The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
More Books by James Dunnigan
Dirty Little Secrets
The Unknown Soldier Skills That Saved Lives in Iraq
by James Dunnigan
May 4, 2003
The Iraq war was notable for low coalition casualties. In fact, the casualties (killed, wounded missing) per division per day were about SEVEN. During the 1991 war they were 12 a day. By comparison, during World War II the daily losses per American division were usually over a hundred a day when in action. On the Russian front, it was often several hundred casualties a day for German and Russian divisions. The spectacular six week German conquest of France in 1940, saw their combat divisions taking 30 casualties (on average) per day. But during another spectacular military victory, the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli casualties the were 110 per division per day, and that actually went down to 90 a day during the less spectacular 1973 war. So by any measure, our guys have learned how to avoid getting hit.
But it was more than that. For over half a century, American troops have not had to worry about getting attacked from the air (except for the occasional friendly fire incident.) And in the last few decades, American troops have also reduced the major cause of casualties; mortars and artillery. While the U.S. Air Force is largely responsible for eliminating enemy aircraft, it's the army's much improved artillery equipment that has silenced most of the enemy guns and mortars. In the 1970s and 80s, American artillery introduced effective counterbattery radar (that detected enemy shells and calculated where they were coming from) and more effective ammunition and artillery. The MLRS rocket launcher proved, as expected, to be the ultimate weapon for destroying enemy artillery. The MLRS could cover a large area quickly, making it difficult for enemy artillery to "shoot and scoot" (fire and few rounds and then drive off to avoid the counterbattery fire.)
Another major change was the enthusiastic adoption of mobile warfare. This meant fewer instances when American troops would get stuck fighting heavily fortified enemy troops sitting behind mine fields and barbed wire. One reason the U.S. army didn't like getting stuck fighting in Vietnam was because it was everything they were not training for. Vietnam was lots of small, static, infantry battles, that produced lots of casualties. Hard to do a blitzkrieg on guerillas. Coming out of Vietnam there was a dedication to developing new ways of fighting, new methods that got the fighting over more quickly, with fewer friendly casualties.
At the same time, the American armed forces also began paying more attention to shutting down enemy command and control. This meant using electronic reconnaissance aircraft and ships in peace time to discover how enemy communications and radar systems worked. When war broke out, the first priority was now to shut down enemy communications and radars. Blinding and muzzling the foe meant that the enemy had a harder time controlling their own forces. America's armed forces became quite good at this, as was show in two wars with Iraq and in Afghanistan.
An all volunteer army also made a big difference. Every soldier either performed like a professional, or got tossed out. The officers also changed, adopting a more friendly attitude towards innovation and change. This is unusual for peace time soldiers, who realize that any untried technology could get them killed when they use it in combat for the first time.
An inept opponent also keeps your casualties down, and the Iraqis have long been known as the lest effective soldiers in the Arab world. But even the Israelis took over a hundred casualties per division per day when fighting the Egyptians and Syrians. A lot of that has to do with the difference in weapon quality between American and Iraqis. In 1967 and 1973, the Israeli tanks were not virtually invulnerable to enemy fire as American M-1s were in 1991 and 2003. Nor did the Israeli infantry have the excellent protective vests U.S. troops now have. It's likely that if Israel fought another war against an Arab army, their casualties would be closer to ten per division per day, rather than the 90 they suffered in the 1973 war. Israel has been reducing it's casualty rates. In the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the casualties were down to 25 per division per day. In the last two decades, Israel had adopted many of the same tactics and equipment as the United States, and kept their combat casualties down.
Keeping casualties down to less than ten per division per day is unique, but it should not be seen as a permanent fixture. Facing a more powerful and resourceful enemy will send the rate right back up. Fighting North Korea would be a good example. The terrain of Korea (lots of steep hills and narrow valleys) makes it hard to use mobile warfare. The North Koreans have spent half a century digging fortifications into the sides of those hills. But morale in the North Korean army is fragile, as is the command and control systems used to run the army. North Korea can be beaten, but not with casualties as low as seven per division per day. It might be something closer to ten times that, depending on a lot of things you can't quite put your hands on. Like surprise, unexpected tactics and good information about what shape the North Koreans are in. The important thing to remember is that while lower casualties for the better prepared force is a historical fact, experiencing historically low losses every time is not.