Shortly before 3 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1991, beneath the headquarters of the Royal Saudi Air Force on King Abdul Aziz Boulevard in downtown Riyadh, 80 men crowded into a hot bunker and watched the Persian Gulf War begin on a four-foot television screen.

Electronically linked to a quartet of AWACS planes -- airborne radar platforms capable of peering deep into Iraq from their orbits in northern Saudi Arabia -- the screen displayed hundreds of tiny green circles, each representing an allied aircraft, as well as the occasional red circle of an Iraqi fighter on patrol.

South of the Iraqi border flew 160 aerial tankers, stacked in cells five deep. Around them, scores of airplanes massed for attack: bomb droppers and fighters, radar killers and electronic jammers, eavesdroppers and rescuers. From the Red Sea in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east, the great menagerie of Eagles, Ravens, Tomcats, Weasels, Harriers, Warthogs, Aardvarks and Falcons surged forward.

A few aircraft already had crossed into Iraqi airspace and were streaking toward Scud missile targets near Jordan. Others, notably a dozen low-flying Apache helicopters flickering dimly on the screen near the Saudi town of Ar Ar, were headed home after successful attacks on border radar stations. Only the F-117 stealth fighters remained unseen, invisible even to the AWACS.

Behind the first wave of aircraft would come several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles bound for Baghdad and other priority targets. Tomahawks fired from U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf had secretly flown across western Iran, without Tehran's knowledge, guided by a topographical map stored in the Tomahawk's computer brain; because eastern Iraq was utterly flat, the rugged Iranian mountains provided the only terrain broken enough to permit the missiles to navigate themselves within striking distance of Baghdad.

Some of the Tomahawks carried 1,000-pound explosive warheads. Others -- a top secret variant known as the Kit 2 -- were rigged to spew out thousands of tiny spools less than an inch in diameter over key Iraqi power plants; from them long carbon filaments would uncoil, drift to earth, and fall over transmission lines, shorting them out in a medley of bright flashes and loud pops.

At the center of the subterranean room, exuding an unmistakable air of proprietorship, sat the man responsible for the thousand or so lives represented by those swarming green circles on the screen. Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, commander of the U.S. 9th Air Force, was thickset and inelegant, possessed of brawny forearms and an oval face that thrust itself at the world with fighter pilot self-assurance.

When displeased or skeptical, he squinted slightly with one eye, like Popeye, and the deep rumble of his voice seemed to drop yet another octave. Capable of playing the dull-witted rube from Iowa, Horner was in fact shrewd unto cunning. No officer in Riaydh was more skillful at handling the tempestuous commander-in-chief (CINC) of allied forces, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. In a roomful of officers, Horner would lean close and murmur in tones audible only to Schwarzkopf, much to the distress of the CINC's staff, who decried this "whispering style" while envying Horner's ability to get what he wanted.

Melding 32 years of flying experience -- including 111 missions over North Vietnam -- with an occasional burst of aviator doublespeak, Horner showed his expertise in air warfare, about which Schwarzkopf knew little. Of subjects terrestrial, Schwarzkopf was king; but in the air, Horner was his regent.

Now, in the stuffy chamber of his command center, the regent could do little but watch and wait. The first two days of the air campaign had been plotted in such painstaking detail that a computer simulation of the initial airstrikes took two months to construct. Any changes at this point would have snarled the nexus of aerial refueling assignments, electronic warfare coverage, and strike sequences required to fling 2,000 aircraft at Iraq without a rash of midair collisions. "It's so precise," Horner had fretted aloud a week earlier. "I'd be happy if only a portion of it worked. What we're trying to do is too perfect."

And yet he felt an inner calm. Every pilot's death wounded him, even those from foolish training accidents, but two events had forged a steely core. The first occurred in 1964, when his parents, sister and brother-in-law and their children died in an auto crash.

The second was his own near-death while flying as a young captain over North Africa. At 3,000 feet, he had rashly pulled a split S -- a fighter maneuver, typically requiring at least twice as much altitude, in which the pilot loops the plane back under itself. As the F-100 leveled off, Horner could see sand dunes looming above him on either side and a dusty plume below where the jet's exhaust flame was scorching the desert floor.

Horner had never looked at life quite the same after that flight but, rather, with the liberating conviction that mastery of his own fate was largely an illusion. Inshallah was the Arab term -- God's will. In the months leading up to this night, he had done what he could do for those green circles inching into Iraq; now the outcome lay with providence.

Horner glanced around the room and spied Maj. Buck Rogers, a young pilot who had spent weeks interviewing telecommunications contractors so that he could comprehend the intricacies of Iraq's phone system. If stealth fighters hit the so-called AT&T building -- the main telephone exchange in central Baghdad -- as scheduled, any television broadcasts routed through that network would be severed.

"Buck," Horner ordered, "go upstairs to my office. There's a TV there. See what's happening."

Ten minutes later, Rogers called from Horner's desk on the third floor. "Sir," he announced, "Baghdad just went off the air."

