DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA -- The Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that U.S. military air power -- including a massive bombing campaign against Baghdad that specifically targets Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- is the only effective option to force Iraqi forces from Kuwait if war erupts, according to the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Michael J. Dugan.

"The cutting edge would be in downtown Baghdad. This {bombing} would not be nibbling at the edges," Dugan said in an interview. "If I want to hurt you, it would be at home, not out in the woods someplace."

Although U.S. ground and naval forces would play a substantive role in any military campaign, Iraq's huge army and tank force means "air power is the only answer that's available to our country" to avoid a bloody land war that would probably destroy Kuwait, Dugan said. That view, he added, is shared by the other chiefs and the commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Consequently, the United States has in five weeks assembled in the gulf region a force of tactical air power roughly comparable to that deployed in Europe during the Cold War. Supplemented by Marine and Army aviators and three aircraft carriers, the Air Force has about 420 combat planes and 250 support aircraft operating from approximately 30 airfields in the area. Of more than 150,000 U.S. military personnel deployed as part of Operation Desert Shield, 30,000 belong to the Air Force.

Until two weeks ago, U.S. target planners had assembled a somewhat conventional list of Iraqi targets which included, in order of priority: Iraqi air defenses; airfields and warplanes; intermediate-range missile sites, including Scud ground-to-ground missiles; communications and command centers; chemical, nuclear and munitions plants; and Iraqi armor formations. Other targets, Dugan said, would include Iraqi power systems, roads, railroads and perhaps domestic petroleum production facilities -- though not the oil fields.

"That's a nice list of targets, and I might be able to accept those, but that's not enough," Dugan said. He asked his planners to interview academics, journalists, "ex-military types" and Iraqi defectors to determine "what is unique about Iraqi culture that they put very high value on. What is it that psychologically would make an impact on the population and regime in Iraq?" The intent, he added, is to find "centers of gravity, where air power could make a difference early on."

Israeli sources have advised that "the best way to hurt Saddam" is to target his family, his personal guard and his mistress. Because Saddam is "a one-man show" in Iraq, Dugan said, "if and when we choose violence he ought to be at the focus of our efforts" -- a military strategy known as decapitation.

The revised military targets now form "a better list," though it still contains all of the earlier targets; final targeting decisions will be made by Schwarzkopf and his staff in Saudi Arabia. Except for efforts to limit "collateral damage" to civilians, the military anticipates wide "latitude" in picking Iraqi targets. "I don't expect to be concerned" about political constraints, Dugan added.

However, the presence of Western hostages at or near potential bombing sites remains an uncertain factor. "I don't know what influence that consideration will have," said Lt. Gen. Jimmie V. Adams, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and operations.

The Air Force also has identified three "culturally very important" sites in Iraq -- possibly religious centers -- that the U.S. bombers would avoid. "We're not mad at the Iraqi people, and when this is all over we don't want the Iraqi people to be mad at us and the rest of the allies we've brought together," Dugan said.

Dugan's comments came in 10 hours of interviews with the chief and five of his senior generals on the U.S. air staff during a trip to and from Saudi Arabia last week. A tall, plain-spoken fighter pilot, Dugan commanded the U.S. Air Force in Europe before becoming chief of staff three months ago. Among other points made:

The Air Force is generally disdainful of the Iraqi armed forces. "Their air force has very limited military capability," Dugan said. "They did not distinguish themselves in the war against Iran," often missing targets by miles. Iraq possesses "an incompetent army," he added. "With 5,000 tanks one should have been able to do something" against Iran.

With the exception of some mobile, Soviet-made SA-6 surface-to-air missiles, Iraqi air defenses are considered no match for U.S. power. "I don't mean to tell you that we won't lose any planes," Adams said. "But I think it's a manageable risk." One concern is Iraq's capture in Kuwait of U.S.-made Hawk missiles. "We typically do not have any protection against Hawk missiles," Dugan said.

About 20 F-117 Stealth fighters based at a secret airfield in this region are flying training missions every night, with the exception of one daytime orientation flight. If an F-117 was shot down or crashed in Iraqi territory, "we'd probably go to some lengths, if we knew where the airplane crashed, to bomb the wreckage" in order to prevent the technology from reaching Baghdad, said Lt. Gen. Thomas R. Ferguson Jr., commander of the Aeronautical Systems Division, which is responsible for new Air Force technology.

Israel recently provided the United States with about two dozen new, Israeli-built Have Nap missiles intended for a comparable number of B-52 bombers now based at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, according to an informed source. These "stand-off" missiles with a one-ton warhead permit the bombers to fire accurately at ground targets from 50 miles away, out of range of Iraqi defenses. The United States has designated a base closer to Iraq for the B-52s and is certain the host country will permit the move in event of war, although no formal request has been made yet. Officials would not identify the base.

In the past week, Iraq has dispersed some of its warplanes "in groups of three and four" to remote airfields in southern Iraq, apparently to make them less vulnerable to U.S. attack. In the past two weeks, Iraqi pilots have doubled their nocturnal flights, presumably in anticipation of night combat against a U.S. force that prefers to fight in the dark.

