Iraq's Defense of Kuwait and the Battle of Kursk

By Maj David W. Szelowski, USMCR - Originally Published Jan 1991

As it becomes more and more apparent that the United States could go to war in the Gulf, it is important for us to review just what kind of defenses our forces would encounter there. If history is any indication, a battle very similar to the one we're preparing to fight today was fought nearly 50 years ago along the Eastern Front.

It is dangerous to predict the nature and outcome of battles yet to happen; however, historical examples are sometimes useful in order to highlight specific problems. News reports to date of Iraq's defense of Kuwait lead to some interesting particulars. As reported, Iraqi forces are dug into three defensive lines, each with tank redoubts and machinegun bunkers. Extensive minefields up to 400 meters in depth, with antitank ditches and barbed wire entanglements support these defensive lines. In addition to these arrangements, mobile armored reserves are prepared to seal any breach created. During the Iran-Iraq War, similar defensive arrangements were used by Iraqi forces with deadly effect.

While it is true that Iraqi force structure is based loosely upon the British brigade system, Iraqi military doctrine stems from a mix of Soviet, Indian, French, and their own indigenous experience. Against a well-armed mechanized opponent, most would agree that a defense in depth is required. Such a defense needs to be supported by highcaliber, mobile counterattacking forces. Such counterattacks could, in theory, lead to future offensive operations.

Preparation for a Showdown
So, in looking into our crystal ball for the future, let's look to the past. In 1943, German field commanders on the Eastern Front viewed the Kursk Bulge as an opportunity to straighten their defensive lines and destroy considerable Soviet forces. Hitler, in particular, felt the opportunity was at hand to destroy a significant part of the Soviet army and radically change the nature of the war.

Hitler based this decision to attack at Kursk upon his political situation at the time. He needed a victory to keep his allies in line. He changed the very nature of the operation from a quick strike at Soviet forces when defensive preparations were minor, as Gen Manstein wanted, to a well-prepared, deliberate assault. German troops would wait. They waited to be reinforced and reequipped. Commanders studied and trained for the expected moment when the two armies would clash. As a result, individual troops underwent grueling (raining programs. As one German general observed at the time, no battle has heretofore been so well prepared for.

The Germans relied upon superior equipment and technological advancements to make up for their lack of numbers (see Figure 1). Armadas of state-of-the-art aircraft armed with tank-killing cluster munitions and cannon would be in direct support ol German assaults. The new Panther and Tiger tanks were rushed out of factories straight into the hands of Panzer troops. Infantry received the new Panzerfaust antitank rocket, which fired a tankkilling shaped charge over 30 meters.

Unfortunately for the Germans, all of this required significant time. The date for the assault slipped and with it, the opportunity for success. Originally the assaults were to begin in May, but, ultimately, were postponed until July. The Soviets were not idle, however. They had learned the bitter lessons of the previous two years, and into the Kursk salient they rushed thousands of troops, tanks, artillery, and antitank weapons. Three main defensive lines were established, with a mobile reserve for local counterattacks and a strategic reserve for operations as directed. The total depth of Soviet defenses reached un to 110 miles. Extensive minefields as dense as 5,000 mines per mile of front were laid, as were vast quantities of barbed wire. Antitank artillery and antitank rifles, supported by dug-in tanks, formed "pack fronts," a tactic borrowed from the Germans (see Figure 2).

And they dug. The local population of 100,000, later supplemented by an additional 200,000 laborers, was pressed into service to dig antitank ditches, 3,000 miles of trenchlines, and roads. Main positions were dug-in and camouflaged as were alternate positions. Decoy positions were also established so that prep fires would be spread out. Finally, elite armored divisions were positioned behind these defensive works to act as a counterattack force or to take the offensive as the situation warranted. Topographical surveys were also made for thousands of tank and artillery guns so that each square meter could be contested. The Soviets had partisans working in the German rear as well; this caused material damage and drained much-needed German combat strength from the front. In addition, they had a spy in Hitler's headquarters. To this day, no one knows who it was, but the information about the Germans' forthcoming offensive was well known to Moscow.

The Battle Begins
The opening of the Battle of Kursk saw offensive Soviet airstrikes and massive counterartillery fire. The German assault timetable was disrupted and confusion resulted. Lead armored elements quickly bogged down in Soviet minefields and tank-killing zones. The new German tanks suffered numerous mechanical problems of the type usually associated with raw equipment, leaving some advance units without their heavy armor. German infantry became separated from its tanks causing German tanks to become victims of Soviet tank-hunting infantry teams. Soviet artillery and dug-in tanks, which largely survived the German prep fires, succeeded in further separating infantry from tanks. Minefields were also effective in slowing down armored/ infantry assaults, allowing the Soviet pack fronts ample time to engage tanks.

Even though the Soviet air force was outclassed in the air, it did strike hard at German armored units. Although German air destroyed considerable numbers of Soviet tanks, it concentrated more on the Soviet's moving mobile reserve. German airstrikes against heavily fortified positions also went largely ineffective.

Despite these obstacles, the Germans were masters of the offensive art and had, in several places, made significant progress. On 12 July, the greatest tank battle of the war occurred when the Soviets launched their armored reserves, and 1,500 tanks clashed in an epic engagement. Confusion reigned supreme that day as tanks from both sides intermixed and kept their respective air arms from providing adequate support. At the close of the day, the Germans had advanced 25 miles at the cost of 10,000 troops killed and 350 tanks destroyed. The Germans had made progress but the cost in unit cohesion and attrition of tanks caused the advance to falter. Once the German offensive had ground to a halt, the Soviets effectively counterattacked, not only retaking territory lost at the beginning of the battle, but gaining much more as well. The Soviets had effectively shattered the German armored forces. Of the 70 German divisions taking part in the Kursk Campaign, 30 were destroyed. German losses alone totaled 70,000 killed or wounded, with 3,000 tanks, 1,000 guns, 5,000 motor vehicles, and 1,400 planes destroyed.

