The Fuse

General McKiernan: How Oil Influenced the 2003 Invasion of Iraq

by Leslie Hayward | October 05, 2015

General David McKiernan is a retired four-star general. In his career, he served as Commander of International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from 2008 through 2009, and as
Commander, U.S. Army Europe from 2005 through 2008. Prior to his promotion to four-star rank, he served as Commanding General, Third U.S. Army and Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC) from 2002 to 2004, where he commanded all allied ground forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Hayward: Managing oil supplies for operations is a significant burden for the U.S. military. Can you recall specific examples of times when the need to secure or transport oil for deployments meaningfully altered your strategy as a commander?

McKiernan: I will use my experience as the Third Army Commander in 2002-2004 and our attack into Iraq in 2003 as the vignette. It’s important to understand that the Third Army Commander at that time was also the Army Service Component Commander for CENTCOM, and had responsibilities for executing army executive agency requirements that are stipulated by the Department of Defense (DOD).

The U.S. military typically operates in very austere conditions. There’s not any readily available sources of bulk fuel, crude oil, or even package products. If you look back a generation to the Cold War days, the U.S. military always planned on using fuel sources from within western European nations in any scenario that would play out. In Iraq, although they are one of the oil producers in the region, there was no infrastructure or ability to source oil or fuels of any kind inside Iraq at the time of the attack. For all of our forces, timeliness of fuel delivery was absolutely critical.

The Army, and in my case as the Third Army Commander, is responsible for securing bulk fuel for all the components within CENTCOM, including air, maritime, land forces, coalition forces and special operations. Deliveries at sea are the responsibility of the Navy’s maritime commander, and the Air component does aerial refueling and distributes fuel to multiple air bases. But the Army does all the long distance transport over land of bulk fuel.

The problem that confronted us in 2003 was to determine how much fuel we needed. That was a bit of art and a lot of science in trying to compute the distances we thought our fleet of vehicles and aircraft would have to travel, and it was not a straight line from Kuwait to control of Baghdad: It’s a maneuver distance, which is much further. Taking the density of vehicles and aircraft, the additional fuel supplies to air bases in Kuwait and in Jordan, and the requirements for Special Ops, we determined that we needed about 9 million gallons of fuel at the start of the operation, giving us enough fuel to sustain our maneuver through the isolation and capture of Baghdad.

Nine million gallons is a lot of fuel. The Navy protected all the sea lines to move the tankers to shore, and once ashore, my command as the Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC) would use multiple means to resource and distribute that fuel to the right locations. We did this through a combination of working with the Kuwaitis and the Kuwaiti national oil company, who provided assistance in kind for some of the fuel. The Kuwaitis also built a pipeline that ran from the Port in Kuwait up to our forward locations, and we brought in various technology solutions like the inland petroleum distribution system to extend distribution into Iraq. This was basically a pipeline that could be laid forward with our forces, so we could bring fuel with us as we advanced, which was then stored in large storage sites and fuel tankers for land forces and air bases. At the end, we had about 10 million gallons of fuel ready to distribute when the time came to attack into Iraq.

All this serves to demonstrate that the military is heavily dependent on oil and fuel for all of its operations. We must often bring those energy sources and infrastructure with us to the theater of operations, and the Army has a large role in distributing all those energy sources on the ground for all branches of the military.

What steps is the military taking to alleviate this burden, and how can technology help solve this problem?

It would be wonderful to develop alternative fuel and energy sources for our vehicles and aircraft, but I’m not sure the technology is there yet to do that. In the civilian world there is a big push for electric and alternative fuel vehicles, but in many austere locations we lack the ability to recharge electric vehicles and provide alternative fuel for aircraft. Any efforts to increase efficiency are certainly needed. I believe there are also technology solutions to provide chemical treatments for indigenous fuel sources, to make them compatible with our requirements for diesel and jet fuel.

There’s also advancements being made in battery technology, whether they be for individual soldiers or for vehicles. Batteries are a challenge that we’ve been trying to address for many years to lighten the personal load for soldiers, but also to make us less dependent on generators. Solar power is one of the avenues being pursued that complements these efforts.

You were leader of allied forces in Iraq from 2002-2004, and oversaw the 2003 invasion of Iraq. How did Iraq’s oil resources influence that mission—was concern about disrupting oil supply lines to the south factored into your operation? To what extent were oil revenues enabling and prolonging Saddam Hussein’s regime?

Oil revenues certainly helped pay for Saddam’s military and weaponry. Undoubtedly, oil was the single largest source of revenue for the Ba’ath Party, and kept the regime in power.

Those of us who were in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1990 recall that Saddam torched the Kuwaiti oilfields, and the mess it created for the environment and in trying to put out the oil fires. From this experience, we were extremely concerned that he might take a similar tactic with the Rumaila oil fields in Iraq’s south, near Basra, or in the north near Kirkuk. There was a huge amount of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) dedicated to watching the oil fields and supporting infrastructure to see if there were any signs that Saddam might sabotage that infrastructure, as he did in 1990. He didn’t—and I think it was partially because we were cognizant of the criticality of the oil fields and we removed some of the opportunities. It was the intent of the Allied Forces to protect Iraq’s oil infrastructure, not to destroy it, even if Iraqi military units were in and around that infrastructure. This was because we knew that any rebuilding of the Iraqi society largely depended upon oil revenues.

So while we were in Iraq oil was a double edged sword—it was the largest source of revenue that supported the Ba’ath party and Saddam’s regime, but it also was and remains the single source of revenue that could put that country back together, and enable us to restore something called the country of Iraq on the “day after Saddam.”

In Iraq and Libya, there have been numerous reports over the past year of smuggled oil as a source of revenue for ISIS. Is there anything the United States or its allies can do to disrupt this revenue stream?

I’m not as current on the details of ISIS in Syria and Iraq as those still in uniform, but I do understand that oil is one of the many revenue sources for ISIS, although I don’t know if it’s the leading revenue source. They are also financed through graft, ransom and contributions, but oil is certainly significant. The United States has to lead by using diplomatic and political pressure, so that countries embargo the delivery of oil from ISIS, and we have to use our intelligence to understand how ISIS is exporting oil out of the region in order to disrupt that flow. In my view, any destruction of oil infrastructure under ISIS control would be the wrong strategy in the long term, because of the continued need for oil revenues to support Iraqi and Syrian society.