Moreover, U.S. armor specialists found that in war game activities and rehearsals, 12 mph was an optimal speed for an M1A1 Abrams MBT to advance in terms of maximizing both accuracy and in keeping the armored “battle box” formation composed of various field equipment together and synchronized. More specifically, the 12-mph speed for the Abrams tank was one of several smoothly riding interfaces between gear ratios, which provided for optimal firing stability. While there were additional smooth riding points at faster speeds, the 12-mph interface was preferable for linear formations of unlike vehicles in a brigade or a battalion in order to facilitate movement cohesion during an advance. Moreover, controlled speed maximized the opportunity to exploit the superior range of the Abrams, as one preferred to fire when an enemy T-72 was in range (3,000 meters); yet, with the Abrams out of range of the enemy’s gun (1,500 meters). Moving too fast in an Abrams with enemy armor buried in the sand to offset thermo imagery advantages by the American crew, one could happen upon a T-72 at 1,200 meters before actually sighting the tank. Thus, speed had to be carefully calibrated in order not to forfeit the competitive advantage in range, accuracy, and lethality.

Because the M1A1 rode smoothly at that speed [12 mph] its gyro-stabilization was optimized and the tank could fire accurately while moving—this yielded yet another operational capability unheard of in earlier wars: the uninterrupted advance of a great mass of armor firing accurately on the move into a defender who could not hope to achieve the same range or accuracy even from fixed or surveyed positions.

For the first time in history, massed forces were able to coordinate movement through Middle Eastern deserts, to include night maneuver and converge on targets in achieving tactical surprise. The Global Positioning System made possible by U.S. satellites operating in space created a military capability that was unknown to Iraqi commanders during Desert Sabre. This advantage was apparent during the Battle of 73 Easting on February 26, when nine M1A1 Abrams and 12 Bradley fighting vehicles of the U.S. 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment were tasked with scouting and establishing contact with the main Republican Guard defenses in order to provide battlefield intelligence to headquarters.

The three squadrons of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment came across forward elements of the Tawakalna Infantry (Mechanized) Division of the Republican Guard Forces Command (RGFC) not by road but by crossing the desert. The commander of the Republican Guard units, not knowing the Americans could navigate the desert using satellite signals, and at night, had expected the United States to utilize the roads in their advance. As such, he positioned his forces to defend against an approach via the only road available.

The Iraqi commander thought it ideal ground from which to defend. Unaware that the American units had received global positioning systems, he assumed they would move along roads to avoid becoming lost in the featureless desert, thus he organized his defense along the road by fortifying the village with anti-aircraft guns (used in ground-mode), machine guns, and infantry. The defense was fundamentally sound. He took advantage of an imperceptible rise in the terrain that ran perpendicular to the road and directly through the village to organize a “reverse slope” defense on the east side of that ridge. He built two engagement areas, or kill sacks, on the east side of the ridge, north and south of the village, emplaced minefields to disrupt forward movement and dug in approximately 40 tanks and 16 BMPs (infantry fighting vehicles) about 1,000 yards from the ridge, and destroy U.S. forces piecemeal as they moved across the crest.

Coming out of the desert from a direction the Iraqi commander did not think possible, U.S. forces caught the Republican Guard units (Tawakalna Division) by surprise. “In just 23 minutes E Troop destroyed approximately 50 T-72s, 25 armored personnel carriers, 40 trucks and numerous other vehicles, without suffering any casualties.”

In addition to the other technological advantages offered by the American Abrams MBT (Chobham armor, low profile, speed, range, and accuracy) was the depleted uranium high-performance M829A1 Service Sabot tank shell. U.S. crews used only training rounds in war games and rehearsals. Operation Desert Sabre was the first time they were allowed to utilize the Sabot tank shell. Any trajectory expectations for ranging the round that occurred during training fell by the wayside, as U.S. crews found the Sabot to be straight and flat as it was fired at their targets. Given that U.S. tanks could acquire and hit their opponents operating Soviet-supplied T-72s at 2,500 to 3,000 meters while the T-72s’ maximum range was 1,500 meters, Iraqi tank crews opted to strategically position their tanks in ambush, burying much of the tank in earth with only the turret visible to reduce the thermo-imaging capability of the American tanks.


The preferred option for Republican Guard tank crews was to position their tanks on the downward rise of terrain, which blocked the Americans’ ability to optically range (see and target) forward. Thus, the U.S. tanks would move forward, climbing the slight rise without being able to detect the Iraqi tanks, which for a critical few minutes would be below the Americans’ line of sight yet targetable by the Iraqi armor laying in ambush. Once the United States arrived at the crest of the rise and was prepared to descend along the downward slope, the Iraqis who had previously positioned their tanks between 500 and 1,500 meters from the crest would have the opportunity of firing first—prior to the Abrams range finder acquiring the now firing T-72. The sand surrounding the T-72, essentially burying the tank in sand except for the turret and gun, served to mask the thermal signature being emitted by the tank and its crew.

