In Kuwait, U.S. Air Units Prime for War
By John Lancaster
Out on the flight line, pilots of F-117 stealth strike aircraft are climbing into their cockpits for daily missions over southern Iraq, logging more flights per month in the highly classified radar-evading plane than at any time in its 14-year operational history. Ground crews recently worked 72 hours straight to repair one of the finicky aircraft, whose nocturnal habits and unusual shape have earned them the nickname "cockroaches."
"We're flying the heck out of the jets," said Lt. Col. Gary Woltering, a brash Atlanta native and F-117 pilot who commands the 8th Fighter Squadron -- known as "the Black Sheep" -- from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. "The guys are pumped. They're looking forward to this."
The extra personnel, and their frenetic work schedule, are tangible signs of the accumulation of U.S. air power in the Persian Gulf region since the confrontation between the Baghdad government and the United Nations over U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq began last November.
With Saudi Arabia's refusal to permit U.S. warplanes to strike at Iraq from its territory -- although support aircraft, such as refueling planes, would be allowed to operate -- this sprawling military airfield would assume particular importance should diplomacy fail to persuade Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to cooperate fully with U.N. weapons inspections.
About 40 miles west of Kuwait City and barely 80 miles from Iraq, the Kuwaiti air force base is currently home to about 20 U.S. A-10 ground attack jets, six F-16 fighters and at least six F-117 Nighthawks, whose precision bombs and stealthy capabilities proved highly effective against heavily defended Iraqi targets during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The Air Force declines to specify the number of F-117s here, although 12 are known to be in the region and more are on the way. The Air Force also has beefed up its bomber force on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and in the tiny gulf emirate of Bahrain. The Navy would contribute about 100 strike planes from two carriers in the Persian Gulf. The British have stationed a carrier in the region, as well as land-based Tornado fighter-bombers.
As in the case of their carrier-based brethren, pilots here are intimately familiar with Iraq, or at least the portion that lies below the 33rd parallel, where U.S. warplanes have enforced a "no-fly" policy against Iraqi aircraft since 1992. Many U.S. airmen are on their third or fourth tour here. As a result, the American compound has acquired a look of permanence, with neat rows of white trailers, two above-ground swimming pools and a recreation center -- Planet Jabir -- featuring Ping-Pong tables and free access to the World Wide Web, among other things.
Notwithstanding such creature comforts, accommodations have been strained by the rapid influx of personnel, whose numbers have swelled from 750 to 1,200 in little more than three months. Recognizing that the American presence here could be indefinite, logistics officers are laying plans for permanent housing and recreational facilities that will include a driving range and miniature golf course.
The ambitious development plans reflect, in part, the isolation of the American compound, which is separated from the rest of the base by high earthen berms and other security measures aimed at thwarting terrorist attacks. Service personnel cannot leave the base except on official business.
The austere living conditions and lack of contact with the outside world take their toll, especially among those who have been here before. Some express frustration with the seemingly open-ended nature of a commitment they liken to the nearly half-century-long U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula.
"We spend half our time here," said Sgt. Brent Messina, 32, of Port Allen, La., a weapons specialist whose A-10 squadron rotated through here last April and returned in November.
As tensions mount in the region, however, the prospect of imminent action has generated a palpable sense of excitement. "When you get in the ring for the main event, it's easy," Messina said.
"I think morale is extremely high," agreed Maj. Don Mertz, the chief support officer and self-described mayor of the American compound. "People know why they're here. It's not like we have to reiterate it and pound it in to them. . . . They watch the news."
With policymakers in Washington still debating the scope and nature of a U.S.-led air offensive, senior commanders here acknowledge that air power is not the panacea that its advocates sometimes seem to describe. "The best way to find" and destroy illegal weapons is through the U.N. inspection regime, said Col. Robert M. Awtrey, the senior Air Force commander in Kuwait.
"Clearly, anybody can play a shell game," he added. "Targeting for the sake of targeting doesn't really buy you anything. You have to figure what kinds of effects you're going to get."
But Awtrey, who is reviewing target lists with U.S. military planners at the Joint Task Force near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, also expressed confidence in his pilots' ability to destroy any targets they are assigned, especially given the improvements in precision weapons since the Gulf War.
Asked if U.S. warplanes could play a role in destabilizing the government of Saddam Hussein, as some policymakers in Washington have suggested, Awtrey replied, "If the situation presents itself, then of course it can happen," he said. "There are lots of little events where if the situation arises you capitalize on those."
Woltering, the F-117 squadron commander, put it more bluntly, saying, "We can go anywhere in this theater and still schwack."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company