The Dark at the End of the Tunnel: Unsustainable Casualty Rate in Iraq
by Stirling Newberry
What has been known for some time by those who calculate military casualties has now hit slate.com The article is a welcome exposition of what has been clear for sometime - that the Iraqi rebellion is every bit as dangerous as previous post-colonial conflicts, and that it is only vastly improved medical treatment and armor that is preventing the conflict in Iraq from spiralling through the roof in death toll figures.
But instead, we have soldiers playing Rumsfeld Roulette.
I. Counting Casualties
In the spring I began calculating relative casualty rates for the US lead coalition against the insurgents. Up until that time the focus had been on the official fatality figures supplied by the US government, and most media outlets were pedalling propaganda - counting only "fatalities in combat" - to reduce the total number of dead to something resembling a bad Memorial Day Weekend.
That the US public was being kept in the dark about the extent to which military manpower is being drained is not surprising. It is only in the last few months that the media has admitted we are facing a "rebellion" in Iraq, it is only in the last few months that they stopped using terms such as "terrorist" to describe the guerillas and insurgents, and it was only recently that they stopped buying the "foreign fighter" rational of the war.
It still, however, covers up the nature of "contractor" deaths. Originally the fatalities reported in the Mosul blast were 18, and then this was dropped to 13. Who were the other five? US contractors . That is to say, Americans serving in a combat role, and, under the rules of war, military personnel. Indeed a better term for them would be "para-militaries".
Instead, I looked at total military casualties - which from the military perspective are defined as service personnel lost for combat duty. At the time, even wounded not returned to duty figures were sketchy, and contractors in military roles were not counted. These numbers are still difficult to get hard data for. More over, then, as now, Iraqi security forces killed or wounded and not returned to duty were not counted, or reported. Neither the Iraqi Interior Ministry, nor the Iraqi Defense Ministry provided this information, and what information there was was not compiled.
The other difficulty was finding the number of actual enemy dead, rather than the military's distressing habit of counting any one killed in a war zone as a kill. It may make them look better, short term, but it is not accurate. Instead, it became necessary to look at two factors.
The first is that the insurgents often collected their own dead when they could. The second was that hospitals were willing to report deaths and injuries to women and children. Taking these reported numbers as percentages when available, it became clear that 70% of reported Iraqi casualties in war zones were civilians.
Taking the best estimates of these totals, that is fatalities, plus wounded not returned to duty, plus contractors, plus security personnel, it was very clear that the insurgents in the Al-Ansar province were inflicting one casualty for every three they took. This might seem like it is a walk over for the Coalition - getting three of them, for each one of ours they get. However, that number is well below the historical victory rate for occupiers or established military forces against an insurgency. The grey zone is around 4 or 5 to 1. If an established force is only disabling at 4 to 1 against an insurgency, it is very likely to be headed for defeat, not victory. To give an idea of scale, the US coalition inflicted 1000:1 during the first Gulf War, and 100:1 during the invasion. In the most intense days of fighting, the ratio dropped to 2:1. In short, a rate which is headed for defeat.
The reason that established forces must inflict casualties at this rate is rather simple: they are deployed offensively, and represent the top fraction of their nation's personnel, against the rank and file of the target population. In short, one Coalition soldier, contractor or security officer is a great deal more difficult to replace than one insurgent.
II. Analysis of Forces
To determine whether a force is on the way to victory or defeat, it is necessary to have an idea of three things:
Force Pool - how many people available for which combat positions.
Attrition Rate - how many are lost, including those lost to desertion, and the disintegration of units.
The importance of the first cannot be a simple count of people in uniforms. It must include such high skill positions as heliocopter pilots, doctors, high level officers, low level officers and specialists. This combines with the second part closely, because major powers seldom retreat because of low level losses. Instead, it is when they begin taking attrition to hard to replace personnel, high level officers, specialists and individuals with special skill and talent sets, that continued occupation becomes more and more difficult.
