U.S. forces say they're 'ready to roll' to Iraq

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 Armored Division.

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 place.

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 military experts.

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 missiles.

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 chase away.

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 mass destruction.

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."