Troops' movement presages Iraq war

Transfers of troops, equipment will signal conflict is imminent

October 21, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In what might be preliminary steps toward another war with Iraq, Army military planners are moving from Germany to the Persian Gulf, the Navy is speeding up deployment of carriers to the region and the Marines are conducting exercises in the remote expanses of the Kuwaiti desert.

But the clearest signs that hostilities are imminent will first be apparent at the remote Air Force bases in the American Midwest and Southwest, where the country's radar-evading stealth aircraft are kept, as well as at a sleepy Army town in southern Kentucky, home to elite helicopter-borne troops.

Those planes and soldiers will be among the first lethal elements the Bush administration would use to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and they would move out of their state-side bases in the last weeks before an invasion, said Pentagon officials and military analysts.

Another unmistakable sign of impending war will be the call-up of National Guard and Reserve forces by President Bush, probably at least a month before he authorizes a strike. Tens of thousands of citizen soldiers will be needed, from pilots and engineers to air traffic controllers and military policemen, the officers and analysts estimated.

"We can't go to war without the Guard and Reserves," said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Mechanized Division that spearheaded the famed "Left Hook" attack against Iraqi forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Much necessary equipment - such as refueling tankers and cargo planes - is in Reserve units. "To run a major operation with Iraq, the first thing the president will need is 100,000 troops" from the Guard and Reserve, McCaffrey said.

Should war be close, the bat-winged, radar-evading B-2 Spirit bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base in rural west-central Missouri will roar into the skies and head to forward bases overseas. These planes, when armed, carry scores of precision weapons that can strike Hussein's bunker-like military facilities and headquarters.

Meanwhile, a wave of F-117A Nighthawk warplanes will leave Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico's desert and likely stream toward airfields in Kuwait, each stealthy aircraft able to carry a pair of 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs.

Retired Gen. Merrill "Tony" McPeak, who was Air Force chief of staff during the Persian Gulf war, said the movement of stealth aircraft to the region will be a clear signal that action is not far off.

Those sophisticated warplanes "rule the night," said retired Rear Adm. Steve Baker, noting that the F-117 was the only allied plane in 1991 to attack heavily defended Baghdad. Hussein's formidable ground-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns never touched them.

Only 36 of these planes were deployed in 1991, accounting for 2.5 percent of the total force of 1,900 allied aircraft in the gulf war. But the Nighthawks flew more than a third of the bombing runs on the first day of the war, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank.

As war approaches, another radar-evading plane, the B-1B Lancer, will move to the region from bases in Texas and South Dakota.

The Lancer made its combat debut in Iraq, in the 1998 Desert Fox attacks that targeted the barracks of Hussein's elite Republican Guard, along with airfields and command and control facilities.

Officers note that the Lancer is a versatile aircraft in that it can carry a variety of bombs - ordnance designed to destroy everything from tanks to underground bunkers.

The B-2 was first used in the air war against Serbia in 1999. Its all-weather precision capability was responsible for destroying 33 percent of all designated Serbian targets in the first eight weeks of action, according to the Air Force.

Meanwhile, at Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st Air Assault Division, leaves will be canceled, the elite airborne troops will be called back to base and put on a "short string."

The fabled division, known as the "Screaming Eagles," is equipped with attack helicopters and is required to have a brigade of 4,000 troops ready to deploy within 36 hours.

In 1991, Apache helicopters from the division swept into Iraq on the first night of the war and "plucked out the eyes" of Iraqi air defenses with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, as Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of allied forces in the gulf war, later recalled.

Even before the Apaches fired, the F-117 warplanes had penetrated Iraqi airspace and were streaming toward targets in Baghdad.

Though the 101st is expected to deploy first, other units are likely to follow quickly, among them the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., and the 1st Calvary Division from Fort Hood, Texas.

The 101st is sending a brigade to an Army base in Louisiana this month for regularly scheduled training in helicopter attacks and urban fighting.

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