AN AIR BASE IN SAUDI ARABIA, AUG. 26 -- Airplane lights stream across the night sky here, illuminating an aerial traffic jam that stretches as far as the eye can see. On the tarmac below, mammoth U.S. military transport planes disgorge troops and the tools of war and human survival, everything from tanks and helicopters to food and tents.
At a nearby port, the belly of a U.S. combat support ship pours forth millions of pounds of equipment, including 564 five-ton cargo trucks, 163 flatbed trailers and 107 rough-terrain forklifts.
In the past 2 1/2 weeks, the United States has inundated Saudi Arabia with more military weaponry and hardware than this country's own armed forces possess and with nearly as many troops as comprise the 65,700-man Saudi military.
Operation Desert Shield has pushed the U.S. military's airlift and sealift capabilities further than ever before. In the process, it is straining the ability of Saudi Arabia to support the largest buildup of military forces on its soil in modern history.
"Some of our demands have been very, very high," said Army Maj. Gen. William G. Pagonis, who is directing the massive transport of ground forces and equipment at this base, which may not be identified under U.S. military rules for the press. "The United States would have a hard time moving into New Jersey and dumping the amount of soldiers we've dumped here."
The Saudi armed forces have vacated entire airfields and other military facilities to accommodate the growing contingent of U.S. troops, which is expected to exceed 100,000 men and women within the next few weeks.
The Saudis "have moved their military to forward and different positions," said Pagonis. "Where they have done that, they have given us their entire facility to allow us to move our soldiers into those areas."
The U.S. Marine Corps has become the first tenant of a new Saudi airfield, parking dozens of attack and transport helicopters on runway aprons and stuffing the air terminal with boxes of spare parts and rows of sleeping bags for pilots and maintenance personnel.
The Saudis have turned over offices in their military headquarters buildings to U.S. officials and are providing much of the fuel for American ground forces, ships and aircraft.
While tens of thousands of U.S. troops pour into the country and organize their missions, the Saudi government provides much of the operational support.
The Saudis are using yellow school buses to transport troops and flatbed trucks to move weapons and equipment from air bases to staging areas. They are providing U.S. forces with tents and camouflage fatigue uniforms, as well as all the running water and 90 percent of the food consumed by American troops here.
"They have given us anything they have without any hesitation," said Pagonis. "There is no squabbling and no holding back."
When U.S. officials told Saudi authorities Saturday that 4,000 more troops than expected would be arriving today, cooks worked through the night to pack 4,000 box lunches.
Still, there have been many shortfalls in these hectic first weeks. Neither the Saudis nor the Americans have yet been able to provide enough of such essentials as latrine facilities and showers. Laundry service for the troops' sandy, sweaty combat fatigues is available only to a few units housed in urban areas.
U.S. officials say they must depend increasingly on supplies from home to support their troops in the coming months. "The host country has been drained," noted Pagonis. "They can only sustain us for so long."
But U.S. transportation resources have been severely taxed by the most rapid military buildup anywhere since World War II. During one 24-hour period last week, U.S. officials said, 124 military transport planes landed at bases throughout the Middle East in support of Desert Shield, as the American operation is code-named.
On the runways here at the busiest U.S. military airlift staging area, logistics crews coordinating the unloading operations worked 36-hour shifts in the first days of the mission, getting only four hours of sleep between shifts. Teams have unloaded an average of 40 to 50 planes a day. With the arrival of more support personnel in recent days, their shifts have been cut to 20 hours, but sleep still comes four hours at a time.
The giant airlift operation has also suffered setbacks. Military officials coordinating the hundreds of flights from the U.S. Transportaton Command headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., say the U.S. Central Command has changed deployment plans daily, further complicating the flow of supplies.
The long, rigorous flying hours also have strained the Air Force's aging fleet of C-141 transport planes. A military intelligence specialist based at Fort Bragg, N.C., said her plane was grounded for five hours while mechanics searched for a part to make last-minute repairs, which took another 12 hours.
Within the first two weeks of the Saudi Arabian deployment, U.S. military and civilian aircraft flew 1 billion pounds of weapons, equipment and food to the Middle East. And that represents only a fraction of the material the United States will dispatch to the region, officials said, as 90 percent of all equipment and supplies will be shipped by sea.
Last week, the first of the Navy's 13 prepositioned combat support ships began arriving at Saudi docks. The vessels have sat fully stocked at their bases for years and contain enough weapons and equipment to support three Marine divisions -- about 50,000 troops -- for 30 days. It is the first time the ships, most of which are based at the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, have ever been used for a real emergency.
In addition to tanks and other weapons, each ship carries 1,413 trucks and other vehicles, including 96 22 1/2-ton powered trailers, 27 five-ton wreckers and 99 12 1/2-ton power units. Also on board are three 60-ton bridges, 29 bulldozers, 438 generators, one 800,000-gallon water distribution system and a 260-bed medical facility.
The outfitting and positioning of the ships were among the most controversial programs initiated after the Vietnam War. Many congressional and military leaders were critical of spending billions of dollars on equipment that would be loaded aboard ships and left unused for years.
"I remember looking at all that brand-new gear and thinking, 'God, I hope we're doing the right thing by stashing way all that equipment,' " said Lt. Gen. Walter E. Boomer, chief of Marine Corps forces deployed to the Middle East. "It has paid off."