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War Strategy: Planners must ask 'What if?'

By Don Shepperd
CNN Military Analyst

A former U.S. Air Force major general, Don Shepperd is now a military analyst for CNN.

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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
•  Weapons: 3D Models

(CNN) -- It's a war in which U.S. Army tanks engage Iraqi pick-up trucks, and U.S. Navy destroyers target small Iraqi dhows. Iraq's conscript regular army, expected by many to fold quickly and easily, instead has displayed considerable resistance.

Coalition officials now estimate the paramilitary Fedayeen Saddam and other Iraqi secret services, spread all around the country rather than hunkering down near Baghdad, number tens of thousands more than they'd initially suspected. These militia, officials said, give backbone to Iraqi conscripts, in part by threatening them and their families if they try to surrender or fail to fight.

So is anyone surprised? Yes and no.

Before the war began, many pundits and armchair strategists were asked to predict the length of the war. Most predicted the war would last between two and six weeks, ending with a thorough collapse of Saddam's regime and Iraqis savoring their newfound freedom.

Now, President Bush and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are attempting to lower American expectations by noting the "campaign could well grow more dangerous," conceding the war is "not easy" and saying coalition forces will fight "however long it takes."

But pundits don't plan wars; military leaders like Gen. Tommy Franks do. They don't plan based upon enemy intent, but rather based on enemy capabilities.

The generals "war game" -- play war games -- by examining what scenarios could unfold and what to do about it.

For example, Franks might want the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Squadron, 7th U.S. Cavalry to move quickly from Kuwait base camps to Najaf and Karbala, securing Euphrates River bridges along the way.

But war planners must also ask, What if this unit encounters significant resistance? Should they stop or should they continue? If they do surge forward, should military leaders order fresh coalition forces to secure the villages and bridges that the 3rd Infantry elements bypassed?

Today, coalition military planners face a host of other scenarios, including:

• What if U.S. Marine units are slow to advance on the right flank and cannot keep up with U.S. Army forces to the west, heading up the Euphrates?

• What if British forces get tied up in Basra?

• What if Iraq's air force, which hasn't flown any sorties thus far in the conflict, saves its airplanes and flies them later to target vulnerable coalition forces?

• What if Turkey does not allow the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division, expected to be deployed in the coming days, to enter Iraq through its territory?

• What if Iraqi forces use weapons of mass destruction early in the war, when U.S.-led forces are still outside Baghdad?

Coalition military leaders examine these and other "what-ifs" time and again in "war games" and computer exercises, using "red teams" playing the role of enemy.

At some point, war planning staffs are satisfied that they have considered every reasonable contingency. Even then, there are inevitably surprises as the conflict unfolds.

Iraqi forces, hardened by three decades of wars that have devastated their country, are smart. The Iraqis have competent generals and some soldiers fanatically dedicated to Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi forces also have done an excellent job employing asymmetric warfare, fighting the war on their terms. They cannot match coalition forces' technology and firepower, so they use guerilla tactics reminiscent of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

Some people are surprised by how the war has gone thus far. But I doubt Gen. Franks is one of them.

Franks, no doubt, would have liked to have seen Saddam's regime collapse in days and with little resistance. But publicly, he has expressed patience and his forces have the flexibility to win the war. As Bush said Thursday, "This isn't a matter of [a] timetable, it's a matter of victory."

Retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd served in the U.S. Air Force for almost 40 years and flew 247 fighter combat missions in Vietnam. He served at the Pentagon as the Air National Guard commander and was directly involved in planning the use of Air National Guard forces during the Persian Gulf War. Shepperd now runs his own defense consulting firm called The Shepperd Group.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.

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