Horner hung up, then repeated the message to the hushed room. "Shit hot!" the men crowed. "Shit hot!" Horner turned back to watch the screen, a smile playing across his face for the first time that night. Inshallah.

Counting Off Targets In the Pentagon Basement

Beneath the concrete portals of the Pentagon's River Entrance, in a drab basement vault numbered BF922, the pummeling of Iraq in the war's initial hours was played out, bomb by bomb, in the imagination of the man most responsible for plotting the aerial destruction of Saddam Hussein's war machine.

Col. John A. Warden III saw it all in his mind's eye: the phones gone dead, the lights gone out, the flames licking from a hundred shattered targets. Sitting at a wooden table with the inch-thick timetable of the first night's attack, he watched the clock and punched the air in a small gesture of triumph whenever the moment passed for the obliteration of another crucial target. Five months before, he had assured Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, that air power would lay Iraq low. Now, he believed, that promise was redeemed.

Warden, who headed an Air Force planning cell called Checkmate, was largely anonymous outside the Air Force. Within the service, he was a figure of controversy -- revered as a visionary, disdained as a zealot. A manner that seemed courtly and pensive to some struck others as patronizing and bookish. He roundly rebuked the Air Force for a narrow and defensive concept of war that dwelt excessively on support for the Army against a Soviet tank assault. The service, Warden insisted, had "lost its focus" by failing to think of combat in bold, strategic strokes, by wanting to hack at an enemy's limbs rather than thrusting at its heart.

Such criticisms -- and the pontifical tone in which Warden sometimes delivered them -- sat badly with many of his colleagues. Although Warden had flown nearly 300 combat missions in Vietnam and later commanded an F-15 fighter wing in Germany, his credentials as a warrior-aviator were considered suspect. Within the fraternity of senior Air Force generals, he was said to lack "good hands." No more damning slur could be cast at any pilot; the dexterity needed to operate the toggles and buttons in an F-15 was such that aircrews spoke of "playing the piccolo."

But into those hands was committed the planning for the air campaign against Iraq. Exactly 80 years before Desert Storm began, in January 1911, the first bomb had fallen from an airplane when a barnstorming pilot in San Francisco dropped a pipe full of black powder as a fairground stunt. Millions of tons of high explosives had fallen since, yet air power still was deemed a developing art fraught with uncertainty.

Warden was undaunted. He believed every warring state had "centers of gravity," which he defined as "the point where the enemy is most vulnerable and the point where an attack will have the best chance of being decisive." He also believed that every modern state, regardless of size, had 3,000 to 5,000 "strategic aim points." Find and strike those points, Warden decreed, and you paralyze the enemy whether he is Soviet or Iraqi.

In war no less than in peace, success has a thousand fathers, and paternity claims in the Persian Gulf War would mount in direct proportion to allied achievements. Yet no claim was stronger than Warden's.

On Aug. 8, less than a week after the invasion of Kuwait, Warden gathered a dozen officers from his Checkmate staff and began translating his beliefs into a war plan. On a blackboard, he drew five concentric circles, representing Iraq's centers of gravity. The innermost circle, he said, stood for Iraqi leadership. The next circle -- the second most critical center of gravity -- represented petroleum and electricity targets, without which a modern military was crippled. Third was Iraqi infrastructure, particularly transportation. Fourth was the Iraqi population. The fifth and outermost circle symbolized Saddam's fielded military force. In Warden's view, air power could leap over the outer rings to devastate the enemy's core.

Warden subsequently propped a large satellite map of Baghdad against the wall. Using data from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and elsewhere, he began filling the map with target pins, eventually 45 of them. To illustrate the devastating consequences of hitting just a handful of key sites, he also produced a map of greater Washington with equivalent targets: the White House; the Capitol; the Pentagon; Blair House; Camp David; CIA headquarters in Langley; power plants in northern Virginia and southern Maryland; telecommunications facilities for AT&T, MCI and Sprint; and FBI headquarters. A two-inch snowfall paralyzes Washington, Warden told his staff; imagine what blows to these targets would do to the city.

On Aug. 10, Warden and several other Checkmate officers flew to Central Command headquarters in Tampa for a quick conference with Schwarzkopf, who had not yet left for Saudi Arabia. On the flight to Florida, Warden and his deputies had talked about how to translate the concept of an air campaign into terms that would excite an Army infantry officer like Schwarzkopf.

They latched on to two historical analogies, which Warden proposed to the CINC after a brief sketch of Iraqi vulnerabilities. The first was the famous Schlieffen Plan, drafted by the Germans before World War I as a stratagem for skirting French strongholds by attacking through Belgium and along the English Channel coast. With air power, Warden believed, Schwarzkopf could similarly bypass Iraqi strongholds to attack the more critical centers of gravity.

Warden's second analogy was more contemporary and eminently American. "You have a chance," he told the CINC, "to achieve a victory equivalent to or greater than MacArthur's Inchon landing {in Korea} by executing an air Inchon in Iraq." (As historian Barbara Tuchman once wrote, "Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip.")

