WASHINGTON -- When the ground war begins in earnest in the Persian Gulf, military analysts say, U.S. and allied troops are likely to face an Iraqi artillery barrage substantially more powerful than their own big-gun deployments.
Allied forces will have to depend largely on superior aircraft and missile batteries to destroy or suppress the thousands of cannons and tanks, the experts say.
Pentagon officials said Tuesday that Iraq had about 3,100 artillery pieces, mostly howitzer cannons, and 4,200 tanks to support more than 545,000 troops -- roughly half the national army -- camped in the Kuwaiti theater of operation.
The sheer size and power of the Iraqi force makes it imperative for the allies to continue directing their air power at destroying the Iraqi logistics train -- the network of communications and supplies -- to isolate forward positions from rear-placed command posts, said Seth Carus, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.
"It must be done as soon as possible, but that doesn't mean one should expect a 10-day war," Mr. Carus said. "But if we're still fighting in June, I'd say we'd be in trouble."
He said the Iraqi leadership probably knew it could not win a protracted, bitter war against the allies, "but I think they seriously believe they can inflict sufficient damage and casualties to force us to give up the campaign."
Iraq's strength, he said, lay in its ability to dig in and defend well-fortified positions. Its reliance on artillery, however, could also become a liability, he said.
During Iraq's war with Iran, for instance, military experts calculated that Iraq used up ammunition seven times faster than equivalent NATO forces would have under similar battle conditions.
Mr. Carus said the Iraqis tended to fight episodically, moving in a flurry and then often resting months while replenishing inventories.
This time, Saddam Hussein stands against a more vigorous adversary. And, if the Pentagon's claims are true, Iraq's weapons production and maintenance facilities have been destroyed or seriously impaired by bombing.
"Everything they have is a wasting asset. Once they use it, it's gone," said retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, deputy director of the private Center for Defense Information.
Nonetheless, he said, the U.S.-led coalition must act swiftly to contain the formidable cost of the campaign. The center calculates that the war could last three months at a cost of $50 billion -- excluding the cost of replacing aircraft and other expensive systems lost in combat.
Mr. Carroll said his organization believed that the allies would try to avoid a direct attack on Iraqi positions in Kuwait, but would invade Iraq from the west and advance on Baghdad -- the country's nerve center -- at the same time separating the divisions in or near Kuwait from their primary command.
"This would be our best scenario -- going after the adversary's weakness and avoiding his strength," Mr. Carroll said.
He said the center estimates the probable cost to U.S. forces of 10,000
soldiers killed and 35,000 wounded -- "assuming that Iraqi resistance remains firm throughout."
A "best-case" scenario, he said, postulated that the mounting pressure of war could provoke a rebellion or coup against the Iraqi leadership. If Saddam Hussein were to be toppled from power, analysts believe the war would end more swiftly.
Michael Eisenstadt, an analyst with the Washington Institute, said he did not believe that the Iraqi air force's failure to engage the allied aircraft in major battle was entirely tactical.
JTC "I think it's probably true that he's holding back, conserving his forces for the main assault on Kuwait," he said. "But it's also true that the allied bombing campaign has seriously hampered his ability to get planes in the air."
Mr. Eisenstadt said he doubted whether the Iraqi air force would at any stage be able to take to the skies without being shot down.
The key to when the allies begin a land campaign depends on the extent of damage to the Iraqi emplacements, he said. "So far we've been hitting the sinews that keep their armed forces together, not the hardware -- the tanks and artillery. Once the sinews give way, then we're going to start crushing their bones -- the artillery -- and that's what is going to take time."
* More than 545,000 troops in the "Kuwaiti theater of operation."
* 2,800 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles.
* 3,100 artillery pieces.
UNITED STATES U.S. figures are not as detailed. The Pentagon reports that there are more than 474,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf region.
Source: U.S. Pentagon