- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

Heavenly bodies affect the future not only through the astrologer's art. Today, war-fighters and armchair strategists alike are looking at the phases of the moon as a possible indicator of when a possible conflict with Iraq might open. The waning moon full moon is 18 March will produce less light each night until the new moon of April 1 produces no light. This date is already likely to be circled in red in Saddam Hussein's datebook. The weeks on either side of April 1, with limited moonlight, are when U.S. tacticians would have their greatest battlefield advantage. As our diplomats at the United Nations and elsewhere may not have achieved their objective by that time, this raises the issue of how much battlefield advantage can the United States and its allies sacrifice to gain time for diplomacy.
The date of the new moon is important because the United States and its British allies have excellent night vision equipment, and have, since the 1980s, trained in "continuous combat" by day and night. Originally intended to meet the threat by Soviet and North Korean armies that stressed advancing under the cover of darkness, this capability proved effective in the 1991 Gulf War, in Panama in 1989. The conflicts throughout the 1990s demonstrated our equipment capabilities. The Iraqis, with older equipment and less training, need moonlight. We, who do not, would prefer decisive fights in the dark of the moon.
Saddam is certainly looking at other local determinants of H-Hour. They may be as timeless as the tides around Basra important for a possible amphibious operation or passage through the southern marshes or as modern as the number of Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) visible from Baghdad. The more satellites visible, the more accurate U.S. weapons that use them for guidance. Winds and temperature also affect the best dates for a conflict.
It is a commonplace assumption that the United States needs to conclude any conflict before the hot weather of summer. Heat makes any operations difficult and the wearing of protective suits against chemical and biological attacks is easily incapacitating. Yet, the United States has long had to prepare face such chemical threats in hot weather, as anyone who has served at Pusan or Naples knows to their discomfort. The decade-long standoff with Saddam has brought more U.S. forces to the Gulf at all seasons. They have had plenty of experience training for defense against Iraqi chemical attack.
Waging war against Saddam in hot weather is best to be avoided. In addition to the protective suit issue, our carriers will be able to launch aircraft better (more wind-over-deck), our radars will be less troubled by deceptive ducting and "ghosts," and personnel and equipment will work better by avoiding the furnace heat of the summer. Casualties from heat exhaustion will be higher and results lower if we have to fight after April. But we can still fight and win under any conditions.
While perceptions that the U.S. deadline moves from waning moon to waning moon and Saddam's weapons of mass destruction must be defeated before summer are certainly true, no should could consider environmental factors determinative of the complex issues of war and peace. Gen. George S. Patton famously predicted the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 on the grounds that, as Germany had not mounted a successful winter offensive since Frederick the Great in the 18th century, such an unprecedented action was likely to appeal to a desperate Hitler. Today, the U.S. armed forces have much greater ability to operate both around the clock and throughout the year than those that fought under Patton. This investment means we have the capability, not the requirement, to fight in a way that is not limited by phases of the moon or summer heat.
The delays imposed by the lack of Security Council support for a further vote against Saddam originally scheduled for March 17 are unlikely to be significant if they impose delays of a week. If the delays push the start of military action into April, then they may deny our forces the optimum effects of moon phase. It is only if the delay puts the following new moon that on April 28 into play as a potential start date that environmental concerns will start exercising an increasing pull on policy. Delay after that can be expected to have a cost in casualties and length of operations.
Political leaders want military action to be ready when and where they need it Churchill was famous for this while those in command have to inject harsh realities, often unwelcome at the centers of power. Any military leader would like more time to train in-theater and acclimatize troops, fit specialized filters and desert equipment to vehicles, and set up the critical communications nets. However, delay beyond the end of April will represent potential diplomatic and political gains that must be paid for on the battlefield.

David C. Isby is a Washington-based author and national security consultant.

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