The expected conditions under which the US military will campaign in the twenty-first century differ markedly from those it has experienced during most of the years of America’s post-9/11 wars. That this perhaps seems obvious makes it no less important; recognition of that fact is far different than preparedness for it. These new conditions include disrupted access to space-based platforms, offensive and defensive cyber operations, disrupted communications at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, and a constant battle over information and messaging. Maneuver might begin with seizing and securing positions of advantage for long-range fires in order to both crack an enemy protected zone and establish a protected one of our own.

I recently had the great privilege of addressing the commander and senior staff of US Central Command on this subject during an off-site professional development seminar. My talk was part of the CENTCOM commander’s effort to establish and refine a base of knowledge in his staff on campaigning in a distant theater and against a foe who will contend with the United States across all domains. My contribution to this effort was to describe—from my personal perspective having served as the J-5 of the Combined Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC) during the initial invasion—how Third Army executed operations at the outset of the war in Iraq, under the direction of OPLAN 1003V, the CENTCOM plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

Fighting the CENTCOM OIF campaign plan occurred under conditions of change based on political redirection, enemy action, and the contribution of coalition partners in phases III and IV of the initial campaign and CFLCC major operations plan, COBRA II. COBRA II was the name of the Third Army/CFLCC major operation plan supporting 1003V. The reality of policy and political interaction with the conduct of operations and campaigns cannot be ignored.

Building the Plan

If there was ever a doubt in the truth of what Clausewitz offered in On War—“that war is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means”—it should be accepted as a fact based upon our experiences since 2003. Commanders and planners of the campaigns in the future must expect to answer questions akin to those faced by planners before the OIF plan 1003V was even approved. For example, in 2002 I arrived at Fort McPherson, Georgia, assigned as the J5 of the Combined Forces Land Component Command. I asked the lead planner a question: Who was working on what we would do after we got to Baghdad?

The senior planner looked at me through his tired eyes and told me no one was working on this part of the operation. I asked him what we were working on and he handed me a piece of paper. Written on it was,

We have a brigade on the ground. Why can’t we go now? – Wolfowitz.

My first reaction was amusement as I thought the lead planner was kidding me. I admired him for being able to retain a sense of humor under stress. I laughed and told him this was funny, but after all I was the colonel and needed to know what were we working on. He shook his head and told me that answering this note from the deputy secretary of defense was what the plans team was working on.

Planners of future campaigns and major operations must hone the ability to talk to policymakers and explain what can and cannot be done with a range of forces. Clearly, even as powerful a formation as an armored brigade combat team was in 2002 could not sustain itself from Kuwait to Baghdad, much less secure the city. We had to get across to policymakers in the Office of the Secretary of Defense what it would take to maneuver, fight, and most importantly sustain the force needed to seize and then secure the city. We also had to balance our answer of what a brigade could reasonably be expected to do with the associated risk to the mission we would incur. In doing this we had to lay down the basis for establishing the force we needed to at least start with a reasonable chance to attain the stated policy objectives of the operation.

These policy objectives, as specified in OPLAN 1003V, were:

  1. A stable Iraq, with its territorial integrity intact and a broad-based government that renounces WMD development and use and no longer supports terrorism or threatens its neighbors.
  2. Success in Iraq leveraged to convince or compel other countries to cease support to terrorists and to deny them access to WMD.

The planners involved in the development of 1003V and COBRA II focused on policy objective one as it was from this policy objective that CENTCOM derived its military objectives. In turn, based on these military objectives and the specified tasks in the 1003V plan, CFLCC refined initial planning guidance through wargaming that resulted in the specified tasks to the Army’s V Corps and the Marines’ I MEF written into the Third Army plan, COBRA II.

The CENTCOM military objectives for 1003V were:

  1. Destabilize, isolate, and overthrow the Iraqi regime and provide support to a new, broad-based government.
  2. Destroy Iraqi WMD capability and infrastructure.
  3. Protect allies and supporters from Iraqi threats and attacks.
  4. Destroy terrorist networks in Iraq. Gather intelligence on global terrorism, detain terrorists and war criminals and free individuals unjustly detained under the Iraqi regime.
  5. Support international efforts to set conditions for long-term stability in Iraq and the region.

