March 21, 2011

Highway of Death: 20th Anniversary Tour

Just over 20 years ago, U.S. aircraft shot up retreating Iraqi forces on the Highway of Death out of Kuwait, making clear the supremacy of air power over armor, especially in deserts. 

Nine years before that, in 1982, Israel's air force, using its own and U.S. technology, had quickly attained air supremacy over Syria's Soviet-equipped air defenses in Lebanon, demonstrating (to the horror of Soviet Air Force generals) that ground-based radar networks were a sitting duck for countries with the best airliner-based radar networks. In other words, the era when a country-- other than America and its close personal friends -- could use tanks to conquer another country (or even a rebellious province, as in Yugoslavia in 1999) without Washington's permission was drawing to a close.

This awareness dampened the arms race, such that by the outbreak of feverish speculation over Hezbollah's 2006 Schmutzkrieg assault on Israel, America was accounting for almost half of world's military spending. (For example, Libya was spending 3.9% of its GDP on its military, compared to 4.06% for the U.S.)

Israel's subsequent sobering enwallowment in Lebanon was an early hint of a second major lesson of post-modern warfare: that, even if you are America or its close personal friend, conquering another country these days usually turns out to be less fun that it sounds.

If you are a foreigner, therefore, the smart thing to do is to buy friends and influence people in the DC/NYC world imperial capital: you can call it the Prince Bandar Strategy. Gaddafi's strategy of buying friends in Rome was 2000 years-out-of-date.

28 comments:

Un Rosbif said...

Just over 20 years ago, U.S. aircraft shot up retreating Iraqi forces on the Highway of Death out of Kuwait, making clear the supremacy of air power over armor, especially in deserts.

I'm no military historian but I think in fairness, the battle of Longewala in 1971 should get a mention:

120 Indian infantry equipped with 2 recoiless rifles and 4 Indian Air Force Hawker Hunters defeat 2000 Pakistani infantry, 65 Pakistani tanks, 5 field guns, 3 AA guns and 138 other assorted military vehicles.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fy3XLnWsok

Well that the way the Indians tell it anyway.

Anonymous said...

This awareness dampened the arms race, such that by the outbreak of feverish speculation over Hezbollah's 2006 Schmutzkrieg assault on Israel

While I'm certainly no fan of Arabs, back in '06 it was entertaining to see 'Neocon' types splutter as all their fancy hardware proved inconsequential and unable to neutralize the Iranian supplied terror groups.

The demonstration that the IDF was not some kind of super-army was the icing on the cake. I might have cracked a smile when they came whimpering back over the border having accomplished zero of their goals.

The expedited arms shipment that was rushed through congress really stuck in my craw, though. We probably wouldn't do that for Britain, an actual combat ally whose troops are still dying in our wars.

Anonymous said...

It's not as simple and clear-cut as you state it is.
The (soon forgotten) lesson of Vietnam tells us all sorts of things vis-a-vis 'technical superiority' and outright victory.
With air or naval warfare I concede thechnology is THE critical factor, but land based conflicts are by definition, infinitely variable in their scope and prosecution.Tank begets anti-tank, anti-tank begets anti-anti-tank.The Vietcom taught us the damage a SAM missile can do.

Anonymous said...

So Gaddafi turns his back on terrorism, shelves his nuclear program and dampens his anti-Israel stance, but they try to kill him anyway?

It's a sobering lesson to all despots, especially those sitting on rich oil reserves.

Get you nuclear program up and running ASAP and they'll walk on eggshells around you. Ask North Korea.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Steve.
I well remember 20 years ago many 'trophy photos' were snapped by coalition troops of charred corpses along the Highway of Death.
For some reason these trophy pics have disappeared down the memory hole, but don't underestimate the power they had in infalming Jihadists up to and including the 911 bombers.
Basically what you had was jock army kids, heavy metal types etc using the opportunity of having a shed load of grotesquely burned corpses - they looked like something straight out of a Romero Zombie movie what with melted flesh clinging to bones, pop-eyes and death'e head stares- to pose and preen in front of a waxwork of horrors.Alas to say the kids also profaned and abused some of the bodies.I particular remember well a shot of a Iraqi corpse - the face burnned to a hollow show of death, but with a full head of hair - posed an put on top a motorbike to look just like the Marvel character Ghost Rider.

Anonymous said...

