UDAIRI RANGE, Kuwait—The Army's 3rd Infantry Division wrapped up the biggest U.S. artillery exercise in Kuwait since the 1991 Gulf War Thursday, amid signs that the buildup for a possible invasion of Iraq is accelerating rapidly.
The five-day exercise, which took place about five miles from the Iraqi border, involved 2,400 troops and culminated with a two-day series of thundering barrages from nearly 70 artillery pieces including 155 mm M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzers and 132 mm multiple-launch rocket systems.
The exercise was one of the most massive displays of combat power yet in the U.S. and allied buildup that is designed to oust Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Senior military officers said the demonstration illustrated that 3rd Infantry Division troops were primed and ready for war if President Bush orders military action.
"These past couple of days have made me very comfortable with doing whatever we may need to do to support the goals of the country," said Col. Thomas Torrance, 46, of Milledgeville, Ga., the division's top artillery officer. "The soldiers are well-trained. Morale is high, and these soldiers are ready to do the heavy lifting if they are required to do so."
Many soldiers, especially younger ones, admit they are a little nervous by the prospect that combat may be only a few weeks away, but they are also ready for whatever happens.
"I'm honored to be with this unit," said Pfc. Wayne Dixon, 21, of Elgin, Ill., a field artillery computer systems operator in B Battery, 1-10 Field Artillery.
The 3rd Infantry Division is based at Fort Stewart and Fort Benning, Ga. During the Gulf War, the unit was designated as the 24th Infantry Division.
The exercise took place as long convoys of American and British trucks rumbled through the Kuwaiti desert around the clock, hauling soldiers and equipment to sprawling camps that have sprung up near the border in recent months. At Camp New York, the 3rd Infantry's headquarters, huge stacks of ammunition, spare parts and other supplies now blanket areas that were little more than bare sand a few weeks ago.
Vehicles moving up the highway from the port at Camp Doha, where military transport ships unload tons of cargo daily, bear unit markings from across the United States and Europe, including one Humvee that was apparently shipped straight from the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. Many soldiers are so fresh to Kuwait that they have not been issued desert uniforms, and most new military vehicles still lack desert tan paint.
In an apparent sign that senior commanders are worried about the possibility that Saddam might launch a pre-emptive Scud missile attack, a battery of Patriot intercept missiles were spotted moving Thursday in the direction of one desert camp where they could be deployed to protect U.S. and allied troops.
During this week's exercise, 3rd Infantry soldiers got a chance to work out the kinks in their communication and targeting systems and hone their accuracy of their big guns on a scale that only a place like the empty desert of northwestern Kuwait could offer.
Artillery is used to provide supporting fire for advancing infantry and tanks. A 155 mm self-propelled howitzer can hurl a 96-pound projectile up to 18 miles. Each round has a kill radius of 35 yards. A full barrage from all of a division's big guns covers an area of several hundred yards square.
Watching the smoke drift away after the last rounds fell Thursday, Lt. Col. Doug Harding, 42, of Lincoln, Mass., commander of the 1-10 Field Artillery, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said the event marked a sort of milestone.
"Those are the last rounds we'll fire before going to combat."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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