In Vietnam it was not, ultimately, the attrition of enlisted personnel that was fatal to the US war effort, it was the attrition of low level officers. While the casualty rates for "grunts" in Vietnam were high, they were more sustainable than the Korean conflict, or the American Civil War. What was unsustainable was the attrition to the officer core - which was at rate comparable to the worst conflicts in American history. There was a leadership drain. This is a continuing pattern: in Afghanistan, it was the loss of high level officers and helicopter pilots that doomed the Soviet occupation.
Which brings up the third prong of the model of conflict: replacement rates. Individuals with special skill and talent sets are not only harder to replace in time, but there is a far more limited pool of people. There are limited numbers of people who have the combination of talent and trainability to be pilots, colonels and doctors. Loss of one of these is equivalent to losing 100 ordinary soldiers for attrition purposes. This isn't the same thing as saying that the lives of each and every person aren't valuable as human lives, but in the calculus of sustaining a war, some losses weigh much more heavily than others.
When an military begins losing high value personnel at an unsustainable rate, one of the first responses is to keep the ones they have in the field longer and longer. This, while it works in the short run, is fatal in the long run. The only people who can train new skilled individuals are experienced skilled individuals. The best people to train new combat chopper pilots, are combat chopper pilots. This was a lesson learned in World War II. The Japanese kept many of their best pilots deployed for battle after battle, the Americans rotated many of their experienced pilots back. Over time, the American air forces increased in average skill, while slow attrition removed the most knowledgeable and able core of Japanese pilots. Without the warrior skills to pass on, the Japanese were finally forced to throw barely trained, and finally kamikazee pilots at the Americans.
The most important two force pools in a post-colonial conflict are for crack troops - the top of the warrior pool of talent - and the high skill transport, command, control and medical personnel. Without these two groups - the teeth and the nerves of the military force - there is no ability to impose order on an area.
The United States has only approximately 50,000 crack warriors available, this number can be obtained by looking at the rotation of forces through Iraq multiple times. Of this number, only 10,000 are deployable offensively at any one time, and this is only if we use the British forces to hold other points while doing so. 10,000 is an all out number, while 3,000 is the more usual number. This means that the present casualty rates among combat infantry, marines and elite forces between Iraq and Afghanistan are placing an attrition rate of approximately 1% on on the force pool of the "teeth" of the occupation. Such attrition rates are sustainable, but they are well above the level of acceptable "wastage". In blunt terms, it is a loss rate high enough to mean that the occupation is in at a "fish or cut bait" point - win, or go home.
Currently losses among air transport personnel are well within the sustainable rate, the lack of heavy anti-aircraft by the insurgents is particularly important for the survivability of US personnel. However, in the catagorey of heavy ground transport, the loss rate is already too high to be sustained, and has forced the US to move to air transport of supplies. Increasing both cost and creating a brittle point in the US war effort. By making striking at air transport more important, it has created an incentive to do so. The losses of truck drivers are now so high that is is almost uneconomical to hire them.
The other class of individuals that must be looked at is the loss of high leadership. So far this rate has been sustainable, but it is creating the same brittle point: as US forces rely more and more on remaining in "garrison" mode, it reduces the ability to project force out into the country side. We are protecting our officer core, but at the cost of effectiveness in fighting the insurgency.
The last important pool to look at is the pool of Iraqi security personnel. The insurgency knows that if it can shatter the effectiveness of the Iraqi government forces , then eventually the war is theirs.
It is here, with the problems of recruitment and replacement visible everywhere in Iraq, that the most glaring omission in reporting is seen. The United States strategy is "Iraqification" of the war. In the end, the rate at which Iraqi security forces are coming into effectiveness is the metric as to whether the current strategy is going to prevail. There is no other number which matters as much, and yet there is no other number which is harder to guage. However, even from published sources, it is clear that the Iraqi security forces are completely ineffective against the insurgents , the insurgents are killing or disabling more security forces, than in reverse, and are able to execute strategic attacks on infrastructure as well. Taking out the insurgents killed by the coalition, the insurgents are out killing the government by at least 3:1.
