Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Other Gulf War Syndrome

The 1990-1991 campaign known as the Gulf War ousted Saddam's forces from Kuwait after about one hundred hours of ground combat. The swift armor attack had been preceded by 5 weeks of sustained air strikes against air defenses, air fields, command and control centers and concentrations of troops and tanks. Histories of the conflict unfolds almost like a classroom exercise on U.S. AirLand Battle Doctrine - and this is the problem. Desert Storm was an exception that proved the rule. This little war was perceived as neat and clean and the minimal casualties as a triumph of technology and training over the fog of war. This "success syndrome" would soon haunt the pentagon as messy reality soon intruded.

Although the pentagon chose to congratulate itself on a job well done and bask in the afterglow of seeing  a generation of training, procurement and doctrine come to fruition as if on cue, storm clouds were already gathering to rain on the military's parade. Before President H.W. Bush left office you sent troops to Somalia as part of a U.N. humanitarian mission to help get food to starving Somalis who were being terrorized by Islamic militants with loose ties to a little known organization called al-Qaeda.

The little mission in Somalia became big news when the Clinton administration decided to send Task Force Ranger in pursuit of some of the militant leadership. The ensuing television images of burning helicopters and American soldiers being dragged through a dusty street shocked the public leading to the firing of the Secretary of Defense and a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. This was war: ugly, bloody and brutal. We had learned a valuable lesson; or had we?

At just the time when the Pentagon should have been reevaluating its doctrine, weapons and training priorities the victory in the Gulf solidified the conventional war way of doing business.  To add insult to injury this was also shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union so politicians were scrambling to transfer suddenly unnecessary military spending on pet projects.  The 1990s was the Pentagon's lost decade in which soldiers and weapons were cut by a third and a general feeling of security set in as people tallied up the "peace dividend."

Many in the military are aware of the "moon landing syndrome." This is reaction U.S. personnel encounter from friendly foreign forces when things do not go as scripted.  The WWII generation did not experience this, but after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969 expectations changed. "You landed people on the moon, but you can't...?

I had trouble with the fact that when U.S. forces went into Afghanistan in 2001 the Army did not have enough heavy helicopters that could fly at Hindu Kush altitudes, that Army and Navy personnel had trouble talking to one anther because their radio systems were not the same and that retired CIA officers were brought out of retirement because there were not enough Dari and Pashto speakers.

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