Schwarzkopf stirred with renewed animation. I want to see more, he said. Come back in a week.

On Aug. 17, Warden returned to Tampa, armed with a slide show. He showed Schwarzkopf 84 targets, now classified in 10 categories. This attack, Warden estimated, would knock out 60 percent of the electrical power in Baghdad and 70 percent of the country's oil refining capacity. With fair weather, the campaign -- code-named Instant Thunder -- should take about six days to complete.

Under a slide entitled "Expected Results," Warden predicted, "National leadership and command and control destroyed. Iraq's strategic offense and defense eliminated for extended period. Iraq's economy disrupted."

A Turbulent Takeoff For the Master Plan

Three days later, at Schwarzkopf's request, Warden and three of his lieutenant colonels trooped into a third-floor office at the Royal Saudi Air Force headquarters in Riyadh. The Checkmate officers lugged a crate of razors, lip balm and sunblock brought as a goodwill offering to their Air Force comrades in Saudi Arabia. Lt. Gen. Horner, who had arrived two weeks earlier to serve as Schwarzkopf's point man during the initial deployment, glanced disdainfully at Checkmate's crate and uttered a curt harrumph.

From that sour beginning, the session dissolved in acrimony. Horner had never read Warden's writings on air campaigns, but he was wary of his brethren in blue who made sweeping claims for Air Force hegemony. "Air power airheads," he called them.

Warden struggled through his briefing amid muttered gibes about "armchair generals" and "the typical academic crap you'd expect out of Washington." Horner's immediate concern centered on several Iraqi armored divisions poised to strike from southern Kuwait. "What happens if the Iraqis attack?" he asked.

Warden shook his head. "Sir, I don't think they're going to attack. You're too concerned with the defense."

Warden's deputies winced, but it was too late. An awkward silence filled the room. "Sir, I apologize," Warden said at last. "I may have gone too far."

Horner replied gruffly, "Apology accepted," and the briefing sputtered to a close.

Horner then turned to the Checkmate lieutenant colonels and asked them to remain in Riyadh temporarily. For Warden, there was no invitation, only a terse and final, "Thank you."

That evening Warden reported to Riyadh air base for the return flight to Washington. He sagged with disappointment and exhaustion. His deputy, Lt. Col. David A. Deptula, tried unsuccessfully to brighten his spirits. "Don't worry, sir," Deptula said. "We'll try to maintain the integrity of the plan."

Warden nodded glumly, turned, and walked to the waiting jet.

Blueprint Plays Out In the Hours Before Dawn

John Warden's Instant Thunder underwent many changes in the next five months. The number of target categories grew from 10 to 12; the number of strategic targets swelled from 84 to 386 on Jan. 17. (By war's end, the figure would surpass 700.) At Horner's insistence, even the code name Instant Thunder vanished from all planning documents, supplanted by the more prosaic Offensive Campaign, Phase I.

Yet the blueprint survived. Warden's essential ideas -- emphasizing centers of gravity, focusing on leadership targets, leaping over Iraq's fielded forces to strike at the country's core -- remained the principles behind Desert Storm. Among those helping Horner sculpt the plan into its final form, two were particularly key: Brig. Gen. Buster C. Glosson, the brusque, tireless chief targeteer and commander of all Air Force wings in the gulf, and Dave Deptula, who became chief planner for Iraqi targets.

Now, in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 17, the plan played out. Across a 600-mile front, from the Iraqi naval base at Umm Qasr in the east to six Scud sites in the far west, the allied marauders bombed, rocketed, mined and missiled. Horner, Glosson, Deptula and the other air planners watched with ebullient disbelief from their Riyadh bunker as squadron after squadron reported targets struck with no losses.

Nearly all came home. All the stealth fighters, all the Eagles and Ravens, Falcons and Harriers, Warthogs and Aardvarks, Tomcats and Weasels. All save one: Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, flying from USS Saratoga in the Red Sea, was shot down by a MiG-25 that apparently slipped through a gap in AWACS coverage and destroyed Speicher's F-14 with a missile.

In his own underground bunker, a mile from Horner and the air staff, Norman Schwarzkopf spent much of the first night on the telephone, fielding accounts from his subordinate commanders. On a yellow notepad, he kept a log of such events as "0310: phones out Bag." By midmorning on Jan. 17, the pad was covered with glad tidings. His booming voice periodically lifted above the hubbub: "Goddam it! Good news! That's great!"

By and large, the news would remain good for the ensuing six weeks. But not always. In a tour of all the air wings in Saudi Arabia shortly before the war began, Buster Glosson had stressed prudence. "The outcome of this war is not in question," he told the pilots. "The only issue is how many body bags we're going to send back across the Atlantic. The bottom line is that there's not a damn thing worth dying for in Iraq. Nothing."

The last part would come back to haunt him. For some men would die in Iraq -- terrible, plummeting deaths -- and, inevitably, their surviving comrades could only wonder why.

NEXT: Prisoner of war

Excerpted from "Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War," published this month by Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993 by Rick Atkinson. Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford assisted on the book.