When I went from being a light infantryman to a mechanized grunt, one thing that quickly struck me we just how quickly the armored fight went. In light infantry, a firefight can easily last hours, battles last for days. In mounted warfare, the firepower and mobility of tanks and Bradleys mean the fight is over in minutes and huge battles may only last a couple hours. Operation Desert Storm showed this point, and the classic example in that campaign was the Battle of 73 Easting.
CPT McMasters and his troopers of the 2nd ACR deserve every bit of the accolades they’ve received (and McMasters has since gone on to gain wide recognition both in Iraq as a commander, and as one of the leading intellectual lights in the Army). They fought a desperate battle under trying conditions and won decisively and magnificently.
But the hidden side of the story that it took 50 years to win this fight. Almost immediately after the end of World War II the Army realized it was facing a huge Soviet Army with enormous numbers of tanks and other armor. The Army soon realized they would never be able to match the Soviets tank for tank, and would have to be able to win by fighting outnumbered. They would need forces that were not only physically faster, but mentally faster and more agile than any opponents they faced. They had to be able to fight in daylight, nighttime, and bad weather.
For a long time, the Army struggled to achieve this overmatch. It wasn’t until after the Vietnam War with the long evolution of AirLand Battle Doctrine and the fielding of the M1 and Bradley family that this overmatch started to become reality. Combining doctrine with equipment and with the emphasis of tough realistic training provided by training centers like Ft. Irwin, CA and Hohenfels, Germany, complete with realistic opposing forces, provided McMasters and his troopers with the tools needed to not just defeat the Iraqis, but destroy them.
The Iraqis had laid a clever reverse slope ambush, and bad weather prevented US airpower from spotting them. What should have been a devastating ambush instead turned into a brilliant hasty attack. In 23 minutes, a US company eviscerated the heart of an Iraqi armored brigade. Traditionally, you should attack with a three to one advantage in numbers. In this case, McMasters attacked outnumbered about six to one.
Ironically, Desert Storm was the swan song of the AirLand Battle Doctrine that laid the groundwork for this success. You could not pick a battlefield that was better suited for the US Army at the time. Wide open rolling spaces, plenty of room to maneuver, and little or no civilian infrastructure or noncombatants to get in the way.
Pretty quickly, even before the campaign in the desert was over, the Army realized it was ill prepared to face the challenges of dealing with civilians and built up areas, humanitarian relief, and what we now call stability operations. The Army was ill prepared for the insurgency in Iraq, but they at least had given it a lot more thought in the 90s than they had in the preceding 20 years.