For most of the 1970s, the possibility of US military intervention in the Persian Gulf region inspired military training exercises designed to simulate combat experience in a hot, desert environment. The course of events in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in 1979 has lent a new urgency to these intervention preparations, reflected in the formation of the Rapid Deployment Force. Already in 1980 there have been several large-scale military exercises designed to simulate not only desert fighting conditions, but also the logistical command and control problems that a multi-service project like the RDF entails. I observed two of the largest of these maneuvers, Gallant Eagle at Fort Irwin, California, in March and Operation Red Flag at Nellis Air Base, Nevada, in June.
Fort Irwin sprawls across the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border. The two weeks of maneuvers there in March were conducted by the US Readiness Command (REDCOM), the Pentagon agency responsible for training and preparing US-based troops for combat overseas. REDCOM officials would only say that the exercise scenario assumed that the United States was asked to assist a friendly Middle Eastern country that had been invaded by a neighboring country that was allied with the Soviet Union.
Under the Pentagon’s “one-and-a-half war” planning model, the United States maintains sufficient forces to fight a major war in Europe and a smaller reserve of forces for combat in lesser conflicts elsewhere. REDCOM’s job is to ensure that these “half-war” forces are trained and equipped for the most likely contingencies, and Gallant Eagle’s purpose was to expose US soldiers to the kind of environment they would face in the Middle East or North Africa. Normally, each of the four US armed services — the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force — conduct their own training exercises; but because any future US intervention in the Middle East is likely to involve a combined force made up of units drawn from several services, Gallant Eagle was designed to provide experience in multi-service operations.
Two Army brigades participated in Gallant Eagle — one drawn from the First Infantry Division (Mechanized) of Fort Riley, Kansas, and the other from the Fourth Infantry Division (Mechanized) of Fort Carson, Colorado — plus a Marine amphibious brigade drawn from the 1st Marine Division. Camp Pendleton, California. The Twelfth US Air Force, Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas, and the Third Marine Aircraft Wing, El Toro, California provided tactical air support. Many specialized units were invited: the Army supplied several of its elite Ranger platoons plus psychological warfare and chemical warfare detachments, while the Air Force supplied electronic warfare and photo reconnaissance teams.
Ground equipment used in Gallant Eagle included the full range of standard US combat gear: M-48 and M-60 tanks; M-113 armored personnel carriers equipped with TOW anti-tank missiles, 105 mm howitzers, and Marine amphibious assault vehicles. Aircraft included: F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers, A-10 anti-tank planes, AH-1S Cobra helicopter gunships and the Marines’ new AV-8A Harrier vertical-takeoff plane. The exercise also made extensive use of advanced communications and reconnaissance gear, and of sophisticated electronic “jamming” devices. Even B-52 bombers from the Strategic Air Command were used in “simulated conventional bombing” operations against “enemy” fortifications.
Combat units were flown from all over the United States in a test of REDCOM’s ability to deploy US-based forces overseas in an emergency. The Air Force’s Military Airlift Command flew 344 separate missions, using C-130, C-141 and C-5A transport planes. This vast enterprise was coordinated by REDCOM’s Joint Deployment Agency (JDA), which would be responsible for moving US forces abroad in an actual crisis.
The participating forces were broken up into Aggressors, played by elements of the First Infantry Division, and Friendlies, played by the Fourth Infantry and First Marine Divisions. The Aggressor forces began with a substantial advantage; the Friendly side started out weak but grew progressively stronger, to simulate the steady arrival of additional forces from the United States. Each side was free to maneuver at will on the battlefield and to call in simulated air strikes and artillery salvos. (No live ammunition was used, but blanks and smoke grenades were used to provide a realistic combat atmosphere.) Umpires drawn from other military units calculated the numbers of “kills” on each side in order to determine the “victor” in any given engagement.
Given the large area available — Fort Irwin encompasses 640,000 acres, approximately the size of Rhode Island — participating forces were able to stage rather elaborate operations involving armored units, mechanized infantry, artillery, helicopter-borne assaults and air support. Tank battles often ranged over large areas, with helicopters being used to carry infantrymen behind enemy lines. In one engagement I witnessed, Aggressor armored units broke through Friendly lines and drove 30 kilometers or so across the desert before being stopped by heavy artillery and opposing tank forces.
