Troop Level Scenarios: A Deeper Look

The typical cant from President Bush is that as Iraqi forces stand up, US forces will stand down. Some have taken the recent announcements that the US is planning to go from a baseline Iraq garrison of 17 brigades down to a baseline Iraq force of 16 brigades as a metric of success in training and standing up Iraqi combat forces to replace US forces. I disagree, as I believe it is a reflection of reality that there are no more troops available without either complete mobilization or intentionally breaking units for at least a reconstiution cycle. But there has been very little talk about the presumed effectiveness of the Iraqi units and the desired end state for the level of acceptable violence.

However the Contra Costa Times is running a Washington Post article that has a couple of interesting nuggets in them that can give us some rough guesstimates of what way the brass is thinking. The first is that under a “moderately” optimistic scenario, the Jan. 1 2007 US troop strength in Iraq would be roughly 10 brigades. This is important because it is a quick refutation of the six brigades and declare victory crowd in ’07. It is also about the maximum deployable force that can be assembled without paying the costs that I noted above.

The really interesting nugget is at the bottom. Let me quote extensively now:

To help gauge the particular impact that growth of Iraq’s security forces might have on the pace of a U.S. drawdown, military planners in Baghdad have devised a simple formula — what one general called a “rough rule of thumb.”
The formula estimates that for every three Iraqi battalions and one Iraqi brigade headquarters achieving a readiness rating of level two, a U.S. battalion can be dropped.
Such a rating, on a scale of one to four, indicates that a unit is able to take the lead in operations but still requires some U.S. military support.
The withdrawal formula is a planning tool, several officers stressed, not a definitive predictor
(emphasis mine) of how many U.S. forces are likely to leave when.
The Iraqi military, which has seen rapid growth in combat units this year, continues to suffer from much slower development of transportation, engineering and other critical support elements.

The typical Iraqi unit will outperform the typical US unit on language skills and cultural intelligence which should reduce the fog of war. These two attributes are the greatest advantages that the Iraqi units have over US units. US units on the other hand are better armed, armored, trained, led, professionalized, supplied, supported with direct and indirect fire support, integrated into a comprehensive sensor environment and supported with aviation and other high capital means of support. They are also tactically more mobile. The above story indicates that these advantages will not dissipate.
If we take this 3:1 Iraq:US as a rough marginal metric, we can do some very quick back of the envelope calculations on the effective force levels. Typically a US brigade will have three combat maneuver battalions, and then several battalions of support troops (artillery, aviation, headquarters, supply/repair etc). (There are exceptions; for instance the 173rd Airborne Brigade is composed of two infantry battalions, but the 2cd and 3rd Armored Calvary Regiments tend to have 3.5 armored squadrons/battalions. Three battalions in one brigade is a good assumption) We are only concerned with the combat maneuver battalions. Therefore seventeen US combat brigades (baseline force) will have fifty one combat maneuver battalions. That is roughly equivilant to 153 Iraqi Army battalions at the moment. Assuming that the roughly 8 British battalions are as good as US units, that provides another equivilant of 24 battalions, or a total of 177 Iraqi Army battalion equivilants (IABE). Throw in the remaining 12 or so foreign battalions at a 1:1 equivilancy , that leads to at least 189 foreign IABE.

The entire Iraqi Army is supposed to be composed of 115 battalions. Thus entire order of battle is 304 IABE. Not all of the Iraqi battalions are trained, or even formed up at this time.

As of November 7, 2005, the Defense Department announced that “One Iraqi army division, four brigades and 23 battalions currently have the operational lead in their areas.” The active component of the counter-insurgent force therefore is roughly between 176 (US+Iraqi only) to 200 (US+UK+Iraqi units) IABEs. This is the force level that is capable of keeping the chaos from getting worse in Iraq but not in actually winning the counter-insurgency campaign.

The same DOD press release states that “Another division, nine brigades and about 50 battalions are expected to be ready to assume lead responsibility by January.”, so the baseline force for the next year before any additions due to increased training of Iraqi Army units or subtractions due to US/UK drawdowns to due to force pool constraints, is between 226-250 IABE.

So let us run out four scenarios with force levels over the next year in terms of IABEs. In all but the last scenario, I am assuming that the British will be forced to drawdown to no more than 4 battalions by Jan. 1 2007 (there is a non-zero probabilty that they pull out entirely). I am also assuming that the Iraqi Army will go from 73 trained battalions at Level 2 readiness in January 2006 to all 115 battalions at Level 2 readiness or better by Jan 1. 2007 in the first three scenarios. Therefore the major variable is US force levels.

The best case scenario has Iraqi units taking the vast majority of the combat power and combat unit flags by January 2007, while the worse case scenario sees a drawdown in British forces and a stagnation in effective training and field usage of Iraqi units, thus neccessitating the US to bear the brunt of the traditional fighting.

The first three scenarios see a steady build-up in combat power from January 2006 to roughly August 2006. It is during this time that the most active counterinsurgency and clear and hold operations will need to take place, for after August 2006, the US will draw down due to force pool constraints, and it seems unlikely that the Iraqi Army can afford to expand any more. The last scenario sees a long term plataeu in combat power with most of it provided by the US, even as it wrecks the force pool for future use.

This scenario is the Opinionated Bastard plan. It has the US going from a 17 brigade baseline to roughly 6 brigades by Jan 1. 2007. It also has the British cutting their committment in half, and Iraqi units fully training up. This leads to a force level on Jan 1, 2007 of 181 IABE of which 63% of the combat power is Iraqi and 84% of the combat units are Iraqi units. Combat power will slowly increase from January 2005 as the remaining forty two Iraqi Army battalions come on line. At the same time, I project that the British drop their strength from eight battalions to six battalions to support operations in Afghanistan. The other two UK battalions would leave in the fall. The peak combat strength level is probably in August 2006 when almost all of the Iraqi Army units are declared to be at level 2, but the US drawdown has not started. This level is most likely 277 IABE.

