A response to a book review penned by Youssef Aboul-Enein, Andrew Bertrand and Dorothy Corley at SWJ
by Mark Pyruz
The following is a response to part 3 of a book review on Egyptian Field Marshal Abdul-Halim Abu Ghazalah's "Combat Tactics and Strategy of the Iran-Iraq War" put forward by Youssef Aboul-Enein, Andrew Bertrand and Dorothy Corley, recently published in three parts by Small Wars Journal. (See HERE, HERE and HERE.) This writer's response to Part 1 can be found HERE and Part 2 found HERE. Let us proceed with Part 3 (reviewers passages in blue, this writer's responses in black).
"The vicious cycle of Iranian wave assaults continued after February 1983, but not to the level of Operation Fajr al-Nasr, or of the massive Iranian assaults of 1982. At this stage Iraqi weapon imports were three times higher than those of Iran, and Baghdad fielded an upgraded Soviet T-72 tank. Iraq’s most important acquisition during this period was the French Dassault F-1 Mirage fighter, equipped with the Exocet air-to-surface missiles and air-to-air missiles. Iraq also acquired French Aerospatiale Super Frelon attack helicopters, enabling it to far surpass the Iranian Soviet fighters. This air capability enabled Iraq to initiate the infamous tanker wars."
"By this stage of the war, the Iranian air force had lost 80 warplanes, while the Iraqi air force had lost 55 warplanes; some of the losses were due to poor maintenance and pilots inexperienced at navigating to target. To replace these losses Iraq, beginning in 1983, acquired over 300 fixed wing warplanes to include:
08 Illyushin bombers
70 Sukhoi-7, 17 and 20 fighter-bombers
12 British Hunter-Hawkers
14 MIG-25 fighters
40 MIG-19 fighters
70 MIG-21 fighters
30 French Mirage F-1 fighters"
"The above list shows the impact access to arms and credit, as well as grants from Arab Gulf States, had in resupplying Iraq with quantity and quality arms compared to Iran. Of the 400 operational military aircraft Iran possessed under the Shah until the 1979 revolution, only 70 remained operational by 1983. Due to lack of access to arms, funding, and replacement parts, to name a few, Iranian tactics were limited to mass offensives, including those known as the Fee Fajr (At Dawn) offensives."
This writer believes the reviewers are referring to the five Super Etendards equipped with AM 39 Exocet missiles, leased to Iraq and not the Dassault F-1 Mirage fighter. Also, "Iranian Soviet fighters" appears to be a typo for which a correction can not be offered. During this time, Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) American made F-14s and F-4 were operating and remained superior to Iraq Air Force (IrAF) fighters, as well as previously acquired American training providing a superior level of combat skill. Also, during this general time period, the IRIAF was able to provide 100+ missions a day, with the aid of clandestine American and Israeli parts deliveries. However, attrition was taking its toll, particularly with IRIAF F-4s and F-5s. Iraq losses were far higher than 55 airplanes. The above list also contains another typo, and should read "TU-22". It should also include the Super Etendards previously mentioned.
"Before 1983 closed, the Iranians began to entertain the option of abandoning human wave attacks on defended Iraqi positions. Iran considered splitting the mass formations of human wave attacks into smaller units to insert behind Iraqi lines. However, these Iranian harassing units were unable to create a breach for a main Iranian assault force to exploit, due to an almost complete absence of command and control. Even if they had, the reaction time of the main Iranian assault force was so slow that they still likely could not have exploited a breach. This inability to react allowed the Iraqis to conduct air strikes and annihilate the Iranian assault force. However, Iraq could never envelope the Iranians and considered their mission accomplished once the Iranians had retreated. Iran possessed only a third of what was required to equip 600,000 regular troops. For instance, this force had only 1,000 armored personnel carriers (APC) and 340 Soviet and North Korean tanks to support it."
A word on Iranian "human wave attacks", per Farzad Bishop:
"The Iranian 'human wave' strategy was different from WWI times in that attempts were made to incorporate at least one element of surprise in every offensive. If that element of surprise (often either in tactics or in geography) had held on (which didn't happen often), it meant the offensive was successful at least in gaining and keeping a bridgehead, and in limiting the casualties. If it didn't, it usually ended up in catastrophe. If we use the 'human wave' term for frontal assaults by lightly armed infantry units against a heavily armed, dogged in and fortified enemy, this was exactly what happened in many cases. [A] great deal of effort was made to make the first wave as surprising as possible - by staging flanking manoeuvres, diversionary assaults, the use of deception, pinning down artillery fire, frogmen, landing troops behind enemy lines by helicopters (Kheibar), etc. Some of these tactics were ingenious, and others [overly] ambitious and short-sighted. "
"After the Fee Fajr series of operations, Iraq decided to widen the war by attacking oil tankers originating from and bound for Iran."
