U.S. military officials said this week that they do not expect any shortages of critical missiles and bombs as they prepare to conduct possibly several more weeks of a costly and extensive air war over Iraq.
While the Pentagon will not release figures on how many missiles and bombs remain available, interviews with experts and published records tend to support the claim that enough weaponry has been stockpiled to provide for an extended air war.
For example, although U.S. forces have launched close to half the approximate 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles sent to the Persian Gulf before the war began last week, a Navy official said use of the missile would likely decrease as the number of Iraqi targets decreases.
Asked yesterday at a Pentagon news briefing whether indications that the missile is already being used less reflects a shortage of the weapon, Marine Maj. Gen. Martin Brandtner said: "It does not reflect a shortage of missiles. Absolutely not."
Regarding the acclaimed Patriot system, used to shoot down Iraqi Scud missiles fired toward Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Army had about 3,250 missiles before the war, according to military data submitted to Congress.
No more than several dozen reportedly have been used. Said one Army spokesman, "We are not going to run out of the Patriot."
There are also sufficient stocks of laser-guided precision bombs for pinpoint aerial bombing raids, officials said.
The continued air war and the infusion of tens of thousands of additional troops will, however, strain the already extended logistical supply lines, and government officials are trying to cope.
The Commerce Department, for example, has issued 40 to 50 orders to defense contractors to put supplies for Operation Desert Storm ahead of other commercial business, officials said. Twenty such orders were issued in the past three weeks alone.
The U.S. Central Command has asked for voluntary restrictions on people sending packages to soldiers to ease deployment and save space on transport planes.
Military authorities also continue to search for additional suppliers of chemical protective suits. Although 1.34 million have been procured, 3.5 million are needed, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.
Once unpacked, the suits are good for only 22 days before their effectiveness is degraded by fumes and other contaminants. After exposure to chemical warfare, each suit must be replaced within 24 hours.
Logistics, though not as glamorous as precision bombing runs, has never been far from the minds of Desert Storm commanders. Last November, for example, Gen. Alfred M. Gray Jr., the Marine commandant, sharply criticized the logistics system in the gulf after returning from an inspection trip to Saudi Arabia. A second Marine official questioned the adequacy of supply of Class 5 ammunition, which includes precision bombs. And Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl E. Vuono is known to have echoed similar concerns.
Since then, with a constant flow of materiel by air and sea, the situation "has improved markedly," said Lt. Col. Fred Peck, a Marine Corps spokesman. "We're in good shape across the board . . . and have a good backlog . . . in all the categories."
"Obviously, since we initiated this, we are prepared for it," said Russell Murray, an assistant secretary of defense in the Carter administration and a former special counselor to the House Armed Services Committee. "It would be very surprising if there is a logistical problem now."
The supply situation has been aided by the high defense inventories. For example, since 1980 the Army has procured about 6,450 Patriot missiles and some 100 launchers, records show. Some 2,000 missiles have been expended in training and testing over the years, but a sizable quantity remains. Moreover, the missile's manufacturer, Raytheon Co., has accelerated production since August.
A Navy official said there are an additional 600 non-nuclear Tomahawk missiles in U.S. stocks that could be readily deployed to the gulf.
Experts said it is more difficult to gauge the situation for precision bombs, but doubted that troublesome shortages would arise. "You're not dealing with anything that's a war-stopper," said Eliot A. Cohen, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
While military officials have emphasized the success so far of the precision bombing attacks against Iraqi targets, there are also vast quantities available of the so-called "dumb bombs", which can be highly effective. "If you've got a very smart plane delivering a dumb bomb, it's very accurate," Cohen said.
Some of such munitions, one Pentagon official said, are 2,000-pound bombs dropped from 20,000 feet. "Costs less than $1 a pound -- it's cheaper than hamburger," the official said.
Fuel is a concern, particularly if gas-guzzling U.S. tanks must travel great distances through the desert in a potential ground war. Military expert David Isby, who has studied the question, estimates that one U.S. armored division would require 600,000 gallons of fuel a day advancing on Basra, Iraq, twice the consumption rate of Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army as it dashed across France in 1944.
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.