WASHINGTON -- The Iraqi military machine and its economic underpinnings have already been so devastated that it would take as long as a generation to rebuild, according to a senior Pentagon official.
Predicting that ground war would now come "fairly soon" in the Persian Gulf, this official said that the air campaign was "a week or so behind where we would like to be" at this stage of the conflict.
This lag was attributed to bad weather early in the campaign and to diversion of aircraft from planned missions to seek out missile launchers hurling Scuds into Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The implication was that aerial pounding of Iraqi tank, artillery and other units would go on for another week to 10 days, but that ground action would come "in the relatively near term."
Because of the highly successful first phase of the war -- the air strikes and the naval blockade -- the official said the U.S. and allied forces were daily growing stronger in relation to their foe so that being behind schedule had little significance.
"It will be many, many years before Iraq has the wherewithal to reconstitute itself into a regional threat" in the Middle East, the senior official said.
Iraq began the war, the official said, with the world's sixth-largest air force, and now "it could be a generation before it has an air force again." At the beginning of the war, Iraq had more than 800 aircraft.
Aircraft have been shot down or destroyed on airfields and have fled to Iran. Airfields have been bombed, and "well over 200" of Iraq's 600 concrete shelters for aircraft have been damaged or destroyed -- an unexpected and amazing achievement of laser-guided bombs that, some other sources contended, helped explain the exodus to Iran.
The air campaign switched more gradually than originally planned from strategic targets -- nuclear works, production facilities, communications and the like -- to Iraqi ground forces. The full fury of the air effort, as some sources put it, is just beginning as a range of high-tech weapons joins the previous B-52 bombing from 30,000-foot altitudes.
The B-52 strikes, the senior official said, have been a matter of "loading iron [500-pound bombs] and kicking it out the back of the truck" in bombing runs. Now, he said, the precision-guided weapons that got such spectacular (and televised) results against strategic targets are being used to track down and destroy the foe "tank by tank."
This should work a change in enemy psychology, he opined. Troops who thought they could dig in and protect themselves against area bombing now faced the prospect of seeing their tanks and other vehicles destroyed one by one. Over time, he said, "we'll surely destroy every vehicle" if necessary.
At the start, the Air Force estimated that the allied air campaign could destroy half the Iraqi ground forces' equipment in about three weeks. The official said that, so far, "less than 1,000 of 4,200 tanks" have been destroyed. But, in the delayed campaign, he said, "We've just started."
The 50 percent destruction projection was set forth as a good indicator of when the foe's combat divisions might be sufficiently weakened for the ground attacks to begin.
The air plan, or hope, was "not quite on schedule" but was still considered to be attainable, the official said. He said the result could be to help keep U.S. and allied casualties low when ground combat begins.
There could be probing against enemy ground forces at the start rather than, necessarily, a full onslaught by more than 400,000 allied troops, he said. However the ground war begins, he said, a key objective would be to flush out entrenched Iraqi forces so that they would be exposed to air power, which could roam freely over the battlefield unopposed by Iraqi planes.
This sort of beginning ground campaign appears to be what Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has been hinting at during his trip to Saudi Arabia.