Image: U.S. Army Trains In Kuwait
A rainbow breaks over an American M1/A1 Abrams tank during exercises last month near the Iraqi border in Kuwait. The realities of war are seldom this pretty.
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msnbc.com

The Gulf War is remembered as a walkover by many Americans — a late 20th-century blitzkrieg. In reality, the U.S. military had a legion of troubles in the 1990-91 conflict, many of which caused unnecessary deaths to allied troops and Iraqi civilians alike. Other tragedies were averted merely by luck or Iraqi incompetence. What new tactics, technologies and procedures are in place today to ensure that some of the worst mistakes of the first Gulf War will not be repeated in a second Iraq war?

The Gulf War of popular memory bears little resemblance to the one fought by the United States and its allies against Iraq, then touted as “the fourth-largest army in the world.” By the end of the war, media-savvy U.S. military spokesmen were deriding the Iraqi forces as “the second-largest army in Iraq.”

In 1993, John Keegan, the world’s pre-eminent military historian, called the war “a triumph of incisive planning and almost faultless execution.” Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the first war and now secretary of state, concluded in his 1995 biography that even though Saddam Hussein remained in power, “the remaining Iraqi army is hardly a force with a will to fight to the death.”

Quick conclusions now look time-worn.

The larger, strategic questions now seem self-evident:

Did the United States tilt too far toward Saddam’s Iraq during the Cold War?

Should the United States have pressed on to Baghdad in 1991?

Would U.S. troops still be in Saudi Arabia today — the main issue animating al-Qaida — if Washington had supported the anti-Saddam uprisings by Iraqi Kurds and Shiites that followed the war?

After action reports

These are questions for politicians and academics, not soldiers. But the Gulf War spawned in each branch of the U.S. military a serious round of soul-searching about mistakes that had cost lives - its own and those of Iraqi non-combatants. Friendly fire claimed 24 percent of all Americans killed in action, and more British troops fell to U.S. weapons than to Iraqi ones. Entire airwings became dependent on amphetamines, the “go pills” doled out to keep pilots alert on long missions. Two huge Navy warships were nearly sunk by Iraqi mines, exposing the fleet’s inadequate mine countermeasures. Disputes over the effectiveness of attacks on Iraqi divisions bedeviled air war commanders.

Image: Zakho
Kurdish refugees surge through the streets of the northern Iraqi town of Zakho demanding that U.S. forces help protect them from Saddam in June 1991.

Tragic errors in target selection and bombs that simply missed their intended targets caused civilian deaths that briefly threatened the coalition. And miscalculations about the effects of vaccines, the vindictiveness of Iraq’s occupying forces and the Iraqi Republican Guard’s determination to survive also had serious consequences: Gulf War Syndrome, the world’s largest ever oil spill and a failure to defang Saddam’s army when the chance arose.

In interviews with a range of officers and military analysts, MSNBC.com asked a simple question: What were the biggest tactical mistakes and lessons of the Gulf War, and what has been done to fix them?

'Friendly fire'

As dire as the statistics sound — 35 of the 146 Americans killed in action were killed by their own comrades — military officers regard the figure as relatively low. “You have to put the number of friendly casualties in context,” says Jack Jacobs, a retired Army colonel who received the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. “Anything larger than zero is a lot. But with so few casualties overall, the friendly fire number seems large. The reality is, it is a lot lower than it would have been for a similar operation in Vietnam or World War II.”

Still, the military — at least in part because of the incidents involving American forces killing British troops — grappled with ways of further reducing the number during the 1990s.

InsertArt(1746979)One clear advantage today, according to Bill Martel, a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., is that American forces now have Global Positioning Satellite devices — GPS for short — which should make their locations more “knowable” to their comrades.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith notes that a “battlefield coordination detachment” has been added to the Combined Air Operations Center that would call the shots in any new Iraq air war.

No one pretends these systems are flawless. During the Afghan campaign, for instance, a special forces soldier gave his own GPS coordinates rather than the coordinates of the target to a B-52 crew, with tragic results. In another instance, Canadian troops were killed in an incident still under investigation.

“I don’t think there’s any technological silver bullet that will make friendly fire events go away,” Martel says. “How do you employ tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in combat and eliminate human error? You can’t. How can you prevent someone from entering the wrong GPS coordinates? You can’t.”

But at least GPS will give U.S. forces some improvement. For the British, who expect to send up to 30,000 troops to the Gulf, there has been little done, according to Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Larpent, who commanded a unit that lost 9 men to American fire in the last war.

“Why is it that our soldiers again will have nothing better to protect them than some very rudimentary system that we used without success back then?” he asked in a letter Sunday to a British newspaper.

The ‘al-Firdos' bunker

On Feb. 13, 1991, two Stealth fighters received orders to hit a hardened shelter in Baghdad that U.S. intelligence had identified as a “command and control bunker.”

The Air Force’s desire to hit sites related to Saddam’s ability to wage war had led intelligence officers to suggest this target several times — and each time it had been rejected for lack of evidence that it was, in fact, a military target. The bunker strike was approved after an Iraqi CIA asset confirmed it was a key military bunker. In fact, while debate still rages over the Iraqi military’s use of the bunker, the two bombs dropped through its reinforced roof incinerated more than 200 civilians (the Iraqis claimed the number was far higher).

