Many have drawn the conclusion from Russia’s failures in Ukraine that the United States would have been more successful—because the United States were more successful in their own most recent military adventure against a functioning state: the invasion of Iraq.
To see whether such a conclusion is sound, it is useful to consider whether the Iraqis took the same steps as the Ukrainians to defend their country—and if they did not, whether those steps would have been effective in Iraq.
If Iraq did take the same steps, or they would not have been effective, then the comparison between Ukraine and Iraq is a good one: if America beat Iraq it could probably have beaten Ukraine as well.
But if Iraq did not take those steps, and they would have been effective, then American success in Iraq may not tell us much about how America would have fared against Ukraine.
A RAND post-mortem on the Iraq War is most helpful in this regard. It suggests that Iraq, unlike Ukraine, failed to mount a basic defense of its territory—one that would have seriously hampered the American invasion—which in turn suggests that American success in Iraq tells us little about whether America would have been more successful than Russia in Ukraine.
The report points out five basic mistakes that Iraq made, which would have slowed the American advance, and which Ukraine has not made.
First, on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, much of the Iraqi military was stationed in the north or the east of the country—the opposite of where they needed to be to counter a massive, well-publicized American buildup of troops to the south and west.
No one seems fully to understand why Iraq did this. But it is as if Ukraine had stationed all of its units on its borders with Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland prior to the Russian invasion.
Ukraine did not, of course, do that; on the eve of the invasion, its troops were stationed in the east of the country, where the Russian invasion force was massed. If Iraq had deployed its forces to the south and west, American forces would have faced a much more numerous and concentrated enemy during the Iraq War.
Second, Iraq failed systematically to prepare to blow up ports, bridges, dams and oil fields to slow the American advance.
This was not because American planes or special operations forces had prevented demolition plans from being carried out. There simply were no plans.
As RAND puts it: “Even though the Iraqi strategy was to impede the U.S. march toward Baghdad, measures that could have slowed the American advance, such as the systematic mining of roads, destruction of bridges, and flooding of choke points, were not part of the Iraqi defense scheme.”
Ukraine has not made this mistake—at least not entirely. While Ukraine failed to scuttle ships in the Port of Mariupol in advance of the Russian invasion, she did mine the port. And she did blow bridges and dams, slowing the Russian advance on Kyiv and forcing Russia to engage in costly bridging operations in the east of the country.
If Iraq had done the same—in particular, if she had blown the Hadithah Dam, flooding the Karbala gap, which was the main bottleneck along the American line of advance—the invasion would have been slowed.
According to RAND, “[t]he gap to the west of Karbala was the only feasible route of advance as the area to the east of Karbala and around the Euphrates River crossing was a ‘nightmare of bogs and obstacles.’ . . . Had the dam been breached, the resulting flood would have made an armored movement through the gap impossible.”
The report continues: “However, there is no evidence that the Iraqis ever intended to breach the Hadithah Dam, as they had ample opportunity to do so before the Rangers seized it.”
Third, Iraq made virtually no effort to defend against the American advance on the most defender-favorable terrain in the country: its cities, which offer excellent concealment from air attack, among other advantages.
RAND reports: “According to [an American researcher], the [Iraqi] Regular Army and Republican Guard commanders his team interviewed [after the war] found the entire concept of city fighting unthinkable. [The researcher] quoted one Iraqi colonel as saying: ‘Why would anyone want to fight in a city? Troops couldn’t defend themselves in cities.’”
Indeed, almost none of the Iraqi army had trained for urban combat and its leaders hardly considered the option. And the sole Republican Guard unit stationed inside Baghdad failed to prepare any serious strong-points in the city. According to RAND:
A survey of Iraqi defenses in Baghdad found no defensive preparations, such as barricades, wall reinforcement, loophole construction to permit firing through walls, or wire entanglements, in the interiors of buildings and few, if any, obstacles, minefields, and barriers on the streets. What prepared fighting positions existed were typically outdoors and exposed. The protection surrounding such positions was often one sandbag deep. As a consequence, the militias and Special Republican Guard units often fought in the open or from easily penetrated defensive positions.Stephen T. Hosmer, Why the Iraqi Resistance to the Coalition Invasion Was so Weak 51, 71 (2007).
