Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Battle Of 73 Easting Iraq: Desert Storm (1991)


There is an old training axiom that a military force usually learns a great deal more from their defeats than from victories on the battlefield. This has been particularly true with the U.S. Army, which has lost many of its “first battles” during the roughly 225 years it has served the nation. Names like First Manassas, Kasserine Pass, and Task Force Smith are touchstones for American leaders, as they recall the U.S. Army’s failures and defeats.

Usually, these battles remind us of the fact that the Army in the early battles of a conflict is made up of citizen soldiers led by a cadre of peacetime officers, not used to the fast pace, physical rigors, and mental stress of war. The names also remind us that enemies usually attack us when they perceive weakness and an inability to be hurt in the effort. Operation Desert Storm was different.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War was the first of America’s conflicts where a large, standing military force was maintained, equipped, and trained to be ready for the early battles of a major regional conflict. Mostly as a result of Cold War-era preparations for general war with the Soviet Union, American forces were the best trained in the world, superbly prepared to operate the state-of-the-art weaponry that had been supplied to them in the 1980s.

The result was a string of victories, particularly on the ground, which were not even close. American casualties were less than minuscule, suffering more from “friendly fire” than anything sent back from the Iraqis. Strangely, even trained military historians know very little about these engagements, much less about the vast influence they have had on the post-Cold War Army. Of these, none was more important than the Battle of 73 Easting.

Operation Desert Storm

Like many famous battles, 73 Easting derives its name from where the engagement took place. What makes this unique is that it refers not to a town, road junction, or even an oasis, but just a north/south line on a coordinate grid. This region of Iraq was little more than a flat, trackless desert, so such a grid was necessary for navigation by the U.S. Army’s VII Corps in its advance to contact with units of the Iraqi Republican Guard (IRG).

Headed due east on the afternoon of February 26, 1991, VII Corps was advancing with a front of four armored/mechanized divisions. In the center of this front, leading the way and conducting reconnaissance for the corps, was the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR).

The 2nd ACR’s job was to locate the forward elements of the IRG divisions suspected to be in the area, fix them in place, then pass the heavy divisions of VIII Corps through their lines so that they could smash the elite Iraqi units with a single killing blow. It was a difficult assignment, made more so by the weather conditions.

The winter of 1990/91 was one of the wettest on record in the Persian Gulf, and had been a major problem during the preceding six weeks of the Desert Storm air campaign. Now the wind was howling, causing a sandstorm that was grounding the Army’s aviation assets and limiting visibility to as little as a thousand meters.

Air reconnaissance was limited mostly to signals intelligence data, which meant that finding where the IRG divisions were located would be up to the 2nd ACR. Like the prairie horse soldiers of 150 years earlier, the troopers of the regiments would grope forward until they physically ran into the enemy, in this case the IRG Tawakalna Division. Generally known to be the best and most aggressive of the various IRG formations, Tawakalna was the unit that would bear the brunt of the coming battle with VII Corps.


As 2nd ACR moved forward, the regiment’s three squadrons were line abreast from north to south. Each squadron had two of its three cavalry troops forward, with the other and a tank platoon in reserve behind. In 1991, armored cavalry troops were company-sized units, each with 9 M1A1 Abrams tanks, 13 M3A2 Bradley cavalry fighting vehicles, and a handful of M113-based mortar carriers and other vehicles.

On the right (south) side of 2nd Squadron/2nd ACR’s (2/2nd ACR) sector was Eagle Troop, commanded by Capt. H.R. McMaster. A graduate of West Point, McMaster was one of the premier young cavalry officers in the U.S. Army. Aggressive and intelligent, McMaster would eventually turn his graduate thesis into the bestselling book Deriliction of Duty.

On this day though, McMaster and the other 2nd ACR troop commanders were feeling their way forward through the sandstorm on the thermal imaging sights of their tanks and cavalry vehicles, and a handful of commercial GPS receivers. Already, there had been a handful of clashes between 2nd ACR and Iraqi MT-LB reconnaissance carriers, all of which had been vaporized by the 120mm guns of the M1A1s and TOW-2 missiles of the Bradleys.

