COVER

AFTER THE AIR WAR

THE GROUND FORCES PREPARE FOR BATTLE

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 4 1991
COVER

AFTER THE AIR WAR

THE GROUND FORCES PREPARE FOR BATTLE

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 4 1991

AFTER THE AIR WAR

COVER

THE GROUND FORCES PREPARE FOR BATTLE

Like tens of thousands of other American troops, the men of the U.S. army’s 937th Engineers Group were moving north last week. From a base in the bleak desert landscape of eastern Saudi Arabia, their vehicles joined the lumbering convoys of trucks and tanks crawling closer to the border with Kuwait—and to a direct confrontation with the massed ground forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. As they prepared to move out, Maj. Tim Timmons, a 41year-old New Mexican, reflected on Hussein’s lack of resistance as coalition warplanes continued to pound Iraq and occupied Kuwait. “What I’m worried about is that Saddam will do the old rope-a-dope,” said Timmons, referring to the hang-back boxing style that onetime heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali occasionally used. “He’ll take the punches, lean back, and then hit us when we come in.” _

Bloody: That may yet be Iraq’s strategy, but there was no sign last week that Hussein was about to come off the ropes and assault his enemies. Instead of confronting the allied planes that flew an average of 2,000 missions each day against his facilities and forces, Iraqi jets usually turned tail and sought sanctuary in reinforced bunkers in the northern part of the country. By midweek,

American commanders in Saudi Arabia claimed, with apparent confidence, to have achieved superiority in the skies over Iraq and Kuwait. At the same time, they sent out clear signals that they were in no hurry to launch coalition ground forces against Iraq’s defensive line along the Kuwaiti border. Before the outbreak of war in the early hours of Jan. 17, local time, allied planners had spoken of an air assault lasting several days, followed by a combined air-and-land offensive against Iraqi troops. Last week, however, senior U.S. officers said that* the air campaign could extend until at least early February, and possibly longer, in order to reduce Iraq’s defences further before a bloody ground confrontation.

Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, even spoke in Washington of

launching a ground assault “if necessary,” implying that the coalition might achieve its goals without a major land campaign. But most experts say that they consider that prospect unlikely. And U.S. Defence Secretary Richard Cheney added: “If we do have to use our ground forces to push him out of Kuwait, it will be after we’ve done enormous damage to his ground forces.” Iraq’s only substantive response to the air attacks was more political than military: launching a total of more than 30 Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel in an apparent attempt to terrorize the populations and provoke the Jewish state into retaliating, possibly undermining the WesternArab coalition against Baghdad.

In fact, the response of the Iraqi air force was so muted that some U.S. fighter pilots voiced frustration that they had nothing to shoot at. Lt.-Col. Jeffrey Brown, the executive officer of an F-15C air-to-air fighter squadron, told reporters at an airbase in central Saudi Arabia that Iraqi pilots turned and headed north whenever they came within 30 miles of U.S. planes. “We haven’t been able to fire a shot in anger yet, because we haven’t found anybody,” said Brown. “It’s terrible.”

But even as Iraq’s strategy appeared puzzling, that of the coalition was clear. Allied commanders, as they repeatedly warned in the weeks leading up to the war, hit key targets in Iraq with an overwhelming

__display of high-tech air power.

Their arsenal included an astonishing array of weapons, ranging from ultramodern F-117A Stealth fighters—night predators almost invisible to radar—to massive B-52G bombers, upgraded versions of craft that first flew in the mid-1950s. Among other things, the campaign was aimed at severing communications between the 150,000-man Republican Guard, Hussein’s toughest and best-equipped soldiers, and their top commanders in Baghdad, while also destroying their runways, food and ammunition supplies. “Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple,” Powell said in a frank statement of American aims. “First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.” Damage: U.S. commanders claimed qualified success last week against all of their targets, but they offered little public proof. Unusually heavy clouds over Kuwait and much of Iraq’s 170,000 square miles hindered coalition forces in conducting what they call “BDA,” or bomb damage assessment, which is based largely on interpreting pilots’ reports and aerial photographs of enemy targets after bombs or missiles have hit them. Assessment experts look for hard evidence that the target has

been destroyed or incapacitated; if it has not, commanders order another strike to finish the job. Delays in making those assessments, they conceded last week, meant that they could not say for sure just how much damage the allied combat missions had done.

Still, there appeared little doubt that Iraq was taking a beating. According to allied reports, Hussein’s anti-aircraft batteries shot down just 17 allied warplanes in the first nine days of the war, an extremely low number for the more than 12,000 missions flown. In air-toair combat, coalition air forces reported that they shot down 19 Iraqi planes over that period, while the Iraqi pilots’ score was a zero, pending official confirmation of the fate of a

missing allied plane. U.S. _

commanders claimed that they had destroyed Iraqi nuclear and chemical weapons plants, prevented Iraqi planes from using most of the country’s airfields, and severely disrupted communication and supply lines to the 540,000 Iraqi ground forces in and around Kuwait. B-52G bombers targeted Iraqi troops dug in along the Saudi-Kuwait border and in southern Iraq, sending out a menacing roll of thunder that allied troops closest to Iraqi positions could readily hear. At week’s end, U.S. officials claimed that they had some evidence that the assault was already affecting Iraqi troops. Many among a group of 51 Iraqi prisoners, whom the Ameri-

cans captured on Thursday in a raid of the tiny Persian Gulf island of Qurah, said that their rations had been reduced to just one meal a day.

