Thursday, July 08, 2004

The Sinews of War

According to Cicero's famous aphorism, "Nervos belli, pecuniam infinitam", the sinews of war are unlimited money, namely buying and competently distributing the necessities, rather than any strategic genius. Fred Kaplan writes in Slate about a US Army evaluation of the performance of logistics in the Iraq campaign last year.

As every general knows, amateurs talk strategy, whereas professionals talk supply. In the unlikely event that I was conscripted, I'd choose to work on the logistics staff.

It's often mentioned as an either-or by many historians, until Martin van Creveld's ground-breaking book Supplying War came out in 1978. He pointed out that until 1914, most armies were foragers rather than factories, needing to move in order to seize food, fodder for horses and the other supplies they needed. Not even the train changed that, contrary to conventional wisdom on the wars of German unification. Only when trucks became available to move fuel and the massively increased volumes of ammunition and artillery shells did war really become more mobile. Even then, the forward elements of the Anglo-American forces in D-Day outran their supply lines, bringing them to a near halt.

One fine day, we'll read some unforced and sincere words of praise by Kaplan for the Bush administration. In this case, I think that he's way too uneven in his judgment.

First, the operation's logistics were a lot better managed than last time. The troops were moved much more quickly, mainly because of upgraded sea transport capabilities.

Second, the basing was a big problem, with Jordan refusing access, then Turkey going right to wire, leaving one division (4th Infantry, if I recall) having to divert from the Med to Kuwait, well after the first shots were fired.

Third, remember that the pre-positioned ships full of equipment were the brainchild, back in the eighties, of a certain lupine deputy secretary at the Pentagon.

Fourth, this campaign, unlike the drive in the desert last time, had to involve maneuvering through large towns, mountain passes and sand storms. The ultimate challenge was crossing the wide Euphrates rivers large rivers, which when defended, are the worst possible obstacles to an attack. At the time, John Keegan praised the conduct of the war highly.

A few months back I read much of John Coram's biography of Colonel John Boyd, the man who was one of America's top fighter pilots, then went on to design the F-16 and try to teach a reluctant military establishment the value of agility and surprise in warfare.

The unexpected left-hook advance around Kuwait's fortifications in Desert Storm and simultaneous amphibious feint against Kuwait City by the marines, which championed by then defense Secretary Cheney over Colin Powell's "straight up the middle" frontal assault was inspired and loudly advocated by Boyd. This war's sudden stabs into Baghdad seem to have the stamp of late Colonel's thinking as well.

One point of Kaplan's I'm predisposed to accept is the comparative uselessness of the Apache helicopter, especially in comparison with the A-10. Boyd and his team championed the Warthog against an Army reluctant to give up a helicopter tank-killer that it would control operationally and bureaucratically in return for for a fixed-wing aircraft programme that would be the Air Force's baby.