AN AIR BASE IN SOUTHERN SAUDI ARABIA, FEB. 10 -- In the hangar of an F-117A Stealth fighter, to the gleeful amazement of nearby airmen and women, the nation's two top military officials joined a long tradition of warfare here today.
Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took up pens beside a 2,000-pound bomb.
"To Saddam with affection," Cheney inscribed.
"You didn't move it, so now you lose it," Powell added.
No one seemed to know for sure, but officials said they expected that the GBU-27, a laser-guided bomb designed to penetrate hardened bunkers before exploding, would be used against a target in Iraq.
The hour-long visit to the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing, two Stealth fighter squadrons that call themselves the "Night Stalkers" and the "Ghost Riders," provided only the second public glimpse of one of the Persian Gulf War's most highly touted successes.
Pentagon officials have said the Stealth fighters, of which there are only 59 in the world, have attacked 80 percent of the most heavily defended Iraqi targets. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf said recently that the F-117s, designed with "low-observable" technology, remained invisible to Iraqi air defense radars.
Dark humor pervaded today's visit.
The bomb-inscribing ceremony took place under the wing of a fighter dubbed "Christine" by its maintenance crew, after a demonic automobile by that name in a novel by author Stephen King.
"There's a bug in that plane somewhere that nobody can find," said a technical sergeant who stood nearby. "It causes certain things not to work, and certain things to work when they shouldn't work."
He declined to elaborate.
But the highlight of the morning, for the air crews and their VIP guests, came when Staff Sgt. John Pennell held up a desert-camouflaged Bart Simpson doll and asked Cheney to do him a favor.
"I wonder if you could carry this back to the president for us?" Pennell said, to roars of approval from the airmen and women.
"I can guarantee you," Cheney replied, "by tomorrow night that will be on his desk in the Oval Office."
Pennell, an air traffic controller, said the uniformed doll, known as "an underachiever and proud of it" on the hit Fox television series, was "a mascot and an inspiration" to the air crews.
Staff Sgt. Mike Bozek said his grandmother sent the doll from Marblehead, Mass., and Bozek stitched a desert-tan uniform from a flap of spare material in his own.
"It's going to win the war," Bozek said.