As the afternoon drew on, they were groping forward a kilometer or “Easting” line at a time, expecting to hit the Tawakalna Division at any time. Around 1530 hours (3:30 p.m.), Eagle Troop ran head on into the IRG division.

Eagle Troop began to take fire from a complex of buildings, which they demolished with a salvo of cannon fire and TOW missiles. At that moment, while just passing over the 73 Easting line, Capt. McMaster crossed a small rise and saw a line of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles dug in ahead of his M1A1 Abrams, nicknamed “Mad Max.” Ordering his gunner to engage, McMaster’s crew destroyed three Iraqi tanks in just under eight seconds.

What immediately struck McMaster as he peered through the M1’s thermal sight was that there was no return fire and that all the Iraq armored vehicles were dug in facing to the south. Eagle Troop had just led 2nd ACR and the whole of VII Corps onto the right flank of the Tawakalna Division’s 18th Mechanized Brigade, and they were not ready. There was however, a dilemma for the young officer.

A Bradley FV firing a TOW anti-tank missile.
The problem was that if he followed his mission orders to the letter, McMaster might well cause problems for the rest of VII Corps. In theory, his job was to locate the IRG divisions, report up the chain to Gen. Fred Franks (the VII Corps commander), then get out of the way while the heavy divisions of the corps passed through them to engage in battle.

Practically, he had stumbled into the heart of a dug-in battalion of the Tawakalna, and had no ability to get his unit into a set defensive position. This meant that the divisions behind 2nd ACR would not have room to change from their march formations to the battle wedges necessary to attack the IRG formations. 

There also was the problem that he was badly outnumbered, at least five or six to one where Eagle Troop was bumping up against the Tawakalna. His own unit might be wiped out by a sudden counterattack, along with much of the 2nd ACR. Clearly the carefully crafted VII Corps battle plan had never foreseen the need for a cavalry captain to make the decision of when and where to engage the IRG. Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened.

McMaster quickly ordered Eagle Troop into the attack, essentially the 1990s equivalent of a cavalry charge. He also radioed the contact with the Tawakalna up the chain to Col. Don Holder, the 2nd ACR commander. His basic duty done, he led Eagle Troop several more kilometers east until they had gone clear through the Iraqi battalion’s laager. 

At the same time, two other 2nd ACR cavalry units, Ghost and Iron Troops (to the north and south respectively), had also plowed into the flank units of the 18th Mechanized Brigade, and were carving them up. All three troops went on a killing spree of 120mm and 25mm shells, as well as volleys of TOW-2 missiles.

By the time it was over, Eagle Troop alone had destroyed over 30 tanks, several dozen armored personnel carriers and trucks, and several hundred Iraqi soldiers. Ghost and Iron Troops racked up similar totals, virtually vaporizing the 18th Mechanized Brigade in a matter of about an hour.

American casualties were light, with just a single M3 Bradley being put out of action. Despite several counterattacks over the next few hours, the 2nd ACR held the line while the rest of VII Corps got into formation to begin the assault on the Tawakalna and other IEG divisions. But the performance of 2nd ACR was the highlight of the day.

McMaster and the men of Eagle Troop, along with those of Iron and Ghost Troops, had crafted a combat masterpiece, not unlike Jackson’s flanking march at Chancellorsville or the stand of Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on Little Round Top. American combat doctrine had hit a zenith at 73 Easting and the word of the victory shot up the chain of command like a rocket.


The Road to the Synthetic Battlefields (Simulated)

Along the way, the story of the 73 Easting engagement came to the attention of the field representatives of the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) based in Arlington, Virginia. IDA, a federally funded research and development corporation, had for some time been working on the idea of creating a virtual battlefield.

The work, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was being supported by the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Gordon Sullivan, as part of his plans to digitize the vehicles and soldiers of the 21st century. Sullivan was himself an armored cavalry officer, and when word of the 73 Easting victory reached his office, he decided to see if the work already accomplished by DARPA and IDA might be used to record the battle for future study and analysis. Almost within hours of the cease-fire in the Persian Gulf, IDA personnel went to work on the project.

