Attack by air followed approach experts forecast WAR IN THE GULF

January 17, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia and Paul West | Richard H. P. Sia and Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The massive air assault unleashed against Iraq and targets in Kuwait appears to have followed almost precisely the script that military experts had for months been expecting the U.S.-led coalition to follow.

Warplanes of four allied air forces -- the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- flew hundreds of sorties against military targets throughout Iraq and Kuwait, top U.S. officials said last night.

Military authorities refused to announce any casualties, although they said they were highly encouraged by initial accounts from the war zone.

The opening phase of Operation Desert Storm was aimed at destroying Iraq's offensive military capabilities. Targets included the communications system that allows Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to command his troops in the field, and nuclear and chemical weapons facilities. Also on the priority list were

Iraqi radar installations, anti-aircraft weapons and the 3,800 artillery pieces and 4,200 tanks stretched out along a defensive line in Kuwait and southern Iraq.

Three hours after U.S. fighters and bombers began attacking, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed reporters at the Pentagon. Mr. Cheney said that preliminary reports of the operation were "very positive," but the officials provided few details about the ongoing assault.

Mr. Cheney confirmed that Iraq's most potent offensive weapon, Soviet-made Scud missiles able to reach Israel and U.S. forces massed in Saudi Arabia, were among the principal targets. Mr. Cheney dismissed reports that Iraq had been able to fire a retaliatory missile strike, although General Powell said he could not say whether some of Iraq's missiles had survived the initial attack.

The officials said Iraqi jets offered little resistance to the oncoming warplanes.

"The initial reaction from the Iraqis is such that I'm generally of the opinion that we achieved a fairly high degree of tactical surprise," Mr. Cheney said. However, he said he was reluctant to describe the enemy response in detail until after U.S. commanders in the field had huddled with their returning pilots.

As military analysts have long expected, the first wave of U.S. planes included radar-evading F-117A Stealth fighters and ground-hugging sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, both of which are extremely difficult to detect, as well as F-111 long-range bombers, F-15E fighters and carrier-based A-6 attack aircraft. Officials were expected to give these and other operations' details at a more extensive Pentagon briefing this morning.

For some time, U.S. officials have been sketching a war plan that would open with a prolonged air campaign designed to neutralize Iraq's ability to defend its forces occupying Kuwait and to cripple its war machine, one of the most powerful in the Middle East. The almost 3-to-1 numerical advantage the allied air force maintained over Iraq's combat aircraft, as well as the

West's technological superiority, was a key reason for relying on air power at the outset.

"I think it sounds pretty much like we expected it," Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said last night.

Analysts have thought that the initial, strategic air campaign would last from as little as three days to as long as a week or more. It would be followed by a tactical air campaign targeting Iraqi ground forces in Kuwait and bordering portions of Iraq.

General Powell refused to say how long the massive aerial assault would last.

"The air part of the campaign will continue until the whole campaign is completed. It doesn't end," he said.

After the Iraqi forces are pummeled by air, military officials have said a ground campaign would begin. Employing the hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers and Marines and thousands of tanks and armed vehicles gathered in northern Saudi Arabia, the final phase would attempt to surround and penetrate Iraqi positions in Kuwait.

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