WASHINGTON—The Pentagon is putting into place more pieces of the military force required to invade Iraq, but it has yet to mobilize the bulk of the heavy armor and other ground units needed to carry out the operation.
New deployment orders will essentially double the U.S. troop presence in the Persian Gulf region from its current level of more than 50,000, stepping up pressure on Saddam Hussein to surrender his weapons of mass destruction.
But those numbers still fall far short of the 250,000 troops that U.S. commanders have argued would be necessary for a successful invasion.
The limited deployment so far supports the Bush administration's contention that a final decision on military action has not been made. But heavy emphasis on air and naval assets in the current round of deployments also appears to confirm that Pentagon officials are making possible a "rolling start" if President Bush decides to invade.
Under that scenario, Air Force, Navy and Marine jets would begin bombing Iraqi strategic and military targets while U.S. Army and Marine tanks and mechanized troops hold the line against a possible counter-attack on Kuwait by Saddam's Republican Guard and other loyalists.
While the air campaign is under way, other Army and Marine forces would move swiftly into the area by air and sea, link up with tanks, artillery and other equipment already put in place in recent months, and then move into Iraq once enough ground forces were assembled.
Though the deployment of the Navy and Air Force fighters and bombers means that an air campaign against Iraq can start virtually at any time, the arrival of heavy mechanized Army and Marine units would be the final prelude to an all-out ground assault.
But aside from the 3rd Infantry Division, it remains unclear if any of the Army's heavy U.S.-based mechanized units have been ordered to the region. Once those units are deployed, it would take about five weeks to transport their tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, artillery and other equipment to the region and to get them into place and prepared for battle. Military officials say that means a U.S. invasion is highly unlikely before February at the earliest.
In recent days, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ordered more than 55,000 additional soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to prepare for deployment to the Persian Gulf. They include two Army brigades totaling an estimated 9,000 troops; two aircraft carrier battle groups of about 9,000 sailors each; two amphibious assault groups of about 2,000 Marines and 1,100 sailors each; and five Air Force combat wings, including fighters, bombers, other combat aircraft and more than 22,000 airmen.
The Navy is also preparing the hospital ship Comfort to sail from its homeport of Baltimore early next week.
In addition to Rumsfeld's latest decisions, another 50,000 Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., are expected to be sent to the region in coming weeks, but so far have received no deployment orders, officials said.
Last week the Navy dispatched two high-speed cargo ships loaded with supplies—the USNS Pililaau from Beaumont, Texas, and the USNS Yano from Charleston, S.C. But those supplies did not include tanks, artillery or other heavy equipment, except for one Apache helicopter and eight OH-58 observation helicopters, said a Navy official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Navy has received a "prepare to deploy" order for two aircraft carrier battle groups, one from each coast, and two Amphibious Ready Groups to set sail for the Persian Gulf within 96 hours after receiving final orders, according to a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
One of the carriers would almost certainly be the USS George Washington, stationed at Norfolk, Va. The carrier, along with its battle group of eight other ships, including two submarines, just returned from the Persian Gulf, but the group's 9,000 sailors are at peak readiness to return, if necessary, according to defense officials.
The USS Abraham Lincoln and its battle group also could be called back to the region. It is currently somewhere north of Australia, steaming slowly to the United States. If Navy officials decide not to send the Lincoln battle group back to the Persian Gulf, then the USS Nimitz or the USS Carl Vinson would likely be dispatched, officials said.
Each Amphibious Ready Group consists of three ships—an amphibious assault ship used to carry helicopters and landing craft, plus two smaller vessels. Each group carries about 2,000 Marines and 1,100 sailors.
There are an estimated 60,000 American personnel now in the Middle East, including about 12,000 to 14,000 ground troops in Kuwait. Also in place is most of the command structure for an invasion force.
The Pentagon has been sending support units and pre-positioning tanks, trucks, artillery and other equipment for nearly one Marine division and almost two Army divisions in the region so that once the order is given, the bulk of the ground troops can be quickly flown in.
"You have a lot of enabling forces. It's helpful to have these people already in place. It speeds the process up. You can rapidly bring in a large combat force," explained a senior defense official.
The war plan is believed to call for an American ground force well in excess of 100,000 troops.
Officials are also counting on 20,000 British troops and units from other countries willing to participate in the ouster of Saddam and occupation of Iraq.
Senior Bush administration officials insist that President Bush has not decided to invade Iraq. But Dan Goure, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, a conservative research institution, and Pentagon consultant, said he believes the deployments put the United States on course for an invasion.
"The administration has been very clear in its viewpoint, which is that (the Iraqis) either disarm themselves or they will be disarmed by force, which means war," said Goure. "There is no evidence that they are willing to disarm themselves. So this is movement toward war. This is getting the jump on the war."
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.