Battle of 73 Easting

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Fought during the ground phase, Operation DESERT SABRE, of the Gulf War, the Battle of 73 Easting — named for a map reference in largely featureless desert — was an engagement in which a small but technologically advanced U.S. Army unit destroyed a larger Iraqi armored brigade. The U.S. troops were part of the then-2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (2ACR), under the tactical control of then Captain H.R. McMaster. Their opponents were part of the elite Tawakalna Division of the Republican Guard.

Fought on 26 February 1991, it was the first major ground combat action of the "Left Hook" by XVIII Airborne Corps. 2ACR had a reconnaissance in force scouting mission.

McMaster commanded his own company-sized force and was supported by other ground units; no aircraft were involved in the battle proper although there may have been some kills beforehand. Aside from the results, the battle is well known because many of the U.S. vehicles had recorders on their sensors, and it has been possible to replay and study the engagement in detail. Stephen Biddle writes of multiple what-if simulations that were run to gain understanding of the factors involved in the fight.[1] More detailed results of the simulation have been made available. [2]

As opposed to some of the routs of conscript infantry on the Iraqi border, the opposing forces in this action appeared to fight bravely if not skillfully; the U.S. units reported their vehicles were being hit by rifle and machine gun fire at short range.

While the U.S. had a technical advantage, such as tanks and armored personnel carriers that did not need to come to a stop before accurate firing, that appears not to have been the only factor. The Iraqis were, however, surprised. There were an inadequate number of Iraqi observation posts forward of the main brigade position, which were destroyed without the Iraqi command becoming suspicious. This may have meant that not all Iraqi fighting vehicles were fully manned, while the U.S. unit was moving in fully ready attack formation. Iraqi commanders, however, did not effectively control their defense.

Biddle suggests that while the U.S. technology advantage alone was not decisive, it allowed decisive exploitation of defensive errors. Among these advantages were thermal gunsights with much longer range, and with the ability to penetrate sandstorms and even visualize tanks behind sand dunes.

In constructing the simulation, one ambiguity came because "Iraqi armored vehicle fighting positions were not "dug-in" as we normally think of that concept. They were, instead, protected by a berm which had been scraped up in front and to the sides of the vehicles, and consisted of loosely packed earth and sand. Such positions provided more concealment than protection. When this was discovered by commanders of U.S. tanks and vehicles equipped with BGM-71 TOW [antitank missiles], they began to fire at the berms as soon as they were detected. This resulted in a number of kills where vehicles were not detected until they exploded or burned behind the berm. At the same time, a significant number of berms concealed no vehicles. How many of these empty positions were engaged with how many rounds, and their exact locations, is something that is only a matter of estimation." [3]

References

  1. Stephen Biddle (Fall 1996), "Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us About the Future of Conflict", International Security 21 (2)
  2. Christenson, William M. ; Zirkle, Robert A. (September 1992), 73 Easting Battle Replication--A JANUS Combat Simulation, Institute for Defense Analyses
  3. IDA, p. 7