By Steven Komarow, USA TODAY
DESERT TRAINING AREA, Kuwait
The firing of howitzers again and again shocks the sunset calm. About 30
miles across the empty desert, veteran Iraqi border guards might recognize
the distant booms as a warning.
The U.S. Army is getting ready
for another visit. "We're literally ready to roll on a moment's notice,"
says Col. David Perkins, who commands the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd
Perkins has more than 3,000
troops, as well as those howitzers, limbering up. They live in two dusty
camps in the northwest corner of Kuwait near the Iraqi border. Camp New
York and Camp Virginia are named for two states attacked by the aircraft
hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001.
The Army commander is quick to
point out that his force is on a long-scheduled exercise. The Army has
carried on such exercises in Kuwait for years. But he also notes that the
brigade's readiness is at its peak, should the mission change to war. The
mobile howitzers are brand new, equipped with satellite positioning and
computer enhancements. The troops have up-to-date protective suits and
masks they can don if Iraq should use chemical weapons. And the brigade
came to Kuwait straight from desert training in California.
"We'll continue to put more and
more pieces together," striving for perfect coordination among tanks,
artillery, infantry and other units, Perkins says.
You can't see war against Iraq
coming from a single brigade. But you can if you look around the Persian
Gulf region. All branches of the U.S. military are in place.
Air Force and Navy jets overhead
hardly go a day without striking back, or just striking, Iraqi radar or
missiles. U.S. Marines wait on ships east of Iraq and rehearse maneuvers
on a Kuwaiti island. And in northern Iraq, U.S. commandos quietly train
with potential allies.
The U.S. military has kept a
thumb on Iraq for nearly a dozen years, since the Gulf War of 1991. But
never before has the prospect of a new war been so close. In crucial ways,
the battle force already is well down the assembly line, waiting for
President Bush to order all units into action.
This buildup has happened far
faster than the buildup to the 1991 war. That's because Iraq is no longer
a mysterious place, at least not to the U.S. military.
A quick launch
Every year since 1991, more
steps have been taken to make sure that if there were ever a Desert Storm
II, it could be launched quickly and effectively. Now those plans are
close to becoming reality:
While enforcement of no-fly zones — off-limits to
Iraqi aircraft — dates from the Gulf War, Air Force and Navy strikes on
Iraqi installations have increased in the past few months. Commanders say
troops are exercising skills daily that would be used in a war, and
they've got the bombs and rockets they need. The zones were set up to
protect Kurds and Shiite Muslims, members of Iraqi opposition groups,
from attack. U.S. and British jets patrol the zones.
"We could turn (the USS) Abraham
Lincoln into the wind and commence sustained combat operations on a
moment's notice," says Rear Adm. John Kelly, commander of the battle group
led by the Lincoln, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The battle group
includes eight other ships, some with Tomahawk missiles. "We are fully
prepared to take what ever action the president should direct."
Three other carrier battle
groups are ready to steam to the Gulf from east and west and quickly join
the Lincoln, if needed.
Vast stores of everything from tanks to tuna fish
are already in the Gulf region or en route on huge cargo ships, ready for
arriving forces. Logistics managers have been in the Gulf for weeks to
ensure swift distribution to the troops. Mechanics are on ships
un-mothballing equipment so it's ready to roll.
Hundreds of Pentagon planners have relocated to
Kuwait and other Gulf countries to refine war plans and even assess
equipment needs for a postwar occupation.
A new, computerized command center is near
completion at an air base in Qatar, a small, friendly emirate southeast
of Kuwait. In the next few days, Gen. Tommy Franks, the top U.S.
commander for the region, will test the center with a computer-simulated
war exercise called "Internal Look." The details of the exercise are
classified, but it could serve as a dress rehearsal.
The Air Force has completed a special hangar for
maintaining B-2 stealth bombers at the Indian Ocean island of Diego
Garcia, southeast of the Arabian Peninsula. No longer will they need to
fly around the world from Missouri to make their radar-dodging missions.
If called to action, the 2nd Brigade in Kuwait would be joined by the
rest of the 3rd division, roughly 15,000 more troops. Division leaders
are visiting Kuwait to make final preparations.
Though precise war plans are
secret and flexible, most experts envision at least four additional
divisions — perhaps 100,000 ground troops in all — from the Army and
Marines invading Iraq from Kuwait.
That almost all of those troops
are still at bases in the USA and Europe means far less than it did
before. Because of improvements made in the past 12 years, they could be
ready to fight in a matter of weeks. It's a far cry from the six months of
logistics struggle that preceded Desert Storm.
