written in 1976 by Gen. William DePuy, had recited a strategy of attrition warfare, a static line of defense against the enemy's strongest point of assault, beating it back with frontal assaults and superior firepower. Wass de Czege's rewrite outlined a strategy emphasizing agility, speed, maneuver, and deep strikes well behind enemy lines.

The advanced-studies school at Fort Leavenworth was set up explicitly to weave this new strategy into the fabric of the Army establishment.

By the time of Desert Storm, a small group of Wass de Czege's students had been promoted to high-level posts on the staff of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's Central Command. This group of officers, who self-consciously referred to themselves as the "Jedi Knights," designed the ground-war strategy of the first Gulf War, and it was straight out of Wass de Czege's book—the feinted assault up the middle, the simultaneous sweep of armored forces up to the Iraqi army's western flank, the multiple thrusts that surrounded the Iraqis from all sides, hurling them into disarray before their final envelopment and destruction.

The Marines, meanwhile, were going through a similar transformation. Col. Mike Wiley, vice president of the Marine Corps University at Quantico, revised his branch's war doctrine on the basis of a 1979 briefing called "Patterns of Conflict" by a retired Air Force colonel named John Boyd. Boyd too had concluded that successful warfare involves surprise, deception, sweeping quickly around flanks, and creating confusion and disorder in the enemy's ranks. The Marine Corps commandant at the time, Gen. Alfred Gray, considered himself a Boyd disciple and ordered his officers, who led the assault into Kuwait, to avoid frontal assaults and to maneuver around the Iraqis and attack their flanks.

For the Air Force and Navy, Desert Storm saw the inauguration of "smart bombs" that could explode within a few feet of their targets. Fewer than 10 percent of the munitions dropped in Desert Storm were smart bombs; the weapons were new and expensive (between $120,000 and $240,000 apiece); not many had been built; and they still had lots of technical bugs. By 1999, in the war over Kosovo, smart bombs were more reliable and a lot cheaper ($20,000 each); they constituted about 30 percent of bombs dropped. In Afghanistan, the figure rose to 70 percent, which is probably how the math will work out in Gulf War II as well.

The war in Afghanistan, however, saw three innovations that would alter the way America fights wars. First, high-tech smart bombs were combined with high-tech command, control, communications, and intelligence. A new generation of unmanned Predator drones flew over the battlefield, scanning the terrain with digital cameras and instantly transmitting the imagery back to command headquarters. Commanders would view the imagery, look for targets, and order pilots in the area to attack the targets. The pilots would punch the target's coordinates into the smart bomb's GPS receiver. The bomb would home in on the target. Total time elapsed: about 20 minutes. By comparison, in Desert Storm, the process of spotting a new target, assigning a weapon to hit it, then hitting it, took three days.

The second new thing about the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was that it was truly a "combined-arms" operation—a battle plan that involved more than one branch of the armed services, working in tandem. This had never really happened before. Often using the new high-tech drones as the communications link, Army troops on the ground called for strikes from planes flown by Air Force pilots. Some of these planes, such as B-52 and B-1 bombers, had been built 30 or 40 years earlier to drop multi-megaton nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. The notion of using them to drop 2,000-pound conventional weapons, in support of ground troops, would have appalled an earlier generation of Air Force generals.

Over the previous decade or so, that generation of generals, weaned on Curtis LeMay and the Strategic Air Command, had died out, and so had SAC's central enemy and target, the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the '90s saw the creation of a new Joint Forces Command, which promulgated doctrines, field manuals, and war games that envisioned all the services fighting wars together, under command structures that were unified or at least "interoperable." One such document, called "Joint Vision 2020," issued in June 2000, emphasized a strategy of "full-spectrum dominance," involving the conduct of "prompt, sustained and synchronized operations with combinations of forces … space, sea, land, air and information"—a "synergy of the core competencies of the individual services, integrated into the joint team … a whole greater than the sum of its parts."

  News & Politics
March 31 2015 5:00 AM How the Founder of the Fugees Became a Big-Time Political Donor Without Anyone Knowing The musical artist chose to fund a super PAC through opaque, legal, and increasingly popular means.
  Slate Plus
March 30 2015 11:32 AM The “How Does a U.N. Official Work?” Transcript What’s it like to manage the U.N.’s Ebola response? Read a transcript of Adam Davidson’s conversation with the assistant secretary-general for field support.