Lessons for Today's Small Unit Leaders
“Other battles would be more destructive than 73 Easting. Other units would fight with the same proficiency demonstrated by Holder’s dragoons. Yet in this first major engagement against the Republican Guard, the U.S. Army demonstrated in a few hours the consequences of twenty years’ toil since Vietnam. Here could be seen, with almost flawless precision, the lethality of modern American weapons; the hegemony offered by AirLand Battle doctrine, with its brutal ballet of armor, artillery, and air power; and, not least, the élan of the American soldier, who fought with a competence worthy of his forefathers on more celebrated battlefields in more celebrated wars.”
Rick Atkinson, Crusade
The Battle of 73 Easting (a north-south grid line on the map) was one of many fights in Desert Storm. Each of those battles was different. Individual and unit experiences in the same battle often vary widely. The tactics that Army units use to fight future battles will vary considerably from those employed in Desert Storm. Harbingers of future armed conflict such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ISIS’s establishment of a terrorist proto-state and growing transnational reach, Iran’s pursuit of long range ballistic missiles, Syria’s use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs to commit mass murder against its citizens, the Taliban’s evolving insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan, North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal and that regime’s erratic behavior all indicate that Army forces must be prepared to fight and win against a wide range of enemies, in complex environments, and under a broad range of conditions. There are, however, general lessons and observations from combat experiences that apply at the tactical level across a range of enemies and battlefield conditions. The purpose of this essay is to reflect on the experience of Eagle Troop, Second Squadron, Second Armored Cavalry Regiment twenty-five years ago during Operation Desert Storm to identify enduring keys to success in battle.
Context: Second Cavalry Regiment’s Covering Force and the Tawakalna Division’s Defense
On February 23, 1991 the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment moved into Iraq and initiated an offensive covering force mission forward of Lieutenant General Frederick Franks’ VII Corps. The VII Corps’ mission was to envelop and defeat the Republican Guard from the west. The Iraqi defense was mainly oriented to the south. The Republican Guard was positioned in depth to the north to preserve their freedom to maneuver. Once the Iraqis detected our effort to envelop and destroy their Army in Kuwait with the VII and XVIII Airborne Corps, elements of the Republican Guard, including the Tawakalna Division, reoriented to the west.
As an offensive covering force, the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment led the attack to ease the forward movement of the Corps, prevent its premature deployment into fighting, and defeat enemy units within its capability. Our troop, Eagle Troop of the Second Squadron, was part of that Regimental operation, an operation that ultimately located the boundary between the Republican Guard and the mechanized divisions of the Iraqi Army. Our Troop’s fight and other Regimental engagements gave the Corps commander the information he wanted before committing a “fist” of four heavy divisions that were moving behind our Regiment.
On the first day, we traveled only about twenty kilometers into Iraq and waited for the divisions to close behind us. First Lieutenant TJ Linzy’s scout platoon in Captain Tom Sprowls’ F Troop led the squadron, encountering and rapidly defeating several enemy infantry units. The emphasis was on getting to the Republican Guard and we passed prisoners on to units traveling behind us. Our Troop had our first combat action on the evening of the 24th after moving further to the north. It was dusk and an enemy position fired on us as we halted. We engaged them with direct fire from Bradleys and a tank as well as indirect fire from our mortars, killed some of them, and then many surrendered to F Troop on our right flank. As we continued the attack, leaders warned soldiers not to become complacent due to the ease of early encounter actions with the enemy; we would soon meet more capable Republican Guard units. Just before sunset during the evening of 25 February, G Troop, commanded by Captain Joe Sartiano, engaged and destroyed an enemy reconnaissance unit of about twelve MTLBs -- small armored personnel carriers. They were Republican Guard vehicles. G Troop took captured vehicles to the squadron command post. We examined maps and weapons. Some of the weapons were brand new. We anticipated a fight. It was clear that we had entered the Republican Guard security zone.
A VII Corps order received early the next morning, turned our Regiment and the following divisions from a northeast to an eastward axis of attack. Lieutenant General Franks told the Second Cavalry Regiment Commander, Colonel Don Holder to expect to pass the First Infantry Division (1ID) forward as early as 1800. General Franks gave 2ACR an initial limit of advance of the 60 Easting.