This tactic used quick speeds being generated by the Abrams to the advantage for the Iraqis, as U.S. armor moved swiftly forward on a rise without first detecting the presence of buried tanks. As the United States moved across the crest, the Iraqi gunners opened up. Thus, since the Iraqis intended to exploit the Americans’ penchant for speed, U.S. armor commanders found that a useful remedy to these traps was to proceed with caution while seeking to establish, in advance, the Iraqi ambush positions. This often required working jointly with Apache gunships and USAF A-10 close air support jets (Warthogs) as well as with surveillance aircraft and other equipment providing overhead imagery. When in doubt, a default position was relying on the established optimum speed for large formation advances and firing: 12 mph, which allowed the United States and their allies to carefully scout forward. Conversely to what armor units had learned in training and rehearsals, Schwarzkopf and his staff’s operational design was less concerned about losing a limited number of tanks than about losing the Republican Guard as a whole if the left hook did not trap them in the KTO. And to trap the Guard in the KTO would require speeds faster than 12 mph, particularly since CENTCOM planning assumptions included the need to keep armor operations under 100 hours.

Thus, at the strategic level, U.S. policymakers did not wish to allow Saddam to escape with his fangs intact (the Guard’s armor). This would only invite further strategic and operational problems in the not too distant future enabling Saddam to survive in a post–Desert Storm Iraq as well as keeping within his tool kit the military capacity for future operations against Saudi Arabia. For Franks, in command of the VII Corps, an additional operational planning assumption was important as well—the need to keep American casualties to a minimum. Franks’s assumption was not only tactically and morally sound but also that, at the strategic level, limited U.S. casualties would limit Saddam’s ability to use the casualties to discourage the American public. Schwarzkopf and his Jedi Knights obviously sought to keep U.S. and coalition casualties to a minimum as well.

Within the different levels of the continuum of war (strategy, operations, tactics), ideally one seeks to maximize unity of effort. In reality, as was the case with Desert Storm, there is a propensity for friction and significant disagreement regarding assumptions, methods, and how to arrive at the initially agreed-upon aims.

At the operational level, one seeks to organize, maintain, and execute with the commander’s intent (Schwarzkopf) as laid out in the operational design or campaign plan. As combat intensifies, previously constructed plans in some briefing room away from the battlefield seem less relevant to the troops and their commanders now under fire. However difficult, tactical execution (Franks) must align with the theater or operational goals, which in turn are aligned with strategic intent and aims. While it may seem at times illogical to follow strategically derived objectives usually generated by civilian political leaders, one needs to keep in mind that even Carl von Clausewitz recognized this main operative principle regarding the conduct of war: “War is a continuation of policy by other means.” Those policies, theoretically, have been rationally derived, and thus, the conduct of war must adhere to rationally designed state policy. If it does not, it has the tendency to devolve into unrelated chaotic violence unaccountable and unhinged from its original rational purpose.

In short, there is, or ought to be, a strong preference for tactical leaders in following the operational plan or design as laid out by the operational or theater commander. It becomes incumbent on tactical commanders subordinate to the theater commander to closely adhere to the plan. However, in the Western tradition, and adding to the difficulties, there is also a preference for instilling in tactical commanders an ability for independent decision making on the dispersed battlefield, which in turn generates swiftness of decisive action by allowing flexibility and adaptability contributing to commanders and troops’ ability to operate inside an opponent’s OODA-Loop. While the Western tactical commander, trained for adaptability, flexibility, and the ability to execute effectively (Auftragstaktik), within the fog and friction of war, is positioned to outperform his or her opponent(s), such independent mindedness can also move beyond the parameters of the operational plan. This is why the communication of the operational commander’s original intent is critical in achieving unity of effort and unity of command while allowing tactical subordinates needed flexibility.


These dynamics were clearly on display in the run-up to and action in the Battle of al-Busayyah (Iraq) on February 26, 1991. The operational plan for VII Corps in Desert Sabre called for bypassing pockets of resistance in the timely pursuit, entrapment, and destruction of the Republican Guard. The VII Corps, as planned, would push north 100 miles to the town of al-Busayyah then pivot eastward and seek out and destroy the Guard. However, upon approaching al-Busayyah, the commander of the U.S. 1st Armored Division (subordinate command of Franks’s VII Corps), Major General Robert Griffith, realized his line of march, as he approached al-Busayyah in the afternoon of February 25, and took his command directly through the town.

While the town had been strafed and rocketed previously by Apache gunships, al-Busayyah remained actively defended by Iraqi infantry supported by tanks and mechanized armor (Soviet BMPs) still in defensive positions and with orders to protect the town as it served as the headquarters of the Iraqi 26th Infantry Division. Realizing the operational plan was to bypass such an obstacle, Griffith consulted with his superior, General Franks, and requested time to reduce the town in order to enable the 1st Armored to proceed without leaving a force (however small) in its rear to potentially disrupt supply and lines of communication back to bases in Saudi Arabia. Franks concurred with Griffith’s decision. On the morning of February 26, the 1st Armored fired 1,500 artillery shells and 350 rockets at the Iraqi positions. The surviving Iraqi soldiers obstinately refused to surrender. At the core of the defenders was an Iraqi Special Forces battalion that, in coordination with a regular Iraqi infantry battalion, two armored brigades, and one company of T-55 tanks, remained ensconced in their positions although in a somewhat reduced state following the 1st Armored artillery and rocket barrage.