Iraq did plan on using militias to defend cities using small arms. But instead of using the urban terrain to their advantage, these units engaged in suicidal frontal assaults on armored vehicles.
Ukraine has not made these mistakes. While it is difficult to judge the preparations made by Ukraine for the defense of downtown Kyiv—which seemed to be ad hoc at best—the urban defense of Mariupol appears to have been well executed. It slowed the Russian advance for three months despite heavy bombardment from both Russian strategic bombers and artillery.
A bit of arithmetic suggests that if Iraq had taken urban defense seriously as well, American casualties would have been very high and the Iraq War—which lasted six weeks—would have been greatly prolonged.
While the ratio of Iraqi to American casualties in the invasion was 40 to 1 (according to calculations based on numbers supplied by Wikipedia), virtually none of that fighting involved urban combat. The following year, however, when the United States spent another six weeks wresting control of a single small Iraqi city–Fallujah—from lightly-armed Iraqi insurgents who used the urban terrain to advantage, the ratio of Iraqi to American casualties fell nearly to parity: 4.45 to 1 (again based on casualty figures in Wikipedia). (The Iraq War, like the earlier Gulf War—which I touch upon below—was an American-led coalition affair; the numbers I report for “American” troop strength and casualties in these wars are coalition-wide numbers.)
If Iraq had concentrated its 1.3 million combatants in its cities, 292,000 American casualties—approximately the size of the entire American invasion force—would have been required to kill or wound them all. (And, if the numbers in Wikipedia are any guide, virtually all of the Iraqi combatants in Fallujah did have to be killed or wounded before the United States were able to declare victory in that battle.)
Even if we reduce the number of casualties required for victory by 75% to make liberal allowance for desertions and the application of measures not employed in Fallujah—such as the carpet bombing of Iraqi cities—America would have needed to sustain about 50,000 casualties to take Iraq via urban combat—roughly the level of casualties that Russia has sustained so far in the invasion of Ukraine (assuming 15,000 Russian dead and a 3-to-1 ratio of wounded to dead).
Moreover, the amount of time required to reduce Iraqi cities would have been great. American forces entered the Battle of Fallujah with the 3-to-1 ratio of attackers to defenders generally thought required for a successful advance. But at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, Iraqi combatants outnumbered American combatants by more than four to one—1.3 million Iraqis under arms to about 300,000 Americans.
It would not, therefore, have been possible for American forces to reduce every Iraqi urban area at the same time. Instead, America would have had to proceed piecemeal—perhaps even city-by-city—in order to achieve favorable attacker-to-defender ratios, greatly increasing the duration of the campaign.
Fourth, apparently few in the Iraqi military could hit a target. As RAND puts it with endearing understatement: “Coalition forces were also fortunate in that Iraqi shooting accuracy was so poor. This bad marksmanship was apparent in both Iraqi regular military and militia units, and it was frequently commented on by U.S. forces.”
Many Iraqi units had no live fire training in the year before the invasion and units that did allocated four or ten bullets per soldier for target practice.
The marksmanship problem extended to elite Iraqi tankers. According to the report:
At Objective Montgomery west of Baghdad, an elite Republican Guard tank battalion fired at least 16 T-72 main gun rounds at ranges of as little as 800-1000 meters at the fully exposed flanks of the U.S. 3-7 Cavalry’s tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles—with zero hits at what amounted to point[-]blank range for weapons of this caliber. In fact, the nearest miss fell 25 meters short of the lead American troop commander’s tank. Similar results are reported from American and British combatants throughout the theater of war, and across all Iraqi weapon types employed in [the war].Stephen T. Hosmer, Why the Iraqi Resistance to the Coalition Invasion Was so Weak 72–73 (2007) (quoting Congressional testimony).
Ukraine has not had this problem.