Wargaming the Plan

The conduct of operational art and the execution of higher tactics rests upon initial wargaming and, once operations begin, a continuous estimate of the ongoing situation. While conditions will change as the enemy reacts and policymakers interact with commanders, the true purpose of the conduct of operational art and execution of higher tactics remains to ensure the effective use of combat to attain the policy objectives. As Clausewitz told us, “Combat is the only effective force in war; its aim is to destroy the enemy’s forces as a means to a further end. That holds good even if no actual fighting occurs, because the outcome rests on the assumption that if it came to fighting, the enemy would be destroyed.”

Military objective one was the focus of the initial wargaming. Traditional action-reaction-counteraction wargames were not conducted by CENTCOM planners—at least none I participated in. We gathered at Transportation Command’s headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, and while we developed the TPFDL—the time-phased force deployment list—we also talked through the initial phases of the operation from the component level. Third Army planners did conduct wargames. The challenge of wargaming at the CENTCOM and land component command level is understanding the echelon to whom the planner is writing. A proper war game envisions how the fight begins, ends and is sustained two levels of command below the level of the headquarters conducting the war game.

From the Third Army perspective this meant planners and wargamers had to fight divisions and understand how a division fights. The land component headquarters sequences and sustains battles the results of which are linked to attaining the military objectives of the campaign. The headquarters to which the land component writes tasks is the corps level. Fundamentally land component wargaming fights divisions in order to task corps and MEF commanders. Policy objectives and anticipated enemy action play a role during these wargames.

Land component wargames also assist in determining the structure of the operations area—the width and depth of the operating zones of subordinate commands. Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the land component commander, designated V Corps as the land component main effort. He also initially directed that the V Corps commander would be in command of the fight in Baghdad. Thus, the entire city was in the V Corps zone of action. While wargaming results always predicted V Corps and I MEF would arrive in the vicinity of Baghdad around the same time, V Corps would direct the fight for the city. This demonstrated the operational art at the start of the operation: structure of the battle space, designation and support of the main effort, and designation of a land component reserve. Once the operation began the operational art decisions would involve adjusting the architecture of the battle space, reinforcing the main effort and, of course, determining when and where to commit the operational reserve.

Executing the Plan

Higher tactics, while related to operational art, are the domain of the corps and MEF commanders. There were two prime examples of higher tactics during the execution of COBRA II. These were the initial MEF operations around Nasiriyah in southern Iraq and the reframing of the V Corps attack near the Karbala Gap.

The initial concept of the operation of COBRA II called for a corps-level forward passage of lines between V Corps and I MEF to the west of Nasiriyah. V Corps would establish a bridgehead across the Euphrates River and, in keeping with the CENTCOM commander’s intent to bypass cities, I MEF would mask Nasiriyah. During the attack, 1st Marine Division seized bridges intact to the east of Nasiriyah and followed up by shifting the main axis of the I MEF attack, thereby not requiring V Corps to execute an assault river crossing and establish a bridgehead. V Corps seized a bridge west of Nasiriyah and handed it over to Task Force Tarawa of I MEF. The I MEF attack, directed by Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, continued apace to the north toward al-Kut and Baghdad.

When the anticipated shamal—a heavy wind that often produces sandstorms in the region—descended upon V Corps and I MEF, coupled with the emergence of irregular forces along the lines of communication, there was a tactical pause in operations. The tactical pause was necessary because—as Brig. Gen. Bill Weber, assistant division commander for support of the 3rd Infantry Division, stated—although the logistical requirements to sustain the division’s advance onward to Baghdad were in place, the drive needed more forces because all three of the division’s brigades were committed at the time. 1st Brigade was committed around Samawah, 3rd Brigade was securing Talil Air Base, and 2nd Brigade was committed to an attack toward Najaf. To sequence and sustain the upcoming battle V Corps needed more forces to ensure the division arrived at Baghdad with all three of its brigades. McKiernan supported this pause in order to sustain the tactical forces, ensuring these would reach Baghdad in the strength needed to carry the city.

