WASHINGTON—While the Pentagon says it's prepared to go to war in Iraq at any time, the full array of forces it hopes to have available will not be ready to fight until mid-March or later.
The 101st Airborne Division is still loading equipment aboard ships in Florida. The soldiers of the Fourth Infantry Division have yet to depart from Texas and Colorado. Other Army units that have received deployment orders have a long way to go before they are in place.
But Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday: "The force that is present now (in the Middle East) is sufficient to do whatever the president might ask."
Pace, in an interview with Knight Ridder, declined to say whether Pentagon brass would prefer to wait for the additional forces to arrive before going into a war.
"If we went before the entire force is there and we needed the rest of the force, we would be able to close that force (bring in troops) in sufficient time," he said.
There is much speculation in the ranks and among military analysts that the Pentagon would prefer to attack in the moonless period of March 2 to 3. The first Gulf War began with such a new moon.
"Our analysis is, the soonest they can start is in 10 days, just in time for the new moon," said Patrick Garrett of GlobalSecurity.org.
The air and naval forces needed for an early launch are in place. The Air Force has bases across the region, and five aircraft carrier battle groups are ready.
But for the Army, a war date as soon as 10 days off would appear to require what the military has referred to as a "rolling start," in which some forces would go into action immediately and others would join them within days or even weeks.
Full deployments of U.S. ground forces probably cannot be completed before mid-March. It will take time for the remainder of the battle equipment to cross the Atlantic by ship and for the remainder of the troops to fly into the war zone.
With all of this, the date for a full ground attack could be pushed close to April, analysts say
U.S. military officials say there are more than 100,000 ground troops in Kuwait, ready to attack. British military officials say they have 15,000 troops in the country.
Most analysts believe that the Pentagon's invasion plan called for a ground force of two to three heavy Army divisions—each of them including more than 400 tanks and armored vehicles—plus an Army light infantry division, a Marine Expeditionary Force and a British task force.
The Army's mechanized 3rd and 4th Infantry divisions, the 101st Airborne Division and elements of the 18th Airborne Corps have all received deployment orders, as have several thousand soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division, based in Germany.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last weekend signed orders to deploy the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, consisting of about 5,000 troops from Fort Carson, Colo.
In addition, last week, 1,300 soldiers in the 3d Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, at Fort Riley, Kan., have been ordered to prepare for deployment.
But of those troops, only the 3rd Infantry Division, with 20,000 soldiers, is fully deployed. The last of their flights from Savannah, Ga., was completed this month.
About 60,000 Marines with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force began deploying to Kuwait last month, but many of their troops and much of their equipment is still arriving.
A British military spokesmen said Wednesday that Britain has yet to deploy an additional 15,000 soldiers and Royal Marines, for an overall total of about 30,000. Tanks with the British 7th Regiment of 1st Armored Division, the famed "Desert Rats," have not arrived.
Meanwhile, more than 30,000 troops with Task Force Iron Horse, spearheaded by the 4th Infantry, and 17,000 troops with the 101st Airborne await word on whether they will deploy to Kuwait or Turkey. The United States is negotiating with Turkey for permission to allow troops on its soil to open a northern front against Iraq, which could shorten any war.
The 4th Division's advanced tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles have made the two-week trip across the ocean and through the Mediterranean Sea. But they are stalled aboard ships while commanders await word on whether to deposit them in Turkey or Kuwait.
The U.S. European Command said Friday that U.S. troops from Germany had arrived Thursday in Romania to await further orders.
Lt. Col. Kevin McNerney, spokesman for U.S. Army-Europe, said that troops from Germany would not necessarily need to take their own equipment because they could use vehicles and gear already in Kuwait.
The 101st Airborne—equipped with helicopters to attack deep into an enemy's territory—is further behind than the 4th Division.
Maj. Hugh C. Cate III, a division spokesman at Fort Campbell, Ky., said that 20,000 personnel were awaiting orders to fly out on chartered commercial aircraft.
But their equipment is being loaded at Jacksonville, Fla. Cate said four of six ships had been loaded.
Once the ships are close, the troops will go at a rate of about 3,000 to 4,000 a day, he said. It could take up to a week for them all to fly out.
(Brown reported from Kuwait.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.