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Allies Adjusting Tactics to Counter Iraqi Shifts

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 1991; Page A01

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EASTERN PROVINCE, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 23—Allied military commanders, after one week of intensive aerial raids on Iraqi military targets, are adjusting combat tactics to counter shifts in Iraqi fighting techniques and take advantage of unexpected lapses in enemy air defense efforts, according to senior field commanders and pilots flying combat missions.

"They are starting to adapt their strategy and tactics to what we are doing," said Rear Adm. Douglas J. Katz, commander of the aircraft carrier battle group led by the USS America. "And meanwhile, we are trying to change our tactics with the strikes that we are doing right now."

Although the U.S. military has been able to devote fewer warplanes than it originally anticipated to protecting its fighters and bombers from Iraqi air attacks, it has been forced to shift more planes to the intensive search for elusive Iraqi Scud missile launchers.

Iraq fired more Scuds into Saudi Arabia and Israel today. Explosions from U.S. Patriot air-defense missiles colliding with one incoming Scud rattled buildings near Dhahran and debris smashed to the earth in a ball of flame.

Patriots intercepted a second Scud in a fireworks-like spray near Riyadh about the same time, as well as one in northern Israel. They also destroyed a Scud fired at Hafar al Batin, a northern Saudi city serving as a major military staging point, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency. It was the first reported Scud attack on that city.

On a day in which skies began to clear enough to allow stepped-up bombing missions against Iraq -- including the southern ports of Basra and Faw -- and occupied Kuwait, U.S. military officials reported that a small-arms firefight erupted between U.S. Army and Iraqi units late Tuesday in which six Iraqi troops were captured.

Enemy troops had shot at American soldiers manning a forward observation post, U.S. officials said, and the Americans fired back in the latest of a series of skirmishes between forces facing each other on the border. Two Americans were slightly injured, but were treated and returned to duty, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said.

British reporters aboard the British destroyer Gloucester said U.S. jets and sank an Iraqi tanker that was believed to be monitoring allied aircraft movements over the Persian Gulf and a hovercraft that was with the tanker, Reuter reported. There was no official confirmation.

The war enters its second week with low clouds and fog continuing to hamper some air operations and impede efforts to assess the extent of damage already dealt to Iraqi forces.

"If the weather had been good all along, I feel that we would have reached a turning point by now," said Lt. Col. Charles Plunkett, commander of a squadron of F-16A fighter planes. "As it is, maybe the turning point is another few days down the road. It's really hard to tell right now. I would never have guessed that the weather would play the way it has in this campaign to date."

But the Navy's Katz echoed senior military leaders, saying he believes the air campaign is far from over and noting that Iraq's military targets are spread over vast distances.

"That's a lot of bombs to take out every single one of them {the targets} independently," Katz said. "You also have to realize that we are doing it from altitudes that sometimes, with bad weather, don't have pinpoint accuracy. . . . The real ones we want to hit we're hitting and the ones we're trying to get, we're close or close enough, but we have to go back to continue to take out the rest of them. There is just a lot out there."

Senior military officials say they expect the air phase of the war to continue at least three more weeks.

But, after more than 12,000 flying missions over the past seven days -- evenly divided between combat and support sorties -- U.S. commanders have begun ordering pilots to drop their bomb and missile loads from higher elevations to avoid Iraqi surface-to-air missile fire.

Pilots say the SAMs have become some of their most nerve-jarring enemies. Lt. Tyler Kearly, 29, an F/A-18 pilot from Houghton, Mich., described his first effort to outrun a surface-to-air missile. On a mission to bomb an Iraqi weapons factory, he said, "I saw a flash on the ground and a cloud of sand. I saw a flare go up and I realized it was tracking me. It was a pure adrenaline rush, it was very frightening."

Pilots are finding that the intensity of Iraqi defenses varies significantly with the target. Airfields and power plants tend to have limited anti-aircraft artillery batteries, while a Scud assembly plant hit by Kearly and other carrier-based warplanes was within layers of surface-to-air missiles and artillery, pilots said.

