Ground war would bring dangers WAR IN THE GULF

February 21, 1991|By Mike Klingaman and William Klingaman | Mike Klingaman and William Klingaman,Special to The Baltimore Sun

More than half a million American soldiers in the Persian Gulf are awaiting the start of the biggest test of their lives, one for which these men and women have been preparing for the past six months.

They may soon launch a ground war against Iraqi forces, fighting face to face against an enemy that so far they have seen only from the sky. Instead of dropping bombs or firing missiles from long distance, American soldiers will be forced to kill or be killed at close range.

Both sides will almost certainly suffer many deaths, far more than the losses so far in Operation Desert Storm.

Night after night for more than a month, the evening news has reported heavy bombing of enemy targets in Kuwait and Iraq. There are signs, however, that the war will soon be entering a new and more dangerous phase.

In recent weeks, allied planes have stepped up their bombing of Iraqi troops who have been stationed in the desert since last summer. Every day, thousands of bombs -- many the size of Toyotas -- have landed on enemy camps.

American generals hope these attacks will destroy the enemy's defenses and spirit, and tire them before any ground war begins. That way, U.S.-led troops will face less danger when they finally attack on the ground.

"I hope the Air Force has worked them over so well that I can just push their soldiers over with my hands," said one Marine lieutenant.

So far, American commanders -- who would like to knock out half of Iraq's defenses before starting to fight on the ground -- believe that they have destroyed about one-third of the enemy's tanks and big guns.

Weather conditions in the desert will also play an important role in the timing of any ground assault. By mid-March, troops will have to fight their way through the blinding sandstorms that strike the area each spring. Whipped by 50-mile-an-hour winds, the fine sand can clog guns, fuel lines, and high-tech electronic equipment in seconds.

Sudden thunderstorms in the spring can soften the sand and make it extremely difficult for 63-ton American tanks to move through the desert.

By April, temperatures on the battlefield will reach 100 degrees.

Just as the air war began at night, the land war may also start after dark. American troops are equipped with night-vision goggles that change darkness into a soft green light. U.S. attack helicopters -- which can reach speeds of more than 200 mph -- and battle tanks also have computerized systems that allow them to see and strike the enemy up to 5 miles away in the dark.

With soldiers from the U.S., Britain, France and Arab countries, there are 700,000 allied troops and 3,400 tanks in Saudi Arabia, waiting for the signal to attack. Facing them across the border in Kuwait are 540,000 Iraqi soldiers in concrete bunkers, protected by nearly 3,000 Soviet-built tanks and one of the world's deadliest obstacle courses: land mines, hidden in the sand, which will explode when touched; then row after row of razor-sharp barbed wire; and 12-foot deep oil-filled trenches that can be set on fire.

Iraq also brags about its chemical weapons, including poison gases, but the Americans believe the strong desert winds and their special gas masks, suits and boots will reduce the effectiveness of these weapons.

Because the Iraqis along the border are dug in so solidly, American troops will likely go around them in an attempt to split them into smaller groups and cut them off from their food and weapons. To achieve this trap, as many as 18,000 Marines may splash up on beaches in Kuwait and Iraq, and thousands more allied soldiers might parachute behind the enemy.

Such a plan is designed to avoid a lengthy war. The allies hope to surround the Iraqis and draw them out of their bunkers and into the open, where they could be killed by missiles and rockets fired by low-flying aircraft like the Apache and Cobra helicopters.

There simply is no strategy that will win the ground war without great loss of life. As in any desert war, victory is not simply a matter of capturing enemy territory. The other army must be made to surrender.

And no one expects that to be easy. Some experts predict that as many as 10,000 allied troops, and 35,000 Iraqi soldiers may lose their lives, especially if the war drags on for three months or more.

As one American helicopter pilot who has already seen action in the gulf put it, "Nobody who is going to go face-to-face with the pTC Iraqis -- cold steel to cold steel -- believes it will be a cake walk.

"Nobody here is saying that we'll be home by Easter."

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