Iraq's tanker war against Iran generally lacked effectiveness until such times where the United States Navy provided targeting information to the IrAF. There were other times in the conflict where the U.S. military assisted Iraq, such as very early in the conflict where detailed mapping of the American supplied IRIAF SAM network, which encompassed the American built I-HAWK, were furnished to Iraq. Later, the USN became an active belligerent in the conflict, downing an Iran civilian airliner and knocking out the Iran Navy merchant convoy escort fleet in 1988. For unknown reasons, the reviewers have omitted U.S. military involvement in the conflict, as well as clandestine U.S. and Israeli weapon transfers to Iran during the war.
"Throughout February 1984, Iranians reconnoitered the southern rivers and developed a series of combined helo and river operations called Fatima al-Zahra (after Prophet Muhammad’s daughter and mother of Hussein). Regiments of the 3rd Iraqi Army Corps were isolated from the main body, which allowed Iran to strengthen its hold of Majnoon Island and capture Baida Island. In response, the Iraqis ran live electric cables throughout the marshes to electrocute Iranian forces, and subsequently displayed the Iranian corpses on Iraqi television."
Sources have identified the "electrocution tactics" story as Iraqi wartime propaganda. The Iranians enjoyed limited success in areas where Iraqi superiority in armor and CAS could not be utilized, particularly in marshland but also in mountainous terrain.
"Throughout 1984 and 1985, the Iranian General Staff attempted to develop alternate tactics to the direct offensive assault, and focused on ways to take the war into an attritional phase. Arguments ensued between the generals and clergy on the need for better training and organization. Iranian combat leaders disputed the folly of holding symbolic ground in Iran and Iraq with no strategic value, and that holding such territory drained the main offensive efforts by siphoning off needed manpower and materiel."
It should be pointed out that unlike Iraq, Iran never committed itself to a total war against Iraq. More on this later.
"In November 1985, cease-fire talks between Iraq and the Kurds collapsed, which provided Iran with an opening to further exploit the Kurds as a proxy army."
This writer believes the use of the term "proxy army" to be inaccurate. For example, nowhere does the term apply to historical studies of Montagnard forces allied with the United States military in Vietnam, or Yugoslav armed elements allied with the British during World War II. A better classification would be "allies" in countering Baathist-Iraq.
"Operation Fee Fajr 8 was an attempt to capture the Faw Peninsula, and to deprive Iraq access to the Persian Gulf. From this peninsula, Iran could develop a northerly attack towards Basra, spark and nurture Shiite uprisings in the south, and strike a blow to Iraqi oil production."
Like Iraq during the initial offensive, where Saddam was expecting the Arab minority to rise up against Iran in Khuzestan, so too the Iranian leadership expected the Shia underclass in Basra to ride up against the Baathist regime with the onset of Iranian forces approaching the city with the intent of capture. It didn't happen. Different circumstances during OIF and a more indirect, clandestine approach by the Iranians ultimately provided Iran with its intended results which had been frustrated during the Iran-Iraq war. More on this later.
"Iran did gain 200 square kilometers of Iraqi territory, kept its pontoon bridge over the Shatt al-Arab Waterway, and was able to shuttle supplies and troops into the Faw Peninsula via regular watercraft."
For some reason the extensive Iranian engineering efforts at this point are omitted by the reviewers. According to Iraqi Lt. Gen. Al-Hamdani, in his memoirs and interviews, these Iranian efforts greatly impressed Iraqi and foreign military observers, alike.
"In April 1986, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for victory by the Islamic New Year (late March 1987). Plans were crafted to recruit 500 battalions of 1,000 men each. It was during this declaration that policy disagreements erupted between Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Rasfanjani, as well as between those in the regular armed forces and the IRGC. The regular army wanted to develop more intelligent combat techniques, while the IRGC wanted to continue to employ human wave attacks."
There was friction and disagreement between the Atresh (regular armed forces) and IRGC, but simply referring to the IRGC position as insisting on "human wave" tactics is misleading.
"Iraq launched air assaults on Tabriz/Lafan Petroleum Plant, Kharj Island Oil Terminal, and Larak Island Oil Terminal."
The IrAF was able to achieve some success with these raids, due in large part to USN targeting assistance. But they suffered heavy losses in the process.
"Iraq concentrated artillery fire, heavy machine gunfire and airstrikes, resulting in 60,000 Iranian casualties compared to 9,500 Iraqi casualties."
Iraqi casualties were much higher (but not as high as Iranian losses), as candidly admitted by Iraqi Army Lt. Gen. Hamdani.
"Karbala-5 and 6 was a renewed attempt at enveloping Basra and isolating the city from the rest of Iraq. It was believed that the city could be transformed into an independent Shiite capital to compete with Baghdad."
It's interesting that during periods of the U.S. and British military occupation in Iraq, during OIF, the Iranians actually succeeded with a modification of this strategy in Basra; establishing it as Shia-Iraqi/Iranian bastion, in assisting with the ultimate Shia conquest of Baghdad which continues to this day.
"This shook Iranian confidence concerning the safety of their oil imports in southern installations near the Hormuz Strait. Iran reacted by firing Type-72 Chinese missiles at several Iraqi cities. In 1986, nineteen of these Iranian missiles were fired, and one year later the number was increased to eighty-one, and in 1988 one hundred and four missiles were directed at Iraqi cities."