Enemy action here caused the V Corps commander, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, to reframe his attack. McKiernan committed the reserve, the 82nd Airborne Division headquarters and one brigade, to V Corps, reinforcing the main effort. Wallace directed the 3rd Infantry Division to attack through the Karbala Gap, the 101st Airborne Division to attack into Samawah, and the 82nd Airborne Division to attack along the lines of communication. Wallace and Conway executed higher tactics to perfection, the end result being that both the 3rd Infantry Division and the bulk of the 1st Marine Division arrived in the vicinity of Baghdad.

Policymaker attention came into play because any pause was not acceptable to Washington. Further, Wallace stated to reporters that the enemy he was facing at the time was not the type of enemy wargames had portrayed. Journalists Jim Dwyer of the New York Times and Rick Atkinson were embedded with V Corps headquarters and were traveling with Wallace. A few days previously, Wallace was speaking with the two reporters. At the time, Wallace and V Corps were coming to grips with the changing conditions of the fight toward Baghdad and along the lines of communication from Kuwait forward. Both reporters published articles on March 28, 2003. Dwyer reported,

The removal of the Iraqi government is likely to take longer than originally thought, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the commander of the Army forces in the Persian Gulf, said today. “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against, because of these paramilitary forces,” General Wallace said. “We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight.”

The secretary of defense questioned why Wallace was in command, and McKiernan flew to Qatar to speak with CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks and encourage him not to relieve Wallace of command during the drive to Baghdad. Commanders and staffs in future, twenty-first-century warfare must be prepared for this kind of action.

Working with Coalition Partners

The inclusion of coalition partners, which was called for, also materially influenced the execution of the plan, especially during the development and conduct of Phase IV of the 1003V plan. Two examples include the refinement of divisional structures for Phase IV execution and the consideration of national rules of engagement.

There were two force development conferences for Phase IV conducted during the execution of 1003V. These were the British conference May 8-9, 2003 and the Polish conference May 22-23, 2003. The British conference was held at the UK Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood, and attended by officers from Denmark, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Norway, Romania, and the Netherlands.

I met British Lt. Gen. John Reith at the door of the conference building. Reith immediately introduced me to a Spanish vice admiral, the senior Spanish Ministry of Defense representative. Reith very clearly wanted my support in convincing the Spanish that they should agree to serve in the Multinational Division Center-South area with the Poles. The Spanish admiral was equally clear the Spanish would not consider options other than ensuring that their area of operations would be in the south and within a one-hour round-trip flight from the Spanish hospital ship that would be docked near the port city of Umm Qasr. I told Reith we would not achieve a decision at the conference as it was clearly going to be a political decision on the part of the Spanish.

The British object was to convince the Spanish that as a “first tier” NATO nation it was Spain’s duty to join with the Polish-led multinational division and not the UK division. At the time, I believed the British had the exact force they wanted in the exact Iraqi governates where they wanted them so the addition of the Spanish brigade would entail an expansion of the UK-led multinational division zone of operations. I left the NATO politics to Reith and concentrated on convincing the Spanish vice admiral that the Qadisiyyah governate was within the medical evacuation helicopter range of Umm Qasr. The Spanish agreed, with the caveat that they would command Multinational Division Center-South, the division the Poles were slated to command. Our British cousins retained a smooth operating ability and focused on what their interests were, to my disadvantage because neither the Office of the Secretary of Defense nor Joint Chiefs of Staff representatives had any guidance to offer about these conferences. The Poles were very professional about this development and the rather curt pronouncements made by the admiral. Reith successfully deferred decision and details until the conference in Warsaw.

