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Precision is key to U.S. air campaign in Iraq

WASHINGTON—In the first nighttime hours of a war with Iraq, American forces would combine speed, stealth, firepower and precision into a 21st century aerial blitzkrieg.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the goal would be to deliver "such a shock on the system that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on that the end is inevitable."

The air power needed to deliver the most devastating opening punch in history is now in place. Air Force B-2 stealth bombers, each of which can carry 16 satellite-guided 2,000-pound bombs, left Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri on Wednesday and are now at their forward base on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Other Air Force planes—fighters, bombers, aerial tankers, airborne warning and control planes, radar-jamming aircraft and others—are positioned in Kuwait, Turkey, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Five aircraft carriers, with about 70 planes each, are within range of Iraq; a sixth is en route from the Pacific Ocean. The Navy is moving another 10 ships, some of them armed with as many as 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles, from the Mediterranean Sea to their firing positions in the Red Sea.

"It's going to be an unbelievable display of firepower," said Jack Spencer, senior defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "There will not just be more bombs dropped from the air in a short period of time, these bombs are going to be precise, and that will exponentially increase their lethality while simultaneously decreasing the collateral damage."

What that means is that the U.S. air campaign calls for obliterating Iraq's military and its political leadership while limiting civilian casualties and damage to the economic infrastructure that would be critical to rebuilding a post-Saddam Iraq.

They key to this isn't firepower—the United States has developed only one bomb that's bigger than the ones it used on Iraq a decade ago—but precision.

"The bombing campaign is the culmination of nearly a century of thinking about how to use air power," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank. "The reason the U.S. bombed cities in World War II was because it couldn't reliably hit anything smaller. Today it can, and that creates an opportunity for bombing campaigns that are precise, discriminate, even humane, but also quickly decisive."

Thanks to a decade of technological advances, the Pentagon plans to show off the pinprick precision it fine-tuned in Afghanistan, producing highlight reels of "greatest hits."

Less than half the munitions used in Desert Storm hit their targets, and fewer than 10 percent were precision-guided. Nine out of 10 bombs dropped in Iraq would be precision guided.

"Now we will be using needles instead of blunt hammers," said retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner, who commanded the allied air campaign in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

The satellite-guided JDAM, for Joint Direct Attack Munition, can be launched from above the range of antiaircraft missiles and artillery and still hit within 40 feet of its target, even through smoke or bad weather.

To plan such surgical air strikes, war planners are relying on high-tech gadgets that didn't exist 12 years ago. For example, they've made extensive use of sophisticated software that models the best way to attack a target to minimize civilian casualties. One software program, called "Bugsplat," predicts the blast pattern of a bomb. It was so named because the simulated blasts on the computer screen look like squashed bugs.

War planners also plan to use non-lethal weapons such as carbon fiber warheads to short-circuit power grids without destroying them. They refuse to talk about a new, experimental weapon in their high-tech arsenal, a high-powered microwave bomb, or "e-bomb," that can send out electromagnetic pulses to fry computer networks and communication systems.

"Use of `e-bombs' is controversial because their effects are hard to control once they hit power lines or other conduits through which they can spread," Thompson said. "The weapons will probably be employed in a limited fashion, though, because they can potentially minimize casualties and damage to physical infrastructure."

But the big new weapon is the one that could terrorize Iraq more than any other. The 21,000-pound MOAB, short for Massive Ordnance Air Burst but nicknamed "mother of all bombs," is the world's most powerful non-nuclear device, so big it has to be dropped from a cargo plane. The Air Force tested it on March 11 in Florida, and hopes to drop it on critical targets, including underground bunkers, to rattle Iraqi troops and persuade them to surrender.

An unparalleled display of firepower—the military equivalent of the Big Bang—would kick off the war. Thousands of satellite- and laser-guided bombs dropped by stealth warplanes and Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from Navy ships would shower the night sky over Iraq, hitting more targets in the first 24 hours than the allied air campaign hit in all 38 days of the first Gulf air war.

The strikes would be intended to cripple Saddam Hussein and his elite military and security units, military analysts said. "It will be the fastest-moving military operation ever, by far," said retired Air Force Gen. Perry Smith.

First, cruise missiles, the radar-evading B-2s and smaller F-117 stealth attack planes would pound Iraqi air defenses—operations centers, antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, early warning and radar targeting sites—so other targets could be more safely attacked from the skies. That part of the campaign, called SEAD, for Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, has already begun—unofficially.

U.S. and British warplanes patrolling the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq have stepped up their air strikes, targeting communication hubs, missiles, radars and command posts. The Air Force has dropped more bombs and missiles in the last three months than in the previous three years.

"The first strikes will be intense," said Horner "We discovered in the first Gulf War the impact that shock and awe can have on taking down air defenses."

American forces might encounter a few surprises such as undetected surface-to-air missile systems smuggled into Iraq, Horner said. "Saddam Hussein is a lot smarter this time," he said. "His leadership will be better at trying to outmaneuver us intellectually and physically."

U.S. forces also would try to kill Saddam on the first night, targeting all his suspected hiding places. They also would attack command bunkers, communication hubs and all lines of communication to cut the Iraqi leader off from those forces expected to remain loyal to him, the 15,000-man Special Republican Guard and the 5,000-man Special Security Organization.

Symbolic targets would include monuments to Saddam's three decades of power: Republican Guard garrisons, military and police headquarters and presidential palaces.

"The name of the game will be to decapitate Saddam Hussein's regime," said Robert Pape, an air war specialist at the University of Chicago.

Chief among the targets would be suspected caches of biological and chemical weapons and their delivery systems. Air forces would either blow them up or block access to them. U.S. and Australian commandos who for four months have operated secretly on the ground in Iraq, have fanned out, particularly in the western desert region in search of these sites.

Commandos would help pinpoint targets from the ground with laser designators and beacons that can be activated by approaching planes. Unmanned Predator and Global Hawk surveillance aircraft would beam images and data to coalition commanders who orchestrate bombing missions.

To bring the war to a quick conclusion, air strikes also would focus on preventing the six divisions of Saddam's elite Republican Guard from retreating to a last stand in Baghdad and persuading his 17 regular army divisions to quit.

At the same time, U.S. forces would step up another kind of air campaign that's been going on for weeks: blanketing Iraq with leaflets, radio broadcasts and television programs, urging Saddam's troops to resist and Iraqi civilians to remain calm.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.