Air War on Iraq Would Be Similar To Desert Storm
By John Mintz
Within minutes dusty black F-117 fighters would arrive from Kuwait, cloaked from radar detection and invisible against a moonless sky. Bearing 2,000-pound laser-guided penetration bombs, pilots would aim for chemical and biological weapons sites or air-defense centers. In choreographed sequence, they would be followed by EA-6B and FA-18 jets launched from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and carrying HARM missiles, ready to destroy Iraqi radar operators who flip their equipment to "on."
The timing and targets of any American airstrike on Iraq, which the Clinton administration has said would begin in a matter of weeks barring a diplomatic breakthrough, are a closely guarded secret and still under debate. But an examination of the U.S. weaponry on hand in the Persian Gulf region, and interviews with military officials, retired officers and military experts, make it possible to sketch out how an attack is likely to unfold, and what sites could be hit.
Collectively, they describe a bombing campaign that would involve up to 300 daily bombing runs against a wide range of targets and last two to five days. The total number of "strike sorties" in the entire campaign may equal the 1,000 or so run on an average day in the 1991 war, military officials said. A top U.S. general privately told senators in a briefing last week that he estimated 1,500 Iraqi civilians and soldiers would be killed, along with a handful of American pilots.
Behind these calculations, however, are debates now underway in heavily secured air war planning offices in the Pentagon and in a complex of villa-like buildings called Eskan Village in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, about which targets to strike and which to avoid. The debates' outcome not only will determine life and death for many Iraqis, but the future of U.S. leverage on Saddam Hussein and its standing in the Arab world.
On what might be the eve of the largest U.S. military campaign since the Persian Gulf War, U.S. military planners are struggling to reconcile an overwhelming military advantage with a set of imposed limits. They include the aims of the Clinton administration's policy and a consuming desire to avoid killing Iraqi civilians or exposing U.S. pilots to unnecessary risk, military officials and outside experts say.
According to a variety of accounts, the first night's attack likely would resemble the one that inaugurated Desert Storm at 3 a.m. Baghdad time on Jan. 18, 1991. This time U.S. commanders would have about 300 warplanes, one-tenth the armada of seven years ago. But the attack likely will look at the start much like the 1991 effort. Some military analysts said U.S. bombing planners are likely to "front-load" attacks on their highest-priority targets in the first night of airstrikes out of concern that civilian deaths and the resulting diplomatic pressure might prompt the Clinton administration to scale back the operation's later phases.
There are some obvious differences from the military force of seven years ago. In contrast to the 500,000 ground troops involved in Desert Storm, commanders today say they have ruled out even a small special forces operation on the ground in Iraq. The 7,000 U.S. ground troops in the region are designated to defend Kuwait in case of Iraqi attack and for pilot search-and-rescue operations. Unlike the broad coalition of international forces in 1991, the U.S. military would be joined this time only by Britain, which has an aircraft carrier in the gulf.
In part because Saudi Arabia so far has denied use of its airfields for U.S. combat flights -- unlike in Desert Storm -- this time Navy FA-18s and F-14s flying off the USS Independence and the USS George Washington in the gulf will do most of the bombing. Naval aircraft, which played a relatively minor role in the Gulf War, have significantly greater air-to-ground firepower than they did in 1991.
Overall, the U.S. military has larger stocks today of "smart" and "precision-guided" munitions. In the Gulf War, less than 15 percent of the bombs dropped were of this type; this time it may be well over half. Navy officials assert that their new, more accurate Tomahawk cruise missiles can be given targetting instructions in minutes aboard ship, rather than in hours, as in the 1991 war. The missiles today are equipped with satellite guidance systems, which supposedly make them more accurate, less prone to confusion by clouds and smoke, and able to travel greater distances.
Other new weapons include the laser-guided GBU-28, a 4,700 "bunker-buster" bomb delivered by an F-15E. It is the deepest-penetrating munition in the U.S. arsenal, and would be used against fortified concrete command posts. It possibly could be dropped by a B-2 bomber departing from an air base in Missouri on a continuous flight sustained by airborne refueling. If commanders decide to use the B-2, it would be the first combat mission for the $2 billion plane.