It rained hard during the night of the 25th, and there was heavy fog on the morning of the 26th. We could barely see two hundred meters. The fog lifted late in the morning, but was replaced by a sandstorm that also limited visibility to short distances. The Regiment’s air cavalry squadron was grounded for more than half of the day. As the weather deteriorated it became clear that 1ID would not arrive behind 2ACR until later. Lieutenant General Franks directed the Regiment to move ten more kilometers to the 70 Easting and to expect forward passage of lines with 1ID around 0200. In the afternoon of 26 February, the Regiment ordered its three squadrons to continue the attack to the east to identify the defensive positions of the Republican Guard. We had a feeling that we would soon be in a fight although we did not have detailed intelligence on enemy disposition or strength.
After moving into the lead along Second Squadron’s southern boundary with Third Squadron, our Troop received orders to move out. It was 1607. Our initial limit of advance was the 67 Easting. We moved in a formation called a modified column security right. One scout platoon, Lieutenant Mike Petschek’s First Platoon, led with three scout sections of two cavalry fighting vehicles each in a “vee” formation. The other scout platoon, First Lieutenant Tim Gauthier’s Third Platoon, moved along our southern flank, with guns oriented south to cover the gap between us and Third Squadron who was moving behind us to our south. Our mortar section followed first platoon. Our tanks moved behind the mortars in a nine-tank wedge with my tank in the center. First Lieutenant Mike Hamilton’s Second Platoon was to my tank’s left in an echelon left formation and First Lieutenant Jeff Destefano’s fourth platoon was to my tank’s right in an echelon right.
Because we had no maps of the area (we used generic 1:100,000 scale maps to plot our progress in the flat, featureless desert), we were unaware that we were paralleling a road that ran west to east along our boundary with Third Squadron. The road ran through a small village and then into Kuwait. We also did not know that we were entering an old Iraqi training ground occupied by a brigade of the Tawakalna Division and elements of the 10th Armored Division who had received the mission to halt our advance into Kuwait.
The enemy commander, Major Mohammed, and his soldiers knew the ground well. The unit had used the village for billets as they conducted live fire training. Mohammed, who graduated from the Infantry Officer Advanced Course at Fort Benning, Georgia thought it was the ideal ground from which to defend. Unaware of our brand-new global positioning system capabilities, he assumed that we would have to move along roads to avoid becoming lost in the featureless desert. He organized his defense along the road by fortifying the village with anti-aircraft guns to be used in the ground mode, machine guns, and infantry. Mohammed’s defense was fundamentally sound. He took advantage of an imperceptible rise in the terrain that ran perpendicular to the road and directly through the village to organize a reverse slope defense on the east side of that ridge. He anticipated that upon encountering his strong point at the village, we would bypass it either to the north or south. He built two engagement areas or kill sacks on the eastern side of the ridge to the north and the south of the village, emplaced minefields to disrupt forward movement, and dug in approximately forty tanks and sixteen BMPs about one thousand meters from the ridge. His plan was to engage and destroy us piecemeal as we moved over the crest. Hundreds of infantry occupied bunkers and trenches between his armored vehicles. He positioned a reserve of eighteen T-72s and his command post along another subtle ridgeline approximately three thousand meters further east. Our overall experience – long periods of movement, waiting, and preparation punctuated by short periods of furious activity – would prove consistent with unit experiences in armored combat in North Africa in World War II.
Ten Lessons from Twenty-Three Minutes
The first contact came at 1607, when Staff Sergeant John McReynolds’ Bradley drove right on top of an Iraqi bunker positioned to provide early warning to the forces in the village. Two enemy soldiers emerged and surrendered. Staff Sergeant McReynolds took them prisoner and transported them to our trains.
The enemy scouts had warned Iraqi forces in the village prior to their capture. McReynolds’ wingman, Sergeant Maurice Harris, remained at the limit of advance and scanned into the village through the blowing sand. Sergeant Harris’s Bradley came under 23mm canon and machine gun fire. He reported to his platoon leader, who responded, “well, kill them.” This engagement and the twenty-three minute battle that followed revealed ten essential elements of success in battle that remains relevant today.
