SAUDI ARABIA — Saudi Arabia. IN THE VAST emptiness of the Saudi desert, the Marines are training to fight on a very crowded battlefield.
As I watched, squads of Marines moved forward to practice the brute art of assaulting a bunker. It was dangerous training for what soon could be a fearsome campaign to liberate Kuwait, where Iraqi earthworks abound.
As his buddies provided covering rifle fire, one young Marine crawled up a desert embankment and flipped a grenade through the opening of a bunker built of sandbags. The grenade exploded with an impressive ''crump!'' barely four feet from the Marine, who had flattened himself on the sand for protection.
The drill illustrated perfectly what Michael Kelley envisions as the ''dangerously claustrophobic and minuscule confines of Battlefield Kuwait.''
Mr. Kelley, a former sergeant in Vietnam with the Army's 101st Airborne Division, which is now in Saudi Arabia, said in a recent interview, ''Few Americans have any clear understanding of the physical battlefield waiting for the armies of Iraq and the United Nations -- pronounced United States.''
Mr. Kelley is now a real-estate appraiser in California, ironically specializing in oil and gas properties. He looks at maps every day. He has looked at the map of Kuwait.
''If the principal battlefield was to somehow remain within the borders of little Kuwait, then to get some idea of how concentrated the fighting would be, consider that Kuwait encloses a paltry 7,780 square miles. The square root of 7,780 is about 88, so two of the largest armies on Earth would be facing off in a ring only about 88 by 88 miles square,'' he observed.
A single U.S. Army 155mm howitzer has a range of 18 miles. As such, it can cover almost one-sixth of the entire country. The Army's multiple-launch rocket system has a similar range, and when it fires its load of 12 rockets, they saturate a target area the size of six football fields with a ''steel rain'' of 8,000 bomblets in less than a minute.
Both sides have concentrated hundreds upon hundreds of such artillery pieces. ''Shrapnel will fill the air once the bombardment begins,'' said Mr. Kelley.
In the air war, a fighter-bomber zipping along at 500 m.p.h. could overfly the entire country in just 10 minutes. Mr. Kelley noted, ''That doesn't leave much time for decision-making, but it greatly increases the pilot's ability to linger in the target area while waiting for a target of opportunity.''
There will be a partial eclipse of the sun when 1,000 or more U.S. and allied planes crowd the skies over Kuwait. A Pentagon colonel said there will be so many planes overhead they will be stacked up waiting to take turns bombing and strafing Iraqi ground forces.
Compare the confines of this potential battlefield to our experience in Vietnam, said Mr. Kelley. In that conflict, about 2 1/2 million men were fighting in an area of about 60,000 heavily forested square miles.
''In Kuwait, we can expect about 1 million soldiers to be fighting in a 7,780-square-mile sand box, or about 128 soldiers fighting for every square mile,'' Mr. Kelley estimated.
In comparison, he noted: ''The Vietnam war peaked at about 42 soldiers per square mile; 42 people who spent most of their time hiding in some very thick jungle! The Kuwait killing field has no jungle to hide in.''
For this reason, he said: ''The infantryman's rifle will become much more effective in the open environment of the desert than it ever was in the close-in jungle warfare of Vietnam. Engagements in Vietnam were typically initiated within 30 yards of the opposing force. On Battlefield Kuwait, rifle and machine-gun fire will be effective at 500 yards or more.''
To Mr. Kelley, these stark factors ''suggest that we should prepare for horrendous casualty rates from artillery and long-distance rifle fire. It is altogether possible that the number of casualties could match in days what Vietnam took years to produce!''
These casualties would occur in the biggest armored battle in history. More than 10,000 tanks and armored personnel carriers would be shooting at each other, and anything else that moves, with guns ranging from 12mm to 125mm. Mr. Kelley sees Kuwait headed for one hellacious traffic jam.