The Battle of 73 Easting – The Most Intense Tank Battle In History


The end of America’s war in Vietnam saw a
US military in crisis- its morale all but depleted and its combat expertise watered
down by massive conscription. In the years that followed the Pentagon focused
on restoring America’s military by returning to an all-volunteer force and addressing the
problems of systemic drug abuse and a weak officer and non-commissioned officer corp. But just how well would America’s military
fare in a new conflict after years of neglect and waste? Twenty years after Vietnam, the world would
get to find out as America’s forces were immediately thrown into the last of the greatest tank
battles of the 20th century. Hello and welcome to another episode of The
Infographics Show- today we’re taking a look at the Battle of 73 Easting, and how America
proved once more it was a force to be reckoned with. The First Gulf War, or Operation Desert Shield
and later, Desert Storm, was the last major war of the 20th century. Fought between Iraq and a coalition of over
30 nations, it was ultimately a test not just of America’s post-Vietnam War military, but
of the UN as a world peacekeeping organization. With the potential to escalate into an all-out
regional conflict between Arab states, failure to contain Iraq’s hostility would have signaled
to the world that even after decades of work, the UN was just as a lame-duck at global peacekeeping
as the League of Nations before it. But how did the war start? Iraq’s belligerence towards Kuwait started
towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war, a brutal conflict that lasted for eight years. During the conflict, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
had backed Iraq financially, lending it billions of dollars. After the war Iraq complained to the Arab
League that its debts should be forgiven, as it had acted in the foreign policy interests
of both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia who feared a growth of Iranian Shia influence amongst
their own Shia populations. Iraq also raised concerns that both nations
were producing more oil than agreed-upon OPEC production limits, which was lowering the
price of oil and costing Iraq billions. Lastly, Iraq specifically leveled charges
against Kuwait that it was exploiting Iraqi natural resources by slant-drilling across
its northern border into Iraq’s Rumaila oil field- in essence drilling diagonally to bypass
national borders underground, if you’ve seen There Will Be Blood, it’s the milkshake scene. Iraq did not like Kuwait drinking its milkshake
one bit and after the Arab League refused to act, Iraq, prompted by these and other
grievances, launched a ground invasion of Kuwait, annexing the nation as a province
of Iraq. For its part, the United States had long tried
to broker a settlement in the region, but when Iraq linked its grievances with enforcing
a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US refused to negotiate. Yet the United States remained reluctant to
commit to military force, and ultimately it was Great Britain’s Margaret Thatcher who
reminded US President George Bush Sr. about the consequences of inaction during Germany’s
hostilities prior to World War II, most famously by telling the US President “not to go wobbly”. Wobbly, President Bush would not go, and he
immediately demanded an exit from Kuwait by Iraq. With Iraq poised to invade Saudi Arabia and
seize control over 65% of the world’s oil producing fields, the US and other allied
nations had pre-deployed several hundred thousand troops to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation
Desert Shield. On the eve of war these troops were reinforced
with detachments from many NATO and non-NATO nations, including several Arab League nations
which President Bush had insisted on joining so the conflict would not be seen purely as
West vs Arab. When Iraq refused to withdraw from Kuwait,
the US launched Operation Desert Storm on 17 January, 1991, and the Battle of 73 Easting-
the “last great tank battle of the 20th century”- soon followed. So who were the combatants, and what weapons
was each side bringing to the fight? One the defending side was Iraq’s fearsome
Republican Guard. With the best training and equipment available
to the Iraqi forces, the Republican Guard had been a force to be reckoned with during
the Iran-Iraq War, responsible for some of Iraq’s greatest victories. It was these elite soldiers who were dispatched
to be the first to meet the American advance, and American war planners had estimated that
defeating the Republican Guard forces would be a costly victory, even weakened as they
were by weeks of aerial bombardment. The Republican Guard brought the vaunted Soviet-built
T-72 main battle tank to the battle. A stalwart of Soviet design philosophy, the
T-72 brought few innovations but was a solidly built and capable tank. With a 125mm cannon, one 7.62 mm and one 12.7
mm machine gun, the T-72 may have been nearly two decades old, but was still a formidable
threat. Its cannon had exceptional accuracy and firing
rate both, with up to 8 rounds a minute or 1-2 rounds if loaded manually, and an armor
penetration of 590-630 mm at 2,000 meters. On the defensive, a T-72’s frontal armor was
200 mm thick and capable of stopping a direct hit from an M1 Abrams from 2,000 meters away. The T-72’s greatest weakness however was its
lack of thermal vision systems and very poor night vision capabilities, which were a crippling
deficiency in combat. Supporting its T-72 tanks were mechanized
infantry deployed in Soviet-built BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles. Equipped with a 73 mm semi-automatic cannon
and a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun, BMPs not only protected squads of soldiers that rode
inside of them, but were capable of taking on lightly armored vehicles themselves. Iraq’s Republican Guard BMPs were also equipped
with 9M14 and 9M113 Konkurs anti-tank wire-guided missiles, making them an agile threat to American
