WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon will dispatch three more aircraft carriers, another battleship, three heavy tank divisions from Europe and the United States and a massive array of other combat forces for a possible war in the Persian Gulf, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said yesterday.
The Army additions alone will amount to more than 100,000 men.
The primary reinforcement of U.S. ground forces is to come from Germany. Mr. Cheney's order would reduce by half the U.S. Army combat units in Europe.
The military buildup, which Mr. Cheney said would continue indefinitely, should bring U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region to roughly 350,000 troops by early next year.
By some military estimates, the number of soldiers, sailors and air personnel could exceed 400,000, depending on the number of support units sent to the gulf. That would nearly rival the size of U.S. forces at their largest extent during the Vietnam War, which grew to 543,000 in 1969.
Current U.S. strength in the Persian Gulf now exceeds 230,000 personnel, along with more than 750 M-1 and advanced M-1A1 main battle tanks in the Saudi desert, military officials said. U.S. allies in Europe and the Arab world have sent about 200,000 troops.
Mr. Cheney said the tanks being dispatched with the new units could number in the hundreds.
"The additional military capability that's now being added clearly will give us the ability to conduct offensive military operations, should that be required in the months ahead," Mr. Cheney told reporters at the Pentagon.
Although the massive U.S. force gathered in the region since the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait already is judged capable of both defending Saudi Arabia and counterattacking Iraqi forces, U.S. military officials asserted that an even more powerful U.S. attacking force could reduce the risk of a prolonged conflict with Iraq, with fewer casualties on both sides.
The well-fortified Iraqi army now has about 430,000 troops and 3,500 tanks in Kuwait and southern Iraq. The Pentagon estimates that Iraq also has 2,200 armored fighting vehicles and an equal number of artillery pieces in the area.
Mr. Cheney also announced that the first Army combat reserve units would be called to active duty, sent to California for desert warfare training and then checked to see whether they were ready for action in the Persian Gulf.
Should these units head overseas, the Bush administration will have taken a significant step to broaden national participation in a possible war. "It sends a strong political message that you're in this for keeps," retired Marine Gen. George B. Crist, former commander of U.S. forces in the region, said recently.
But Mr. Cheney suggested that the combat reservists may still be ill-prepared for battlefield action after the extra training, so he might simply station them at U.S. bases vacated by active-duty units sent to the gulf.
"We have limited logistical [airlift and sealift] capability. I'm not eager to send units that aren't fully ready," he said.
Mr. Cheney acknowledged that shipping out soldiers and tons of weaponry and equipment would take weeks for the armed services to accomplish, saying the deployment would not be completed until after Jan. 1.
The planned naval buildup will give the United States six aircraft carriers in the region -- each equipped with fighters, attack bombers and surveillance jets -- as well as dozens of escort ships.
The battleship Missouri will be sent to the region, where the USS Wisconsin has been patrolling the gulf. Both ships are equipped with powerful 16-inch guns and long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The current carrier fleet assigned to the region includes the USS Saratoga, now in the Red Sea; the USS Midway in the Persian Gulf; and the USS John F. Kennedy in the Mediterranean. The carrier Independence recently left the northern Arabian Sea and headed south into the Indian Ocean.
Mr. Cheney raised the likelihood that more Air Force units also would be deployed, but he said that decision was still pending.