- Lead from the front. Leaders must be forward to gain a clear picture and make decisions. As Sergeant Harris engaged with 25mm, Lieutenant Gauthier moved forward to assess and further develop the situation. Gauthier fired a TOW missile into the center of the enemy position in the village to orient our tanks. After our gunner, Staff Sergeant Craig Koch, fired a subsequent tank round to mark center, all nine tanks fired high explosive rounds into the village simultaneously to suppress the enemy position. Despite the secondary explosions in the village to its south, First Platoon maintained its primary observation to the east.
- Shoot first. If you know where friendly forces are and there is not a danger of civilian casualties, do not hesitate to shoot or conduct reconnaissance by fire. The side that shoots first has a tremendous advantage. Staff Sergeant David Lawrence was the commander of First Platoon’s northernmost Bradley. When his gunner, Sergeant Bradley Feltman, said, “Hey, I’ve got a hot spot out there; I’m not sure what it is,” Lawrence responded, “Put a TOW in it; see what it is.” Lawrence identified the hot spot as a T-72 as the turret was ripped from its hull in the ensuing explosion. Our troop’s experience was consistent with Erwin Rommel’s observation in his World War I book, Infantry Attacks: “I have found again and again in encounter actions the day goes to the side that is first to plaster its opponents with fire.”
- Fight through the fog of battle. Be prepared for confusion and concurrent activity. As we suppressed enemy positions in the village and while Lawrence was launching a missile, the Troop received permission to advance to the 70 Easting. I instructed First Platoon to resume movement east. Lieutenant Petschek did not respond immediately because Lawrence was reporting on the platoon radio net, “Contact! Contact, east, tank!” Simple orders and complete reports are essential to maintaining common understanding in battle.
- Follow your instincts and intuition. As Sergeant Feltman launched the TOW missile, I decided to go to a tanks lead formation and instructed Green and White, the tank platoons, to “follow my move.” First Platoon pulled in behind as the tank wedge moved forward and covered the tanks’ rear. Third platoon retained responsibility for flank security. As we began moving forward, First Platoon, responding to the contact report on their platoon radio net, began firing twenty-five millimeter high explosive munitions across the front. It was a little unnerving for the tanks as we moved forward. I gave First Platoon a cease-fire order – “Red 1, this is Black 6, cease fire.” The two tank platoons were slightly delayed. As our tank came over the crest of the imperceptible rise north of the village, Sergeant Craig Koch, the gunner, reported “tanks direct front,” I counted eight T-72s in prepared positions. They were at close range and visible to the naked eye.
- Use standard unit fire and battle drills. Aim to overwhelm the enemy upon contact and retain the initiative through speed of action. As Sergeant Koch fired the main gun and destroyed the first tank, I sent a contact report to the troop, “This is Black 6. Contact east. Eight armored vehicles. Green and White, are you with me?” Sergeant Koch destroyed two more tanks as our tank platoons accelerated movement. All nine tanks began engaging together as we advanced. In approximately one minute, everything in the range of our guns was in flames. Fire distribution and control allowed us to destroy a much larger enemy force in a very short period of time.
- Foster initiative. Every trooper understood how our platoons and the troop conducted fire and maneuver. Our tank driver, Specialist Christopher Hedenskog knew that he had to steer a path that permitted both tank platoons to get their guns into the fight. He turned 45 degrees to the right and kept our frontal armor toward the first enemy tanks we engaged. He drove through a minefield, avoided the anti-tank mines, reporting on the intercom, “Sir, I think you need to know, we just went through a minefield.” He knew that it would be dangerous to stop right in the middle of the enemy kill zone. Hedenskog saw that our tank platoons had a window of opportunity to shock the enemy and take advantage of the first blows that Sergeant Koch had delivered.
- Use tanks to take the brunt of battle. Tanks drove around the anti-tank mines and Bradleys and other vehicles followed in their tracks. Our Squadron S-3’s tank, commanded by Major Douglas MacGregor, hit an anti-tank mine, but the blast damaged the tank only slightly. It continued the attack and made a rapid repair when we halted. We ran over anti-personnel mines, but they sounded like microwave popcorn popping and had no effect on armored vehicles. The rate of fire of our tanks allowed enemy tanks to fire only two errant main gun rounds at the outset of the battle and two later as the troop assaulted. Enemy machine gun fire had no effect on the troop’s advance. The psychological shock of our tanks advancing undaunted toward their defensive positions paralyzed and panicked the enemy.
