Second gulf war would bring fiercer firepower from U.S.

Munitions, accuracy and protection against bioweapons upgraded

March 16, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - On the opening night of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the Army's Apache attack helicopters swept into Iraq while Patriot missile batteries readied to shoot down Saddam Hussein's Scuds over the skies of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Thousands of small, boxlike M8 nerve agent detectors accompanied U.S. forces as they surged north toward Kuwait.

A decade later, a more lethal tank-killing Apache helicopter is set to take on Hussein's forces while a more powerful and sophisticated Patriot missile will replace what critics say was, at best, an unreliable predecessor. Those M8 detectors, prone to numerous false alarms in the gulf war - they were set off by everything from diesel fuel to cologne - have been overtaken by their supposedly more discriminating cousin, the M22.

For centuries, wars have been the testing ground for the latest in the technology of death. In 1346, the longbow was used by the English at the Battle of Crecy to defeat the French. That bow was followed by the rifle, the tank and, a little more than a year ago in Afghanistan, an unmanned aircraft launching a Hellfire missile.

In a second Persian Gulf war, other military technologies could make their debut. The Air Force may use a 21,000-pound bomb known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, which wags are calling the "Mother Of All Bombs." Or it may employ the "e-bomb," which emits an electromagnetic pulse that fries enemy's circuits, disabling everything from telephones and radar to computers but not hurting people.

And that Hellfire missile, so deadly against the Taliban and al-Qaida forces, has been made even more accurate. Outfitted with a radar-guidance system, these missiles are carried by the latest version of the Apache helicopter, known as the Apache Longbow. Scores of Longbows, each armed with 16 of the improved Hellfires, are sitting in the Kuwaiti desert, awaiting their first foray into combat.

Topped with a domelike device called a fire control radar, one Longbow can scan a battlefield of 250 square kilometers and detect more than 1,000 targets. A large cockpit TV screen can display up to 256 of those targets, and the two-man crew can shoot Hellfire missiles at 16 of those targets in under a minute, officials said.

Army tests in the California desert showed that the Longbow was 400 percent more lethal than the gulf war-style Apache, in which pilots relied on their eyesight to pick out targets. And their Hellfire missiles were all laser-guided, meaning they had to be directed by the Apache crew all the way to the target.

The radar-guided missile in the Longbow is a "fire and forget" weapon, meaning crew members can be assured that the Hellfire will automatically home in on the target, and they can turn to the next threat.

The Apache Longbow "is the most powerful weapon in the free world," boasted Col. Michael Riley, program manager for the Longbow at Fort Rucker, Ala. "You have the ability to detect, identify and attack in speeds heretofore unknown."

The 101st Airborne Division, whose 17,000 soldiers are at Camp New Jersey in Kuwait, has 48 Longbows in its arsenal, more than any other Army division, Riley said. The division is set to play a key role in the likely war in Iraq, perhaps sweeping into the northern part of the country to take on Hussein's forces.

Old Patriot questioned

If the Apache was one of the stars of the gulf war, the Army's Patriot missile was perhaps the most disparaged weapon, and its success rate is strongly debated. But Army Lt. Col. Rob Jassey, a manager for the lower-tier air missile defense at Fort Bliss, Texas, said that is an old story, and he has high hopes for the latest incarnation, the Patriot PAC-3.

"It's completely different" from its predecessor, Jassey said. The radar is twice as powerful, the system can cover a wider area, and the missile can differentiate between a Scud's explosive warhead and the debris the missile throws off as it nears its target.

The new Patriot also is a "hit-to-kill" missile, slamming directly into the Scud. The gulf war version would explode like a shotgun shell near the Scud, scattering hundreds of pellets, some of which might, or might not, hit the target.

Patriot PAC-3 batteries are deployed in seven countries in the gulf region, from Israel and Jordan to Turkey and Qatar, prepared for defense against Hussein's ballistic missiles. When the Army held war games in Germany two months ago, its computerized maps showed Patriots in still another country: Iraq. Several Patriot batteries were shown on the map just outside of Baghdad, their reach represented by a glowing blue circle.

Designed in the 1970s to shoot down aircraft, the Patriot was later modified to deal with ballistic missiles as well, though it was never meant to defend large metropolitan areas, officials said. That, however, was their intended role in the first gulf war, when they were deployed in Saudi Arabia and Israel.

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