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Inchon in the Desert: My Rejected Plan

Inchon in the Desert: My Rejected Plan

Mini Teaser: The voice squawked from the loudspeaker in the Pentagon's command center: "We have an event.

by Author(s): Henry S. Rowen

The voice squawked from the loudspeaker in the Pentagon's command center: "We have an event. We have an event. The latitude is. . . the longitude is. . . the missile is heading towards Tel Aviv. Arrival in six minutes and seventeen seconds. . . ."
Those disembodied words, spoken in the early evening (Washington time) of January 16, 1991, were the first indication of a Scud missile attack by Iraq on Israel. It was to be followed by many more, against both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

During all of this I was the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, on leave from Stanford University business school and the Hoover Institution. My responsibilities were to support the undersecretary of defense for policy, Paul Wolfowitz, and Secretary Dick Cheney on political-military matters throughout most of the world including the Middle East.

The attack was especially poignant for me because it dramatically marked the failure of a plan to prevent it. The plan, which was vigorously pushed by Secretary Cheney, was not carried out because of opposition by our military leaders, notably the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Colin Powell, and the commander in the field, General Norman Schwarzkopf. Had it been implemented, there was a good chance it would have caused the downfall of Saddam Hussein without the need for either a major air or big ground campaign in Kuwait.
To explain what happened, one must review the situation that existed shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The United States was rushing forces to Saudi Arabia to block any further southward advance of Iraqi troops toward the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. As it soon became evident that Saudi Arabia was secure, our attention then focused on how to get the Iraqis out of Kuwait. One method was to rely on economic sanctions. As for military means, two courses seemed available: one was the use of air power, which could greatly weaken Iraq's military and also might, so air power enthusiasts hoped, bring about collapse of the regime. The other was the tried-and-true method of destroying and expelling Iraqi forces through the combined use of ground and air power.

On the political front, the Bush administration was working with great vigor and success to build a broad coalition of countries to oppose Iraq and restore Kuwait's independence. But given the heterogeneity of this coalition, there were grounds for worrying about its robustness in the face of some untoward events.

A particularly feared event was an Iraqi missile attack on Israel. (We also were worried, with good cause, about missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, including on our bases there, but this possibility did not entail great political risks.) In the spring of 1990, Saddam Hussein had delivered a speech, to which we had paid inadequate attention, in which he spoke of "burning half of Israel." Such attacks, damaging enough in themselves--especially if the Scuds had warheads filled with chemical agents--would put the Israeli government under great pressure to retaliate against Iraq. We feared that this might lead some of the Arabs to abandon the coalition. In any case, it was an event very much worth preventing.

Unhappy Choices

By the end of September 1990, some of us on the staff of the secretary of defense were not satisfied with what we knew or inferred about these various options. Although there were many advocates in Washington for letting economic sanctions do the job, in the policy part of the Pentagon there was no confidence in this route. The intelligence community had little expertise on the economy of Iraq, but Patrick Clawson, a former International Monetary Fund desk officer for Iraq then at the University of Pennsylvania, did. For many of us, his story on how Iraq had coped with earlier periods of severe deprivation and how sanctions could and were being evaded clinched doubts about this course. Although the sanctions route would be debated in Washington for months to come, clearly it would have failed to liberate Kuwait.

We were confident that an air campaign could destroy Iraq's air force and air defenses, would greatly weaken its ability to support forces in Kuwait, and might cripple its military command-and-control system. But an air campaign by itself could not be counted on to do the entire job, especially in a prolonged campaign. It did not require much imagination to anticipate rising domestic and international political opposition to a campaign that, although it was designed to avoid civilians, was bound to hurt some of them. Moreover Saddam had the means and had demonstrated the brutality to guarantee that innocent people would become victims of our attacks.
In particular, we were not confident of air power's ability to so weaken the deployed and dug-in troops in Kuwait that a ground war, one possibly costly in lives, would be unnecessary. The Iraqi forces in Kuwait were, so we estimated (overestimated as it turned out), battle-experienced from the long war with Iran, numerous, not badly equipped, dispersed, and dug in. Clearly coalition air and ground power could defeat them, probably quickly, but the cost in casualties was a worry.

Least of all did we have any good reason for expecting that we could destroy Iraq's mobile Scud missile launchers. The Scud threat was not seen as a significant military one because they were so inaccurate. But because they could hit cities (and did manage to hit an American barracks at Dhahran) they were a political danger, especially if directed against Israel. Moreover, a missile armed with chemical agents might kill hundreds of thousands of people in Tel Aviv or Haifa (or Riyadh or Dhahran). These were possibilities to block if at all possible. But we had no good reason to believe that mobile Scud missile launchers could be destroyed from the air. As it turned out, we probably did not destroy a single one that way.

My concern about these options was heightened by the revelation that General Schwarzkopf's first tactical concept entailed going "up the middle" against Iraqi forces. As I told Dick Cheney, this could be the charge of the Light Brigade into the Wadi of Death. And no one had a clue about how to deal with the predictable Scud attacks.

