Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dien Bien Phu, Iraq

As a student of military history, I am fascinated by the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the 1954 battle that destroyed the French colonial forces that participated and effectively ended the First Indochina War. This is, to me, one of the arch-examples of an old saying: Amateurs talk tactics, while professionals talk logistics. This makes an ideal backdrop for a comparison to Iraq, where the viability of the American presence will also be determined by logistics.

I have written at length about the war and ongoing occupation in Iraq, generally from a strategic view. For those interested, I would recommend Green Zone Tet, All a Part of the Plan?, and The Logic of Withdrawal. I don't really believe that Tet will be the model for what's going to happen in Iraq, however. Tet was a large number of simultaneous nationwide attacks on US and ARVN forces, bases, and interests, including the Embassy in Saigon, and the start of what became the largest main-force engagement of the Vietnam War, the Battle of Hue. Tet, for the US, was largely a military victory, while at the same time, a crushing PR and psychological defeat. No-the model will still come from Vietnam, but from 14 years earlier, in a place called Dien Bien Phu, way up in what was later North Vietnam.

In GZT, I noted that one of the key deficiencies in the armaments of the Iraqis resisting the occupation is a lack of heavy artillery. They also lack air, armor, and naval support-but there is a key difference. The Iraqi Air Force will not be a challenge to the USAF for many years. But artillery-tough, durable, easily maintained-is equally lethal, no matter which way it is fired. My assessment of the Iraqis' lack of artillery may have been overly optimistic, as I have since been assured by a credible source that this is not the case-that in fact, when the depots were looted after the fall of Baghdad, the first thing that disappeared was the heavy artillery. In World War 2, care to hazard a guess as to which weapon system was the greatest killer on the battlefield?

Artillery. Over 60% of battlefield casualties in WW2 were inflicted by artillery.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu was launched on March 13,1954. The French had re-occupied a deserted complex in November of '53, and rebuilt and refitted it. Incorporated were 2 airfields and extensive defensive fortifications, including artillery swept kill-zones, minefields, and trenches. The French also had overwhelming air superiority, which was necessary for aerial supply, as DBP was a relatively remote, isolated base, surrounded by mountains, jungle, and a hostile population, and thus vulnerable to being cutoff. The French strategy was based on the belief that they could draw Viet Minh General Giap and his PAVN forces into a European-style main-force engagement and destroy them with superior firepower, while also employing DBP as a staging area for air operations and harassment raids.

Though the geography differs, Baghdad, for the Americans, presents similar tactical problems. The Green Zone is a heavily defended region built along the Tigris River, deep in the enemy capital and thus inherently isolated, surrounded not by vegetation but by concrete jungle, and five million or so hostile natives. The Zone is also separated from its main artery of air supply-Baghdad Intrenational Airport. Interdiction of air traffic into Baghdad would be a grievous blow to the US effort in Iraq, just as it was to the French effort in DBP.

In the months prior to the battle, Giap had devoted his energies to logistics. Using mostly human transport and by disassembling the heavy weapons and artillery pieces, PAVN forces had, unknown to the French garrison, moved the better part of four infantry divisions and a heavy weapons division into the hills and jungle around Dien Bien Phu. Gun emplacements were camouflaged and defended by antiaircraft guns, and forces totalling approximately 50,000 soldiers and half that many support troops encircled DBP by early March.

Something conceptually similar seems like an obvious strategy for the Iraqi resistance. If a strong nationalist leader-let's say Muqtada al-Sadr, since he already commands the largest militia in Iraq (the Mahdi Army)-were to begin assembling weaponry, specifically, artillery and antiaircraft assets, in two concentric rings around the Green Zone. Concealed antiaircraft positions around the Baghdad airport can be emplaced, to both attack air traffic and protect the mortar positions that will be used to crater the runways. Move as many infantry units into the western neighborhoods as possible, and assemble the field guns inside of buildings where they can be easily concealed. Sudden, massed fire will be key here, so patience and preparation are the paramount considerations. Another important consideration will be sufficient numbers, so the Mahdi would be well-served by raising an irregular militia from among the million residents of Sadr City, which is situated east of the river and thus almost ideally situated to close the bridges into the Green Zone.

Giap launched his assault in the classic manner, with a massed artillery barrage followed by human wave assaults. While eventually successful in taking some of the outer defenses, the casualty numbers were frightful , and Giap abandoned this method. It was replaced by digging trenches and earthworks, continually moving closer, while the concealed artillery ceaselessly pounded the defenders and runways, firing far more rounds than the French had ever even faintly believed possible. French artilleryman were later to estimate that during the battle, Dien Bien Phu was hit by over 30,000 105mm rounds alone.

The Iraqis could announce their assault with a surprise, saturation artillery barrage on the Green Zone, the airport, the road running between the two, and the bridges. The object of this will be to cut off all resupply of US forces, no matter what method is used. The Iraqis will skip the human waves, and instead attempt to rapidly exploit the shock and surprise of the artillery assault by using the buildings in place of Giap's trenches. Maneuver in small units, avoiding direct contact with the Americans until they reach jumping-off points as close to them as possible. This is critical: close-in fighting is the only way to nullify the overwhelming US superiority in airpower, as the US will be unable to attack the insurgents without hitting their own forces. Coordinated car bombings and suicide bomber attacks aimed at US forward operating bases will fix those troops in place, and the outer ring of beseiging Iraqis will continue to bombard the approach lanes and defend the inner ring, while the inner ring presses its assault. By dropping selected buildings, US armor can be funneled into favorable avenues of approach, upon which artillery is already targeted. As local commanders pull troops out of the peripheral areas to attempt to relieve Baghdad, those areas will fall, and thus attacking the US in Baghdad will also create defeat for the US in other areas.

