Back this weekend to the situation where thirty years ago, Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and the US-led, NATO-based effort to evict him was only just starting. First things first; and we needed to acquaint ourselves with the military doctrine of the numerically strong and highly exerienced Iraqi army that we’d never before given a second thought to. We’d quickly established they had incorporated quite a lot from the Soviets, as well as being largely equipped by Russia; and there were even some faint echoes of British influence (see below) dating to the 1950s. In our arrogance and ignorance, though, we weren’t expecting them to have developed some home-grown innovations, that had been amply tried and tested in a decade of all-out conflict with Iran.
Last time we described one of these – switching between specialist generals to lead different phases of the same operation. This weekend we look at two more: one of less novelty but most notable for its very extreme manifestation; the other of genuine, eye-popping novelty and not a little ghastliness.
The first was, as just suggested, really only an extreme implementation of a well-known principle, namely, that you don’t ask tanks to drive very far on made-up roads. (a) They ain’t designed to run on hard flat surfaces, resulting in more maintenance outages; (b) they are not very fast; (c) their fuel consumption is truly appalling, particularly if you do take them up to full speed; and (d) they don’t leave the road behind them in very good condition for any other purpose – e.g. bringing up troops and supplies by truck, a rather important consideration in a campaign.
Additionally, tanks are capital assets and not to be wasted – even if the Iraqis had quite a lot, and the Iranians not so many. This final consideration led to the Iraqis seeing a powerful requirement for being able to switch their tanks rapidly from one front to another: use them for a breakthrough operation at point A, then switch them swiftly to point B for further service. Bottom-line? You need a vast fleet of tank transporters.
And that’s what they’d acquired: by some estimates, the world’s largest – to go with the world’s largest combat-experienced army! It thereby facilitated a major part of their operational doctrine: switching the location of tank forces in a trice between different phases of the same operation – rather like switching generals, in fact.
This was not wholly unprecedented in military logistical thinking, of course. We could note:
- WW1, where the Germans planned a lightning-fast knockout blow against France, to be followed by rapid redeployment across the entire continent for an assault on Russia by the same forces (even if it didn’t quite work out that way, of course). In that case it was the railway network that needed to be carefully developed in preparation.
- Israel’s strategy for dealing with its equivalent frontal duality, Egypt to the west and Syria et al to the east. Israel, too, has a large fleet of tank transporters to achieve the same effect.
Nevertheless, the Iraqi version was impressive. It was also more tactical in its nature than the two parallels I’ve offered above: both Germany and Israel saw their use of the same thinking essentially as being for a one-off, one-two combination punch of the highest strategic import – not really for day-to-day tactical deployment, which is what the Iraqis were capable of.
* * * * * *
I’ve kept you waiting for the gruesome one …
Saddam’s intended lightning strike against Iran in 1980 had, in the finest military traditions, become bogged down into a costly war of attrition. The Iranians had resorted to human-wave tactics using the berserker-fanatics of the Revolutionary Guard, and Saddam didn’t have any intention of trading numbers in that fashion. So, unsurprisingly given what we know about the man, his mind turned to chemical warfare. (Russian antecedents here, of course, and equipment also.)
But there’s a problem, as anyone who’s ever donned a ‘noddy suit’ and/or respirator will know. It ain’t half hot, Mum. And in temperatures of 40 degrees plus? Not just uncomfortable: actually and literally unbearable for more than a very short while. And Saddam was on the offensive; so he wasn’t just going to use the chemicals for area-denial, he was intending to have his troops fight through the chemicals directly following their deployment, to capture the ground. They had to be fully kitted-up.
Solution? Big blocks of ice (and all the logistics required to make and distribute them). In a front-line tent, a platoon of noddy-suited men would all huddle around a block to keep cool, until the last moment when, thus refreshed, they would be hurled into short, sharp action through the contaminated area, their ability to function fully-suited for at least a short while thereby greatly enhanced. Clever, huh?
The gruesome bit? Iraqi losses in some of these operations were very considerable (Really? – ed). Now, stemming from their pre 1960′s British influences, they raised infantry regiments on a territorial basis; and so from time to time, as for the Brits in WW1, they stood to lose a very large number of young men all from the same town or region, all at the same time. Iraqi tradition, as with many nations since time immemorial, is to recover bodies from the battlefield for burial at home. So they’d potentially be in the awkward position of returning hundreds of bodies for hundreds of funerals to the same town, all at the same time – and Saddam was by no means wholly secure in his political grip on the country. Not a happy political prospect.
So they used the ice on the return journey, so to speak, to preserve the bodies in order to get them back into morgues, whence they could drip-fed them back into their towns and villages over a prolonged period.
And the precedents for that? I rather doubt it …
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