By the middle of September I was exhausted from weeks of intense work (and suffering as well, I learned later, from a debilitating allergy). I took a week off in the south of France to recover--and to think about what to do about Iraq. I took along several books on Arab history. Reading them made it abundantly clear that the desert had been swiftly and easily crossed by Arabs for thousands of years; most of it presented no barrier at all to camels, "ships of the desert." One of these books was the History of the Arab People by Sir John Bagot Glubb, who had led the famous Arab Legion in Transjordan. Talking with a neighbor in Gordes reinforced this point. He had been interned in the British embassy in Baghdad in 1941 when the Iraqis concluded that the Germans were going to win the war and threw the British out. He described how the revolt against the British was abruptly ended when the Arab Legion, under the command of General Glubb Pasha, came swiftly across the desert in armored cars from Transjordan.

All of this led to an idea: that our forces in a sudden move could occupy the Western Desert of Iraq all the way west to Jordan and north to the Euphrates River. Because the limited range of the Scuds required them to be launched from somewhere in that area, occupying it would effectively eliminate the danger of Scud attacks on Israel, along with all the attendant destruction and political risks to the coalition. The Western Desert had few inhabitants and few Iraqi forces in it. The large majority of Iraq's forces were in Kuwait and most of the rest were in the north opposite Turkey or in the east opposite Iran. There were also some in the Baghdad area. We could rapidly achieve complete air superiority; we had the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions as well as mobile armored and mechanized ground forces. My goal, no doubt a too optimistic one, was to enable our forces, with adequate logistics preparations, to occupy the Western Desert of Iraq within twenty-four hours from a standing start. The Iraqis would simply be unable to respond effectively to such a move.

Operation Scorpion

On returning from Washington I went directly to Paul Wolfowitz and described this idea to him. He saw its potential power right away. Then we went to see Dick Cheney, who showed great interest. His instructions to me were to set up a planning cell and to tell no one else about it; he would take the idea from here. Indeed he did.

The small planning group that was set up was headed by retired Army Lieutenant General Dale Vesser who was on Wolfowitz's planning staff. Vesser was a respected officer with highly relevant experience and, it is fair to say, someone not easily taken in by some civilian's cockamamie ideas about military affairs. The plan got dubbed Operation Scorpion. The problems in carrying out Scorpion were largely logistical; apart from an Iraqi division at Salman there wasn't much opposition out there. And the distances were substantial: from Hafar al Batin in northeastern Saudi Arabia, the western edge of the Coalition forces, to the Jordanian border is about five hundred miles; the distance to Arar, a junction with a road leading north into Iraq, is three hundred miles. The distance from possible entry points into Iraq north across the desert to the Euphrates River is another one hundred and fifty to two hundred miles. Coalition forces moving along most of the relevant routes would be largely unopposed. Fuel and ammunition and other supplies would have to be moved forward in advance for this armada (a possible tip-off to the Iraqis) or carried along with the forces (a big supply job).

Though these distances were long, there were some favorable aspects. The view initially put out by some people that much of the desert was impassable by heavy vehicles didn't survive discussion with those who had done it, including explorers for oil. Moreover, the map shows several roads, including, most importantly, the Tapline Road, which runs alongside an old pipeline the entire length of the Saudi-Iraqi border. Our forces, other than the airborne, which would be used to seize key points in the desert, could move rapidly along this road inside Saudi Arabia and then make coordinated right turns along roads and across the desert in Iraq. Roads were important because, unlike tracked vehicles, our wheeled supports could not go through the sands. One obvious shortcoming was in tank transporters. If our tanks tried to go the whole way on their treads, the desert would probably have been littered with them, and perhaps with broken-down vehicles. The Euro-centered U.S. Army usually moved its heavy armor by rail but there weren't any railroads in this part of the world and we had to search far and wide for strong enough transporters to carry our sixty-five ton armored behemoths.

After working on this problem for a week or so, another thought emerged, one that led Wolfowitz and me to see Dick Cheney again. I put it more or less this way: "When our forces have occupied the Western Desert up to the Euphrates, some of them will be within sixty miles of Baghdad. Saddam might pull his troops out of Kuwait to try to defend Baghdad but they will never get there because our air will destroy them; Saddam might be overturned; he might flee. Something will happen in Baghdad." Cheney responded that this was an even more interesting observation. Again he told me to tell no one, and to keep working.

Naval images came to mind, and not only ones of "ships of the desert." Those with only a passing knowledge of modern military history doubtless know of one of the boldest and most successful strokes in modern warfare, the famous Inchon landing during the Korean War ordered by General Douglas MacArthur when his outnumbered troops were pinned down in the "Pusan Perimeter" in southern Korea. He totally transformed the situation on the peninsula by using our naval and air superiority to make an amphibious landing on Korea's west coast. The analogy with the situation in the Gulf was close, although the relevant medium was sand, not water. Like the sea, the Western Desert was (largely) uninhabited, and like the sea, movement across it would be swift. And, as in Korea, we totally commanded the air. I didn't use the Inchon precedent in promoting my idea, although in hindsight I should have. (As with all analysis, however, the precedent should not be pushed too far. After MacArthur's troops occupied South Korea they pushed north and then ran into big trouble with the Chinese. Operation Scorpion was designed principally to keep Scuds from being launched against Israel; in so doing it created an imminent threat to the Iraqi heartland.)

