Return to

March 28, 2003
Notes from the Pentagon

Coyote howls
The huge Marine Corps base in northern Kuwait known as Camp Coyote has been the target of all but three of 14 short-range ballistic missiles Iraq has fired during the war.

It's no wonder Marines at the camp, located 22 miles south of the Iraqi border along the main Route 80 that leads to Baghdad, are beginning to suspect they've been targeted.

Our informant says Marines are beginning to suspect that foreign nationals who work at the camp provide the targeting information.

"This was the one place where they let Kuwaiti nationals and Pakistanis in to do food service and get the trash out, and pump the toilets," one person at the camp told us.

There was at least one incident where a local attempted to smuggle a bomb into the camp, our informant said.

Luckily, the new Patriot PAC-3 missile batteries have knocked out all the missiles aimed at the base.

Marines improvise
The Marine Corps 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, now on the outskirts of Baghdad, is struggling to protect its more than 250-mile-long supply line, we are told. The main problem has been the hundreds of Fedayeen Saddam who rolled in behind the main advancing force to harass and try to disrupt the Marines lines.

Rear-area support forces are finding themselves confronting company-sized groups of Iraqi guerrillas.

"The rear areas are definitely not secure," one source with the Marines told us.

The Marines' ideal situation is to conduct amphibious landings or air insertions, set up a base, then eventually hand over the operation to larger Army land forces. Not this time. The Marines are playing a key role in what is expected to be the battle for Baghdad in the coming days.

To deal with the stretched supply lines, the Marines have rented large numbers of flatbed trucks in Kuwait at an estimated cost of $18,000 a month to drive their supplies and equipment up north to the advancing forces.

The Kuwaiti trucks have been breaking down, causing delays in getting vital supplies to the troops.

Franks panic
Army Gen. Tommy Franks got a case of heartburn around 10 p.m. on March 20. That was when the ground phase of the war in Iraq kicked off, as hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division the storied "Rock of the Marne" began rumbling through sand berms on the Kuwaiti border in at least three lines spaced miles apart.

It wasn't the invasion that surprised the four-star general, since he had ordered it. What upset Gen. Franks, defense officials said, was the live television coverage of the tank operation. The best footage was provided by ABC's Ted Koppel, who set up a generator and beamed back high-quality live video images. He gave viewers an extraordinary live shot of the 3rd's tank columns. Other networks followed with the jumpy and hard-to-see video-telephone footage.

Gen. Franks feared the live coverage of the tanks was enough for Iraqi artillery or missile batteries in southern Iraq to target U.S. troops. Still, he did not order the news reports shut down. Instead, he ordered a blackout of all news coverage on Navy ships, including cruise missile strikes and aircraft sorties. The blackout was lifted after several hours.

Desert storms
This week's blinding sandstorms in central Iraq recalled similar "shamals" 12 years ago in the aptly named Desert Storm.

Under "lessons learned" from that war, maintenance crews know they have to inspect engines, helicopter blades, sensors and the lenses on missiles to make sure they aren't damaged by desert grit.

An Air Force policy-maker, who asked not to be named, said the service found during the buildup to the 1991 Gulf war that desert dust was damaging the clear domes on sensors: systems such as forward-looking infrared on the underbelly of a fighter jet or the lens on a hand-steered Maverick missile.

"It was not an overwhelming problem, but it did present a challenge to our sensors, high-quality lenses and their covers," the official said.

The Air Force responded by quickly shipping to Saudi Arabia repair kits that could remove any scrapes or nicks.

Now-retired Army Gen. Ronald Griffith, who commanded the 1st Armored Division during Desert Storm, said his unit advanced through a shamal to attack Iraq's 26th Infantry Division.

"It is about the most irritating experience you can have in your life," Gen. Griffith said. "The sand gets into every crevice. It gets into every piece of equipment. It takes a lot of maintenance to keep from damaging equipment. It's a horrible experience."

Still, the retired four-star general says, the Army's night-vision equipment on M1A1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles allowed his men to attack through the blinding sandstorm and defeat the 26th.

"This sandstorm stuff is overrated," says retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Buster Glosson, who designed the 1991 air campaign. "With GPS [global positioning system] and with Army technology permitting them to see the battlefield, even though it's obscured, I don't believe it will delay or influence" when a battle starts.

The retired general said blowing sand can throw laser-guided bombs off the mark, but has no effect on satellite-steered munitions now in vogue.

Vietnam syndrome
Aides to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are stunned at the negative war coverage they are getting in the New York Times and The Washington Post.

Times editor Howell Raines explained his paper's slant well before the war started, saying on PBS his pages are full of anti-war stories because he does not want another Vietnam.

Question: "The accusation is that you're more than following it, that you're campaigning against military intervention."

Raines: "As I say, the people who make those kinds of accusations, usually for ideological reasons, are the best witness on why they say that. In this kind of reporting, one of the lessons of Vietnam is that it's important to ask the questions at the front end of the war, not afterwards."

During the 2001 Afghanistan campaign, the New York Times declared on the front page that the war was a "quagmire" in month one.

"A Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam," the Oct. 31 headline said on day 24. (Kabul and Kandahar fell by December 7.)

The Post already has decided that, in week one, Operation Iraqi Freedom is another Vietnam at least according to a Style-section story.

Back to the current war. Let the record note that on the ground war's fourth day, the first "Vietnam" question came at the alliance's daily briefing in Doha, Qatar.

A reporter for Abu Dhabi television asked briefer Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, "We have been seeing reports of U.S. soldiers killed, missing and captured, and the state of resistance of Iraqi in many cities which you claimed before taken full control, such as An Nasiriyah and Umm Qasr. Are you facing a new Vietnam in Iraq, or are you victims of over-self-confidence?"

At the Pentagon, planners have a different view.

"We've been doing great," said an Air Force official. "In regards to casualties and POWs, we are doing well. Killed in only low double-digits. It could be a lot worse, not that I don't feel for any people we've lost. I do."

What does please senior policy-makers is the TV coverage. They believe the networks and cable news are providing a much more balanced picture of the battlefield.

Their chief problem with cable news is the cadre of retired military officers who make pretty good educated guesses about where allied troops are headed.

In fact, the pundits' analysis of the war plan was so accurate that Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, held a conference call on the day the war started to tell them to "tone it down a little," a source said.

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

  • Inside the Ring Archives
    1999 Columns
    2000 Columns
    2001 Columns

    2002 Columns
    2003 Columns
    Return to