At this point, the US has to make a fateful decision, one that will be studied no matter how it is decided. Does the US:

-attempt to evacuate the Green Zone by air?
-attempt to break the seige by saturation bombing the residential areas around the Green Zone, with the certain, horrific civilian casualties that would ensue?
-attempt to hold their positions and be supplied from the air, a la Stalingrad?
-attempt to hold their positions and negotiate a cease-fire/withdrawal agreement?
-attempt a mass breakout, a withdrawal under fire toward Kuwait, using the USAF to "plow the road", so to speak?
An aerial evacuation is Saigon in '75 all over again, plain and simple. With the airport closed, any mass evac by air would necessitate leaving behind most, if not all, armor and heavy guns.
This is also a politically unacceptable option for the US, as there are many US politicians still smarting from the US withdrawal from Vietnam, still feeling the shame of that defeat, and the idea they would allow that to happen again is unthinkable. There are US politicians who would see that Army exterminated, rather than evacuated by helicopters.

Likewise, a strategic bombing campaign in Baghdad would make the US a pariah, with all that entails. It seems to me, then, that the US strategy will be a combination of the remaining three:
The US will attempt to hold position, while resupplying from the air, and trying to negotiate a cease-fire/withdrawal agreement. While this is happening, US troops will be destroying all non-essential equipment, performing hurried repairs and essential maintenance, forming columns and convoys, and distributing fuel and ammunition.

The signal for the breakout to begin will be B-52 strikes south of the Zone, along the west side of the Tigris. This will give the withdrawing troops a protected flank on the east, and avoid the Sadr strongholds (like Sadr City) SE of the Zone. It is important to remember at this point that the US Army is NOT roadbound-GPS gives the Army the ability to take the shortest route, even through the desert, and this will likewise help avoid ambushes and traps along the way. These convoys will be provided with air cover from Apache and Spectre gunships, operating under Rules of Engagement that declare an "exclusion zone", i.e., a free-fire zone, within a mile or so of either side of the route. It is traditional in the US military to drop leaflets warning civilians away from projected action sites, but in this case, the leaflets would simply tell the insurgents where to plant their IED's. Therefore, they will be foregone, with the corresponding sacrifice of Iraqi civilians who have the bad luck to get in the way. In view of their available firepower, it is reasonable to assume they will make it to Kuwait, but they will take casualties, and will create widespread devastation in the process.

Those rearguard forces which stay in the Zone will have to be evacuated by helicopter. As Iraqi forces pour into the Zone from the west, the rearguard will fall back towards their evac zone, where they will form a "hedgehog" in an attempt to defend against both the Iraqi forces to the west and the Iraqis coming into the Zone from across the remaining eastern bridges. The rearguard will take a horrific toll on the attacking Iraqis, but they too will take casualties, and there will be nightmarish fighting and death on world-wide TV. Helicopters will be shot down. Prisoners will be taken, some tortured and executed, and by both sides. Some Americans will escape in boats on the Tigris, and the final folly of combining regular US troops with mercenaries will be revealed, as fighting breaks out over access to the rescue helicopters between troops, mercenararies, and Iraqi collaborators desperate to escape . The forces attacking from the west, comprised of the Mahdi Army and the large numbers of regular Iraqi Army and police who have joined them, will meet the Sadrists now pouring across the bridges from the east, and, as the collaborators are shot, there will be joy and celebration in the burning, chaotic former Green Zone.

When the battle of Dien Bien Phu ended on May 8, 1954, General Giap and his victorious Viet Minh forces took around 6,500 prisoners, many of whom did not survive capture and internment. The Iraqis will not take nearly so many prisoners...but their fate will be just as short, and their end as violent.

Withdraw when you can, not when you have to.

I would like to acknowledge the work of and thank Colonel J.D. Morelock, whose excellent short history of the battle of Dien Bien Phu appears in "The Army Times Book of Great Land Battles (1994)"


Loo Hoo. said...

Wow, RonD. You sure put a lot of thought into this. I want our troops home now!

And safely.

I want the Iraqis to have their own country back.

Pat said...

RonD, I don't like anything dealing with violence, war, or any such madness. However, I did learn a lot from this posting and I hope those who can will get our troops to withdraw ASAP.

Thank you for a truly fine read. Just goes to show that "might" isn't always the winner, and you'd think we'd never set ourselves up to make the DBP mistake again.


Ron said...

Thanks, Pat, and especially you, Loo. Might indeed does not always win, and in the end, we should want to be right as well. Glad you found the post worthwhile, and please come again.

Redshift said...

Interesting stuff. I've read plenty about the potential for supply lines to be cut, but not much about the potential for an assault on the Green Zone itself.

Dr Zen said...

It's just about plausible, but not really feasible. Two reasons. First, the insurgents don't have much in the way of heavy weapons. Even if they disappeared, they don't seem to have them. They're not very hideable, after all. But they could be supplied from the outside. I don't imagine China and Russia are sanguine about the US controlling Iraqi oil. Second, the French did not control the jungle around DBP, but the Yanks do have some measure of control over Baghdad. Sneak some soldiers in, yes. Sneak in thousands, not so easy. They too have to be supplied, remember.

But I don't say it's impossible. If the Iraqis had a general of quality, something like this could happen.

ThePoliticalCat said...

Argh. Very plausible scenario. I just want to say to Dr. Zen that there is always the possibility - in fact, a strong possibility - that the "disappeared" artillery wound up in the hands of the Sunni members of Saddam's Republican guard, not the Shi'a Mahdi Army of Al-Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr. As for supplying such an (insurgent) army, they are among their own people, like the guerilla fish of whom Giap spoke. They will sustain themselves in that sea.