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Clouds and Fog Over Gulf Region Knock Allied Air Raids off Stride

By Molly Moore and Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 22, 1991; Page A01

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EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA, Jan. 21—Thick cloud cover and heavy fog sharply curtailed U.S. and allied bombing raids against military targets in Iraq and Kuwait today and hampered efforts to assess the damage inflicted during five days of war, military officials said.

In the lightest day of bombing since the aerial assaults started, military commanders said allied planes flew 1,100 missions today -- less than half the number flown Sunday when the allies reached their peak of more than 2,300. The U.S. and allied forces also suffered their smallest one-day losses yet: one Navy F-14 Tomcat fighter was shot down today, bringing the total number of crashes caused by battle damage to nine U.S. planes and five allied aircraft, officials said.

An Army Apache helicopter and a British Tornado fighter-bomber also went down today "due to non-combat related accidents," Air Force Maj. Gen. Burton Moore told reporters.

{The Army announced that Iraq launched at least two Scud missiles toward Riyad Tuesday morning of which one was confirmed destroyed by a U.S. Patriot air-defense missile. It was not clear what happened to the second Scud. About four hours later, at least three more Scud missiles were launched from Iraq, an Army spokesman said. One of them was destroyed and the other two apparently landed harmlessly in the desert.

{There were unconfirmed reports that a Scud downed over Riyadh had crashed onto a road on the outskirts of the capital. No injuries were reported.}

A Scud missile was fired at Saudi Arabia and fell into the Persian Gulf today near the port of Jubail in the Eastern Province. Moore said the military still has not yet destroyed all of Iraq's fixed or mobile Scud launchers even though warplanes are "aggressively pursuing" the effort.

Iraq fired 10 Scud missiles into Saudi Arabia late Sunday night and early this morning. Patriot missiles intercepted nine of the Scuds, and the 10th splashed harmlessly into the gulf off Dhahran.

The allies' efforts to knock out Scuds and other key targets continued to be restricted by cloud cover. Sometimes three layers thick, the overcast and fog have forced the military to cancel hundreds of planned missions since the air assault began Thursday morning, and some attack squadrons reported they were three to four days behind in their bombing schedules. In some areas, overcast was so thick and visibility so limited that some planes could not even leave the ground, much less spot enemy targets.

"There's a whole lot more we could be doing, but the weather has been hurting us," said Air Force Col. Erwin C. "Sandy" Sharpe, commander of the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing. "We've got to see targets to be effective. The weather's putting a blanket on the areas where we work on the border of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

"We're probably three to four days behind where we expected to be," added Sharpe, whose wing flies A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack planes -- the "tank-busting" aircraft popularly known as Warthogs. "The weather is moving west to east, picking up moisture off the Red Sea. We had 1 1/2 good days, then the weather started to get bad."

The weather has made it difficult for intelligence officials using satellite and aerial imagery to determine which targets have not yet been hit or completely destroyed, according to military officials.

"We are nowhere near completing our campaign objectives," Moore, the U.S. Central Command's director of operations, said today as senior military leaders spoke in increasingly guarded tones in discussing the long-term operation of the air war against Iraqi forces and military installations.

Some senior officials said, however, that the military recognized that it would face adverse weather during the Middle East winter and built provisions for setbacks into the war plan.

U.S. military officials said the Central Command began the war expecting to average about 2,000 air missions a day. Though the military has described all missions as combat-related, many are support flights rather than attacks.

Compounding the difficulty for U.S. commanders in locating and destroying Iraqi targets has been the Iraqi military's use of decoys, perhaps including fake Scud launchers.

"They do use decoys and they use them well," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, senior operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Pentagon briefing today in Washington.

In London, British Armed Forces Minister Archie Hamilton told Sky Television, "The actuality may be that when we thought we were taking out a Scud launcher this was actually something made of cardboard and plywood and wasn't actually a proper launcher."

Asked whether lapses in military intelligence led to the failure to recognize the decoys, Hamilton said: "Well, you see these things from the air. They are very cleverly put together but they may not be a Scud launcher."

While U.S. military officials said they have been successful in efforts to diminish the Iraqi military's ability to communicate, they also said President Saddam Hussein clearly remains in contact with a significant number of his commanders.

Military authorities expected the aerial phase of the war to continue for up to four weeks before ground troops undertake what is anticipated to be the most protracted and bloody stage of the allied campaign to force Iraqi occupation troops out of Kuwait.

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, voicing publicly for the first time what many field commanders in Saudi Arabia have said privately for some time, warned the American public today that the war could drag on for "months."

In assessing the war thus far, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams noted today, "You have good days, and you have bad days." At military bases across the Arabian Peninsula, today was the worst day yet. Aircraft remained grounded because of fog or returned from bombing missions with full loads because clouds had obscured not only their targets but also enemy antiaircraft batteries.

Even the Air Force's F-117 "stealth" fighter-bombers couldn't evade the weather problems. Some pilots returned from their high-priority missions with one or two of their 2,000-pound, laser-guided bombs still clamped to their planes' black bellies.

The A-10s commanded by Sharpe have been delayed in their efforts to strike artillery and other targets just across the border in Kuwait in an effort to help prepare for any ground assault. At this point, those A-10s that do fly are not attacking highly fortified positions but instead are picking off isolated targets.

It wasn't only the air strikes that were hampered by the foul weather. Army Apache attack helicopters assigned to the newly arrived VII Corps had to scrub critical training flights needed to teach desert warfare tactics to pilots who have spent years flying over the plains and forests of Germany.

The Air Force's C-130 transport planes, workhorses deemed essential for moving troops and equipment over the desert, have been grounded, slowing the movement of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and other ground units to their front-line combat positions.

Near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, U.S. forces conducted their first reported artillery assault on Iraqi artillery positions in Kuwait, officials said. U.S. Marines blasted high-explosive shells from 155mm howitzers at an Iraqi artillery position thought to be the source of shelling of a Marine encampment near the border town of Khafji that has gone on for several days. Although U.S. commanders said they do not know if any damage was inflicted on the enemy artillery and troops, they said the Iraqi shelling stopped after the U.S. forces fired at their position.

The Marines previously had attacked the Iraqi forces across the border with fire from Cobra helicopter gunships.

Officers and helicopter pilots aboard the guided-missile frigate USS Nicholas offered vivid new details of Friday's assault on Iraqi-held oil platforms off the coast of Kuwait that reportedly were being used to launch missile and artillery fire at Navy warplanes. Military officials said the attack and the capture of 23 Iraqi soldiers demonstrated some of the weaknesses in the Iraqi command-and-control system and the lack of training among some troops.

Captured soldiers told Americans they communicated among the nine platforms -- which are about two or three miles apart -- by firing rifles into the sky. They had been so low on food that they lobbed grenades into the water to kill fish to eat, they said.

On the night of the attack, "we snuck in and surprised them," masked by the darkness and by shutting down all the ship's electronics and radar systems, said the ship's skipper, Cmdr. Dennis G. Morral.

Helicopters took off from the deck, their lights off, their engines drowned out by the waves of the gulf, he said. Peering through night-vision goggles, the pilots pounded the two most heavily armed platforms with guided rockets that sent thousands of pieces of shrapnel ripping through sandbag-and-plywood shelters. Six of the men scrambled into an inflatable boat seconds before the ammunition supplies above them exploded.

Five Iraqis were killed, the U.S. commander said. Navy forces rescued the surviving soldiers from the waters surrounding the platforms. Five of the 23 captured Iraqis were treated for injuries.

"Most of them put their hands up, thanked us in their own way and cooperated," said Morral.

Portions of pool dispatches were included in this report.


© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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