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Audacious Mission, Awesome Risks

Bold War Plan Emphasizes Lightning Attacks and Complex Logistics

By Rick Atkinson and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 16, 2003; Page A01

CAMP NEW JERSEY, Kuwait, March 15 -- With a force only one-third the size of the one that liberated Kuwait 12 years ago, U.S. commanders poised to attack Iraq have been given a far more ambitious mission: March hundreds of miles to Baghdad, neutralize the Iraqi military, overthrow President Saddam Hussein and then prevent a country the size of California from disintegrating into chaos.

The war plan they have devised to do all this is by most accounts innovative, even daring. "We literally could be in Baghdad in three or four days," said one general here in the field. "How audacious do you want to be?"


A soldier from the 3rd Infantry Brigade inspects a truck as a convoy prepares to roll out of Camp Udairi to move closer to the Iraqi border in northern Kuwait. Planners worry about the complex logistics of moving thousands of vehicles from Kuwait to Baghdad. (Romeo Gacad -- AFP)


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But those qualities also make this mission riskier than other recent U.S. military operations. Retired Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, a former chief of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East, noted that danger is "what comes with being bold and audacious."

The aspects of the operation that most worry planners here, and Pentagon insiders and experts in the United States, are the emphasis on lightning, simultaneous operations that could result in "friendly fire" incidents; the dependence on a 350-mile supply line; and the heavy reliance on Special Operations troops behind enemy lines. Overhanging the entire operation is the prospect that Iraq could use chemical or biological weapons. The other major fear is that U.S. forces could be bogged down in an urban battle that could turn Baghdad into a modern Stalingrad -- a possibility that has resulted in some troops here being issued battle axes and battering rams.

Commanders and planners here stay up to the small hours of the morning, every morning, refining ways to achieve their goals with as few casualties as possible. The challenges are enormous, the opportunities rife for misfortune, even disaster. "There are a thousand 'what-ifs' going through your mind," said the general in the field.

Simultaneous Attacks

A defining element of the plan is its requirement of speed, with multiple combat actions occurring nearly simultaneously in three arenas -- air attacks, ground combat and Special Operations activities behind enemy lines.

Strategists continue to calibrate the relationship between "A-day," when an air attack begins to reduce Iraqi air defenses and other key targets, and "G-day," the launching of a ground attack. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, ground action came after five weeks of bombing. This time the two attacks are likely to be only a few days apart and could be nearly simultaneous, depending on how Iraq reacts to the initial pummeling by cruise missiles and other air-delivered munitions.

"The campaign will move very fast," said one senior Air Force officer. The speed of the attacks is intended to sap the Iraqi military's ability to coordinate its response.

But that pace can also cause deadly confusion on the battlefield. "Simultaneity is . . . a fertile breeding ground for risk," noted John F. Guilmartin Jr., a retired Air Force pilot who teaches military history at Ohio State University.

Whenever G-day comes, the ground forces coiled in Kuwait -- including the 3rd Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force -- anticipate attacking with Patton-like audacity. Roughly 350 miles of road separate the northern border of Kuwait from Baghdad, and substantial mechanized forces are expected to be on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital within a few days, even as attack helicopters are conducting deep strikes far beyond the U.S. vanguard.

All those moving parts will place unusual stresses on U.S. forces, especially on commanders trying to ensure that there are multiple actions occurring across Iraq. One defense analyst involved in reviewing the war plan worries that U.S. "command and control" systems -- both the communications systems and the people who operate them -- could be overwhelmed.

Friendly Fire

Breakdowns in tracking the locations of units could lead to friendly fire accidents, with the nightmare being a recurrence of the sort of mistakes that accounted for 35 deaths in the Gulf War, one-quarter of the U.S. combat total.

Adding to worries about friendly fire is a sense that expectations of a short war will fuel a broad clamor for action, said retired Marine Lt. Col. Jay A. Stout, a career fighter pilot. "There are going to be some eager, eager beavers," he said. "Everyone has lots of neat, new toys to support that grunt on the ground -- and they all want to use them."

Measures have been taken to forestall tragedies, but some commanders privately wonder whether they are enough. Special thermal panels and infrared signal lights on vehicles, as well as reflective "glint tape" on individual soldiers, will help distinguish friend from foe. But the lights are powered by batteries that must be changed nightly, and the mass of lights may "confuse the hell out of everybody," according to one aviator.


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