- Be prepared for misfires and degraded operations. Lieutenant Jeff DeStefano’s tank crew came around the village, destroyed an enemy tank, and acquired a second tank at very close range that was traversing on them. A round got stuck in the breech of DeStefano’s canon. The loader grabbed hold of the loader’s hatch, kicked the round in, the breech came up, and the gunner, Sergeant Matthew Clark, destroyed the T-72. In another example, Staff Sergeant Digbie ordered Private First Class Charles Bertubin to reload TOW missiles. Bertubin could not get the cargo hatch open, however. When the lightweight wrestler kicked the hatch release, he sheared it off. Rather than tell his Bradley commander that he could not get the TOWs reloaded, he jumped out of the back door while the vehicle was under small arms and machinegun fire. He climbed onto the back of the Bradley, loaded both missiles, then tapped his Bradley commander on the shoulder while yelling, “TOWs are up.” Staff Sergeant Digbie nearly jumped out of skin because he thought that an Iraqi had climbed onto the Bradley.
- Coordinate between platoons and ensure mutual support. The burning tanks and personnel carriers of the enemy’s first defensive line formed a curtain of smoke that concealed enemy further to the east. As our tanks assaulted through the smoke, we saw other enemy armored vehicles and large numbers of infantry running to get back to subsequent trench lines and positions. We destroyed the enemy armored vehicles quickly and shot the infantry with machine guns as we closed the distance with them. Pockets of enemy soldiers threw their arms up. Our soldiers were disciplined; turrets turned away from any enemy soldier with his hands raised. Tank platoon leaders asked scout platoons to pick up observation of the enemy infantry as their Bradleys came through the smoke. The scouts saw that the enemy had used false surrender to gain a better position. Enemy soldiers were re-shouldering their rifles and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). Our Bradleys surprised the enemy and killed them before they could engage our tanks effectively.
- Take risk to win. Because Eagle Troop pressed the assault, the enemy could not respond effectively. As we cleared the westernmost defensive positions, our executive officer, Lieutenant John Gifford, broke in on the radio, “I know you don’t want to know this right now, but you’re at the limit of advance; you’re at the 70 Easting.” I responded, “Tell them we can’t stop. Tell them we’re in contact and we have to continue this attack. Tell them I’m sorry.” We had surprised and shocked the enemy; stopping would have allowed them to recover. As Erwin Rommel observed in Infantry Attacks: “The man who lies low and awaits developments usually comes off second best. . . .It is fundamentally wrong to halt—or to wait for more forces to come up and take part in the action.” Eagle Troop continued to attack toward another very subtle ridgeline on which the enemy positioned his reserve, a coil of eighteen T-72 tanks. Major Mohammed later told one of our troopers that he had not known he was under attack until a soldier ran into his elaborate command bunker yelling, “tanks, tanks!” By the time he got to his observation post, all the vehicles in defensive positions to the west were in flames. He ordered the reserve behind him to establish a second defensive line. It was too late. Eagle Troop’s tanks crested the rise and entered their assembly area. The tanks were starting to move out when we destroyed them at close range.
Continuing the attack beyond the limit of advance was consistent with a command climate that not only encouraged, but also demanded that junior leaders take initiative. Colonel Holder, told us during training in Germany that, “Because of the pace of the action and the size of the cavalry battlefield, important decisions have to be made quickly by junior leaders in contact…all Regimental leaders must train their juniors to do the right things and then trust them to act independently.... Leaders must teach and practice mission orders.” It was a message all leaders in the Regiment internalized.
The furious action lasted twenty-three minutes. The troop stopped when there was nothing left to shoot. Sporadic contact ranged from nuisance machine gun fire to one company-sized counterattack of T-72s and BMP armored personnel carriers. Tanks and Bradleys destroyed enemy vehicles at long range from the dominating position on the ridge. Three Bradleys from first platoon, led by Lieutenant Michael Petschek, encountered and destroyed four T-72s as they moved north to reestablish physical contact with G Troop. Medics treated and evacuated enemy wounded. Crews cross-leveled ammunition. Mortars suppressed enemy infantry further to the east as our fire support officer, Lieutenant Dan Davis, called in devastating artillery strikes on enemy logistical bases. Scouts and a team under the control of First Sergeant Bill Virrill cleared bunkers using grenades and satchel charges, and then led a much-needed resupply convoy through minefields to our rear. A psychological operations team broadcasted surrender appeals forward of the troop and the troop took the first of hundreds of prisoners including the brigade commander. Soldiers segregated, searched, and secured prisoners through the night. Many prisoners cried because they had not expected such humane treatment; their officers had told them that we would execute them. The prisoners were incredulous when our soldiers returned their wallets without taking any of the money that they had looted from Kuwait City. Just after 2200, 1ID conducted a forward passage of lines in Third Squadron’s area of operation to our south.
