Saturday 5 September 2020

Saddam's Sortie (Pt 3): Iraqi Military Innovations

In 1990 the determination of the USA - and the UK as its sidekick - to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait by force if necessary, necessitated a rapid learning curve for those of us on the staff, to get to grips with the large, potent and battle-hardened Iraqi army.  Which we'd never even given a passing glance to, being 99% focussed on Russia.  

Iraq, it turned out, was indeed influenced by Soviet military doctrine - its weapons being largely supplied from Russia at that time - but mostly at the tactical level.  When the shooting started (in early 1991), this turned out to be handy: but we're getting ahead of ourselves: thirty years ago today, we were at the start of a sustained period of planning and buildup.  The really interesting stuff was what we were learning about how, over the long years of intensive fighting against the significantly greater numbers of the Iranian army, they'd innovated militarily - not necessarily something that (in our arrogance) we'd have given them credit for.  In this post I'm going to recount one of these innovations - and there will be a couple more novelties to describe next weekend.

Advanced students of world military history may tell me there's a precedent for what I'm relating here; but I'm only aware of a rather limited forerunner.  The Iraqi army operated on the concept of specialist generals for different phases of a battle.  So: if there was to be a major offensive, typically there would be an initial preparatory logistical phase; then the assault; then (if all went more or less to plan) the follow-through/consolidation on the objective; and the preparation to receive, and deal with, a counter-attack.  Etc.

The Iraqis had formed the view that it might take a different man to lead each phase.  It's actually quite logical: why would planning expert General al-Logistics be as good at directing the assault as General bin-Bloodandguts?  So that's how they organised their affairs.

This strikes the 'western' military mind as very odd - mainly, of course, our conservatism coming through, reflecting the approach we were accustomed to since time immemorial, of having a single supremo commander on every front.  How, otherwise, is the handover managed between the sequence of generals involved?  What if things aren't going precisely to plan? (vide, almost every battle in recorded history).  Who can delineate distinct phases with such precision? - or rather, what do you lose by way of continuity and effectiveness if you do deliberately divide operations up in that modular way?  Had they never heard of the drawbacks of 'silo' thinking, nor the benefits of 'fusion', and seamless, integrated operations? 

(It also occurred to me:  given Saddam's lethal intolerance towards failure ... how did they come up with this doctrine?  Trial and error?  Who survived the errors to impement the lessons?

In favour of this approach, well, they'd had a lot more recent experience of fighting full-scale pitched battles than any army on earth - latterly against a numerically superior army spearheaded by human-wave tactics from the fanatical Iranian Revolutionary Guard.  And it seemed to work for them.

Precedent?  The Athenians in Thucydides' time seemed sometimes to pick and choose a handful of generals at a time (sometimes even on a democatic basis) for their major, set-piece annual campaigns against the Spartan alliance during the Peloponnesian War, and they seemed to divide up the duties between them according to what they were known to be good at.  But not always; and it didn't seem to be a positive doctrine, just an outworking of the rather 'open' way they conducted all their affairs.  Anyone know of a more compelling precedent?  

Next time:  more Iraqi innovations, including one that's truly bizarre (not to say gruesome ...)



dearieme said...

Precedent: Normandy 1944.

General Paton, a hot-head, was not trusted to be in charge of getting American troops safely ashore. He was assigned to a decoy role, pretending to be organising an invasion near Calais. Montgomery was appointed Commander Ground Forces, and the generals under him were appointed as men suitable for the invasion phase.

Once the Americans had broken out into open country Paton was put in command of what was a nearly unopposed cavalry charge across France towards the German border. He did that successfully. Once he ran into strong opposition near that border, though, it turned out that he had no particular flair for slogging warfare. He should perhaps have been replaced then but he wasn't.

BlokeInBrum said...

Maybe similarities could be drawn with the way that Donald Trump runs his administration?
He is pretty (in)famous for the high turnover of his staff.
Perhaps he has a more dynamic, modular view of the role of his appointments. There to do a particular job or to achieve a singular goal, and to be replaced when that goal changes according to circumstance?

Anonymous said...

Following on from @BiB's comment, if you track the life of a company you'll often see three phases

- the entrepreneur / visionary: someone that sees the opportunity, grows it, nurses it as their baby

- the private equity phase: where the entrepreneur has run out of cash and wants to/has to exit. PE then hoses money at it in the form of debt to achieve [if they can] significant capital gain. The figure of 33% IRR is there somewhere.

- the pension fund phase: PE exit to a safe pair of hands to milk the assets to pay off the debt over a long period of time based on stable cash flow.

3 phases. 3 different types of manager.

So Trump is just like Saddam in many, many ways by seeing war as a business with winners, losers and suckers.

And with perhaps all these side events in Libya, DRC or asset rich countries, perhaps the business is war.

Nick Drew said...

anon - that's a great line of thought.

A very personal anecdote: many years ago, together with 5 partners, I set up a company, in which we were all executives. We (and in particular our PE financiers) were hell-bent on floating it ASAP, to catch the dotcom tide. So, after a couple of years we appointed a new CEO (- over our own heads; as we then reported to him) who'd led a successful IPO before

one of the best things we ever did, because he pulled it off again!

I always admired the lack of ego of the guy who had been CEO at the start (i.e. one of the 6 founding partners), who went along with this plan without (much) hesitation. And, BTW, he hadn't been making a hash of it up to that point. Many a *prouder* man would have demanded to keep his title. But he knew that the stock market insists on clarity and a simple, "conventional" narrative

that's real Enlightened Self Interest ! There must be many a founder who's lost out by hanging onto power like grim death. But there ain't so many Bill Gates out there who can do it all

Sackerson said...

@Nick: Athens, Sparta... Democracy, Monarchy... hmmm... who won, in the end?

Don Cox said...

We are nowhere near the end yet. Human nature hasn't changed, and it continues to generate more and more history.

Don Cox

Matt said...

@ ND

See the IPO for The Hut Group - founder stays on as Executive Chairman with golden share to block any takeover. Clearly taken notice of how things are going in the US with Alphabet, Facebook etc - take the suckers money but keep control.

dearieme said...

"who won, in the end?"

Alexander of Macedon. :)

E-K said...

I think you all might like this. Worth 10 minutes.

The making of Apocalypse Now.