A Perspective on DESERT STORM

by Col J. J. Edson, USMC(Ret)

The Gulf War was a great victory. It was also the source of vital insights on the importance of balanced combined arms teams and the need to recognize firepower, properly understood, as a prerequisite to maneuver and a preeminent means of collapsing an enemy.

There are at least two lessons that emerge as fundamental truths from DESERT STORM. They were alluded to by the editor in the March Gazette, and it is important to the future well-being of the Corps that they be understood and heeded. The first of these deals with firepower, the second with the overriding importance of balanced capabilities within combined arms teams. My intent is to expand on these lessons and reemphasize their importance.

FMFM 1, Warfighting provides the philosophical foundation for maneuver warfare, the new style of warfare that was officially adopted by the Corps in 1989 with the publication of the manual. Maneuver warfare’s roots reach back to efforts in World War I to find an answer to the statemate resulting from increased battlefield firepower. Maneuver warfare’s fundamental concepts include focusing on the enemy rather than terrain objectives, avoiding enemy strengths, attacking enemy critical vulnerabilities, acting more quickly than the enemy can react, using mission-type orders, and exploiting tactical opportunities uncovered by subordinate units. The goals throughout are to seize the initiative by a series of high-tempo operations, to create chaos and confusion for the enemy, and to destroy his cohesion and ability to react effectively. Bold, rapid maneuver supported by firepower is the principal agency for execution of this warfare style.

It would be a serious mistake to believe that DESERT STORM merely tested and validated the concepts set forth in FMFM1. What the operation did was reaffirm something that was already clear from earlier Arab-Israeli wars-technology over the last 20 years has created a revolution in firepower. Vastly improved reconnaissance, surveillance, and detection means can now locate critical targets of all types throughout an entire enemy country; precision-guided weapons of great lethality, accuracy, and range can then attack these targets. Unless the enemy has highly effective missile and air defenses, a high percentage of these targets can be quickly destroyed.

This is precisely what happened for the 43 days of Operation DESERT STORM. Having obtained complete air superiority in the initial hours of the operation, a massive number of aircraft sorties, as well as missile and artillery missions were launched against thousands of Iraqi targets carefully selected for their strategic, operational, and tactical value. Electronic warfare efforts reinforced this explosive assault.

Iraqi forces were quickly deprived of intelligence, their air arm put out of action, command and control centers destroyed, communications disrupted, supply dumps leveled, reserve units battered, weapons systems obliterated, bridges and roads destroyed. The attack created widespread chaos and confusion at every level. Attempts at maneuver by Iraqi forces rendered them more vulnerable, more exposed to immediate destruction.

As a result of these actions, the initiative passed entirely to coalition forces. In maneuver warfare terms the air campaign not only put the allies “inside” the Iraqi observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) loop but actually destroyed Iraq’s ability to employ an OODA cycle and carry out coordinated action. The systematic destruction or neutralization of selected critical targets simply collapsed the Iraqi forces, wiping out a significant part of their combat capability and much of their will to fight.

The principal goals sought by maneuver warfare doctrine were brilliantly achieved, but the job was done by firepower, not maneuver. What we witnessed is a demonstration of the new relationship between maneuver and firepower. Maneuver is no longer the sole or even the primary means of gaining and achieving decisive results. Indeed, unless firepower has done its work, unless enemy weapons systems are neutralized, maneuver in the face of prepared defenses is most apt to be a costly proposition. FMFM1 must be revised to reflect this and make perfectly clear that the commander has not one but two powerful tools as he seeks to collapse the enemy and thus avoid having to attack into the teeth of an effective defense. These twin tools are firepower and maneuver, and of the two the former is king.

Although the air campaign in DESERT STORM was key to the collapse of Iraqi forces, Allied ground forces were essential to the operation. They deterred the enemy from further advance, fixed his position, and thus secured the airfields from which much of the air campaign was waged. They reconnoitered and probed. Their firepower neutralized and destroyed tactical targets, contributing significantly to the collapse at that level. The ground forces breached obstacles and advanced to occupy the ground, accept the surrender, and disarm the defeated Iraqi forces. Ground force planning and execution appears to have been well done, but it is abundantly clear that the basic issue was decided long before the first Allied ground forces crossed the Kuwaiti border. The air campaign, in which 3d Marine Aircraft Wing played an important part, had done the collapsing.