There's no need for a "cold
start" this time, says Air Force Gen. John Handy, head of the U.S.
Transportation Command. In October, he told Congress that 60 to 90 days
was a good guess for putting an invasion force and all its supplies in
Possible invasion plans
The Pentagon isn't saying how
far it has moved down that timeline. Much depends on how big a force takes
part. A ground invasion by Army and Marine mechanized divisions could be
just one element. Any invasion would likely be preceded and then backed by
an extensive aerial bombardment by cruise missiles and jets from the Air
Force, Navy and Marines.
Commando units also might play a
role, perhaps working with Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq in the way
that the U.S. military worked with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.
Eventually, 250,000 troops could
be involved on the ground, at sea and in the air, according to many
As important as the planning and
pre-positioning of equipment, commanders say, is the confidence of the
troops. Most soldiers today weren't in the service when Desert Storm broke
out in 1991. Many were in grade school. But regular training rotations
through the region have bred familiarity.
Ground troops know how to fight
in the desert and can spot targets in the sometimes deceptive terrain.
Intelligence officers know Iraq's military pattern. Pilots can quickly
distinguish between Iraq's different types of air-defense surface-to-air
The training also has lessened
the fear of chemical weapons, which many regard as Iraq's ace in the hole.
"We talk about chemical attack, and we worry," says Spc. Chauncey
McDonald, 25, a 2nd Brigade soldier from Lakeland, Fla. But new masks and
protective suits have been issued, and "we're prepared better than we'll
ever be," he says.
"We'd be fools not to be
concerned," says his commander, Lt. Col. Willie Williams.
But "we always train, whether in
Kuwait or in the United States, to operate in a chemical contaminated
environment," he says.
The ships, meantime, have beefed
up their defenses against possible terrorist attacks.
Protecting the Lincoln
No small boats are allowed near
the Lincoln battle group. The Navy wants no repetition of the suicide
bombing, by boat, that nearly sank the USS Cole in Yemen two years ago and
killed 17 sailors. Iraq has several patrol boats that could, potentially,
launch anti-ship missiles.
The battle group also is
occasionally visited by an Iranian spy plane, which the Lincoln's jets
Radar operators watch the skies
for signs of an airliner or other unauthorized jet that might try to crash
into the fleet. Just in case, the Lincoln keeps a few jets armed with
air-to-air missiles ready to launch within minutes.
For many years after Desert
Storm, U.S. and allied planes patrolled Iraq with almost no resistance.
Now, they are shot at almost every day. The attacks — and counterattacks
by U.S. fighters — have not abated despite the new United Nations
resolution and Iraq's agreement to allow the return of weapons inspectors.
Pilots say they have no doubt
that Saddam Hussein is trying harder than ever to shoot down a U.S. or
British air crew. They say anti-aircraft fire has increased in recent
months, presumably the result of U.S. pressure on Saddam's regime. "They
realize their lives are at risk when they go up there," Capt. Scott Swift,
deputy commander of Carrier Air Wing 14, says of his pilots. "But their
confidence is supreme. If there's a war, there is absolutely no doubt that
we are going to be extremely successful."
Iraq has concentrated its
anti-aircraft guns and missiles around Baghdad. That much firepower would
be pretty hard to fly through for the first few days of a war, says Cmdr.
Richard Simon, who commands the squadron of EA-6B radar-hunting jets on
the Lincoln. "He has a lot of stuff," Simon says, and "he's obviously
getting parts somewhere." Fortunately, he says, Iraq's equipment is not of
the latest generation. But if the current situation were to continue long
enough, "eventually, they're going to hit a coalition aircraft."
If Iraq shoots down a U.S. jet,
that could spark war, if conflict doesn't erupt before then from a
showdown between Bush and Saddam over the U.N. weapons inspections that
resumed last week.
In interviews, soldiers and
sailors express little eagerness for a war. Most would consider their war
preparations a victory if they didn't have to fire a shot and Iraq
complies with the U.N. directives to abandon the development of weapons of
But there's consensus that if it
comes to war, the military must put an end to Saddam's government, a goal
that the first Bush administration declined to pursue.
'Put an end to it'
"Finish it. Get it over with.
Put an end to it," says Navy Airman Samuel Conrad, 21, of Memphis, who
serves on the Lincoln.
"Quit playing games with him,"
agrees Machinist's Mate Antonio Martin, 24, of Ashburn, Ga.
Airman Isisgema Doylet, 20, is a
citizen of Ecuador but in the U.S. Navy while pursuing naturalization. She
says the United States military is fulfilling its role.
"The ones who take the risks are
us," she says. "That's the reason we're here — to defend the USA."