Eye on the Troop Swap

Col. Bill Cowan
Out with the old and in with the new.  The transition of U.S. military replacement units into Iraq to relieve those who have served their time there is well underway and will continue over the coming months.  Those leaving have seen the worst of it.  Not only did many of them start out last spring from Kuwait, cross the border, and battle their way to Iraq’s major cities, they’ve also experienced the transition under fire from conventional warfare to one of a guerrilla nature.  Their reservoir of experience is noteworthy, impressive, and substantial.  Not since the Vietnam war has the American military had troops with as much front-line time in combat. 

 "Our new, essentially untested U.S. forces will be moving in to engage an enemy who themselves have made a transition from conventional tactics to guerrilla ones, and who now have almost a year of combat experience behind them."

Unlike those whom they are replacing, these new troops going into Iraq enter the fray with some understanding of exactly what to expect – a grizzled, often hard to locate enemy who strikes unexpectedly with IED’s, ambushes, mortars, or rockets, only to disappear as silently as they arrived.  Still others attack as suicide bombers, eager to kill anyone who stands in the way of their desire to turn any transition to democracy on its heels. 

Our new, essentially untested U.S. forces will be moving in to engage an enemy who themselves have made a transition from conventional tactics to guerrilla ones, and who now have almost a year of combat experience behind them.  That experience is important on the battlefield, but it’s not insurmountable.  Our transitioning units will benefit from what the old ones who are leaving can impart to them - sets of “lessons learned” and “best practices” which weren’t part of standard training before the Iraq war, but will become part in future training regimens. 

What our new forces don’t yet know, however, but will, are the dynamics of life and death on the battlefield.  No matter how disciplined or gritty the training, very little of it can compare with the reality of actual combat.  The sights, sounds, smells, and trauma of combat are only truly understood through the actual experience of it all.

In addition to new troops, we have recently introduced a new combat entity onto the battlefield – the Stryker brigade, centered around the wheeled, 17 ton Stryker vehicle.  Stryker provides a rapidly deployable, rapid response capability unlike anything else the Army, or the enemy, has seen.  Able to acquire and act on information from multiple sources, and capable of moving troops at speeds of up to 60 mph to close with and engage the enemy, the Stryker’s presence will likely cause a shift in enemy tactics while they seek countermeasures.   In fact, the learning process on the battlefield never ends for either side.  Both our own forces and the enemy will continue to adapt to evolving tactics, techniques, and strategy. 

Of equal importance during the transition process will be the relationships that our new forces will forge with the Iraqi police and civil defense forces that have been working alongside our departing units.  As some of the most recent suicide attacks show, many of these Iraqis are working at great risk.   They are far from being trained, equipped, experienced or prepared to the standards needed to accept primary responsibility for security, yet it’s likely that they will do so in June.  How our new forces work with and alongside them may prove critical to these Iraqis' success.  Their success, or lack of it, may well determine our ability to continuously reduce our own military presence there over the next few years. 

The bottom line in this period of transition is that we are once again calling upon our military to do a tough job – flip-flop over a hundred thousand troops, bringing home tired, tested ones, and sending in fresh faces to accept tough, often deadly responsibilities.  Americans have every reason to be proud of each and every one of these men and women going into Iraq, just as we are of those leaving.  From what we’ve seen of the many missions the military has undertaken since 9/11, we can be sure these new forces are up to whatever tasks they may face.

A retired Marine Corps officer, Bill Cowan spent three and a half years on combat assignments in Vietnam. In the 1980s, he was specially selected to serve as one of the first members and as the only Marine in the Pentagon's most classified counterterrorist unit, the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), a unit that to date remains under the tightest security. While there, Cowan served as a senior military operations officer and field operative on covert missions to the Middle East, Europe and Latin America. He is a co-founder of the WVC3 Group, a company providing homeland security services, support and technologies to government and commercial clients.