IN SAUDI ARABIA — If the United States and Iraq go to war, the U.S. military plans to unleash a relentless air campaign designed in part to "decapitate" the Iraqi leadership by targeting President Saddam Hussein, his family, his senior commanders, his palace guard and even his mistress, according to senior U.S. military planners.
A recently completed Joint Chiefs of Staff targeting review concludes that the most effective way to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait is not with a ground attack, but through the use of massive air strikes to kill Hussein and decimate his war-making capacity by destroying scores of critical military and industrial sites.
The Joint Chiefs publicly acknowledge that U.S. ground forces in the region, which currently number about 100,000 soldiers and Marines, are not sufficient to dislodge the 265,000 Iraqi troops and 2,200 tanks now in and near Kuwait.
"Air power is the only answer available to our country in this circumstance," Air Force Chief of Staff Michael J. Dugan said after touring U.S. air bases on the Arabian Peninsula.
Dugan would not divulge whether U.S. officials know the precise whereabouts of Hussein or members of his inner circle, nor would he say whether senior Bush Administration officials had signed off on the plan to target them in an air attack.
An air strike deliberately aimed at the Iraqi president and members of his family could prove controversial because attacks on civilian leaders are generally considered out of bounds, even in wartime.
The United States bombed Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's home and other targets in Tripoli in 1986, but Kadafi escaped serious injury. U.S. officials defended the raid as an effort to punish and deter terrorism, but a number of nations condemned it as a violation of international law.
To support the U.S. war plan in the Persian Gulf, which revolves around the massive use of air power, the Air Force alone has ringed Iraq with an air armada of 420 combat planes, nearly equal to the fleet dedicated to defending Europe against the Soviet Union.
In all, the United States has 1,000 Air Force, Marine and Navy aircraft poised to strike Iraq from three aircraft carriers and 30 bases in the region. The available facilities are so taxed that even if the United States and its allies wanted to bring substantially more aircraft into the region, they could not, Air Force officials said.
Gen. Dugan and his senior deputies, in several hours of interviews on his aircraft traveling to and from Saudi Arabia, said that U.S. military commanders from all services agree that air power is the best option for defeating Hussein and his million-man army.
"I don't see us making a big (ground) invasion" of Kuwait, Dugan said, noting that attacking forces generally need a three-to-one advantage in manpower to dislodge an entrenched defensive force.
To attempt to beat Iraq on the ground risks "destroying Kuwait in order to save it," Dugan said.
By using air power against targets in Iraq, on the other hand, "you would attempt to convince his population that he and his regime cannot protect them," Dugan said. "If there is a nation that cannot defend its people against these intruding foreigners--protect their lines of communication, their means of production, their cities--that brings a great burden for their ruler."
Dugan, a fighter pilot with more than 4,500 flying hours and 300 combat missions in Vietnam, acknowledged that air power has its limits. One cannot predict how a population or its leaders will respond to a bombing campaign, he and other Air Force officers said.
Nor can air power drive people out of jungle sanctuaries, Dugan said. "But there's not much jungle where we're going. You don't have to get within a few yards to attack them, intimidate them, kill them."
The effect of air power can be diluted, even negated, by constraints placed upon its use by civilian leaders, senior Air Force officials noted. Most Air Force officers believe to this day that if they had been allowed to bomb North Vietnam without limits the United States would have won the war.
Dugan said that American political authorities had learned from Vietnam and would approve unfettered air strikes against a broad range of Iraqi targets. "This wouldn't be a Vietnam-style operation, nibbling around the edges. The way to hurt you is at home, it's not out in the woods somewhere. We're looking for centers of gravity where air power could make a difference early on," Dugan said.
There is a long and bitter debate among military officers and historians outside the Air Force over the utility of strategic bombing. While air power advocates argue that the bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan won World War II, that contention is still in question. Many officers contend that only "ground pounders"--the infantry--can take and hold ground and ultimately end a conflict.