Admirals commanding the three aircraft carrier battle groups in the Red Sea met today to discuss problems and tactics that could have led to the crash of an F-14 Tomcat fighter earlier this week in Iraqi territory -- the third plane based on the carrier USS Saratoga to crash since the operation began. One of the crew members, who has not been identified, was rescued in a dramatic effort behind Iraqi lines, while the second -- Lt. Lawrence R. Slade, 26 -- remains missing.

"I believe it shouldn't have happened," Katz said. "We have tactics to prevent that. . . . We thought the tactics were right, it's just that somebody got up through the hole and we thought we had it pretty much covered."

Pilots and commanders say they believe Iraqi forces are gathering intelligence on allied tactics, while holding their planes in reserve.

Already British forces, which have lost a disproportionately high number of aircraft -- five of the 16 allied aircraft lost -- compared to the small percentage of missions they are flying, are reevaluating their low-level bombing raids, which have left them vulnerable to ground attack.

In Washington today, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of U.S. plans, however, that "as we get closer into the Kuwaiti theater of operations and our {operations} tempo picks up, we will focus a great deal of our attention on knocking down the anti-aircraft gun threat to our pilots so that they can get even lower and make their strikes more effective as we go after discrete units on the ground in due course."

U.S. pilots, after watching Iraqi television tapes of colleagues held captive by the enemy have become even more somber about their own prisoner-of-war training. Before the carrier-based pilots leave for a mission, they stuff land maps for plotting escape routes into zippered pockets of their flight suits and slip a pistol with a 15-bullet clip into another pocket for self-protection.

One characteristic of Iraqi pilots has remained constant since the war began, according to American pilots: their timid behavior.

"There's a lot of speculation going on right now in classified circles about what {Iraq's} game plan might be," said Air Force Lt. Col. Randall Bigum of Springfield, Va., who commands a squadron of F-15C fighter planes. "Every one of those speculations includes a massive use of air power that is remaining, in support of some counteroffensive."

He added, "We have to try to determine what {Iraqi President Saddam Hussein} is thinking. It's the fundamental dilemma of war: What is your adversary thinking?"

While the Iraqi reticence to engage allied aircraft has prompted commanders to change initial war plans, which stressed a decisive air-to-air battle in the first days of the campaign, Bigum has warned his fliers against becoming too confident: "We're not letting down our guard. We can't. The price is too high."

"I tell my pilots, 'Don't let your eagerness to get the first MiG let you become the first fatality,' " he added.

Even without aggressive air-to-air threats, Navy F/A-18 pilot Kearly described his most recent mission against the Scud assembly plant as "3 1/2 hours of boredom and 10 minutes of stark terror."

Kearly and other pilots in his attack group were in the air, topping off their fuel tanks from an airborne tanker, when one pilot reported a MiG sighting. The planes dislodged their refueling nozzles and raced for the enemy target. No MiGs were to be found. Instead, however, eight surface-to-air missiles careered toward the planes as they dashed across the skies to safety.

Meanwhile, U.S. Marines this week waged the first combat test of ground tactics they expect to direct at Iraqi forces if allied troops are ordered into Kuwait to clear the desert nation of enemy forces entrenched there.

Marine howitzer batteries crept to a firing position under the cover of darkness and fired a blanket of 71 rounds of artillery at an enemy artillery encampment across the border in Kuwait. Then they retreated hastily in a tactic designed to evade return fire.

Near the Iraqi border, the commander of the Army's potent VII Corps, Lt. Gen. Frederick Franks, is plotting last-minute changes in a potential ground war campaign centered on forcing Iraqi troops out of their deeply entrenched bunkers.

Much of the U.S. battle plan "is written on the premise that {Sadddam} will have to move to come to us," said Lt. Col. Terry Branham, commander of an Apache attack helicopter squadron. "He is most vulnerable when he is on the move."

But reports from the field indicate that the ground troops are still days away from being fully prepared to launch a powerful offensive. Several officers from newly arrived Army units complain they suffer from supply shortages that could hinder an all-out offensive.

"We're a little worried about supply -- parts-wise," said Capt. Mike Kapiak, commander of an air cavalry unit. "It's trickling in, but there's not enough around."

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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