LONDON -- Senior British defense sources believe that an air war in the Persian Gulf could be won by the allies in "several days" and that the follow-on ground campaign would also last days rather than weeks or months.
"You have to make it as clinical and efficient as possible," said one highly informed source. "Were it to be a long, protracted thing, this would present all sorts of problems in the political arena, and we would try to avoid that.
"This is not saying it is going to be an easy thing to manage. We would try to make it as short as possible."
The British have made their own analysis of the likely number of daily casualties inflicted by intensive fighting but have refused to disclose the figure.
The air war would be the key, according to the British, who have committed 16,000 troops, 120 battle tanks, 40 front-line aircraft and 12 warships to the confrontation. The military deployment has cost Britain $585 million so far, and the tab is increasing by almost $4 million a day.
The Iraqis have 800 combat planes dispersed on 40 airfields in Iraq and Kuwait. The allies have 1,110. According to the British, a large number of the Iraqi planes are less modern and sophisticated than the allied aircraft. They do not have U.S.-style electronic warfare systems and electronic countermeasures.
The Iraqis also have an inflexible command structure. But in their favor, they have a large number of anti-aircraft guns and missile systems. Their air force is well dispersed and in hardened shelters.
"We think the air battle will be the key to any conflict, and the balance of advantage should very much be on the allied side," said one senior source who briefed U.S. correspondents in London yesterday.
"The air war is critical, and we would see that [go] on for several days. We would try to see the land campaign also was in the region of several days rather than months or weeks."
The air strikes would have to be carried to air bases in Iraqi territory. How many other targets inside Iraq would be hit would be a political decision, he said.
"I think the hostages would weigh very heavily on our minds," he said. "In planning targets and what targets could be hit and how much could they be hit, we would very much try to identify exactly where the hostages were."
With the Iraqi air force eliminated, it "would appear on the face of it to be a simple matter" to attack the massed armor to reduce its numerical superiority before a direct land assault was launched. In mid-October Iraq had 3,600 tanks, compared with the allies' 1,600.
The British experts noted that the Iraqis fought most of their eight-year-long war with Iran with the advantage of air superiority.
The British stress that time now is helping the Iraqi defense preparations. The Iraqis initially moved into Kuwait in armored attack formation. They then moved the infantry in to secure the ground and take up front-line positions facing Saudi Arabia.
Their next move was to withdraw their armor into counterattack positions, with the elite Republican Guard moved farthest back, also in rapid counterattack posture. They then began constructing an obstacle belt with minefields, anti-tank ditches, earthen mounds and wire fences along the Kuwaiti-Saudi border.
"They are producing more obstacles and some cunning obstacles. They will go on and on," the source said.