The morning after the battle, soldiers were exhausted. Many of the approximately fifty T-72s, twenty-five armored personnel carriers, forty trucks and numerous other vehicles that the troop destroyed were still smoldering. Our troop had taken no casualties. We thanked God and were determined to keep our edge. We implemented a rest plan and escorted parties of enemy prisoners to bury their fellow soldiers killed during the assault. The troop’s leadership huddled to conduct an after action review. As news of a cease fire reached us, we discussed the previous day’s fight to identify what we might do to improve our readiness for the next battle should we called upon to continue the offensive.
In the ensuing months, we reflected on our training and preparation and identified what we thought best explained the outcome of the battle. We concluded that the tough, realistic training conducted in Germany and after arrival in Kuwait gave our troop the ability to overwhelm the Iraqis in close combat and gave our soldiers and teams the confidence to suppress fear and close with a numerically superior enemy that possessed the advantages of the defense. Specialist Rodrigo Martinez, a tank gunner wrote after the battle that he never really experienced fear because, “we had trained so hard and often it just seemed like another field problem.” After the battle, our loader, Private First Class Jeffrey Taylor, told me, “I’m not going to lie, I was about to panic, but I said ‘don’t panic, do your job." Staff Sergeant John McReynolds, scout section sergeant in Third Platoon, recalled that, “the crew didn’t have to be told what to do. It just kinda came natural.” Third Platoon leader Lieutenant Timothy Gauthier observed that his platoon’s actions were “almost businesslike.” That skill and confidence was not unique to Eagle Troop. It derived, in large measure, from Army-wide reforms in doctrine, training, leader development, and modernization that followed the Vietnam War.
In a 1996 study of the battle, Steven Biddle came to a similar conclusion, arguing that the U.S. advantage in both skill and technology best explained the lopsided outcome in Desert Storm. The commanders of the three armored cavalry troops that saw the preponderance of the action at 73 Easting entered West Point in 1980, a decade prior to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. A renaissance in our Army was already underway. After Vietnam, Army leaders overcame a crisis in readiness associated with the strain of fighting a long war without mobilization; draft policies that undermined the quality of the force; the watering down of officer and especially non-commissioned officer education to fill spaces for Vietnam; a lack of resources for training and modernization; breakdowns in discipline and standards including racism and drug abuse; and a difficult post-war transition to a smaller all-volunteer Army. Although our Army does not face a crisis as it did after the Vietnam War, the need to anticipate the demands of future battle and prepare our soldiers to fight and win against determined and adaptive enemies is unchanged. Future enemies learned from the overwhelming tactical victories in Desert Storm. They emulated some U.S. capabilities while developing countermeasures to U.S. advantages and adopting asymmetrical approaches to fighting.
Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley’s guidance to Army leaders is clear: focus above all else on the readiness of soldiers and units to fight and win under all conditions of battle. Because U.S. technological overmatch over potential enemies is narrowing due to decreased funding for Army modernization and the ease of technology transfer, our differential advantage in skill is even more important. Although future battles will likely be fought against more capable enemies and under more challenging and complex conditions, there are lessons from battlefield victories twenty-five years ago that remain relevant to combat readiness today and in the future. Well-trained, confident platoons and companies provide the foundation for our Army’s and Joint Force’s ability to fight. As General Ernest Harmon, the commander of Second Armored Division observed prior to the invasion of Normandy in World War II, “The division will succeed only as the platoon succeeds.”
Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster is the Director, Army Capabilities Integration Center and Deputy Commanding General, Futures, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. This essay is based, in part, on the author’s original account of the battle. Parts of that account appear in Leaders in War: West Point Remembers the 1991 Gulf War and War Stories of the Tankers: American Armored Combat, 1918 to Today.
Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:
Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.