Schwarzkopf, famous throughout the U.S. Army for a temper that brought him the moniker “Stormin Norman,” was none too pleased. Griffith, now under orders from Franks, who had received pointed directions from Schwarzkopf to move forward, left a small tank force to deal with the obstinate Iraqi defenders, as U.S. airpower was brought to bear on an approaching Iraqi relief column aiming to reinforce the defenders at al-Busayyah. The Iraqi relief column never made it.

The tension and friction between the three levels of war are present even among the most competent of political leaders, strategic-level military commanders, and their operational and tactical commanders. An advantage for the coalition during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm/Desert Sabre was the level of experience and competence of the political leadership of the United States coupled with the unparalleled military proficiency of the officers and men (and women) who served in the coalition. The level of competence and experience was mirrored by the British, French, and within the ranks of many of the Arab coalition partners.

Franks and Schwarzkopf remained at odds and offered dueling accounts in the years that preceded Desert Storm/Desert Sabre. The U.S. system with the expectation of the primacy of the operational plan and commander’s intent juxtaposed with a strong preference for flexible, independent decision making among both senior and junior officers was the main cause of the friction rather than either of the two outstanding U.S. commanders, who, in pursuing their duty as they had been trained, brought about one of the most remarkable ground campaigns in either American or world history.

In the end, over a period of 43 days of offensive operations, Desert Storm/Desert Sabre rained destruction upon Saddam’s armed forces. Forty-two Iraqi Divisions were either destroyed or degraded to the point of being unable to conduct combat operations. Additionally, the entire Iraqi navy was sunk, and 50 percent of Iraqi combat aircraft were destroyed or forced into Iran, while 82,000 Iraqi troops were taken prisoners.

When the air operations started I had 39 tanks. After 38 days of the air battle I had 32 tanks. After 20 minutes against the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, I had zero tanks.

The success of allied forces in Operation Desert Storm convinced the Soviets that integration of control, communications, electronic combat and delivery of conventional fires had been realized for the first time.

Arab forces, in an apparent nod by the Americans toward public diplomacy, were the first to enter a liberated Kuwait City, as thousands of Iraqi forces attempted to escape north along Highway 8 only to be met by strafing and bombing runs conducted by coalition aircraft. As the images of the carnage made it into the international media with the headlines of “the highway of death,” President Bush called a halt to combat operations. The coalition ground campaign, Operation Desert Sabre, lasted from February 24 to February 28, when a cessation of hostilities was declared by coalition forces, for a total of 114 hours.

It never appeared in the press or in public discussions, but the Israeli finding in the 1967 Six-Day War—that armor combat operations have about 100 hours’ window of opportunity before maintenance issues and expected breakdowns begin to interfere perceptibly with operations—was part of the planning assumptions. This is not to say that this dynamic was solely responsible for constraining U.S. armor to 100 hours of combat drive time. With the escape north of the Hammurabi Republican Guard Division and the open media coverage of the carnage along the “highway of death,” as conscripted Iraqi young men facing strafing runs by coalition aircraft tried to escape from the KTO, U.S. NCA believed the time was right to end the bloodshed.

Moreover, there was concern within the coalition that operations that extended beyond the original UN mandate of removing Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait would lead to a fracturing of the unity that had thus far been achieved. The remarkable unity of the vast coalition of nations in support of Desert Shield and Desert Storm was a fundamental strength for combat operations, and many considered it a center of gravity for both campaigns. The Iraqi leadership rightly sought to degrade and neutralize this center of gravity. Additionally, while the coalition enjoyed world-class harbor facilities and a massive logistical effort to maintain a coalition that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, the fact remained that by chasing the fleeing Iraqi army north into Iraq itself would have reduced supply capabilities and opened up vulnerabilities, as combat forces became extended and quite possibly fractured the coalition.

Logistic units were hard pressed to keep up with the rapid pace of maneuver units. Both logistics structure and doctrine were found wanting in the high temp offensive operation. HET and off-road truck mobility were limited, and MSRs into Iraq few and constricted. Had the operation lasted longer, maneuver forces would have out run their fuel and other support.

On a daily basis the supply and logistical requirements of Desert Storm/Desert Sabre were 62,500 cases of Meals-Ready-To-Eat (MREs), 9 million gallons of water, 4,800 fuel tankers with 5,000 gallon capacities, and 450 tractor trailer loads of other supplies. By the end of Desert Storm/Desert Sabre, U.S. forces alone (532,000 personnel) consumed 95,000 tons of ammunition and 1.7 billion gallons of fuel.


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