Whenever possible, planners are relying on "stealthy" or radar-evading jets, and "standoff" missiles shot from afar and delivered to their targets using high-tech lasers, satellite-positioning technology and guidance systems employing television cameras in nose cones. Part of the incentive for using such weapons is to minimize casualties to pilots and civilians.
But nobody is promising a bloodless exercise. Last week Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking to reporters on Friday, seemed to be preparing the American public for Iraqi civilian deaths as he returned repeatedly to a single theme: "We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people, and we're going to great lengths to ensure we hit only what we intend to hit." But, he added, "war is a dirty thing."
Earlier in the week, Shelton outlined a broad and devastating attack to senators. But his estimates of 1,500 Iraqi soldiers and civilians dead, and only a handful of U.S. pilot deaths, gave one participant in the private meeting the impression that avoiding risks to noncombatants is a leading concern at the Pentagon. "I think they're going to err by eliminating sites from target lists" rather than endanger civilians, said the participant.
Pentagon officials want no repetition of an event that occurred seven years ago last Friday. At 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 13, 1991, F-117 fighters dropped a pair of 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs onto the underground Al Firdos bunker in southwest Baghdad. CIA analysts had concluded, apparently correctly, that it was an intelligence compound. But they had not spotted the families who slept there each night. Two-hundred-four bodies were pulled from the burning rubble before television cameras, and U.S. commanders all but ended their bombing campaign of Baghdad that very day.
The U.S. war planners' predicament is illustrated in their plans to bomb chemical and biological sites. Since October, when U.N. inspectors were barred from visiting Iraqi facilities suspected of housing components for weapons of mass destruction, U.S. intelligence analysts have declared they do not know the whereabouts of the chemicals, equipment, computers or files used to make the weapons.
These components most likely have been spirited away to laboratories, factories, schools and hospitals throughout Iraq that are also used as temporary weapons-making and storage sites, U.S. intelligence officials say. If their locations are confirmed, these are among the highest priority targets for U.S. military officials. But senior commanders say they are weighing evidence about the presence of weapons materials against the likelihood of harming civilians in a strike.
In an interview with reporters, Shelton spoke of the ease with which Iraqi technicians can transform a hospital, a veterans clinic or a fertilizer plant into a facility for making an anthrax or mustard gas weapon.
"You can convert one of them quickly and resume making chemical or biological weapons," Shelton said. "One day he's making fertilizer, the next day chemical [weapons], and the next day fertilizer. We're not going to bomb hospitals, for sure . . . I didn't say we can eliminate his [weapons of mass destruction]. We can't."
An Air Force officer who specializes in bomb-targetting said air war planners are struggling with the risks in bombing each of the dozens of chemical and biological targets on their lists that are also breweries, food warehouses, pharmaceutical and pesticide plants, and sites handling other civilian products.
"You have to be very careful you don't suffer propaganda defeats" by hitting a "dual-use" location that would appear on CNN to be a purely civilian location, the targeter said. "It's a huge problem. A lot of it will be untouchable."
In any case, U.S. commanders said that they haven't yet developed weapons that reliably destroy chemical or biological plants without releasing toxins into the atmosphere. The Air Force is experimenting with incendiary bombs that burn the poisons, and the Navy is developing one that would collapse, bury and seal up bunkers.
U.S. military commanders also are known to be grappling with the possibility that Saddam Hussein, predicting which facilities U.S. jets will bomb, will place civilians in targets to discourage attack or create martyrs. In the past he has moved prisoners, and some families, into military compounds and some of his presidential palaces.
Eliot Cohen, a Johns Hopkins University strategic studies expert who wrote an exhaustive Pentagon study of the 1991 air war, said he sees an American tentativeness in bomb planning, which is due in part, he said, to military officials' confusion about the operation's objective.