One of the success stories of the Ukrainian defense against Russia has been the accuracy of her soldiers’ fire, particularly artillery. This has, of course, been greatly aided by the use of drones. But for coordinates relayed by a drone to be useful, an artillery team must be able actually to hit them. The large number of Russian armored vehicles and soldiers destroyed by Ukraine further testifies to the Ukrainian military’s overall competence at aiming and shooting a variety of different weapons.
If the Iraqi army had actually been able to hit American tanks at point blank range, American losses during the invasion would have been rather higher than they were.
Fifth, the Iraqi army apparently made no attempt to attack lightly-armored American supply lines during the initial invasion itself. (That changed during the insurgency that followed.)
Indeed, Iraqi units purposely bypassed supply vehicles to mount suicidal assaults on armored vehicles instead. This inattention to supply is striking because American supply lines were stretched very thin during the invasion, as commanders chose to bypass numerous cities in their sprint to Baghdad.
As RAND puts it:
The fast-moving Coalition combat forces depended on extended supply lines through areas that had not been fully cleared of enemy forces. However, the Iraqis apparently had no plan and made little or no attempt to interdict those lines of supply by having militia and other forces attack the thin-skinned tankers and other supply vehicles supporting the U.S. advance. Instead, the militia forces were directed to attack U.S. combat elements, particularly the tanks and APCs leading the U.S. advance.Stephen T. Hosmer, Why the Iraqi Resistance to the Coalition Invasion Was so Weak 55 (2007) (quoting Congressional testimony).
The Ukrainian military has not made this mistake. A successful Ukrainian campaign against Russian supply lines, which, like American supply lines in Iraq, were seriously stretched because Russia bypassed cities on the way to the capital, helped win Ukraine the battle for Kyiv.
Had the Iraqi military targeted American supply lines, the American invasion would have been delayed. Indeed, it is striking that Russia, like America in Iraq, gambled that she could achieve capitulation via a sprint to the capital despite the rear-area vulnerability this creates. America won her gamble. Russia lost hers.
Overall, then, Russia has faced a much different foe from the one the United States faced in Iraq.
Ukraine had forces stationed roughly where she needed them to mount a defense, denied Russia infrastructure, used urban terrain to her advantage, showed competence in the use of her weapons systems, and attacked supply lines. And several of these actions—denial of infrastructure (e.g., bridges), accurate fire, and attacks on supply—have been credited as reasons for Ukraine’s success thus far in the war.
Iraq did none of these things. Indeed, Iraq was incompetent, whereas Ukraine has proven at least minimally competent.
Had Iraq been a minimally competent opponent, the results of the Iraq War might have been very different—and the image of American invincibility might have been tarnished in the way that Russia’s military image has been greatly tarnished by Ukrainian resistance.
(Of course, America’s struggles responding to the subsequent Iraqi insurgency demonstrated the limits of of the American military as an occupying force. But my interest here is in the ability of the military to prosecute a successful invasion rather than in its ability to prosecute a successful occupation—if successful occupations are ever possible in the absence of genocide.)
Russia’s failure to achieve air superiority in Ukraine has been striking, and it does seem reasonable to assume that America would have achieved air superiority—and would have carried out vastly more devastating air assaults in Ukraine than has the Russian Air Force.
But it is not clear that air superiority would have won the war for Russia so much as shifted the battlefield from the countryside and the suburbs to Ukraine’s cities.
Indeed, the American experience in the first Gulf War (as opposed to the Iraq War), suggests that air superiority is no silver bullet against a minimally competent defender such as Ukraine even outside of cities.
The Gulf War of 1991 was a contest between thousands of tanks and armored vehicles on both sides undertaken in the deserts of Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. It was preceded by six weeks of continuous air attack conducted by the United States on Iraqi forces, during five of which American planes had air superiority.
According to a researcher:
The Iraqi armor force that survived the air campaign was still very large by historical standards, and many of these survivors fought back when attacked by Coalition ground forces. It is now known that about 2000 Iraqi tanks and 2100 other armored vehicles survived the air campaign and were potentially available to resist the Coalition ground attack . . . . By contrast with these . . . Iraqi armored vehicles, the entire German army in Normandy had fewer than 500 tanks in July 1944.Stephen Biddle, Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us about the Future of Conflict, 21 International Security 139, 149, 152 (1996).