The basic assumption of this scenario is that the insurgency will walk straight to the ballot box and lay down their arms. After the December election the spring offensives can clear and hold all of the major cities in Al- Anbar of all hold-outs from the political process and that the Iraqi Army as a whole is motivated, well led, professional and accepted as the sole legitimate user of violence in Iraq by all ethnic groups. At the same time the six US brigades will be needed to provide a force that can actually hold the borders of Iraq togther, and as a rapid response force.

Medium Case –“Moderately Optimistic”
This is the glidepath that the US has to hope works out as this is about the biggest committment that the US can make without completely destroying the ground forces. This has the US going from seventeen brigades today to sixteen brigades in January. This has already been announced, and then it holds this force structure until September 2005 when the next rotation starts and six brigades pull out without US replacements. The British drop from eight battalions to six battalions by September 1, 2006 and will pull down to 4 battalions by Jan 1, 2007. The Iraqi Army finishes spinning up to all 115 battalions at Level 2 or better.

The peak combat strength is again in August 2006 with roughly 277 IABE. The drawdown is a little bit more gradual with a Jan. 1, 2007 force strength of roughly 217 IABE, of which the Iraqi Army makes up 53% of the combat power, and 77% of the unit strengths. This is a scenario that assumes progress is continually being made but that the insurgency is not breaking yet despite the increased ability of US units to sweep a town and Iraqi follow-on units to hold a town. Ten US brigades can be sustained for the August 06-July 07 rotation, and after that, the breakdown looks straight into the Pentagon’s face unless there is a national partial mobilization of the Guard.

Muddling Through —“Moderately Pessimistic”
This is a scenario for those who did not think that retaking Fallujah (first or second time) or Najaf or Tal Afar or Operation Lightning or River Gate or Scorpion as the decisive backbreaking operation. In this scenario, the British behave as they have before, and the Iraqi Army continues to successfully train up. The US decides to damn some consequences and pushes some National Guard units as well as active formations that were in Iraq during 2005 forward to maintain 14 brigades past August 2006. This leads to a peak strength of 277 IABE in August 2006 and an end-strength going foward on Jan. 1 2007 of 244 IABE of which Iraqi units make up 45% of the combat power and 71% of the unit counts.

The scenario assumes more of the same; increased ethnic tensions and sectarian shadow wars of mutual assainations, car bombings on a daily basis, continual sniping, IED placement, and intimidation even in the “secure” cities such as Fallujah. It has the cost of destroying US strategic mobility for at least another three years out, and completes the hollowing out of the National Guard.

Oh-Shit — or a case for the truly pessimistic
This is the scenario that is no fun for anyone involved. I am assuming that the British rapidly go from eight battalions to two battalions by April 2006 due to their need for manpower in Afghanistan. At the same time, the US holds steady at seventeen brigades (1st Brigade from the 1st ID gets deployed in March 2006) and the training and handover process does not proceed smoothly. So instead of having 73 ready Iraqi Army battalions in January and an additional five or six battalions adding themselves to the effective roster every month, the Iraqi Army levels off at 75 battalions for the year. Some units become effective, other units drop off due to corruption, insurgent intimidation, combat losses etc. It is a steady state force where the most effective units are the sectarian based units that are defending their own neighborhoods. Therefore there is good security in Kurdish dominated areas, and the Shi’ite dominated areas, although rampant criminality and disorder reign. The fracture points are still heavily conflicted and the Sunni Arab units in the Army are really good at avoiding trouble while getting paid. At the same time, the foreign brigades, in conjunction with the Badr Brigade units, that are holding the US supply chain to Kuwait open begin to withdraw, pulling US and Iraqi government security forces away from the central part of the country where the current combat is and towards the south into defensive positions. So next August, the US is faced with an insurgency that continues to grow and expand, a populace whose political leadership already has declared that shooting at US forces is an acceptable action, and a political process that is still designed to explicitly screw the Sunnis. Combat power peaks in February 2006 with roughly 243IABEs and stays there until the US makes the decision to either fully mobilize the National Guard or run like hell.

Pull Points
These four scenarios are rough guesstimates and assumptions that are contigent on the 3:1 ratio to be relatively close to valid. The first three scenarios see a heavy surge of fighting and then various amounts of peace breaking out sometime next summer so that the US can begin to significantly drawdown starting next fall, and then dropping to a sustainable force by Jan. 1 2008 of three or four brigades to insure Iraqi territorial integrity. The three scenarios assume that training goes great for all Iraqi units and that primary loyalties are towards the nation state and not to one’s narrower but deeper interests. The final scenario is a more of the same scenario.

The key take-away point is that currently there is a small window of force strength increase (+35%) from today to sometime next summer, and after that point, force strengths either plateau or decline. The greatest sustained force strength going into 2007 is +20% of current force levels, and the lowest is -10% of current force levels, and with the exception of the last “oh shit” scenario, these levels are probably optimistic due to the assumptions I am feeding into my mental model.

Unless the insurgency is crushed by the temporary surge in force levels between now and next August, the correlation of forces will continually run against the United States. It is very easy to imagine a scenario where only 75 IA battalions are certified level 2 and supported by a sustainable US presence of 6 brigades and air power. This would be a force level of roughly 125 IABE or a 40% reduction in strength against an insurgency that is can move up and down the violence ladder right now. Political solutions and painful concessions will be needed to run down the amount of violence in Iraq.


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