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Gulf War 20th: The Battle of 73 Easting and the Road to the Synthetic Battlefield

There is an old training axiom that a military force usually learns a great deal more from their defeats than from victories on the battlefield. This has been particularly true with the U.S. Army, which has lost many of its “first battles” during the roughly 225 years it has served the nation. Names like First Manassas, Kasserine Pass, and Task Force Smith are touchstones for American leaders, as they recall the U.S. Army’s failures and defeats. Usually, these battles remind us of the fact that the Army in the early battles of a conflict is made up of citizen soldiers led by a cadre of peacetime officers, not used to the fast pace, physical rigors, and mental stress of war. The names also remind us that enemies usually attack us when they perceive weakness and an inability to be hurt in the effort. Operation Desert Storm was different.

The result was a string of victories, particularly on the ground, which were not even close. American casualties were less than minuscule, suffering more from “friendly fire” than anything sent back from the Iraqis. Strangely, even trained military historians know very little about these engagements, much less about the vast influence they have had on the post-Cold War Army. Of these, none was more important than the Battle of 73 Easting.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War was the first of America’s conflicts where a large, standing military force was maintained, equipped, and trained to be ready for the early battles of a major regional conflict. Mostly as a result of Cold War-era preparations for general war with the Soviet Union, American forces were the best trained in the world, superbly prepared to operate the state-of-the-art weaponry that had been supplied to them in the 1980s. The result was a string of victories, particularly on the ground, which were not even close. American casualties were less than minuscule, suffering more from “friendly fire” than anything sent back from the Iraqis. Strangely, even trained military historians know very little about these engagements, much less about the vast influence they have had on the post-Cold War Army. Of these, none was more important than the Battle of 73 Easting.

Operation Desert Storm

Iraqi tanks burning against the night sky. U.S. Department of Defense photo

Like many famous battles, 73 Easting derives its name from where the engagement took place. What makes this unique is that it refers not to a town, road junction, or even an oasis, but just a north/south line on a coordinate grid. This region of Iraq was little more than a flat, trackless desert, so such a grid was necessary for navigation by the U.S. Army’s VII Corps in its advance to contact with units of the Iraqi Republican Guard (IRG). Headed due east on the afternoon of February 26, 1991, VII Corps was advancing with a front of four armored/mechanized divisions. In the center of this front, leading the way and conducting reconnaissance for the corps, was the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR). The 2nd ACR’s job was to locate the forward elements of the IRG divisions suspected to be in the area, fix them in place, then pass the heavy divisions of VIII Corps through their lines so that they could smash the elite Iraqi units with a single killing blow. It was a difficult assignment, made more so by the weather conditions.

The winter of 1990/91 was one of the wettest on record in the Persian Gulf, and had been a major problem during the preceding six weeks of the Desert Storm air campaign. Now the wind was howling, causing a sandstorm that was grounding the Army’s aviation assets and limiting visibility to as little as a thousand meters. Air reconnaissance was limited mostly to signals intelligence data, which meant that finding where the IRG divisions were located would be up to the 2nd ACR. Like the prairie horse soldiers of 150 years earlier, the troopers of the regiments would grope forward until they physically ran into the enemy, in this case the IRG Tawakalna Division. Generally known to be the best and most aggressive of the various IRG formations, Tawakalna was the unit that would bear the brunt of the coming battle with VII Corps.

What immediately struck McMaster as he peered through the M1′s thermal sight was that there was no return fire and that all the Iraq armored vehicles were dug in facing to the south. Eagle Troop had just led 2nd ACR and the whole of  VII Corps onto the right flank of the Tawakalna Division’s 18th Mechanized Brigade, and they were not ready. There was however, a dilemma for the young officer.

As 2nd ACR moved forward, the regiment’s three squadrons were line abreast from north to south. Each squadron had two of its three cavalry troops forward, with the other and a tank platoon in reserve behind. In 1991, armored cavalry troops were company-sized units, each with 9 M1A1 Abrams tanks, 13 M3A2 Bradley cavalry fighting vehicles, and a handful of M113-based mortar carriers and other vehicles. On the right (south) side of 2nd Squadron/2nd ACR’s (2/2nd ACR) sector was Eagle Troop, commanded by Capt. H.R. McMaster. A graduate of West Point, McMaster was one of the premier young cavalry officers in the U.S. Army. Aggressive and intelligent, McMaster would eventually turn his graduate thesis into the bestselling book Deriliction of Duty. On this day though, McMaster and the other 2nd ACR troop commanders were feeling their way forward through the sandstorm on the thermal imaging sights of their tanks and cavalry vehicles, and a handful of commercial GPS receivers. Already, there had been a handful of clashes between 2nd ACR and Iraqi MT-LB reconnaissance carriers, all of which had been vaporized by the 120mm guns of the M1A1s and TOW-2 missiles of the Bradleys. As the afternoon drew on, they were groping forward a kilometer or “Easting” line at a time, expecting to hit the Tawakalna Division at any time. Around 1530 hours (3:30 p.m.), Eagle Troop ran head on into the IRG division.

Eagle Troop began to take fire from a complex of buildings, which they demolished with a salvo of cannon fire and TOW missiles. At that moment, while just passing over the 73 Easting line, Capt. McMaster crossed a small rise and saw a line of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles dug in ahead of his M1A1 Abrams, nicknamed “Mad Max.” Ordering his gunner to engage, McMaster’s crew destroyed three Iraqi tanks in just under eight seconds. What immediately struck McMaster as he peered through the M1′s thermal sight was that there was no return fire and that all the Iraq armored vehicles were dug in facing to the south. Eagle Troop had just led 2nd ACR and the whole of  VII Corps onto the right flank of the Tawakalna Division’s 18th Mechanized Brigade, and they were not ready. There was however, a dilemma for the young officer.

Operation Desert Storm

Taken by surprise, badly positioned, and with inferior equipment, Iraqi armored forces became a learning tool for the next generation of soldiers. U.S. Department of Defense photo

The problem was that if he followed his mission orders to the letter, McMaster might well cause problems for the rest of VII Corps. In theory, his job was to locate the IRG divisions, report up the chain to Gen. Fred Franks (the VII Corps commander), then get out of the way while the heavy divisions of the corps passed through them to engage in battle. Practically, he had stumbled into the heart of a dug-in battalion of the Tawakalna, and had no ability to get his unit into a set defensive position. This meant that the divisions behind 2nd ACR would not have room to change from their march formations to the battle wedges necessary to attack the IRG formations.  There also was the problem that he was badly outnumbered, at least five or six to one where Eagle Troop was bumping up against the Tawakalna. His own unit might be wiped out by a sudden counterattack, along with much of the 2nd ACR. Clearly the carefully crafted VII Corps battle plan had never foreseen the need for a cavalry captain to make the decision of when and where to engage the IRG. Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...