This narrative is incorrect. Iran "absorbed" Iraqi missile attacks against its population centers until such time where retaliation could no longer be held back. As with the so-called "Tanker War," Iran ultimately was forced to retaliate in kind, firing Scud-B and Hwasong-5 type SSMs. Interestingly enough, due to the personal intervention of Imam Khomeini, the Iranians did not resort to retaliating in kind to Iraqi chemical weapon attacks, which became truly massive during the final stages of the conflict. This may have a current analog with Leader Khamenei's moral repudiation against nuclear weapons.
"The question of who won the war was contingent on outside interference and support, as Iraq craved advanced weapons that could deliver higher kill rates, while Iran desired weapons that could capitalize on their advantage in human resources."
This is misleading. The Iranians had nowhere near the access to weapon imports that were being afforded to Iraq, as well as the massive financial backing being provided which was instrumental in establishing Saddam's Republican Guard force. For some reason, the significance of the Republican Guard is not referred to by reviewers Youssef Aboul-Enein, Andrew Bertrand and Dorothy Corley.
"Even Saddam underestimated the revolutionary fervor of the Iranian regime and their use of Shiite ideology to create one of the largest and most tragic and tactically pointless human wave assaults in the history of warfare."
Here in the West, this is a popular simplification and misconception of Iran's war from 1980-1988. Even Iraqi Lt. Gen. Hamdani candidly points to the successful use of Iranian infiltration tactics and strategies of multiple axes of attack on alternating fronts.
"In the introduction to Iran, Iraq, and the Legacies of War, Lawrence G Potter and Gary G. Sick observe that, “the Persian Gulf states, and indeed the entire Middle East, were profoundly affected by the Iran-Iraq War…and its sequels, the Gulf War of 1990-91 and the war against Iraq in 2003'."
The 1991 Gulf War was a direct consequence of the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam's Iraq had sustained massive losses, and was suffering from social and economic woes. Two factors in particular entered Saddam's calculations in invading Iraq:
1) Iraq's inability to repay billon of dollars in loans afforded by Arab Gulf states, while the country was now in debt to the tune of $80 billion. The economic situation was dire, with reconstruction estimates placed at $230 billion.
2) Iraq possessed a massive military machine that had been built up with Western and Soviet assistance, to which a partial demobilization had backfired as the shaky Iraqi economy proved unable to absorb the huge numbers of young men pouring into the labor market (see The Iran-Iraq War by Efraim Karsh, pg. 87).
Following these direct consequences of the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam misinterpreted the mild response of the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Gilepsie, to his threats of invading Iraq, and attacked Iraq on August 2, 1990.
For it's part, Iran did not commit to a total war in the conflict and had relied primarily on highly motivated volunteers for its war fighting. Thus it did not encounter the dire situation experienced in Iraq, with Saddam's regime survival greatly under threat.
The incomplete Coalition victory of the ensuing Gulf War against Iraq led to the eventual confict known as OIF. It is interesting to note that as a direct consequence of the American led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its troubled military occupation, the Iranians were able to realize their highest war aims of the Iran-Iraq War, such as the removal of Saddam and the Baathist state from power, the generating of a Shia dominant regime in Iraq, access to the holy cities in Iraq and the creation of extremely close if not tied relations between the two countries. It can be argued that these latent developments rendered Iran the ultimate victor of the Iran-Iraq war.
"Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazalah’s book is regarded as the most thorough and accurate Arab account of the Iran-Iraq war, and can provide interesting insights and contrasts when compared with English works on the subject."
This writer believes Iraqi Lt. Gen Hamdani and Brig. Gen Sadik to be better references (admittedly estimating Ghazalah solely as depicted by reviewers Youssef Aboul-Enein, Andrew Bertrand and Dorothy Corley).
"When evaluating the possible consequences of preemptive military action against Iran, it is crucial that U.S. military personnel reflect on Iran’s past military confrontations, such as the Iran-Iraq War."
This writer believes the most poignant lessons to be gleaned from the Iran-Iraq war are:
1) Iran's ability to garner huge numbers of highly motivated human resources to fight a war it perceives as just. Furthermore, these resources appear resilient for the most part of an extended conflict, against seemingly overwhelming odds.
2) The Iranians are masters of improvisation, in both technical terms and tactics intended to offset their disadvantages in war material.
However, this writer believes the actual tactics and strategies employed by Iran's military during the Iran-Iraq war to be dated. The Iranian military of today, particularly the IRGC force, is different than it was from 1980-88. It is more powerful, better organized and better trained. More useful to U.S. military planners would be to study the tactics of Hezbollah during the 33-Day War in Lebanon, and apply these lessons to Iran's current military capabilities and its Mosaic doctrine. Emphasis should be placed on the economic effects of a rocket artillery campaign (applying them to Iran's SSMs), the use of AShMs, as well as the determination and resiliency of defenders under attack or occupation. It must be understood that Iran's military planners have surely gleaned much from the 33-Day war, as well as the successes of the Iraqi insurgency against American forces during OIF.