But Hussein seemed in no hurry to respond. He was apparently conserving resources, nota-

bly Soviet MiG-29s and French F-l Mirages, that would be wasted by attempting to take on an overwhelmingly superior enemy in the air. The planes’ reinforced shelters in the north, which analysts say may number several hundred, were designed in the early 1980s by British and other Western companies. The analysts said that the shelters have steel roofs with concrete covers four feet thick and may be impervious to all but nuclear attack.

In fact, diplomats and Iraqi expatriates told reporters in Cairo that over the past decade, Hussein has built nuclear-proof bunkers and air-raid shelters under numerous public and military buildings. They also said that he alternates among at least seven Baghdad residences, all with deeply positioned bunkers immune even to an atomic bomb. According to German press reports, one of them is a luxurious $75million complex in Baghdad that a West German company built in 1981. The 19,300square-foot bunker, the accounts said, contains Frenchstyle furniture and comes complete with a swimming pool, a broadcast studio and enough supplies for Hussein and 50 others to survive for a

year.

Stamina: Hunkering down, some experts said, is a key element of Hussein’s strategy. A former Soviet diplomat with Middle East experience, Vladimir Sakharov, told reporters that Soviet advisers trained the Iraqi army for 20 years and that traditional Soviet military strategy when faced with overwhelming odds is to conserve resources until the last - minute and then counterattack. Others suggested that the Iraqi president believes that the Americans’ defeat in Vietnam proves that they do not have the stamina to endure a lengthy conflict. Powell, the U.S. commander, said that the Iraqis are probably questioning whether Washington has the political will “to keep this up for an extended period of time.”

Among the American troops moving north last week to take up positions close to the

_ borders with Kuwait and

Iraq, there was clearly no eagerness for a quick confrontation. When war broke out, the most common reaction among soldiers who had endured desert conditions for as long as five months was palpable relief—a feeling that they could now do their job and go home. By late last week, however, that sentiment had been replaced by a more sober assessment of the task ahead. Many soldiers abandoned camps that had been home since last fall, and drove north along clogged roads in convoys that at times stretched for 15 km. The most forward-placed allied troops moved so close to Iraqi positions that they could see the sun glinting off the wind-

shields of the enemy’s military vehicles.

But between the two positions is a formidable series of sand barriers, trenches and minefields, which the allied troops call the “Saddam line.”

Coalition ground forces, acutely aware that attacking the line would result in high casualties, are cheering on the pilots who are pounding the Iraqis on the other side. Dropping the customary interservice rivalry, frontline soldiers joke about starting an “adopt-apilot” program to encourage the flyers to crush the Iraqi defenders.

The vast emptiness of the largely flat, featureless desert also adds to a sense of vulnerability. Last week, among a U.S. marine force with the threatening code name Task Force Ripper, usually macho soldiers freely acknowledged that they were content to stay on the sidelines of the air war for weeks, if necessary. “When we go north,” said 30-year-old marine Lieut.

David Kirby, “I hope the air force has worked him over so well I can just push their soldiers over with my hands.”

Fire: Still, critics of the coalition strategy argue that air power alone cannot dislodge troops as deeply dug in as the Iraqis in southern Kuwait are believed to be. Even the ground-shaking oneton bombs delivered by the U.S. B-52s may not destroy deep, concrete-reinforced bunkers unless they score direct hits. At the same time, the Iraqis’ greatest strength and widest experience from their conflict with Iran is in static, defensive warfare, and they enjoy a large advantage over their Western and Arab opponents in artillery pieces and other weapons best suited to a defensive stance. As a result, coalition planners maintain that any Iraqi at-

tempt to launch a surprise ground attack against their forward-based troops will only backfire. As soon as Iraqi tanks and soldiers leave their defensive positions, they argue, they will be exposed to devastating allied fire.

At the headquarters of the U.S. army’s VII Corps near the Iraqi border, strategists outlined expectations for the approaching ground war. Lt.-Col. Terry Branham, 43, said that much of the American battle plan “is written on the premise that Saddam Hussein will have to

move to come to us. He is most vulnerable when he is on the move.” Branham commands a squadron of Apache helicopters, known as tank killers. The helicopters, equipped with sophisticated nightsights and radar systems, can hit targets five miles away with laser-guided missiles. The Apaches are expected to make the first assaults on Iraq’s powerful force of Soviet T-72 tanks.

Bullyboy: Keeping allied casualties down will be more difficult if U.S. commanders decide that they cannot lure Iraqi forces out of their positions. If they then order an offensive, field commanders will rely on tactics derived from what Lt.-Col. William Reese, 40-year-old commander of a squadron of Cobra attack helicopters in the U.S. army’s 1st Cavalry Regiment, called “the old bullyboy concept—a whole battalion against a platoon. You destroy him piecemeal.” Still, Reese is among many frontline commanders who say that they are 0 painfully aware that no matter how o great an advantage they enjoy over the Iraqis, any ground campaign, in f open desert conditions and involving such a high concentration of troops and armor, is bound to be bloody. “While I think the bombing campaign is really going to hurt them,” he said, “I have told my guys very clearly: ‘Don’t think this is going to be a cakewalk where we walk into the country and they’re going to throw their hands up and surrender because we’ve bombarded them back to the Stone Age.’” That was a sharp reminder of a harsh reality: despite all the allied aerial successes last week, the battle for Kuwait has only just begun.

ANDREW PHILLIPS