The growing percentage of “precision” munitions in the U.S. military arsenal may diminish the number of civilians killed by missed targets. Andy Krepinevich, a military analyst at the Center Strategic and Budgetary Priorities in Washington, notes that only 7 percent of bombs dropped in the Gulf War were “smart” bombs. “About 35 percent were precision munitions in Kosovo, and that climbed to about 60 percent last year in Afghanistan,” he says. “The figure may be close to 80 percent if an Iraq war happens.”

Still, the “targeting error” problem — the one that chose Al Firdos for destruction — has haunted the Air Force ever since. In Kosovo, a Stealth bomber dropped a bomb on the Chinese Embassy after the CIA and DIA failed to coordinate data on what was in the building. A Red Cross headquarters in Kabul and a wedding party in northern Afghanistan suffered similar fates.

“I think there have been strides made in the relationship between intelligence agencies and battlefield commanders,” says Gen. Perry Smith. “But you’re going to have an occasionally goof like that because of human error or a lack of real close coordination between agencies. In a 30-day war of the kind being discussed, there will be at least one. That’s just the way it is.”

Scud hunting

The effort to detect and destroy mobile Scud missiles, in retrospect, received too little attention, according to Smith. “Schwartzkopf was not a big special forces fan. We had them but didn’t use them that widely,” the general says. “We learned a lesson; we learned we could not do this from the air.”

In fact, Schwartzkopf authorized the British SAS to begin hunting Scuds two days before the ground war began. He later agreed to allow the U.S. Delta Force to join them. Not one Scud launcher was destroyed.

“Now, after Afghanistan, we have a large number of special forces, better equipped and with better sensors. Reconnaissance drones, too, will play a role, lingering over areas and swooping down.”

So-called UCAVS - Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles like the Hellfire missile-firing Predator — also makes it more likely that “real-time” intelligence can be harvested. “They may not be able to knock out a Scud launcher,” the general says, “but they can keep it busy while the F-16s are on the way.”

Anti-missile defense

When Scuds were launched, “day of” accounts told a breathless tale of triumph, all built around the idea that Patriot missiles based in Israel and Saudi Arabia had killed most, if not all, incoming Scuds.

“After the war, we examined those claims, and as it turned out, they killed a few or possibly even no Scuds completely,” Smith says. Late in the war, that reality became painfully clear when a single Scud slammed into a crowded U.S. barracks in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, killing 28, mostly U.S. Air National Guard troops.

Since then, there have been two major developments. One is a new-generation Patriot PAC-3, designed to hit oncoming warheads, rather than merely destroying the missile and leaving the warhead to follow its own altered but still deadly trajectory.

The second is a joint U.S.-Israeli program that developed a whole new system: the Arrow anti-missile system. Israel now fields a dozen batteries of these missiles, which, unlike the last-ditch Patriots, are designed to intercept Scuds in their launch mode, far away from targeted cities. “We should now be able to shoot down somewhere in the neighborhood of two-thirds of oncoming missiles,” Smith predicts. “Of course, it only takes a single missile with a chemical warhead to change the geopolitics. But this is a huge advance over where we were 12 years ago.”

Medical issues

Beyond the obvious dangers of a battlefield, the military found itself criticized harshly after the Gulf War on two fronts: inadequately preparing troops for exposure to dangerous chemicals — including biological and chemical weapons — and overusing amphetamine “Go Pills” used by pilots to stay alert on long missions.

During the war, Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson reported in his book, “Crusade,” pilots of the 53rd Tactical Air Squadron based at Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia, became psychologically addicted to the pills. The pace was so ferocious, Atkinson reports, that an effort by the squadron’s commander to ban the pills had to be abandoned.

In Afghanistan, two pilots involved in a friendly fire incident involving Canadian troops recently claimed their judgment was impaired by “go pills” they were required to take, a charge the Air Force denies. Perry, the retired Air Force general and a former fighter pilot himself, says the long distances needed to reach the battlefield in Afghanistan may be partly to blame. “That should not be a major issue in Iraq,” he says.

More serious is the Gulf War Syndrome issue. Soon after the war, U.S. and British troops began complaining of debilitating symptoms. There still is no scientific agreement on what causes the illnesses, which range from joint pains to memory loss to partial paralysis. Some blame the bio-warfare vaccinations administered before the war. Others wonder whether destroying stocks of Iraqi chemical or biological agents might have done it, or even exposure to the oil fires that raged. Whatever the cause, reports from the GAO and the Institute of Medicine and a variety of other sources blame the Defense Department for not taking the issue seriously, for attempting to deny the existence of the issue and ultimately for failing to safeguard troops.

Given the uncertain root of the problem, experts say, there is no certainty that a second rash of such illnesses can be avoided. However, the military’s stock of protective chem-bio suits, and its ability to detect such agents, is vastly improved.

Mine warfare

Few now remember, but during operations intended to trick Iraq into believing that U.S. Marines would land in Kuwait, two major Navy vessels - the Aegis cruiser U.S.S. Princeton and the amphibious assault ship U.S.S. Tripoli - very nearly were sunk by Iraqi mines. Since that incident, according to CBSA’s Krepinevich, mine warfare officers have tried without success to get a major modernization of the World War II-vintage minesweeping fleet.

“This is one place where progress is almost nil,” he says. “This is not a glamorous use of funds, obviously, and it is a problem that hasn’t been addressed.”

The sinking of a cruiser or one of the aircraft carrier-sized amphibious assault ships would not have changed the course of the war but might well have changed the public’s perspective of it.

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