At the Warsaw conference two weeks later, Rear Adm. Richard Jaskot represented the Department of Defense. Jaskot told me that the United States will “pony up forces if the Poles can’t fill out their division.” He attributed this to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Jaskot went on to tell me no American at the conference held the authority to commit to this. We would “let the dust settle” but “must be prepared for this eventuality as the United States will not let the Poles fail.” Jaskot also told me his goal was to fill out the Polish division without US troops. I was rather happy at this since this was news to me and the other representatives of CENTCOM. The morning session of the conference was dedicated to opening remarks and presentations.

A Spanish officer said he could only commit liaison and staff officers at that time to the multinational division. He had no authority to commit combat forces at present but he felt this authority would come after the Spanish elections, which were slated for May 25, 2003. This is yet another example of how the use of force is an extension of policy, and policy (and politics) will determine the size of the force committed in its name.

The second day of the conference was especially revealing. The Spanish came back to the conference and indeed offered a brigade headquarters, pending governmental approval, and one infantry battalion. They also demanded command of the division as they would send a major general, but did not offer a headquarters and staff. The Poles were very gracious in dealing with the Spanish demand to immediately command the division. They explained that command of the division was a national priority given the Polish army was split on the mission, as was the greater population of Poland. It was very important politically for the Poles to have a Western European unit within the multinational division. The Poles proposed that the Spanish command the multinational division during the second year of the mission, pending a Spanish government decision to send a division headquarters. The can was kicked down the road. The successful end result was that the Poles potentially gained the third brigade headquarters they needed for their scheme of maneuver. The actual commitment of the Spanish brigade took some time to nail down, which highlights that assembling a coalition whose national interests would only somewhat coincide was not easy.

Rules of engagement reflect the level of commitment of a force to a task and the degree of risk a national government is willing to undertake. Rules of engagement for an expected nation-building period were soon found to be inadequate for conditions on the ground. All of the national contingents in Iraq as a part of the “coalition of the willing” had different rules of engagement. National governments expected to be a part of a peacekeeping or nation-building effort. Most of the national conventional forces were allowed to return fire if fired upon, but only to the extent of breaking contact and withdrawing from an engagement. These forces were not allowed to undertake offensive operations and were even prohibited from pursuing ambushers.

Planning and executing operations for the remainder of the twenty-first century must account for national rules of engagement and the policy objectives, as far as they can be determined, for coalition and allied governments. These objectives will determine the type of tasks assigned to coalition armed forces and, in some cases, limit their use in offensive or defensive operations. The constraints and restraints on the use of other nation’s forces must be determined, when possible, before D-Day and the start of operations.

Campaigning in the twenty-first century will be as challenging as any campaigns conducted throughout US history. US forces will undoubtedly be going to the war, thus sequencing and sustaining execution over distance. Planning for and executing CFLCC major operation COBRA II under the campaign structure of Operation Iraqi Freedom highlights the challenges involved with sequencing and sustaining operations under conditions ranging from answering policymakers’ inquiries to weather changes and from the involvement of coalition partners to the changing action and composition of the enemy. The conduct of the opening and subsequent battles reinforced the need for general staff officers and commanders to conduct continuous running estimates of the situation. Then and now there is no such thing as one decision being final; as conditions change, US and associated coalition forces must be physically and intellectually agile enough to respond while focusing on accomplishing the mission assigned. Returning to Clausewitz’s counsel: “To bring a war, or one of its campaigns, to a successful close requires a thorough grasp of national policy. On that level strategy and policy coalesce: the commander-in-chief is simultaneously a statesman.”

The necessity of conducting operations under the unblinking eye of 24/7 media as well as social media, multiple observers with multiple different perspectives, will require an equally aggressive inform-and-influence operation. With that in mind, a final piece of advice, once more from Clausewitz:

Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst. The maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect.

Col. (ret) Kevin Benson, PhD, commanded from company to battalion level and served as a general staff officer from corps to field army. He was the CFLCC J5 (Plans) at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the director of the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is currently a Modern War Institute adjunct scholar.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Sgt. 1st Class Luke Graziani, US Army