In fact the inability to secure politically reliable Iraqis is a well known security problem on US bases .
As importantly, many of the medical, technological and logistical advantages that are being provided to Coalition service personnel and para-militaries serving with them, are not available to the Iraqi military. The coalition is a post- revolution in military affairs force - that is, one where information and logistics are integrated into the total force. The Iraqi military isn't even a modern mechanized force. It is, essentially, a World War I level force taking on a similarly equipped insurgency. It does not have mobile hospitals, control of hard points. It does not have chopper forces, tanks, high level command and control, training facilities, or safe places to rotate forces.
In short, the Iraqi security forces are fighting on a roughly equal footing with the insurgents.
Already the insurgency has been effective enough to begin drawing support from Kurdish separatists. Should they find a way to reignite shia discontent - which is very possible if elections do not produce a large flow of money into the poor slums of Iraq's major cities - then the replacement rate of insurgent forces will be at, or above, the rate of the government. More over, the insurgents are clearly training their new recruits - the level of effectiveness of their attacks has not dropped, in terms of casualties inflicted per attack, but has, instead, increased.
The current loses in the elite warrior pool in Iraq are unsustainable as a permanent occupation, and the loses by the Iraqi security forces mean that there is no "hand over" or end game. The US is also sustaining losses in ground transport which are creating a vulnerability in the ability to supply forces in Iraq, and await only a rebel force which is capable of striking at US air facilities to paralyze the occupation forces. While the insurgents are losing well underneath their replacement rates for ground infantry, and have little in the way of skilled personnel to replace other than bomb builders.
The United States is within 18 months of a crisis point in the occupation, where the Iraqi rebellion will be sufficiently advanced to execute shatter attacks at the vulnerability points, and the United States will no longer be able to replace the crack troops that are being lost in ordinary operations in Iraq. At this point the ability of the US to engage in "chomp and stomp" operations to slow the spread of the rebellion will dwindle, and the insurgency will be able to openly take control of more and more of Iraq itself. Morale is dropping and dissent within the pro-war military community is growing.
This is only assuming that Iraq remains largely an internally driven insurgency, with most of the troops involved being local. Recent political statements from bin Laden, and the winding down of the Palestine-Israel conflict would indicate that it is possible for the insurgency to begin drawing on a larger force pool of discontented Arabs. Should this happen, the replacement rate of the insurgency will mushroom, and rather than facing flare ups of violence, and specific attacks, Iraq will rapidly approach a fall apart point.
The present crisis is driven by the failure to create the conditions by which a government military and security force, and the associated culture and institutions, can grow in Iraq.The rates of casualty of the government forces are higher, at the present, than the casualties that the security forces are able to inflict on the insurgents. The Iraqi government forces are losing, straight up against the insurgents, and would not be able to maintain power without the occupation forces.
The insurgency is showing signs of spreading out from the Sunni core, and should it be able to tap other pools of internal dissent, the position of the Iraqi Government's security forces will be untenable. The insurgents have superior morale, tactics, leadership and training to the government. They are roughly even on logistics, and have better areas to shelter their forces. They are behind only in supply of weapons and in support of a major government - neither of which are decisive.
Should the insurgency turn this particular corner, the government of Iraq will fall in a matter of days, as the insurgents will be able to dismember the government's already tenuous presence in the country side, and will be able to strike at the leadership core of the Iraqi Government.
These factors indicate that the United States, should it desire a positive outcome in Iraq, will have to make large sacrifices to create a much larger war effort, will have to force internal political changes in the Iraqi government leadership, will have to take Iraqi security personnel out of Iraq to be trained in safe areas to be redeployed in Iraq.
Current US replacement rates, and military strategy do not allow for these changes, and therefore it can be concluded that should the present rate of losses of coalition personnel and Iraqi security forces continue, without a dramatic increase in casualties inflicted on the enemy, that the US occupation in Iraq will have a negative outcome - producing either a failed state, or a state with a hostile government.