The significance of the revolution in firepower is such that the Marine Corps might have been better advised to term its new 1989 style of fighting “Firepower Warfare” rather than “Maneuver Warfare.” Like maneuver warfare, firepower warfare would be much more than its name implies-a matrix of concepts including almost all those woven into maneuver warfare. It would, for example, seek out critical enemy vulnerabilities at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels and describe how these would be identified, located, and systematically attacked by a variety of firepower means. The distinction between the selective, precise targeting of firepower warfare and attrition warfare would be carefully drawn. And just as firepower plays a role in maneuver warfare, maneuver plays an essential but secondary role in firepower warfare. The point of this paragraph, however, is not to propose a name change,* but to emphasize that FAMFM 1, despite an occasional bone thrown to firepower, fails to reflect the new realities wrought by technology. The maneuver-firepower relationship has changed. In a growing number of threat situations, firepower must precede rather than follow maneuver. Properly understood and applied, today’s firepower is as far removed from attrition warfare as maneuver, and it can collapse an enemy more quickly, more effectively, and with far fewer casualties than can be accomplished by maneuver options. On many battle-fields its prior application will be indispensable if maneuver is to succeed.

It is unlikely that a force as vulnerable and ill prepared as Iraq will challenge the United States on a conventional battlefield in the foreseeable future. Media coverage has made the lessons of DESERT STORM available to everyone throughout the world. If the United States is challenged, it may well find that its firepower attacks on critical vulnerabilities are not so uniformly decisive; losses to integrated missile and air defenses and counterbattery fire can be anticipated. Firepower alone will not always produce the massive collapse seen in DESERT STORM. More of the task may have to be allocated to maneuver forces. Commanders then must be prepared to orchestrate their twin tools of firepower and maneuver in a coordinated, simultaneous effort. Against a competent, well-prepared enemy, this may prove costly and vastly more difficult than anything experienced in DESERTSTORM. Indeed, a stalemate may be the unavoidable outcome. But a force that does not grasp the essence of the fire-power revolution will suffer severely for this failure.

There is nothing new at all about the second fundamental lesson from DESERT STORM-that battles are most often won by balanced combined arms teams has long been recognized. It is folly to field a force that has asymmetrical vulnerabilities, a force that cannot counter one or more of the arms available to the enemy. It makes no difference whether the force involved is a corps or a company. If it cannot answer enemy artillery fire, resist attack by enemy armor, or defend itself against enemy aircraft, it can be subjected to the same fate as Iraq. It can be annihilated by a force that it is unable to engage or harm.

Thus an effective combined arms team is not created solely by incorporating the capabilities needed to deal with every arm of the enemy force. Those capabilities must also be immediately available at the levels where they are needed. If distances, command relationships, employment policies, poor communications, enemy electronic warfare assets, or anything else prevents, for example, the aviation combat element of a Marine expeditionary force from responding to a rifle company’s need for air defense, the company is an unbalanced, vulnerable, easily destroyed force for as long as that condition exists. The same can be said if that rifle company is attacked by artillery, mortar fire, or enemy armor. Thus the levels at which teams are balanced and the procedures that ensure capabilities are available where needed are crucial. This, of course, does not mean that forces have to be a mirror image of their enemies-far from it. It does mean, however, that they must have countering capabilities.

Despite these obvious realities and the vivid example of DESERT STORM, there are those who propose restructuring the Marine Corps as light infantry with reduced capabilities in terms of armor, artillery, and air assets. The Marine Corps cannot afford to limit its contributions to the low end of the warfare spectrum. Any military organization with missions of readiness and forcible entry that cannot compete on the modern conventional battlefield is of little value to anybody. Generations of Marines have adhered to the idea of task organizing-tailoring forces for the job at hand. Given the American style of warfare and what Americans expect for those who risk their lives on the battlefield, there will be but few situations in which light infantry is the preferred answer. If we do encounter an occasion in which technology, heavier weapons, combat support, logistic support, etc. are a disadvantage, Marines can quickly pare down to whatever level of lightness or reduced combat power seems appropriate. The important thing is to structure a Corps-however big or small-with units that can be properly balanced for any battlefield. Even if Marines are left with only enough people for two division-wing teams, they should be teams with the requisite capabilities to fight any equivalent-sized force that can be fielded against them. They must be balanced Marine air-ground task forces that can handle infantry, armor, artillery, and air threats; they must not have “critical vulnerabilities” that an enemy can exploit with minimum risk to himself.

The Marine Corps must think seriously about these issues. If the manner in which the Corps expresses its new style of warfare does not put firepower and maneuver in proper perspective, if its new style does not adequately reflect the revolution in firepower, if it does not realize that only balanced forces can survive on modern battlefields, and if it does not preserve capabilities that enable it to be useful across the spectrum of threats that may confront the Nation, then it will have failed in a fundamental way. A flawed warfighting philosophy will have led it to flawed decisions on structure and equipment.

The goal of FMFM 1 is to establish the foundation for Marine Corps doctrine and define a style of warfare. As such, it is a document of great importance. Making sure that it is absolutely right is now a matter of first priority.


*If the Corps decides a name change is in order, I would opt for Maj R. Scott Moore’s “MAGTF Warfare,” or in a nod to the importance of jointness, simply follow the Army’s lead with “AirLand Battle” modified as necessary by variations in force structure.