EASTERN PROVINCE, Saudi Arabia -- The first U.S. troops committed to any ground assault on Iraq or its forces in Kuwait are likely to be members of the elite Special Operations Command now training other units of the multinational force in the Persian Gulf, a high-ranking U.S. military official said yesterday.
Army Col. Jesse Johnson, commanding officer of Special Operations Command-Central, said in an interview at his underground command post at a heavily guarded air base that Special Operations troops would accompany the first wave of Arab units -- expected to lead the ground assault -- to coordinate their movements on radio links to U.S. and other forces.
"We would have American forces, or an American element, with compatible radios talk to a counterpart with another force from another country to coordinate the coalition warfare," said Colonel Johnson.
He said it was particularly important to have "American voices on the ground with radios that are compatible with other American forces and units and conventional units" to ensure coordination among the multinational forces.
Colonel Johnson, 51, a 33-year Army veteran and former enlisted man, reports directly to Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the top U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf. His unit functions independently of the other four services, although it draws its highly trained, elite members from three of those components: Air Force, Army and Navy.
Colonel Johnson would not say which specific Special Operations units were under his command. But he has Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces and Air Force pilots trained to fly helicopters and C-130 transport planes for those operations.
The command post is a concrete-reinforced underground complex ringed with guard posts and concertina wire and bristling with radio antennas. In the hallways throughout the complex are canaries in cages. Like the canaries miners once carried into the shafts to detect methane gas, these live early-warning devices would provide the first hint of any chemical attack by Iraq.
Colonel Johnson denied previously published reports that any offensive move to liberate Kuwait or attack Iraq would involve insertion of Special Operations forces behind enemy lines to disrupt communications and cut supply lines.
"You don't have a lot of stay-behinds out in the middle of the desert because there's nowhere to hide, so there's a lot more mobility needed," he said.
"As far as a scenario of putting teams behind [enemy lines], inserted deep, that has not surfaced, and I have not made any plans for that."
Although Special Operations forces are generally thought of as specialists in so-called low-intensity conflicts and counterterrorism, Colonel Johnson said they were playing a key role in the current defensive posture adopted by the multinational force in the gulf crisis.
"There are many more other activities that Special Operations forces can be effective doing rather than the old myth of operating behind enemy lines," he said.
While his troops are learning more about desert navigation and are becoming more proficient in Arabic, they are teaching troops of the multinational force such things as the use of close air support, fire support and coordination, and other tactics to which they normally would not be exposed.
The Special Operations forces also regularly patrol the Saudi borders with Iraq and Kuwait and run reconnaissance missions. But they are under orders not to cross.
According to Colonel Johnson, there is a 10-foot-high sand barrier on the Saudi side of the border stretching almost from Khafji on the Persian Gulf to the Jordanian border.
"It's like a mini-Great Wall of China," he said.
"The worst thing that ever happened to Special Operations forces was Rambo," Colonel Johnson said. "We are not Rambos. We are quiet professionals."