It is often said that Arabs are dumb, and the appalling leadership of Saddam Hussein in attempting to fight an enemy he had absolutely no hope of fighting, let alone defeating, seems to underscore thi.In his arrogance he actually believed he stood a chance!
Believe it or not, right at the last moment when British and US UN stitch-up (together with Gorbachev's craven acquiescene)gave the green light to 'shock and awe, it was Muammar Gaddafi who begged and pleaded with Saddam to give up as even he recognised Saddam's folly.
Basically Mrs Thatcher - a highly aggressive, ruthless and unforgiving woman goaded the naturally wimpish George Bush I into the war.As ever Thatcher can be blamed for the aftermath.

Anonymous said...

Excellent again. You must be taking your smart pills.

Not that I'm particularly knowledgeable about foreign affairs but its been obvious for some time that the seat of one of our world governments in in New York and the other is in Washington D.C.

Countries send a mission to the UN and a mission to the US Congress. They don't expect much one way or the other from the UN but they rely heavily on their congressional lobbyists to defend their interests.

As an American I like it that other nations have to pay court to my government. Israel is said to have a particularly effective lobbying effort. Good for them!

Albertosaurus

pld said...

What are the odds that our "liberation" of Libya will be followed by a mass slaughter of Black Africans in Libya? The reality of Black African mercenaries in Libya killing the rebels seems to have especially inflamed the arabs and berbers. My guess is the reprisals won't be limited to just the black mercenaries.

It will be ironic if a black American president provides the airpower to allow an ethnic cleansing of black Africans in Libya.

Anonymous said...

Another lesson not quite learned is that the modern battlefield is hierarchical.

At the top are the air supremacy fighters. Then come all other aircraft. At the bottom are all those things that must move on the ground.

The classic tank battles of WWII were the duels between the US Sherman's with two inches of frontal armor versus German Panthers and Tigers with four or more inches. But all tanks have quite thin top armor. This means that they are easy prey for any plane that only mounts a heavy machine gun.

That construction reality transfers ground conflicts into the air. The combatant with the best air superiority fighter rules. That's why the much feared prospect of thousands of Russian tanks rolling into central Germany never happened. The only thing that could have saved those tanks from our planes would have been the weather - like at the Battle of the Bulge.

In the cold war period we had the F-15 (100/0 kill ratio). It gave cover to helicopters and Warthogs which dominated the ground.

The same logic holds for higher yet. Control space and you control everything beneath.

It's good to remember this when you consider Obama's re-purposing NASA as an Islamic appreciation agency.

Albertosaurus

William B Swift said...

The supremacy of air power, over armor and all other ground forces, was clear to anyone who was paying attention for more than forty years before that.

"Anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy in complete command of the air, fights like a savage against modern European troops, under the same handicaps and with the same chances of success."

- - Gen Erwin Rommel; quoted in John Ellis, Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War, p.269

Whiskey said...

Steve, you forget two significant wars showing far more complex military developments.

The first is the Congo War. Tribal militias and the complete lack of air power at all dominate.

The second is the nuclear shield and paramilitary strategy. Employed by Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran.

Whiskey said...

Look at acts of War India has been forced to live with: Bombay massacre led by the ISI/Jamaat-al-Islamayah. The Parliament massacre. Or provocations by North Korea against the South, acts of War. Or acts of War by Iran against various regional powers: control of Lebanon, meddling in Bahrain, meddling in Egypt, and Saudi itself (arming Shia rebels).

Having hardened, launch on warning nuke ICBMs means a country is able to do pretty much whatever it wants, without any consequences, up to full on nuclear war. All the F-22s (and the US has less than 300, Obama canceled the program because it gave the US "too much advantage") in the world can't stop an ICBM already launched (Obama also canceled missile defense including the airborne laser program that could stop it).

Whiskey said...

(sorry for the broken up comments, dang google/blogger).

This means that rather than being static (modern warfare never is), US-Soviet "strategic" weapons have gone to "tribes with flags" like Pakistan, Iran, and the Asian Khadaffi, the Kim Dynasty. Meaning any nation at all that gets nukes can do what it wants with its neighbors with impunity, as long as they believe the nation will USE their nukes. [Israel suffers from widespread perception they will never use their arsenal, Iran and Pakistan and North Korea don't suffer that perception.]

Which means erosion of Western advantage and the ability of regional powers to dominate certain critical areas, like the Persian Gulf and its oil, to US detriment.

Whiskey said...

BTW, China plans a massive roll-out of Fourth Generation Stealth fighters, based on the F-22 platform (largely copied) that Obama canceled. India and Russia have announced their own stealth fighter dominant platform.

The F-15 is an old, already obsolete platform. Other nations are now creating rivals, and developing ICBM capacity (which means they can shoot down US comm satellites.) US Dominance of air and communications is probably coming to an end, along with the ability to intervene to keep oil prices under $200 a barrel.