For staff officers, Gallant Eagle represented a test of US ability to fight Soviet-equipped forces in likely Mideast battlefields. For troop commanders in the field, it was simply a test of their ability to fight and maneuver in the desert. Col. Bill Chadbourne, who commands the Second Battalion of the First Infantry’s 63rd Armored Regiment, recited some of the lessons learned in the Mojave Desert: Because tanks and APCs can be spotted at great distances, it is essential to exploit every irregular feature of the landscape to gain concealment from enemy tanks and artillery. Weapons and vehicles also require constant maintenance to prevent wind-blown sand from disabling key components.
Most of the official results of Gallant Eagle will be kept secret, but the exercise provided a glimpse of what a future “Vietnam” in the Middle East might look like. US mechanized forces were often immobilized in Vietnam by mud and swamp and humidity. Here they are prey to other environmental dangers: enormous temperature extremes, a relentless sun, and omnipresent sand and grit. Far more significant than any of these environmental factors, however, are the differences in the military equation: whereas in Vietnam America faced a guerrilla army equipped with relatively primitive infantry weapons, in the Middle East it will probably face modern, mechanized armies equipped with the latest Soviet, French, even American arms.
This would be a three-dimensional, “high-tech” war in an especially lethal environment. Large tank armies, backed by self-propelled artillery and abundant air support chase each other over vast tracts without ever establishing a fixed, discernible “front line.” Because there is so little cover in the desert, the opposing armies are constantly under fire from enemy weapons and casualty rates on both sides would be simply frightful. Sophisticated anti-tank missiles and mobile air defense systems would destroy even heavily armored tanks and helicopters in great numbers (as demonstrated by the October war of 1973).
Many officers I talked to were frankly worried about their capacity to endure sustained combat in a desert environment. After several days of continuous operations with little sleep and only occasional meals, field troops were noticeably weary and listless. And many soldiers told of vehicles that broke down and equipment that failed to function after a week’s exposure to the rugged terrain. But most officers I spoke with believed that Gallant Eagle would enable them to identify, and thus overcome, these problems before being sent into actual combat operations.
Operation Red Flag, the biggest air combat exercise ever staged in the US, was billed as the first full-scale test of the newly formed Rapid Deployment Force. The exercise involved some 140 US warplanes including F-4, F-15, F-16 and F-111 fighters, B-52 bombers, and the new $160 million E-3A AWACS radar patrol plane.
Red Flag began with a simulated takeover of an abandoned desert airstrip some 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. (There are more than 200 unused airstrips in Third World countries, many dating from World War II.) A special team of Air Force commandos flown on C-130 transports surrounded the base and set up portable air control facilities for the cargo planes that followed almost immediately. Within 24 hours of the original landing, the improvised air base was servicing A-10 combat planes used in attacks on mock enemy formations.
The same scenario would be followed in the event of an American intervention in the Middle East. “We can get a tactical fighter squadron to the Mideast area in 24 hours,” Gen. William Creech avowed, “and a complete RDF combat force would follow in a matter of days.” US-based combat planes would fly directly to the combat area using in-flight refueling, and land at “austere” bases in Egypt, Oman, Saudi Arabia and other friendly countries. Lead elements of the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, North Carolina would arrive on C-141 transports and commercial airliners. Heavy equipment, ammunition and fuel would arrive later on C-5A cargo planes and Navy supply ships. “We’re holding this exercise,” Creech told reporters at a Nellis press conference, “to demonstrate our readiness capabilities to the American public.”
In what was obviously intended as a major media event, Creech’s fighter squadrons put on a dazzling display of aerial combat skills. During one demonstration, F-4E fighter-bombers scored direct hits on “enemy” fortifications using GBU-12 laser-guided “smart bombs.” Minutes later, two swing-wing F-111 bombers dropped a string of 500-pound bombs on a “simulated enemy airstrip,” while supersonic F-15 fighters fought off a flock of F-5E “aggressor” aircraft masquerading as MiG-21 interceptors.
Nellis Air Force Base, at 9,000 square miles, is described as the “largest overland supersonic combat range in the United States.” It houses an elaborate array of simulated enemy fortifications and air defense systems. Soviet-type defense radars “lock on” to invading aircraft and trigger simulated SAM missiles. Electronic jammers disrupt the attackers’ communications and navigation systems. And to make things really tough, F-5Es from the 4400th Tactical Fighter Training Group’s “Aggressor” squadrons try to destroy the invaders using simulated air-to-air missiles. The whole idea, according to Air Force officials, is to provide crews “with realistic training in an environment and under conditions simulating actual combat as closely as possible.”
Nellis has one additional asset for an RDF exercise. With 100 degree-plus daytime temperatures, Air Force ground crews were forced to work under conditions very similar to those they would find if deployed to a Mideast battlefield.