We did not discuss actually going into Baghdad. That wasn't part of the plan, although it did include the option of cutting off Baghdad from the north and south. Nor did we work up ideas for how to disengage from the Western Desert other than to observe that our occupation of it would be useful in a settlement of the war. Pursuing such matters rested on feedback from Cheney and that wasn't coming.
Vesser estimated that this plan called for a large increase in coalition (meaning, as a practical matter, U.S.) troops--two hundred thousand more (a virtual doubling) because he judged that we needed to maintain our full strength south of Kuwait while mounting this flanking operation to the west. Even without the extra strength, it was the best answer on what to do if, for whatever reason, we had to move in October or November with only the forces then available in Saudi Arabia. In that situation, an up-the-middle approach was most unappealing, whereas a bold, outflanking maneuver, especially given our air power, was clearly superior. Vesser's conclusion on the extra forces needed seemed unduly conservative to me but, as it turned out, at about the same time we reached this conclusion, Cheney and Powell proposed to President Bush just such a large increase of American forces.

From then on, I was largely in the dark. Cheney wasn't giving me feedback nor was anyone else saying much. But a new book, The General's War, by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, fills in the story. According to them, Cheney took this idea, which he called the Western Excursion, to President Bush for his approval. He then pushed it with Powell and Schwarzkopf. They didn't like it. Schwarzkopf, in his autobiography, It Doesn't Take a Hero, says, "The plan was as bad as it possibly could be." It was seen as logistically too hard and of doubtful strategic benefit.

But Powell knew that Schwarzkopf's up-the-middle plan wouldn't do, so he ordered the development of one that included an enveloping movement to the west to catch the Iraqi Republican Guard in the Kuwait area. This had tactical merit and was seen as a sop to Cheney's Western Excursion. Schwarzkopf, who assailed the Western Excursion, like Powell came to see that he couldn't beat something with nothing. So they debated how far west the forces should go. As Schwarzkopf put it in his book, "The western excursion wouldn't die." The British commander in the Gulf, General Sir Peter de la Billire told me later, "Dick Cheney kept pushing us to go west; he wouldn't give up." Ironically, Schwarzkopf was apparently looking for an "Inchon-like" maneuver, or so he told Secretary of the Air Force Donald Rice in mid-October. But when offered it, he rejected the opportunity to carry out the world's greatest "naval" maneuver on sand.

Dubious Decision

Why did Powell and Schwarzkopf resist Cheney's pressure to go west? Clearly they didn't stop it altogether because the famous western envelopment around Kuwait did occur, but the "Inchon landing" did not. So, the Scuds flew and Saddam is still in power. At the tactical level, perhaps there was an under-appreciation of our air power's ability to dominate the Western Desert. Strike aircraft couldn't destroy mobile Scud launchers hiding in culverts but could have blown away any Iraqi unit venturing across the Euphrates. More fundamentally, our military leaders wanted to achieve a bully victory and go home--with unhappy memories of Vietnam replaced by a splendid showing in the Gulf. They did not want to get bogged down in Iraq, an image that hardly fitted the terrain but was a real enough concern all the same. The administration, both on the military and foreign policy sides, wanted to avoid creating a vacuum of power in Baghdad for fear that the resulting struggle among Shi'ites and Sunnis would bring in Iran, and the Kurds might declare independence, thus bringing in Turkey. And so on.

For those with such priorities, ideally not one American soldier or tank would touch Iraqi soil; but that position was tactically untenable. (For reasons of Arab political politesse, the Arab members of the coalition did not join U.S., British, and French forces in moving into Iraq.) If the entire job could be done from the air, splendid, at least to the air force. If, as the army types were convinced--and with good reason--ground forces had to be used, it should be circumscribed, swift, and short. Schwarzkopf also never took the Scud threat to Israel very seriously. In order to keep our lines with Israel distinct from those with the Arabs, Israel had not been put in his command's area of responsibility. When the missiles were flying it was difficult to get the general's attention on a place he saw as irrelevant to his plan for Kuwait's liberation.

Some of these reasons had considerable merit and many things worked out splendidly. Air power demonstrated for the first time on a large scale what precision weaponry could accomplish, and did much damage to Iraqi forces in Kuwait, including convincing many soldiers to go awol. The western enveloping operation worked like a charm and had the war not been called off most of the Republican Guard units there would have been destroyed or captured. But it was only through political skill and/or luck that the Scud attacks did not produce an Israeli response that would have caused internal problems for our Arab partners and might have led to some quitting the coalition. Certainly air power failed to stop the Scuds. And the mind set of our military and political leaders that caused us to leave enough of Saddam's--and, more fundamentally, the Baathist Party's--power intact has resulted in a highly unstable situation there. Our military and political leaders feared that causing a political change in Baghdad would destabilize the area. But the Gulf looks anything but stable now.

Would it--and we--have been worse off had Operation Scorpion been carried out? History only rolls by once so we cannot be sure. But when Iraqi troops started moving toward Kuwait in October 1994, our 1991 decisions looked decidedly more dubious.

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