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Audacious Mission, Awesome Risks

"It gets down to the leaders forward deciding if they're friendly forces or enemy forces ahead," said Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, assistant division commander of the 101st. "One of the things I always ask is, 'Are you being engaged?' If you're not being shot at, then you've got time."

Such practices are being refined, including the insistence on "PID" -- positive identification of potential targets -- and the imposition of "no-fire" zones where scouts and other forward troops operate. Commanders incessantly stress "situational awareness" -- knowing where you are and who is around you -- which is made somewhat easier by the proliferation in the ranks of global positioning devices. A new system called "Blue Force Tracker" uses satellite-based transmitters on select vehicles or aircraft to let senior commanders see on a computer screen whether their units are where they should 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)

_____News from Kuwait_____
Carlyle Disavows Plan to Get Kuwait Business (The Washington Post, Oct 14, 2004)
Highlights of Hussein's Responses at Yesterday's Hearing (The Washington Post, Jul 2, 2004)
Survey Abroad Disappoints Census Bureau (The Washington Post, Jun 7, 2004)
Faces of the Fallen: Operation Enduring Freedom (The Washington Post, Jun 2, 2004)
Faces of the Fallen: Operation Enduring Freedom (The Washington Post, Jun 2, 2004)

One risk of a bold war plan is that it will be executed too cautiously. A potential flaw in the current plan, said defense analyst Harlan Ullman, is that "we may not be sufficiently audacious."

In particular, some military experts question whether Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the top U.S. commander for the war, is inclined to implement an approach that, by some accounts, was foisted on him by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other advocates of greater risk-taking by the military.

"Tommy Franks is a cautious guy," said Tom Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. A spike in U.S. casualties early on could make Franks and other commanders back away from the boldness of the plan and radically curtail the pace of operations, another expert said.

Slowing the invasion could compromise the plan's intent of sending U.S. ground forces against Baghdad while the Iraqi leadership is still stunned by the ferocity of the initial air volley. To capitalize decisively on the shock of that bombing, said Michael Vickers, a former Special Forces officer who is now a Pentagon consultant, U.S. ground forces need to reach Baghdad within four days of the outset of the air campaign.

Traffic Management

That requirement to keep U.S. ground forces rolling toward Baghdad will make logistics key. The prospect of supplies and troops stalled somewhere between Kuwait and Baghdad is a major worry among commanders. "I cannot overstate the distance issue," said a general.

Traffic management of the "ground assault convoys" will be critical to keeping the path clear. Care has been lavished on calculating which units will roll when, and on which routes -- particularly after early exercises showed the potential for a snarled convergence of tanks and trucks deep in Iraq. The 3rd Division alone has roughly 5,000 vehicles. "We describe it as going to Logan Airport [in Boston] when eight lanes suddenly become two," a senior officer said.

As in the Gulf War, getting fuel forward is probably the hardest task -- "the long pole in the tent," one planner called it. M-1A2 tanks are notorious fuel hogs, getting just over half a mile to the gallon. Two Apache helicopter battalions can guzzle 60,000 gallons of JP-8 fuel in a single night of intense flying -- and as many as seven Apache battalions may be flying.

A fuel pipeline extends to northern Kuwait, but the heavy lifting will be done by scores of 5,000-gallon tankers, supplemented by 2,500-gallon tankers fitted with the special filters needed to fuel helicopters. Lt. Col. Richard W. Thomas, chief medical officer of the 101st, observed, "Rommel said, 'The battle is decided by the quartermasters before the first shot is fired.' That's true."

Commanders know that fuel trucks and bladders make fat targets. A major risk is that Iraqi units might try to lie low as the ground attack thrusts northward and then try to attack the vulnerable supply columns that follow. "The Viet Minh would let the French mobile columns far into 'Indian Country,' then close the door behind them," noted one Marine.

An even darker scenario would involve a key chokepoint, such as a major river crossing, being "smeared" by a persistent chemical weapon. Even the fear of such at attack can foul operations. "All it takes is one guy driving off the road and yelling, 'Gas!' to stop the whole damned corps," said one infantry commander here.

Some experts worry that hang-ups in logistics could undercut the speedy nature of the U.S. war plan. "We will have to do things we haven't done before, haven't trained for, and don't have the right planning and support systems for," said one person familiar with the plan.

Special Operations

Another unusual and risky aspect of the plan is the leading role of Special Operations troops, similar to that seen in the Afghan war in the fall of 2001, but on a much larger scale. The nature of Special Operations work -- going behind enemy lines, operating in small units with only small arms -- means that it tends to be more hazardous than regular operations.

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