"The lack of clarity tends to confuse and dishearten the people planning an operation," Cohen said. "They'll tend to play it safe in every way, such as trying at all costs to avoid collateral damage," or civilian deaths.
To accomplish President Clinton's stated aim of "substantially" reducing or delaying Iraq's ability to make weapons of mass destruction, U.S. bombs will be targetted not only at biological and chemical weapons plants, but at sites providing ingredients or machinery for them. Clinton administration officials also have said variously that an attack is designed to force Saddam Hussein to readmit U.S. weapons inspectors and to degrade Iraq's ability to threaten its neighbors.
Whenever the anticipated attack comes, one early target will be what remains of Iraq's tattered air-defense system, military officials said. The first sites hit likely will be the three or four bunkers spread around Iraq that receive and integrate computerized radar data before dispatching it to artillery or missile batteries to fire at U.S. jets. These centers were badly damaged in 1991.
"His air defense system has collapsed since those days," said one Pentagon official. "But he'll throw a lot of lead in the air" from individual surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft artillery sites even if integrated radar command centers are disabled. U.S. intelligence officials have had a hard time keeping track of Iraq's Russian-made SA-2, SA-3 and especially the mobile SA-6 missile batteries. In any case, American military officials expect most of the Iraqi radar operators will not turn their gear on for fear of alerting U.S. jets scanning for enemy radar.
U.S. war planners are combing their target lists for the most "high-value" Iraqi targets to hit, given their wide-ranging assignments.
"High-value means, among other things, fixed military equipment he can't replace, military production sites, symbols of Saddam Hussein's regime, places that send a message like his palaces," said Anthony Cordesman, co-director of Mideast studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Military officials have a long menu from which to choose in the last category -- Saddam Hussein has 170 presidential palaces, most of them heavily militarized compounds and some as big as small cities. Other early targets likely will include senior military command and control bunkers, intelligence headquarters, communications complexes and some chemical-biological sites.
"There are arguments going on right now on what to target," an Air Force general said. "What are the critical nodes? Electrical, communications, LOCs [for lines of communication, like railroads and bridges], fuel and resupply and storage to his military. You can't run an army without fuel."
Other waves of assault are likely to target security facilities in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, barracks of the special Republican Guard and other security agencies that protect him, the Republican Guard's mechanized and armored divisions, the regular army's weaponry in the field, as well as the remnants of his air force. The airfields of most interest to U.S. commanders, one Air Force general said, are Al Asad, halfway between Baghdad and Syria; Al Taqaddum, west of Baghdad; and Balad, north of the capital.
As in the Gulf War, some U.S. jets likely will be assigned to patrol designated areas called "kill boxes" and to bomb tanks, armored vehicles and other military hardware that moves in those zones, U.S. officials said. It is possible U.S. jets also will be asked to bomb Iraq's telephone network to slow communications with Republican Guard units.
American bomb planners are said to disagree about whether to target Iraq's electrical network, disabled in the 1991 war by cruise missiles sprinkling carbon filament ribbons that short-circuited wires and transformers. Military officials want to knock out power to refrigerators stocking biological specimens for use in weapons, and to damage data communications in the Iraqi air-defense system, U.S. officials said.
But key air-defense networks have backup generators, and while many homes, schools and restaurants also have them, most of those are likely to break down over time.
"The problem is blackouts cause food to spoil and water purification to stop," said Robert A. Pape, a Dartmouth College expert on strategic air wars. "That causes people to get hungry and sick." Taking into account what some U.S. military officials call "the CNN factor," that may grant Saddam Hussein a PR advantage, American analysts said.
U.S. commanders may try to embolden Iraqi tank units to turn their guns on Saddam Hussien, Pape said, but should not hope that bombing will cause the Iraqi public to rise up against him.
"Bombing has never ever driven people to go into the streets, despite the wishes of air war planners, in the entire history of 33 air campaigns," he said. "If you're being bombed, you're going to rush into the street? No, you're likely to head into the cellar."
Staff writers Barton Gellman and Bradley Graham contributed to this report.
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