Friday, February 23, 2007
Take a look at this image, from Google Earth. I found it while dinking around this afternoon. It's the location of the Gulf War Battle of 73 Easting, almost sixteen years ago to the day, on the night of February 25-26 1991, when the US VII Corps caught up with one of the three Iraqi Republican Guard armored divisions, the Tawakalna Division and literally kicked their butts in a few hours. Click on the image to see it larger, and use the coordinates to help you zoom in with Google Earth if you want to check out the battlefield. This particular image is, I believe, the graveyard of the Iraqi 12th Armored Division, left behind to guard the rear of the Tawakalna Division while the Republican Guard units tried to retreat back into Iraq. I believe this division was destroyed mostly by Apache helicopter, with some assists from M1A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
I've looked further to the north, where the three Tawakalna battalions got theirs, but the density of destroyed vehicles is very low although there are hastily prepared fighting positions where they're suppsed to be. Perhaps the Iraqis salvaged the destroyed tanks after the war, starting at the north and working their way southward.
Despite the impression that we have of Iraqis being most militarily adept at surrendering, the Guards divisions were actually pretty tough customers who tried to slug it out with the American forces. Remember, these are the same tank units that defeated the Iranians for a decade. Their biggest handicap was lack of intelligence; looking at the most-southern fighting positions shows that they were expecting the attack from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to the south and east, and were completely surprised by our forces to the left. Coalition forces also had the advantage of superior equipment, training, and communications. Our tanks could detect and destroy their tanks beyond the range that they could even see us through their gunsights. In these battles, the first indication the Iraqis had that US armored forces were nearby was having one of their tanks blow up spectacularly.
One of the tactics used by the Iraqis as the battle raged on was to not power up their tank, instead letting it remain at the ambient temperature and thus be mostly invisible to our thermal sights. One of the US units reported coming over a small ridge and seeing 'basketballs' appearing and disappearing... and realizing these were the heads of Iraqi tank commanders coming in and out of their turrets quickly spread the word to shoot below the basketballs... ouch!
The smarter Iraqis kept their tanks cold and their heads down. After US vehicles would roll past these dormant tanks in the night, the Iraqis would crank their turrets around by hand and shoot us from behind. It was an effective tactic, but once a shot was fired the tank's temperature changed enough to become clearly visible on our thermal sights and most of these tanks only got off one shot before they were destroyed. Unfortunately, US tanks adjacent to those hit turned their turrets around to engage the bypassed Iraqis, leading to several incidents of fratricide, or "friendly fire" deaths when their gun flashes firing westward were mistakenly identified as enemy fire and engaged by oncoming US tanks to the westward.
After the destruction of the Tawakalna Division, the next Guard unit encountered was the Medina, leading to the Battle of Medina Ridge, the largest tank-on-tank battle in the history of the US Army. I think that only the WWII Battle of Kursk between the Soviets and the Germans was larger.
I think a case can be made that the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of the Gulf War and the lopsided US victory. Why? Because the Soviets were in Iraq supporting their client state with technical advisors and the latest and greatest Warsaw Pact armament. The Soviets always outnumbered the US in Europe, just as the Iraqis outnumbered us in Iraq, however US military strategy was predicated on the fact that large conventional battles would always be against numerically superior enemies like the Soviets and the Chinese. And yet, we defeated the fourth largest army in the world in less than 100 hours, while suffering more casualties in traffic accidents at home than we did on the battlefield. I think the Soviet leadership saw that all of their military spending, the decades of deprivation of their people, the lack of progress in their country's standard of living... it was all a waste. They'd never be able to conquer us militarily, they lost 40,000 troops and wrecked their army in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and they were getting left further and further behind, while their earstwhile junior partner China was making great economic strides. Despite the Soviets' best efforts, the US was less than 100 kilometers from downtown Baghdad with nothing in the way but sand. And so we saw the coup attempt fail shortly thereafter, and the Soviet Union was no more.
One wonders about the lost opportunities of the 1990s, starting with our running from Somalia to our ineffective responses to Al Qaeda. What would the world have looked like with Bush had won instead of Clinton? Would 9/11 or something similar have happened?