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Aging B-52s Wait in Wings for a Brute-Force Assault

January 06, 1991|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — If the United States and its allies go to war against Iraqi troops in Kuwait, the U.S. Air Force plans to enlist the venerable B-52 bomber--and an even older and more controversial strategy known as carpet bombing--to ease the task of ground troops.

In a war that would largely pit high technology-equipped U.S. forces against waves of Iraqi tanks and shock troops, this element of the strategy for Operation Desert Shield is decidedly low-tech.

After more-agile U.S. warplanes had cleared the skies and knocked out Iraqi antiaircraft defenses, the lumbering B-52s--most of them older than the pilots flying them--would begin dropping thousands of tons of bombs and other explosives on Iraq's defensive lines.

Their aim: to stun and possibly destroy the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops who have dug themselves into an elaborate network of fortifications across the border from Saudi Arabia.

U.S. planners believe that after days, or weeks, of steady bombardment, Iraqi troops would be so disoriented and worn down that they would succumb to U.S. ground troops without much of a fight.

It is a brute-force solution to an age-old problem: how to overwhelm entrenched and numerically superior forces without paying a terrible price in casualties.

In recent history, carpet bombing also has evolved into a military tactic that carries a potent political message: Surrender now before a frontal assault--the real misery for both sides in any real battle--begins.

But the effectiveness of such carpet bombing--also called saturation bombing or strategic bombing--has been controversial since its inception.

In World War II, Korea and Vietnam, such large-scale bombing raids inadvertently killed thousands of civilians and friendly forces located close to enemy targets. And critics say strategic bombardment in the Vietnam era left behind such chaos and devastation that it often was not clear which side suffered more--the fleeing enemy forces or the U.S. ground troops that had to pursue them.

Although U.S. officials say bombardment operations are now firmly part of the initial battle plan for Operation Desert Shield, they concede that Pentagon planners remain divided over the effectiveness of strategic bombing.

Ground-force commanders, in particular, fear that the bombing will scatter the thousands of mines that Iraq has sown into new, more unpredictable patterns that are bound to pose obstacles to advancing U.S. tanks and armored vehicles.

Even so, as Iraqi troops have dug in ever more deeply in Kuwait and threaten to exact a bloody toll on attacking U.S. ground forces, the concept of employing preliminary bomb strikes has become more attractive, defense analysts say.

"I can't imagine we would try a frontal assault on these field fortifications without some sort of firepower preparation," says Jeffrey Record, a former congressional military adviser and now a senior fellow at BDM International Inc., a defense-consulting firm in McLean, Va.

At a time when the Pentagon is eager to retire the aging B-52s, the prospect of using such bombers in Operation Desert Shield also has generated debate over how far the Air Force should be allowed to go in replacing cheap, long-range workhorses like the B-52 with much smaller numbers of pricey new planes such as the B-2 Stealth bomber.

Already, the force of B-52s dedicated--and specially equipped--to drop heavy loads of conventional explosives has shrunk to no more than 40. The Air Force was in the process of retiring a wing of 32 B-52s based in Guam when Operation Desert Shield began.

The so-called Christmas bombing of Vietnam in 1972, part of the controversial Operation Linebacker, employed 130 of the huge B-52s. Operation Cobra, a bombing campaign that helped Allied landing forces break through German defenses in France in 1944, used 1,495 medium and heavy American bombers.

Defense analysts estimate that any prolonged bombardment of Iraqi defensive positions would require about 100 of the B-52s, each of which can carry a 30-ton bomb load. But although almost 200 more B-52s are still available, most of them serve in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. For the Air Force to deploy these nuclear specialists for Operation Desert Shield, the President would have to take them off their doomsday alert duties at bases throughout the United States.

"I don't know what more evidence you need to reconsider this policy of letting your bomber force dwindle at a time when your bombardment needs are increasing," says BDM International's Record. "We could not do another Linebacker today, and we might have another Linebacker staring us in the face."

For now, it is clear that by taking some B-52s off nuclear alert, the United States could field a force of such bombers big enough to cause untold misery among Iraqi troops in the Kuwaiti desert. The Iraqis have built entrenchments that are designed to slow ground assaults but not to protect from air attack.

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