New York Times article
Fighting the Old-Fashioned Way in Najaf
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
On the streets of Najaf, the lightly armored Marines proved more vulnerable and less effective than the Army, which overwhelmed the enemy with tanks and other armor.
By ALEX BERENSON
Published: August 29, 2004
NAJAF, Iraq — The Marines fought hard in the battle of Najaf, but the Army's role proved decisive. At stake is more than bragging rights. The success of the Army's tanks on the city's narrow streets in the last three weeks casts a new light on efforts to transform the Army by weaning it from the heavy armored vehicles that are a traditional mainstay.
The proponents of this transformation have pushed the Army to become more flexible and fleeter. They argue that lightly armed soldiers, provided with real-time information about enemy movements and supported by precision air power, can replace heavy armor, especially against enemies who lack their own.
"We can use precision weapons, in the form of bombs dropped by aircraft, in the form of snipers," said Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which studies defense issues. "Precision allows you to do more with less."
But the Najaf battle, which involved some of the heaviest urban combat the American military has seen since Vietnam, may offer a different lesson, according to some experts. Commanders and front-line soldiers say that the Army's tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles reduced American casualties while demoralizing the insurgents, who could not stop the heavy armor. A cease-fire Thursday ended the fight, but by then tanks and Bradleys had closed to within 100 yards of the Imam Ali shrine, where the insurgents were based.
The Pentagon should heed Najaf's lessons, said Douglas Macgregor, a former colonel and the most outspoken of a small band of military veterans who believe replacing tanks with lighter forces is misguided.
Col. Macgregor, a former Army Ranger and gulf war commander who retired in June from the National Defense University, acknowledges that he is not well liked at senior levels of the Pentagon. He said his critics overestimate air power in a rapidly changing battle and underestimate the lives saved by armor.
"The easiest thing to harm or kill is a human being with a rifle," he said.
In fact, in April the Army and Marines rushed dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers to Iraq because they were needed to fight the insurgency, which killed well over 100 American troops that month.
But Carl Conetta, director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, a Boston-based research group, said that he and most other supporters of transformation, who include Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have never argued that the Army should eliminate tanks. The question, he said, is how to build a more balanced force.
"You need the tanks - you just might not need that many," he said, noting that they are heavy, hard to maintain and consume huge amounts of fuel.
Moreover, the urban warfare in Najaf is only one kind of combat, Mr. Krepinevich said. The advantages tanks have shown here do not "mean that transformation isn't valuable," he said.
The battle for Najaf began on Aug. 5, with American forces fighting guerrillas loyal to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Najaf's old city, with narrow, easily mined streets and buildings that allow guerrillas to fire down on tanks, is in theory dangerous terrain for armored vehicles and better suited to fighting on foot.
Yet in Najaf, two battalions of the Army's tanks did what a lighter Marine battalion could not, inflicting huge casualties on Mr. Sadr's insurgents while taking almost none of their own. The 70-ton tanks and 25-ton Bradleys pushed to the gates of the Imam Ali shrine at the center of the old city. Meanwhile, the Marines spent most of the fight raiding buildings far from the old city. Even so, seven marines died, and at least 30 were seriously wounded, according to commanders here, while only two soldiers died and a handful were injured.
The difference the armor made was obvious to soldiers on the ground. "You spot an enemy in a building, you don't want to send guys in, you use Bradleys and tanks," said Specialist Marquis Harrell of the Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry. "We're glad to have 'em."
Military commanders here say they were somewhat surprised by the tanks' success.
"They myth that we've proven false is that heavy forces can't operate in an urban environment that in the past has been considered a light-fighter environment," said Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, commander of the First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry, which fought north of the shrine. Colonel Miyamasu emphasized that he was not trying to play down the contribution of the Marines.
The Marines have barred their commanders here from talking on the record. But some officers admit privately that armor made the difference in the fight. When the Marines finally entered the old city Tuesday night, they took four tanks, their only heavy armor, and borrowed several Bradleys from the Army.
The Marines traditionally try to integrate overwhelming air power with light infantry, the same doctrine that the advocates of the military's transformation say the Army should adopt. In theory, airstrikes can be carried out very quickly, once approved at headquarters. But aircraft are not always available, and concerns about civilian casualties can slow the approval process. In Najaf, the approval often took hours, and in that time American forces faced mortars and snipers.
The transformation idea is relatively new, and its biggest proponents are often civilian experts. But commanders and soldiers also like the idea of light infantry and fighting the enemy face to face. As a soldier in the armored First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry, said on Friday, the gung-ho aggressiveness of the Marines and the Army's light infantry "is a lot more fun than this."
But the Army should always be ready to use armor, even against lightly armed guerrillas, Colonel Macgregor said. "The idea in war is to crush your enemy," he said. "If you're in a fight with a fly, use a baseball bat."