Allies puzzled by planes' going to Iran but pleased they are removed from war WAR IN THE GULF

February 12, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Fly 147 fighter aircraft and transport planes, mostly in groups of three or four, to a neighboring country. Scatter them among a large number of airfields. Move some of the planes after they arrive.

The result?

No one in the U.S.-led coalition publicly admits to being sure, three weeks after a substantial part of Iraq's air force began flying to air bases in Iran. The aircraft, which include some of Iraq's most advanced, remain part of a puzzle of motivations and intentions on the part of Iran and Iraq.

The planes' fleeing across the border solved some problems for both sides in the conflict over Kuwait, while presenting others. By fleeing, the aircraft escaped allied bombing raids targeting airstrips and hardened shelters. But the planes, as long as they stay on the ground, make themselves of no use to Iraq.

They do give Iran greater importance in the war, in which Iran has declared itself neutral. And deservedly or not, the flight has added to the mystique of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a leader adept at surprise.

The exodus presumably forced U.S. commanders to allocate more resources to monitoring the skies above Iran, although officers decline to disclose details about surveillance efforts. Iran's greater importance in turn made the lack of diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran a more noticeable gap.

U.S. commanders express increasing confidence that the planes in Iran will not unexpectedly take to the air, citing intelligence reports as well as some of the facts of life about modern warplanes. They say their intelligence is still being refined, but they point to the Iraqi military's having ordered the planes into Iran. They expect them to stay put for the rest of the war.

"I would say the threat is minimal," said one officer. "We think it's a policy to preserve his fleet for whatever kind of regime survives the war."

There is little evidence that the planes are receiving maintenance or that crews necessary for loading weapons followed the planes into Iran, the officer said. A squadron of 25 to 30 advanced aircraft is said to require a support staff of at least 100 people.

Even were there no technical barriers to the planes' taking off, political barriers imposed by Iran might keep them on the ground. Western analysts maintain that Iran would have everything to lose by becoming directly involved in the conflict, by making itself liable to attack. Iran has said repeatedly that it will not allow the planes to rejoin the war.

Military experts concluded that many of the planes were flown by young or inexperienced pilots, citing the fact that at least six aircraft crashed during the trip while others failed to take basic evasive actions when pursued by allied planes.

More ominously, an officer said, analysts concluded that Iraq was keeping its best pilots and retaining several hundred aircraft, some described as "junk" but others considered some of the country's best. "He's keeping his best pilots maybe for the surge once the ground war begins," he said.

Of the 147 Iraqi aircraft reported to be in Iran, the officer said 121 were fighters or fighter-bombers and the rest transport planes, including some civilian aircraft. Some of the fighters are French-built Mirage-1s and advanced Soviet-made MiGs, but military spokesmen have not provided a further breakdown.

According to the United States, Iraqi pilots have flown to airfields scattered throughout Iran. Most of their planes remain in view, but some have been taken to hangars.

In some cases, Iraqi planes have taken off inside Iran and gone to other airfields.

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