Doing It Without Turkey

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2003

Turkey’s decision not to permit the use of its territory to open a “northern front” in Iraq will complicate the execution of the coming war against Saddam but will not prove insurmountable. Military planners always take account of contingencies, and one such contingency has always been the possibility that the Turks might not grant the American request to stage the troops and equipment of a “division plus” in southern Turkey.

Flexible plans always provide a “course of action B” if the preferred “course of action A” doesn’t work out. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers remarked recently, “My guess [is that] in the end, we will have U.S. forces in northern Iraq, one way or another.” So what is course of action B now that course of action A seems to have been foreclosed?

By all accounts, the plan of attack against Iraq is an example of what has been called “parallel warfare.” Rather than attacking sequentially, knocking out targets in one category before proceeding to the next, targets in all categories are attacked simultaneously. The objective of parallel warfare is to achieve paralysis. This is what analysts mean when they talk about a campaign of “shock and awe.”

Desert Storm was fought sequentially. A five-week air campaign preceded the ground assault. In contrast to that operation, planners apparently intend the forthcoming war to be an effects-based operation, the goals of which include the rapid isolation of Saddam and his inner circle from both his military commanders and the Iraqi people, neutralization of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and seizure of Iraqi oil fields in order to prevent their destruction by Saddam’s henchmen. To achieve these goals as quickly as possible with minimum losses to allied forces, planners envision the simultaneous application of precision air and cruise-missile strikes, special-operations “takedowns” of high value sites such as WMD storage facilities, and rapid seizure of territory by conventional land forces.

Before the Turkish parliament’s negative decision, the land component of the plan was designed to confront Saddam with a two-front war. The main attack would come from Kuwait in the south, dropping off forces to invest Basra while continuing the main drive toward Baghdad. Simultaneously, an allied force spearheaded by the Army’s 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) and elements of the helicopter-mobile 101st Air Assault Division would strike south from Turkey with the objective of seizing the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields, as well as stabilizing the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. (See a map of Iraq here)

It should be noted that, even with the participation of Turkey, this option always involved risks. First, the area of northern Iraq along the Turkish and Iranian borders is very mountainous. There are only a limited number of roads through these mountains suitable for tanks and armored personnel carriers, making them likely candidates for Iraqi mining and other forms of interdiction. While one mission of special ops and other light forces would be to prevent such interdiction, any Iraqi success here would slow an advance by an armored force such as the 4th Division.

Second, there are substantial logistical challenges to sustaining an armored force over the distances required by a strike to the south from northern Iraq. An armored force requires tens of thousands of gallons of fuel and water daily. Logistics has always been one of the great strengths of the U.S. military, but sustaining an armored force over long supply lines in mountainous terrain is never easy.

If in fact the Turkish decision stands, the 4th Division will probably redeploy to Kuwait to support the main ground attack. If Saudi Arabia were to permit the use of its territory for ground operations, it might be possible to swing forces around through the desert to the west, an operation that might be reminiscent of the “left hook” of Desert Storm. But once again, logistical problems would loom large, and it would take a long time to prepare for such a complex operation.

But even if the Turks do not reconsider their decision, we can still form a northern front by deploying the 101st Air Assault Division and airborne units directly into northern Iraq. The 101st is highly mobile and extremely lethal. Since the division is helicopter mobile, it is not vulnerable to the same sort of interdiction that can slow an armored attack through mountain passes. But, like an armored force, its logistical requirements are high.

In conjunction with the 101st, airborne units could also be used in the north to seize oil fields to prevent their destruction. The second brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division is already in Kuwait and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vincenza, Italy is preparing to deploy.

In the past, the idea of inserting an airborne unit without the prospect of a rapid linkup with heavy forces would have invoked visions of “a bridge too far” (which is what happened in Operation Garden, when the first British 1st Airborne Division was destroyed during its failed attempt to seize the bridges over the Rhine at Arnhem in September 1944), but helicopter mobility and the ability to provide massive air support to units on the ground minimizes the risk of such an outcome.

The coming war with Iraq will be quite unlike anything we have seen to date. It would be great to have Turkey as a staging area for a northern front, but as Gen. Myers said, there are other options available to us in northern Iraq. The lack of Turkish support is unlikely to derail the success of allied arms against Saddam.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.