tanks. It’s 33mm thick armor plating provided protection
from 7.62 armor-piercing rounds and in a limited degree of fire, even .50 caliber machine gun
fire. Like the T-72 however, Iraq’s BMPs lacked
thermal imaging capabilities or capable night vision sights- factors which would be decisive
throughout the Gulf War. Facing off against Iraq’s fearsome Republican
Guard were elements of the US Army’s VII Corps, to include the 1st through 3rd Armored Divisions
and the 1st Infantry Division. Having seen no major action since the end
of the Vietnam War, America’s ‘newly’ re-minted all-volunteer Army had some serious proving
to do. Yet the US Army had spent the last two decades
drilling out its conscript force and restoring the capabilities and expertise of its leadership
at the non-commissioned and commissioned levels, as well as engaging in routine exercises with
NATO partners to stop a Soviet incursion through the Fulda Gap. The VII Corps brought to bear the now-legendary
but as of then untested, M1A2 Abrams. Designed in response to Soviet deployments
of new main battle tanks, the M1A2 hosted a slew of revolutionary features- most notable
of all being its Chobham armor, of which it was the first tank deployed which incorporated
it. Still a classified secret, Chobham armor is
a composite armor made up of steel plates layered with ceramic inserts and empty spaces
meant to defeat anti-tank missiles and rounds by deflecting or re-directing explosive blasts
and kinetic penetrators. It also featured layers of depleted uranium
armor, making it one of the toughest fighting vehicles ever created. Its 120mm cannon is paired with a fire-control
computer which aids a gunner by calculating lead angle, ammunition type, and range to
a target- a feature missing from Iraq’s T-72s. The M1A2 also featured thermal and night vision
imaging, as well as laser range finders- all features that would prove decisive in the
deserts of Iraq. The VII Corps infantry were supported by M2
Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Armed with a 25mm automatic cannon with a
firing rate of up to 300 rounds a minute, and a TOW missile launcher, M2s were heads
and shoulders above Iraq’s BMPs in capabilities. Its aluminum armor is reinforced with laminate
belts and steel skirts capable of stopping up to .50 caliber rounds, and even offering
some protection from long-range tank fire. M2s are equipped with both thermal and night
vision imaging, once more granting them a major advantage over Iraq’s BMPs. In total, American forces numbered at around
4,000, versus the Republican Guard’s 2,500 to 3,000 personnel. Yet with well-prepared defenses and boasting
the 4th most powerful military in the world at the time, the advantage was with Iraqi
forces and American military planners expected heavy casualties in the ensuing action. The Battle: On the 23rd of February American forces swept
into Southern Iraq, a frontal push by armor was coordinated with a sweeping hook meant
to encircle Iraqi forces from behind and attack from their flanks. The initial action saw stunning American victories,
with 55 Iraqi tanks and 45 armored vehicles destroyed along with hundreds of enemy KIA
and the surrender of 865 prisoners. The next day elements of VII Corp swept into
northern Kuwait to sever Iraqi lines of communication and block the retreat of Iraqi forces. Another 50 enemy vehicles were destroyed along
with 1700 prisoners captured. Moving to block further American advances
and to secure their supply routes, Republican Guard forces took up positions along roadways,
expecting an American attack to come along major roads as they did not think anyone would
be able to navigate the featureless desert. Unfortunately for Iraq, American forces were
equipped with GPS- at the time a relatively new feature on armored vehicles- which allowed
them to surprise Iraqi forces from unexpected avenues of attack originating deep in the
desert. On the 26th of February, VII Corps 2nd Armored
Cavalry Regiment was ordered to advance up to 70 Easting- an eastward measured distance
designated by GPS- and engage the Republican Guard without becoming decisively engaged
so they could retain their maneuverability. At 1607 PM, E Troop of the 2ACR, equipped
with nine Abrams, 12 Bradley Fighting vehicles, and 2 120mm mortars made first contact with
the enemy. The main Republican Guard force had been entrenched
near a village on the other side of a small rise in the terrain in a reverse slope defense. Unaware of American GPS and expecting an attack
to come along the main road, the Iraqi commander had dug his 40 T-72s and 16 BMPs 1,000 yards
from the ridge and created two engagement areas on the east side of the ridge and north
and south of the village. He had also deployed several minefields which
included both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, and supported his armor with hundreds
of infantry in hardened bunkers and trenches. A reserve force of 18 T-72s and more BMPs
was held near his command post about 3,000 yards east. American forces arrived from out of the desert,
not along the road as expected, catching the Iraqis completely by surprise. Destroying a bunker serving as an observation
post by running over it, E Troop’s lead Bradley took two surrendering enemy soldiers prisoner. A second Bradley then came under fire from
Iraqi forces trying to reposition inside the village, and nine Abrams returned fire with
high explosive rounds. Given the clear to advance, E Troop reoriented
so that its Abrams would lead the charge, with its Bradleys falling back to provide
support. Cresting the rise north of the village, the
Abrams made immediate contact with the T-72s entrenched there. Weather had been poor all day and visibility
was very low, yet the Abrams were able to clearly see and target their T-72 opponents
via their thermal sights, and with superior fire control and precision, eliminated all
eight T-72s they encountered in under a minute. Advancing past the wrecked tanks, E Troop