Does the Analogy Fit?
Southern Kuwait is not Kursk. Iraq does not have the vast resources the Soviets did in 1943. But many of the same conditions exist. First, Iraqi forces have had time to build up their defensive obstacles. Any smart Iraqi battalion commander would have had his "moles" digging in since at least 1 September. This has given defensive planners nearly four months of harrassment-free digging, minelaying, and wire stringing. They have had the opportunity to design a defense in depth on the ground of their choosing. In addition, they have had the luxury to conduct detailed fire support and barrier planning. To breach such a defense will require significant fire power and engineer assets. (See engineer focus on pp. 16-31 of this issue for more on this topic.)

Our intelligence sources will be able to detect only so much. Iraqi entrenching preparations for their armor reportedly will reduce infrared detectability by 80 to 90 percent. Underground bunkers are even more difficult to pinpoint as are minefields. The precision targeting needed for precision-guided munitions is unlikely. Dumb bombs are likely to strike unoccupied ground since narrow trenchlines are difficult to hit, a lesson learned during World War I. Lead elements will more than likely discover strongpoints only after the initial Iraqi round is fired. The quality of Iraqi troops needed for these types of defensive operations need not be high. As demonstrated during the Iran-Iraq War, low-quality troops can occupy outer defensive positions, allowing better-equipped Revolutionary Guards to conduct counterattacks or offensive operations.

While individual news items have tended to paint a rather murky portrait of Iraqi defensive lines, taken together, they can give us a fair idea of what we are likely to find in southern Kuwait.* The main defensive line is made up of three parallel defensive belts, with a total depth of 6 to 15 kilometers, supported by minefields as deep as 400 meters. Antitank ditches are quoted to be 3.6 meters deep and 2.5 meters wide. These obstacles are probably 1,000 meters in front of the armored revetments (see Figure 3). Iraqi armor, mostly T-55s, is likely to form pack fronts, i.e., concentrated antitank fires being directed by one commander against one target. Earthen berms along newly constructed roads and tracks should allow Iraqi tanks to move where the action is and fight from protected positions. Over 500 miles of new roads have reportedly been constructed for this purpose. Battalion strongpoints are likely, allowing the defenders to fire into the Hanks of breaching parties. Between these strongpoints will probably be "fire sacks," based on the Soviet model, where massed indirect fires are concentrated. All of these defensive arrangements are designed to grind down the attacker, allowing the tactical reserve to seal the breach.

It is estimated that there are 25 Iraqi divisions in Kuwait and southern Iraq. An additional 30 divisions could be brought from the Iran-Iraq border. Iraq's elite Revolutionary Guard, equipped with T-72s and BMP-2s, form the strategic reserve while older tanks, mostly T-55s, are deployed in the main defensive belts (see Figure 4). Artillery would be expected to be immediately behind these defensive lines and could be supplemented by rockets and aircraft.

Southern Kuwait is not Kursk. Nor is the Iraqi army as well equipped as the Allies in Saudi Arabia. The similarities in the defensive arrangements are, however, disturbingly alarming. In addition, like Kursk, the Iraqis have been allowed to complete their defenses unmolested.

Maneuver warfare doctrine requires flexibility and options. If political restrictions become arduous, such as restricting friendly movement into Iraqi territory, then attrition warfare will rule. There is a real possibility that siege warfare could become the order of the day. The Battle for Kursk has been considered the largest single airground engagement in history. This battle had every element of combat we consider important today. Using Kursk as a yardstick, we can see how costly an attack straight into the teeth of the Iraqi defense would be. Like stationary World War I battles, these trenchlines can be breached, but the cost in lives would be enormous. The main attractiveness of this type of defense is that even if massive artillery and air firepower are brought to bear, some defenders would survive.

At Kursk, the Soviets poured a tremendous amount of military power into a relatively small area. The rest of the Eastern Front in July 1943 was not as well defended. The Germans could have struck elsewhere to obtain their military and political objectives but chose not to. Like Kursk, Iraqi defenses are strong only along the Kuwaiti/ Saudi border. By my estimation, we have four options open to flank this type of defense: (1) An amphibious landing behind main enemy defensive lines; (2) a sweeping "left hook," by U.S. Army units, penetrating Iraqi territory and ending at Basra; (3) an air assault landing behind Iraqi defensive belts; or (4) some combination of all the above. In order to force Iraq to commit its reserves, it may even be necessary to assault or feint an assault on Iraq's main defensive lines before launching one of these four options. As Steve Biddle of the Institute for Defense Analysis has recently surmised, "Historically speaking, that sort of defense has been hard to defeat. It's not to say we can't do it, but it can't be done cheaply or quickly.”

*This section is based on information contained in the following list of publications: Los Angeles Times, 28 November 1990; U.S. News & World Report, 12 November 1990; International Defense Review, Vol. 23, No. 10, 1990; Jane's Defence Weekly, 3 November 1990; Identifying the Iraqi Threat and How They Fight (unclassified source published by the Army Intelligence and Threat Analysis Center).