Following the movement of the VII Corps heavy divisions in pursuit of the IRG, 2nd ACR had been left essentially in place on the 73 Easting battlefield. The IDA research team quickly began to interview McMaster and every available trooper who fought in the battle, and collected ordnance reports and audio recordings, even taking reconnaissance photos.

Every Iraqi wreck was mapped, and the movement of each American vehicle was retraced. By the time the research effort was complete, the IDA team knew more about the Battle of 73 Easting than the rest of the participants combined. The key now was to do something useful with the information.

Back in Alexandria, IDA had set up a project team, based upon their earlier virtual battlespace work for DARPA. This had included the development of a low-cost simulation network, called SIMNET, which hooked low-cost vehicle/aircraft crew simulators (based upon arcade game technology) into a common terrain database to replicate the rudiments of small unit combat.

SIMNET had provided the tools to take the 73 Easting data and turn it into a compelling analysis tool. Usually presented on large projection screens, the 73 Easting briefings were given to everyone from visiting diplomats to members of Congress. Almost like magic, the viewer would be given the view from just above “Mad Max” during battle, and ride with H.R. McMaster and his crew to fame and glory.

That this was a fourth-generation computer presentation made the history lesson just that much more compelling.  Along the way, every visitor to the IDA center would be given a look at the bank of SIMNET simulators, and given a briefing as well. Suddenly, 73 Easting had taken on a real long-term value for the Army and DARPA: as a high-tech marketing tool.

General McMaster and his victorious Eagle Troops of 2nd ACR.
The drive to build a virtual battlefield to test and train on became a major Army objective, embraced by the other services and the Department of Defense (DoD). With a declining defense budget, reduced training ranges and fewer field exercise opportunities, SIMNET-type training was looking like a winner to senior defense executives.

This became even more attractive as the many previously incompatible training and simulations systems being used by various services began to be connected to SIMNET through a common set of protocols and standards created though DARPA funding efforts. This eventually led to the creation of a synthetic version of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was extensively used in training and concept testing during the mid-1990s.

The late 1990s were a time of great growth in the development of what was now being called the Synthetic Theater of  War (STOW).  Software was being developed to cover everything from the flyout characteristics of missiles to the shading and texturing of surfaces in various lighting and weather conditions. Along with the armed services of the United States, the United Kingdom joined what was chartered as the Joint Semi-Automated Forces (JSAF) Federation.

By late 1997, the STOW program had reached the point where the first 48 hours of a complete U.S. Atlantic Command exercise, United Endeavor 98-1, was able to be simulated without a single ship leaving port or a plane lifting off the ground. Larger exercises were run in 1998, 1999, and 2000, within synthetic replications of actual battlespaces (such as the Persian Gulf) of ever growing proportions.

Clearly, this was a watershed for training and simulation technology, with rapidly improving microprocessor and software technology driving new features and capabilities of the STOW program. The various SAF modules even underwent Y2K upgrades to maintain their viability into the 21st century.

As the Army enters a new millennium and administration, they can take pride in the fact that whatever problems they have in personnel and material, the lessons of Desert Storm are being learned and remembered. Nowhere is this truer than with the influence of the Battle of 73 Easting. Far from the textbook actions and decisions of H.R. McMaster and his fellow 2nd ACR troopers, 73 Easting has had as much influence on the military as any battle since Jutland in 1916.

More than just providing a model for future officers to study, the 2nd ACR’s battle with the Tawakalna that day has opened up new vistas for training, simulation, and planning in the lean post-Cold War world. SIMNET and the entire STOW effort in its present-day derivatives are making the basic training of small and medium-sized units both affordable and safer. 

Along with this, the ability to simulate operations in a real-world crisis area without even being there is a capability that sets the U.S. military head and shoulders above that of every other nation on Earth. That perhaps is the ultimate edge and lesson provided by 73 Easting.



Related posts at following links:
Donald Trump Picks Lt. Gen McMaster As New National Security Advisor
Ten Lessons From The Battle of 73 Easting: Desert Storm