Higher energy prices means everyone gets a lot poorer, fairly quickly. Since you can't run your car on unicorn farts and rainbows.

Anonymous said...

Albertosaurus

As an American I like it that other nations have to pay court to my government. Israel is said to have a particularly effective lobbying effort. Good for them!

You have that the wrong way round.

Whiskey, you're retarded. Please leave and stop polluting the comment section of an otherwise good blog.

Anonymous said...

kind of disappointing then that we have ended production of the F-22 raptor, the undisputed kind of the skies (much more so than the J-35). According to Gates we have to focus our military resources on fighting small bands of guerillas at close quarters (i.e., peacekeeping operations).

Anonymous said...

The supremacy of air power, over armor and all other ground forces, was clear to anyone who was paying attention for more than forty years before that.

Look how well it worked in Vietnam.

ATBOTL said...

The air defenses that the Soviet Union itself, and now Russia, had/has are much more robust that of Syria, Iraq or Libya.

Russia's own air defense systems are several generations more advanced that what they offer for export and are the most sophisticated in the world. The USA relies more on aircraft to defend our airspace.

And that's not even accounting for the skill of the operators.

Gray Falcon said...

It is precisely because air power is so very good at smashing conventional armor formations that urban, guerrilla and "4th generation" warfare was developed.

Also, I would not list Yugoslavia as a success here. After the 1999 war it emerged that NATO was very good at bombing civilian infrastructure and terrible at actually hurting the Yugoslav Army.

Anonymous said...

Conquering a country is a disaster for the US: a relatively easy military expedition quickly morphs into an expensive, dangerous, and messy "humanitarian" mission where we end up importing tens of thousands of dangerous, uneducated, hyper-fertile non-white refugees who get dumped into our frayed and sagging social safety net.

greenrivervalleyman said...

Highway of Death, Revisited! I remember it well, including a press briefing at the time by one of Schwarzkopf's underlings. He was showing pictures of the wreckage all along it with evident pride, thinking the media would be impressed as he was by this proof of the devastating efficacy of American airpower.

A hefferish female journalist then got up to ask whether it wasn't sort of- you know- mean to keep piling on like this when the Iraqis were clearly in retreat. Next day the attacks along the Highway were called off, which allowed enough of Saddam's praetorian guard to escape that he was able to put down the Shi'ite insurrection that followed, which resulted in U.S. forces remaining in the area to enforce sanctions and a no-fly zone, which led to 9/11...

darfur miller said...

High oil might be a godsend in that it would force us to develop a nationalist, protectioniost energy policy based on US oil, gas, coal and nuclear, throwing the environmentalist whackos under the bus. With no US money, the Middle East straightens itself out.

Munch said...

Whisky, North Korea has nukes and their people are starving and they matter less to the rest of the world than South Africa. Sure, they can kill a couple South Korean sailors to cement some internal power struggle but they have no influence in the workd. The Paks are dirt poor while India is rapidly becoming a first world nation. China had nukes for, what, twenty years while it was ignored by the world and its people lived in economic stasis with no progress and no wealth. They could not even aford to have children. No one has been able to leverage nukes alone into a better standard of living, more territory, more health, better survuival of natural disasters, longer lifespans, etc.

Anonymous said...

"Gaddafi's strategy of buying friends in Rome was 2000 years-out-of-date."

That was funny, Steve.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

""Gaddafi's strategy of buying friends in Rome was 2000 years-out-of-date.""

That was funny, Steve."

Yes, that was funny.

Incidentally, we're trying to buy friends in Sumeria. How out of date is that? 4,000 years?

Fred said...

"The demonstration that the IDF was not some kind of super-army was the icing on the cake. I might have cracked a smile when they came whimpering back over the border having accomplished zero of their goals."

Zero of their goals? How many rockets landed in Israel from Lebanon today?

"The expedited arms shipment that was rushed through congress really stuck in my craw, though. We probably wouldn't do that for Britain, an actual combat ally whose troops are still dying in our wars."

No, we probably wouldn't do that. It's not as if American merchantmen braved U-boat infested waters to ship supplies to Britain during two world wars (even before the Brits ended up sucking us into the wars). And it's not as if the lend-lease ever happened.

Fred said...

"Look how well it worked in Vietnam."

We didn't have total air superiority over North Vietnam -- the North Vietnamese were massively supplied with the latest aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons by the Russians, and they shot down a lot of our planes. Our air superiority in the south worked pretty well though in stopping the first North Vietnamese mechanized invasion of South Vietnam. South Vietnam only fell a few years later, after Congress banned Ford from doing the same thing when North Vietnam invaded again.

David said...

We're the kind of friend who doesn't stay bought.