Some military strategists and historians are skeptical that air power is sufficient to dislodge an entrenched enemy; North Vietnam resisted intense U.S. bombing for years. The Air Force generals said they are aware of this view. "We often underestimate our enemies," Adams said, noting that bombing sometimes "hardens" rather than destroys the will to resist.

The air staff is studying historical bombing campaigns with an eye to applying lessons learned and "one of the lessons we got out of Vietnam was that gradualism doesn't work," Adams added. The full-scale air war envisioned now reflects the Joint Chiefs' general approach brought to Desert Shield under Operations Plan 90-1002: a conviction that if U.S. power is committed, it should be fully committed.

"There are a lot of things that air power cannot accomplish," Dugan said. "We had great difficulty in driving people out of the jungle {in Southeast Asia}. But there's not much jungle where we're going."

Air power gives "a special kind of psychological impact," he added, and hopefully would soon persuade Iraqis that "Saddam and his regime cannot protect them." Although the Air Force can guarantee tremendous devastation in Iraq, whether raining destruction would effect the withdrawal from Kuwait or Saddam's ouster is a political conclusion that the president and others must make, Dugan said. There also is no guarantee that bombers would be able to find Saddam.

The Air Force generals declined to comment on whether U.S. chemical or nuclear weapons have been moved to the gulf region for use against Iraq.

Part of the focus on air warfare is the consequence of unpalatable alternatives. The Pentagon has decided that it cannot and will not match Saddam's ground forces, much less assemble the 3-to-1 advantage considered necessary for an offensive campaign. Air power plays to a U.S. strength while avoiding a protracted armor offensive or extensive urban fighting in Kuwait City, several generals said.

Marine and Army ground forces could be used for diversions, flanking attacks and to block an Iraqi counterstrike on Saudi Arabia. If major ground warfare is to be avoided, then the air war cannot be restricted just to Iraqi targets in Kuwait or "obviously, air power cannot achieve the goal" of dislodging Iraq, Ferguson said. Ground forces may be needed to reoccupy Kuwait, Dugan added, but only after air power has so shattered enemy resistance that soldiers can "walk in and not have to fight" house-to-house.

Unlike some of the U.S. ground forces, which may take another two months to reach their gulf destinations, the Air Force is virtually in place and has sufficient forces to fight an all-out war. Some additional aerial tankers have yet to arrive, but adequate supplies of munitions are on hand except for flares and chaff used to deceive anti-aircraft missiles. To fill out their war reserve kits, squadrons deploying to the gulf did considerable "cannibalizing" from squadrons left behind, which in turn have borrowed from reserve and Guard units.

Although Schwarzkopf recently said he was concerned about the impending overhaul of Air Force transport jets, Dugan said: "I'm not aware of any significant problems with the airlift. Yeah, we're going to have to replace some engines, but we replace engines" periodically anyway. A more pressing problem is to find rested pilots, for which more reserves might be needed.

The generals expressed great satisfaction with the Air Force deployment under Desert Shield. The Saudis have spent many billions of dollars building runways, hangars, repair shops and hardened subterranean aircraft bunkers that are the "finest I've ever seen anywhere," Adams observed. A new, still-unopened airport in the eastern portion of the country is "bigger than Dulles and JFK {airport in New York} combined," said Maj. Gen. Philip G. Killey, director of the Air National Guard. Airmen have made good use of materiel from Harvest Falcon, goods stored in Egypt, Oman, Turkey and elsewhere.

In general, aircraft used for defensive purposes -- such as tank killers and air defense jets -- have been placed closer to the Iraqi border while offensive planes -- such as ground attack fighter-bombers -- are at bases farther back, one general said. That deployment likely would change if combat begins. Six aircraft battle-damage repair teams have been deployed to the region.

"There's no doubt that heat affects our people and to some extent our equipment," Lt. Gen. Henry "Butch" Viccellio Jr., deputy chief of staff for logistics and engineering, said after visiting eight bases in four countries. "But I found that it's not substantially slowing down our operations." Crew members have shown ingenuity by making aircraft canopy covers -- to protect cockpit instruments -- out of bedsheets; small handheld "Dustbuster" vaccuums have also become very popular in this dusty environment.

One nagging concern is fuel. Although even without Kuwaiti supplies "we have far more refined fuel" on the Arabian peninsula than is needed, Viccellio said, "to sustain a high-tempo {combat} operation longer than a week you have to have a secure, reliable way to get it from the source to the base." Logisticians are working on the problem.

Another concern is morale. The prospect of an indefinite, tense, boring wait in a region with few amenities is a daunting problem for commanders. Though U.S. forces have performed admirably, Dugan said, "We've already started to see the bloom off the rose about the excitement of it all."

A related anxiety -- and the subject of frequent questions from soldiers, sailors and airmen here -- is the willingness of Americans to support Desert Shield indefinitely. "I think they'd support this operation longer than you would think," Dugan said during a brief meeting with more than 100 members of an F-15 squadron Friday. "The American people will support this operation until body bags come home."