If D-Day were fought now it would be faster, sharper and bloodier.
Specialists say Allied forces would aim to kill the German command, destroy its communications and disrupt its control, not spend time on the troops in the field. The invasion force would speed over the horizon - weather permitting - in helicopters and hovercraft. Special forces would strike deep into the heart of Germany.The tactics used 50 years ago on the Normandy beaches were part of a classic tradition of conventional warfare that stretches back to the Napoleonic wars and continued through the great battles of the A Shau valley and Ia Drang in Vietnam. The main strategy was to use a lot of ordnance to soften the enemy up, then send in the troops.
In the past 20 years, however, technology has transformed military strategy, said Bernard Trainor, director of the national security program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Military planners would aim for the enemy's head - command, control and communications - rather than the body, its troops in the field, the retired Marine Corps lieutenant general said.
The invasion force would have a much greater choice of places to land. Allied planners could use helicopters and troop transports to open an "air bridge" directly to an inland staging area - much as they did in Desert Storm - or choose a beach with little or no defense. This might well be in northwestern France or in the south, said Navy Captain Bud Cole, professor of strategy at the National War College.
The attack would be preceded by an air and sea blockade and probably a major naval action, Cole said. Simultaneous with the storming of the beaches, Rangers and Special Forces would strike deep into Germany to disrupt rear positions and create confusion in the ranks.
One thing that would remain the same, specialists agree, would be concern about the weather. Planners would be worried about getting maximum effectiveness out of their helicopters, unmanned aircraft and satellite reconnaissance.
Cole and other specialists believe the power and destructiveness of modern weapons would mean much higher civilian casualties and collateral damage - the military euphemism for hitting the wrong target. However, Air Force Col. John A. Warden 3rd "categorically" disagreed with that.
Warden, now commandant of the Air Command and Staff College, drew up the original air war plan for Desert Storm. Warfare has changed completely with the advent of high-tech weapons, he said. A World War II commander who wanted to destroy a medium-size bridge - one about 60 feet wide by 100 long - would have to used 9,000 bombs to have a 90 percent probability of hitting the target, he said. Now the assumption is "one target, one bomb."
This has led to a move from "serial war," the gradual, incremental attainment of individual targets, to "parallel war" - hitting everything at once. Warden's name for the air war in the gulf underlined this difference. Harking back to "Rolling Thunder," one of the most destructive operations of the Vietnam War, Warden named the gulf war plan "Instant Thunder." Rolling Thunder belonged to the era of serial war. Instant Thunder marked the beginning of parallel war.
In World War II, Warden said, the U.S. 8th Air Force hit 50 targets in Germany over the course of one year. During the gulf war, coalition aircraft hit 150 targets in one day - "150 Los Angeles earthquakes in one night," he said. "The sort of damage you just can't plan for."
In a modern D-Day campaign, "we'd still knock down a bunch of bridges, turn off the electricity, shut down telephones and a good part of their radio communications," Warden said. But this would take at most weeks, and more likely days - not the months it took in 1944. The destruction would be done more precisely, he said, meaning that a few hundred civilians would be killed, not many thousands.
Moreover, assuming Allied air superiority, the ability of modern air power to suppress enemy fire at Omaha, Utah, Sword and Gold beaches would have reduced the number of Allied casualties by up to 90 percent.
But D-Day simply could not happen again in the same way, Warden said. Changes in technology mean that an enemy as threatening as Nazi Germany would be brought to its knees today using completely different tactics. The war might be fought earlier, in a different place and with completely different weapons. Nuclear weapons could not be ruled out.
And the immediate objective would not be a just few square miles of northern France. It would probably be Berlin itself.