immediately came under fire from more tanks, BMPs, and hundreds of infantry all trying
to reposition to meet the American attack. It was at this point though that E Troop had
reached their limit of advance, 70 Easting, which they had been ordered not to exceed,
with further orders to not become decisively engaged. This point in the battle, perhaps more so
than the superior performance of American vehicles, proved to be decisive, as the commander
of E Troop, then-Captain (today National Security Advisor) H.R. McMaster disobeyed orders and
commanded his troops to press the attack. This may seem like a court-martial worthy
offense, and certainly in many of the world’s militaries it would be- except the US military
has for a long time embraced a doctrine of flexibility which not only allows, but encourages
its junior officers to execute orders as they see fit. Recognizing the high speed pace of modern
war and acknowledging the often superior situational awareness of junior commanders who are often
on the front lines, the US military encourages its junior officers to take the initiative. This makes US forces extremely flexible, and
is often a deciding factor in modern combat. Iraqi forces on the other hand operated under
a heavy-handed, top-down command structure that severely limited individual officer’s
abilities to react to quickly changing situations. This soviet-style command structure was most
notably evident during the coalition’s air war, during which US-led airstrikes severed
communication links in Iraqs extremely robust air defense forces and rendered them extremely
ineffective. At 70 Easting that day this difference between
command styles and military doctrines would prove to be as decisive a force as the mighty
Abrams. E Troop continued its advance towards the
next ridgeline at the 73 Easting, on which were positioned the reserve force of 18 T-72
tanks. Still waiting for orders from their commander,
the T-72s were caught completely unprepared and the first of their numbers were destroyed
from a range of about 1,000 yards. The rest of the vehicles attempted to mobilize
and exit the staging area, but American Abrams quickly crested the ridge and destroyed all
of them at close range. Now occupying the high ground that the Iraqi
forces had planned on using to dominate the Americans, E Troop consolidated its position
but came under attack by a company sized force of T-72s and BMPs. The Abrams backed up by Bradleys firing TOW
missiles made quick work of the enemy force before they could close, eliminating the entire
counter-attack from long range. Meanwhile E Troop’s mortars suppressed enemy
infantry trying to mass further east, while artillery fire support rained down on other
enemy positions. The Battle of 73 Easting lasted just over
23 minutes and resulted in an absolutely lopsided victory for American forces. Americans suffered 6 KIA and 19 wounded in
bunker clearing operations by their infantry, and 1 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. Iraqi forces suffered between 600 to 1,000
KIA and WIA, 1,300 prisoners taken, lost 160 tanks, 180 personnel carriers, 12 heavy artillery
pieces, and several anti-aircraft artillery repositioned to serve as ground fire support. The battle proved the superiority of the Abrams
tank design, and the effectiveness of its classified Chobham armor which had not seen
combat yet. Despite taking numerous direct hits from T-72s,
not a single American Abrams was rendered inoperable or required major repairs- in fact
the only Abrams to be lost during the entire Gulf War would be to friendly fire. The battle also proved the effectiveness of
other as-of-yet un-battle tested systems such as military GPS and new generation thermal
and night vision equipment. It proved the technological edge of American
forces and ensured that all tanks built worldwide would include thermal and night vision equipment
as a mandatory feature. The Battle of 73 Easting also proved the superiority
of American military doctrine over Soviet doctrine- E Troop’s quick thinking and disobeying
of previous orders had seized the advantage and prevented Iraqi forces from reorganizing
and mounting an effective counter attack. Catching the Iraqis deployed to fight along
the wrong axis of battle had given American forces an insurmountable advantage- Iraqi
positions simply could not have defeated the surprise attack deployed defensively as they
were. But had E Troop obeyed orders and not advanced
past the 70 Easting, those same forces could have repositioned and regrouped, presenting
a much more formidable challenge that could have seen them inflict more serious casualties
on the Americans. The Battle of 73 Easting would have major
repercussions around the world, with more militaries adopting a less centralized command
structure, though traditionally conservative nations such as Russia and China still struggle
to lend their junior officers the flexibility that is so obviously critical to success on
the fast-paced modern battlefield. The battle and the stunning outcome of American
advances against Iraqi forces- who at the time were the world’s 4th most formidable
military- along with the results achieved by American weapons and equipment, also led
Soviet observers at the time to declare that the only way to stop an American armored advance
would be to use tactical nuclear weapons. It also proved that the decay of America’s
military brought on by the Vietnam War had been fully reversed, and that it now fielded
a professional and competent military that persists to this day. Do you think the Republican Guard forces could
have stood a chance if they hadn’t been surprised by the Americans? What was the real reason for America’s stunning
victory- superior vehicles, command doctrine, or luck? Let us know in the comments. Also, be sure to check out our other video
USA vs The World – Who Would Win?. Thanks for watching, and as always, please
don’t forget to like, share and subscribe.

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