New tactic used on Iraqi tanks Technique could allow a delay in the ground war. PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

February 18, 1991|By New York Times

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- American planes are using a new night-fighting tactic to destroy as many as 200 top-line Iraqi battle tanks a day, senior U.S. military officials here and in Washington say.

Using a technique that combines laser-guided bombs and enhanced night-vision sensors in a new way, American fighter-bombers have in the last week increased as much as fourfold the number of Iraqi T-62 and T-72 tanks destroyed or disabled each day, a senior officer said.

By improvising a more effective method of targeting and blasting Iraq's best tanks, the American-led coalition has vastly improved its ability to dismantle one of Baghdad's last potent battlefield threats, the military officials said.

The new tactic has an important bearing on any decision to commit allied forces to a ground war. Some air-power advocates in the military argue that as long as the tactic continues to work, there is little compelling reason to rush into a costly land war.

The more efficient bombing campaign would speed the effort to reduce Iraq's armored forces by 50 to 60 percent, a level that many military leaders view as an important threshold to make ground combat less costly.

"There's no question we'll be at that rate by March 1 unless the weather turns really bad," a ranking commander in the coalition forces said here.

The new tactic has been directed at Iraq's Republican Guard, and particularly at the four armored and mechanized divisions that make up the backbone of its strength.

The Pentagon has said that about 1,400 of Iraq's 4,200 tanks have been destroyed. About one-third of those have reportedly been the top-line, Soviet-made T-72 and T-62s and T-72s.

The Iraqis are believed to have about 1,000 T-72s and 1,500 T-62s, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, but some American military officials said those numbers may be high.

Some intelligence analysts in Washington have disagreed with the U.S. Central Command's estimates of weapons destroyed. Estimates by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency are said to be much more conservative than the numbers military officials in Washington and Riyadh have announced.

American officers described the new targeting technique in general terms, saying that a detailed description would help President Saddam Hussein's forces devise an effective counterstrategy.

Nor would they discuss the specific aircraft flown on the nightly raids.

Officials believe that most of the tanks destroyed since the new strategy was put into place are the top-line Iraqi tanks.

However, the targeting tactic is vulnerable to cloud cover, as is the entire allied air campaign. On clear nights, more than 200 tanks have been destroyed or damaged, while on overcast nights that figure drops to 100 or less, a senior officer said.

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