WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon, building its forces for possible offensive action after Jan. 15, is sending an additional 300 warplanes to the Persian Gulf in a move that will increase the U.S. Air Force fleet in the region by fully a third, defense sources said yesterday.
The aerial reinforcement underscores the U.S. intention to make massive use of air power early in any conflict with Iraq in hopes of avoiding a bloody ground war.
The latest deployment will boost the number of Air Force planes in the gulf from 900 to 1,200, with some of the additional planes to be stationed at a new Saudi base outside the capital, Riyadh.
Additionally, the Marines and Navy have an estimated 700 combat aircraft in the theater or en route. The new contingent will increase the total number of U.S. planes in the gulf from 1,600 to 1,900.
Included will be a second squadron of F-117 Stealth fighters and additional F-15E ground-attack jets, F-16 fighters, A-10 tank-killers, refueling tankers and RF-4C photo-reconnaissance planes, the sources said.
In all, 27 more Air Force units of about 10,000 additional personnel will be dispatched to the region starting as early as this week. A number will be redeployed from Europe, and others will come from U.S.-based Air National Guard and reserve
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney indicated three weeks ago that additional warplanes would be sent to the region when he announced that the United States was beefing up its force there by 200,000 troops. But the extent of the new Air Force deployments has not been revealed previously.
Officials said that the substantial new numbers of aircraft would give the U.S. force in Saudi Arabia greater offensive power, as well as an ability to sustain prolonged combat operations.
In addition, sources say, U.S. military officials are negotiating with governments in the Middle East to establish a base for B-52 heavy bombers so that they will be closer to the front if war breaks out. The closest B-52s are now based nearly 3,000 miles from Kuwait on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
Countries with bases that could host the long-range bombers include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Oman, Egypt and Sudan.
Pentagon sources said that any U.S. ground attack would be preceded by days -- perhaps weeks -- of intense, round-the-clock aerial bombardment designed to destroy Iraqi air defenses, pulverize ground fortifications and terrorize and demoralize Iraqi troops.
The first targets would be Iraqi anti-aircraft missile batteries and their command-and-control centers, including the central air defense headquarters in Baghdad, sources said. The radar-evading Stealth fighters and the powerful F-15E attack jets equipped with air-to-ground guided missiles would be heavily employed in this first phase, Pentagon strategists indicated.
Meanwhile, military commanders in Saudi Arabia are stepping up their training to emphasize offensive operations on the ground and in the air, including large-scale tank maneuvers and simulated attacks on fortified positions such as those established by Iraqi forces in Kuwait.
"We're all sort of expanding our horizons, if only to give the new forces room to maneuver," said Lt. Gen. Walter G. Boomer, commander of the Marine force.