CAMP COMMANDO, Kuwait—The U.S. Marine Corps' plan for war in Iraq began taking shape 14 months ago in the California desert, in a covert meeting between the general who now commands the charge and a computer-whiz colonel.
Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, a 6-foot-3 Missourian who then headed the 1st Marine Division, had learned that the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa had been ordered to plan for a possible war with Iraq.
Knowing that his division would be called on to fight, Conway wanted to bring the colonel, the Corps' top architect of digital command and control systems, into his battle staff.
"He came to one of my desert exercises on the excuse of checking out some gear," the colonel recalled. "That took five minutes. The rest of the day we talked about all this."
"All this" is how Marines who normally operate close to the sea are today attacking a country the size of California and heading for Baghdad, 358 miles from the nearest salt water.
Their war plan, Plan 1003, underwent four or five major revisions and dozens of minor ones, some made as little as 24 hours before the ground war began on Thursday.
Once the war began, the plan changed amid controlled chaos: first H-hour was moved up a full day after President Bush ordered an unexpected cruise missile strike against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and then by a further four hours as Iraqi troops began sabotaging Iraq's biggest oilfield.
"They say planning is what you do to avoid boredom before the war starts," joked Rear Adm. Charles R. Kubic, the commander of the Navy Seabees division attached to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF).
Col. John Coleman, who became Conway's chief of staff when Conway was promoted to command IMEF in November, said Central Command had no off-the-shelf plan that fit the Iraq scenario.
"So it was pretty close to starting out with clean paper," said Coleman, 49, an engaging Georgia native with the same towering, laser-cut build as Conway—broad shoulders, narrow waist—and a white-wall haircut.
Picked to fill much of that paper was Lt. Col. George Smith, 40, from San Diego, then IMEF's lead planner for Korean contingencies and a graduate of the Marines' School for Advanced Warfighting.
The first plan called for deploying 60,000 Marines. But Department of Defense officials impressed with the success of a handful of special operations units in Afghanistan lowered that number. It was revised back to 60,000 when Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the Central Command, argued with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld that Iraq wasn't Afghanistan.
The planners had to figure out how to move 60,000 Marines from the United States halfway across the globe, where to put them in Kuwait and how to deliver their tanks, artillery, food, water and ammunition.
"It felt like that video game, `Space Invaders,' where you have to shoot down incoming attackers," recalled Col. Matthew Blackledge, 52, who directed the dozens of ships and cargo planes that got the Marines and their weapons to Kuwait in 45 days. "Only, you were not playing in Level 1. You were at Level 10 all the time."
Plan 1003 runs perhaps 100 pages, with dozens of appendices for special categories such as fuel supplies. There are still more codicils on how much fuel is to be delivered to what unit, when and where.
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The Marines got good news in January. The British had become convinced—correctly, it turned out—that Turkey would not allow Allied ground troops to use its territory as a launch pad for a "northern front" against Iraq, so the British ordered their 25,000-strong armored force to join the Marines in Kuwait.
The Britons' 120-plus Challenger main battle tanks nearly doubled the Marines' heavy armor, and their brigade of Royal Marine Commandos were a "hand and glove fit" with the American leathernecks, Smith said.
IMEF staffers boned up on Iraq's cruel and complex politics and culture, hoping to predict how 24 million Iraqis would treat American troops and the defeated members of Saddam's repressive Baath Party.
"Just the tribal mix alone can make your head hurt," said Smith.
By January, the war plan was finished and polished, so Smith and other IMEF planners shifted gears to the future. He's now planning post-Saddam operations in Iraq, "and that's 10 times harder," he said.
The Marines were ready to go to war by March 1, awaiting only Bush's orders. On March 13, Marines went to "combat capable status," meaning that planes were "racked" with bombs and munitions and supplies were loaded abroad trucks so they could be off-loaded at the front lines.
By midnight on Monday, March 17, Marine units had moved to "attack positions" close to the Iraqi border following a day-long scramble to leave their rear-guard camps and prevent the Iraqis from spotting their new positions.
H-Hour was set for 6 a.m. Saturday, Baghdad time.
But on Wednesday President Bush ordered an air attack with 36 Tomahawk cruise missiles and several 2,000-pound precision-guided bombs in a last-minute attempt to kill Saddam and several of his senior aides in a Baghdad bunker.
The war had started early, and H-Hour was reset to 6 a.m. Friday.
Then reconnaissance photos on Thursday revealed that Iraqi troops had blown up three wellheads in the huge Rumailah oilfield near the Kuwaiti border, raising the specter of an environmental and economic disaster in post-Saddam Iraq.
Conway's beyond-state-of-the-art Combat Operations Center in a drab warehouse in northern Kuwait scrambled—to change times, targets and weapons in what operations chief Col. Larry Brown called "dynamic readjustments."
Instead of moving first to Umm Qasr, the 5th Marine regiment was sent to the oilfields.
"The enemy gets a vote, too," joked IMEF planning chief Col. Christopher Gunther.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.