Photo by Renee L. Sitler/U.S. Army.
While many movies have been made about battles in the current Global War on Terror and the controversial Vietnam War, few offer a glimpse into the Persian Gulf War and its lesser-known engagements. You’d have to dig even deeper for significant battles involving armored tanks. The best bet for a look at a tank engagement in Operation Desert Storm is the 1996 Denzel Washington movie “Courage Under Fire.” However, the Battle of 73 Easting was an impressive feat and is considered one of the great tank battles of the 20th century.
Immortalized in Mike Guardia’s book “The Fires of Babylon: Eagle Troop and the Battle of 73 Easting” and the documentary “The Last Great Tank Battle of the 20th Century,” the Battle of 73 Easting was fought on Feb. 26, 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm.
President George H.W. Bush was banking on the six-week offensive of Operation Desert Storm to solidify his re-election. American media was able to shed a patriotic spotlight on what was known as the American military’s “shock and awe” tactic to defeat Saddam Hussein’s army. Amidst now-famous world news coverage of airstrikes and bunker-busting missiles, the Iraqi Army harbored a massive armored vehicle force that rivaled many other countries in the world. At the peak of its military might, the Iraqi Army touted the fourth-largest army on the planet. It had the ability to raise 2 million troops if reserve units were called to arms. But that would soon change.
The majority of the war was filled with airstrikes and a sweeping offensive by 20,000 American troops along with a coalition of foreign militaries from several other countries. The Battle of 73 Easting was fought toward the end of the offensive, after Iraq’s military had been greatly softened by the air campaign. Massive troop desertions and surrenders were a common sight across the Iraqi landscape. The iconic photos of Iraq’s swift defeat were plastered all over the news as the fleeing army set oil fields ablaze to cover their retreat and exposed flanks.
The Iraqi Republican Guard and its Tawakalna Division were all that remained of the Iraqi military in the final days of the U.S. offensive. They had taken defensive positions near a north-south coordinate line, commonly referred to as an “easting.” These coordinate lines are measured in kilometers and can be read via a global positioning satellite (GPS). This area was referred to by a grid coordinate line because the desert was completely void of any geographic landmarks or population center.
The major U.S. unit that was involved in the battle was the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (2nd ACR). The regiment was comprised of three ground squadrons, an aviation squadron, and a support squadron. Within each squadron were three cavalry troops, a tank company, a self-propelled howitzer battery, and a headquarters troop. Each troop was comprised of 120 soldiers, 12 M3 Bradley fighting vehicles, and nine M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks. The regiment totaled approximately 4,500 troops.
The Iraqi force greatly outnumbered the American units. Each of the Iraqi units possessed approximately 3,000 soldiers and had significantly more armored vehicles. The Iraqi units were also set in a defensive posture, which offers a significant advantage during battle.
The mission of 2nd ACR was to motor eastward. The regiment’s advance was led by its scouts in M3A1 Bradleys. Located behind the Bradleys were mighty M1A1 Abrams tanks that provided rear protection while the scouts helped to identify enemy positions. While advancing, the regiment was to clear out any enemy security forces and neutralize the Republican Guard.
The American units had a superior technological advantage. Within the confines of the crewmembers space in the vehicles, the gunners possessed an advanced thermal targeting acquisition system.
The majority of the Iraq armored vehicles were old Soviet-era type vehicles. The primary tanks used by the Iraqis were the model T-55, T-62, and T-72. The main battle troop carrier was the BMP-1. Each of these vehicles has a manual form of targeting, which is far slower to operate than that of the Abrams and the Bradleys. Also, the optics on the American vehicles allowed for “dark” engagements, meaning that the vehicles could fight at night and didn’t necessarily need a clear line of sight to engage.
The cannons on the Abrams carried a higher caliber round, far superior to the Iraqi tanks. Desert Storm was the first extensive use of the depleted uranium high explosive and armor-piercing rounds. The Soviet-era vehicles could not withstand the impact of these devastating charges. The American vehicles, on the other hand, possess “sloped” or “angled” armor that stood a much higher chance of deflecting enemy projectiles. Bradleys, despite being equipped with a much smaller 25mm “Bushmaster” cannon, were outfitted with tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles (TOWs). This missile is easy to operate and highly effective at destroying enemy armor.
The Battle of 73 Easting did not last long. The mechanized force was brought to its knees with minimal American casualties. Estimates vary on the exact number of casualties due to certain incidents of friendly fire, but the Iraqi damage is estimated at almost 1,000 soldiers killed in action and more than 1,000 taken prisoner. These staggering figures came at a cost of a mere 12 Americans killed in action. Essentially, the fourth-largest Army in the world was neutralized in less than 96 hours through the use of well-trained tactics and superior technology.
For the first time since tank battles of World War II, the Battle of 73 Easting saw two modern armies slugging it out in fully mechanized warfare. The stunning performance of American troops in the battle is taught as doctrine to this day.
Neil Fotre is a contributing writer for Coffee or Die, and former U.S. Army Armor Officer. He has served operational deployments in South Korea and Afghanistan. Neil earned a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He covers military and veteran community topics. His writing has been featured in the Military Times, Forbes, the Daily Beast, Task and Purpose and Business Insider. In between pounding his fingers on a keyboard, he is constantly glugging away on seltzer water and sipping on dark roast… pinky out.
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