What the Gulf War Teaches About the Future of War

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What the Gulf War Teaches About the Future of War

The Gulf War officially ended 27 years ago in February. Time to look at one of the war’s less well known lessons for future conflict.

What the Gulf War Teaches About the Future of War
Credit: US Navy

The Gulf War, codenamed Desert Storm, ended on February 28 1991 with the overwhelming victory of a coalition of states, spearheaded by the United States, against Iraq. In a Blitzkrieg-like ground assault, preceded by an extensive aerial bombing campaign, the United States and its allies expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, killing 25,000-50,000 Iraqi soldiers and wounding over 75,000, while losing 292 killed and 467 wounded in action.

It remains one of the most one-sided military victories in history. Rather than a modern battle between roughly evenly matched opponents, the Gulf War shares more in common in its outcome with, for example, the British defeat of the Mahdist forces at Omdurman, Sudan in 1898 during the heydays of European Imperialism, where the British killed and wounded over 25,000 against 48 dead and 382 wounded of their own.

As with military successes outside of Europe during the age of imperialism, the one-sided victory in the Gulf War has been primarily attributed to technical advantages underpinning the coalition’s overall conventional military superiority (“shock and awe”), next to the clever application of maneuver warfare. (Conversely, the Iraqi Army was poorly led and trained and numerically as well technologically inferior to its opponent.)

U.S. advanced military technology (e.g., precision-strike weapons) in particular is said to have destroyed Iraqi military hardware and broken the will of Iraqi soldiers to resist, negating the need to expose coalition soldiers to close combat. That apparently proved the Anglo-French poet Hilaire Beloc’s old imperialist truism right: “Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim gun [a type of machine gun], and they have not.”

The astounding victory in the Gulf War was studied by militaries across the world. China especially saw the Gulf War as a wake up call to modernize and reform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) through comprehensive digitization and networking in order to create a new joint force capable of fighting “Local Wars Under High-Technology Conditions.” According to the PLA Encyclopedia, quoted in an U.S. Army War College publication, the Gulf War showed the importance of:

  • Securing dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • Aerial attacks as a strategic factor.
  • Deception, coordinated operations among different services, and deep attacks in the rapid attainment of campaign objectives.
  • Fortifications and minefields.
  • Logistical support to sustain high-technology weapons.

Nevertheless, what it does not mention — and what is often neglected when extrapolating lessons from past conflicts in general — is the contribution of superior military skills as a result of superior military training to victory on the battlefield. For example, while PLA documents about the Gulf War mention the need to improve the quality of PLA personnel, the major lesson drawn from the conflict remains the need for joint operations at the operational level of war underpinned by the notion, propagated by U.S. defense analysts, that the Gulf War showcased a so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA).

This misses a key takeaway. As Stephen Biddle has shown in a 1996 analysis of the war, it was a synergistic interaction between a major skill imbalance and advanced military technology that caused the one-sided U.S. victory in the war. The Iraqi military committed numerous errors, including setting up very poorly prepared defensive positions, weak combined arms coordination, and inadequate battlefield reconnaissance to provide attack warning, all of which can be traced back to underdeveloped skills and lack of adequate military training. Between evenly matched opponents, this already may have spelled battlefield defeat.

However, “advanced technology raised the costs of defensive error dramatically relative to the consequences of similar mistakes in the past, making possible a radical reduction in attacker losses against an error-prone opponent,” Biddle writes. In other words, the inferior military skills of the Iraqi soldiers were amplified by U.S. technological advantages, which, paired with superior military skills by U.S. military personnel, proved devastating for the Iraqi Army — leading to the huge disparity in Iraqi and U.S. casualty figures.

“Rather than a revolution through information dominance and precision strike, what the Gulf War really suggests is thus a new ability to exploit mistakes,” Biddle concludes. More daringly, he suggests: “If one’s own skills are high, one is insulated to an important degree against variations in opposing technology, even if one’s own weapons change only incrementally.” Or more succinctly put: “A less-skilled military is more dangerous than less-advanced technology.” In other words, perhaps not every technological arms race is worth pursuing at the expense of overall military preparedness.

Military history proves Biddle’s hypothesis right up to a point. From Europe’s brutal expansion into Asia (See: “This is How Europe Conquered Asia”), to little-known engagements such as Battle of Lissa and more well-known confrontations like the Battle of France in 1940, technologically inferior forces have prevailed against a superior foe if they showed superior military skills, whether at the basic tactical level or when conducting more complex combined arms operations. It suggests that basic soldiering skills will always be the cornerstone of military power. In the 21st century, they may make the difference between a temporary setback and devastating military defeat.

As a consequence, one of the most important takeaways from the Gulf War about the future of war is paradoxically the increasing importance of the human factor for future warfare — especially with the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) platforms and semi-autonomous as well as autonomous weapons systems.  The importance of  military skills  for success on the battlefield is obviously not a new revelation and has been accepted wisdom since the time of the Roman Legions. It nevertheless needs to be reiterated amid the prevailing Zeitgeist, which is heavily influenced by the Silicon Valley gospel of technological solutionism.

Biddle’s paper precedes an argument I put forward this January (See: “What ‘Back to the Future’ Teaches About the Future of War”): technology is an important factor in determining the future of military conflict, but it can never be the only determinant. Despite that common sense understanding, too often military capability and power are equated with military hardware and technology. In order to gain a more comprehensive picture of the military strengths of potential opponents, more attention needs to be paid to military skills. This perhaps may entail devising more systematic methods of ranking military skills of militaries in Asia, besides anecdotal evaluations as has been primarily the case in the past.