Moreover, simulations conducted by the American military after the Gulf War showed that if Iraqi armored units had been minimally competent—that is, had they bothered to dig trenches for their tanks instead of hiding them behind sand berms and had they posted sentries to alert them when the invasion started—they would have inflicted more casualties on American invasion forces than American forces would have been able to inflict upon them, notwithstanding the inferior range and target acquisition systems of Iraqi tanks.
As the same researcher recounts:
Western armies dig their fighting positions into the earth below grade, and hide the soil removed in excavation. The [elite Iraqi Republican] Guard, on the other hand, simply piled sand into loose berms, or mounds, on the surface of the ground around combat vehicles and infantry positions. This gave away the defenders’ locations from literally thousands of meters away, as the berms were the only distinctive feature of an otherwise flat landscape, without providing any real protection against the fire this inevitably drew. Loose piles of sand cannot stop modern high-velocity tank rounds. In fact, they barely slow them down. U.S. crews in [one battle] reported seeing 120 mm tank rounds pass through Iraqi berms, through the Iraqi armored vehicle behind the berm, and off into the distance. No U.S. tank crew would leave itself so exposed.Stephen Biddle, Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us about the Future of Conflict, 21 International Security 158-59 (1996)
Iraqi covering forces systematically failed to alert their main defenses of the U.S. approach, allowing even Republican Guard units to be taken completely by surprise. Going back at least as far as World War I, all Western armies have used covering forces—whether observation posts, forward reconnaissance screens, or delaying positions—to provide warning to the main defenses that they are about to be attacked. Ideally, these covering forces serve other functions as well (such as stripping away the opponent’s recon elements, slowing the attacker’s movement, or channeling the assault), but the minimum function they must perform is to notify the main defense of an attacker’s approach. This is not difficult. A one-word radio message is enough to sound the alarm. Even less can work if commanders agree in advance that failure to check in at specified times will be taken as warning of attack. The brevity of the message makes it virtually impossible to jam; the procedural backup of interpreting silence as warning means that even a dead observer can provide an alert. Yet at [the Gulf War battle known as] 73 Easting, for example, the Iraqi main position received no warning of the [American tanks’] approach. A few observation posts were deployed well forward of the main defenses, but these were evidently destroyed without sending any messages, and without the local commander interpreting silence as evidence of attack.Stephen Biddle, Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us about the Future of Conflict, 21 International Security 160 (1996)
If, as those simulations showed, a minimally competent Iraqi army not making such basic mistakes and fielding mid-twentieth-century-vintage Soviet armor could have made the Gulf War a costly affair for the United States military, notwithstanding American air superiority over a desert terrain affording nowhere to hide, then a minimally competent Ukrainian military operating in Ukraine’s rather more defender-friendly terrain of farms and forests would likely be able to inflict substantial losses on an American invasion force having air supremacy.
And that’s before the fight would even make it to the cities.
The fact is that, against a minimally competent foe, even one with somewhat inferior technology and no air defenses, attacking is hard.
One gets a hint of this when one considers that the great advances of World War Two were, for the most part, executed only with the aid of staggering amounts of men.
To dislodge the 100,000 German soldiers holding the Seelow Heights on the route to Berlin, for example, the Soviets flung a million men at them and took thousands of casualties.
By contrast, both the American invasion force in the Iraq War and the Russian invasion force in Ukraine were smaller in size than the forces mustered by the defenders (300,000 against 1.3 million in Iraq and 225,000 against 300,000 in Ukraine according to Wikipedia).
One should expect, then, difficulties for the invader, regardless how competent the invader may be—or how advanced its weaponry. America was fortunate enough to dodge these difficulties by picking a foe that was not minimally competent.
The lesson of Iraq was not American invincibility but rather that the most important choice to make in planning a military adventure is whom to fight.
The difference between American success and Russian failure in these conflicts may be due to no more than that the United States chose wisely—and Russia poorly.