WASHINGTON — Sometime in the next month, the Middle East may go up in flames.
It will not be a war brought on by mistake or miscalculation. The conflagration will be the utterly predictable result of a series of deliberate and irrevocable steps over the last six months by President Bush and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
It is relatively easy to envision how the war will begin. U.S. military commanders have been remarkably open in discussing the weaponry they have at their disposal and how it would be employed.
What is impossible to predict, in this conflict as in every other, is when and how it will end.
For one thing, the Iraqis aren't being nearly so forthcoming about how they would expect to fight a war. Western and other experts, basing their estimates in part on Baghdad's eight-year conflict with Iran, have made some educated guesses. But they are just that--guesses.
What is clear is that the death-dealing potential involved in any clash would be awesome.
Command Structure Targeted
Unless some diplomatic surprise intervenes, one night this month or early next, hundreds of U.S. warplanes will roar into the sky from a score of air bases and six aircraft carriers stationed around the Persian Gulf with the mission of destroying Iraq's air defense network and its command structure.
Every relevant weapon in the American aerial arsenal will come into play: F-117 "Stealth" fighters will fly in fast and low to drop laser-guided bombs on command bunkers and missile control sites; F-4G "Wild Weasels," working in tandem with F-16 and F-15 fighters, will attack antiaircraft batteries with HARM radar-seeking missiles; FB-111 and F-15E fighter-bombers will attempt to take out air defense installations and sever links between central command facilities and field commanders; EF-111, EA-7B, RF-4C and RC-135 electronic warfare and reconnaissance craft will saturate the battle area with radar and radio emissions to jam Iraqi communications and fix the locations of all radar-emitting enemy weapons.
Cruise missiles launched from aircraft carriers and cruisers in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and Red Sea will home in on pre-selected, heavily defended targets from the front lines along the Kuwait-Saudi border to the presidential palace in Baghdad. Overhead, the battle will be directed by AWACS command-and- control planes, which will monitor the battle and relay orders from the allies' central headquarters in Riyadh.
Thousands of tons of ordnance will be dropped in the most intensive aerial bombardment ever conducted. Electronic warfare technology will be employed on a scale never before attempted.
And when the first wave of attacks is completed, a second wave will begin. And a third. And a fourth. And a fifth.
"When we launch it, we will launch it violently. We will launch it in a way that will make it decisive so that we can get it over as quickly as possible and there's no question who won when it's over," Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a visit to Saudi Arabia late last month.
"We're going to go deep (behind Iraqi lines) using aerial assets and challenge them in ways seen and unseen he's (Hussein) never dreamed of," Powell said.
Missiles and Guns
Iraq has taken steps to protect its military and industrial installations, sometimes with missiles but also with antiaircraft guns. Some of the emplacements are visible in Baghdad itself. Two antiaircraft batteries are perched atop the ceremonial Babylonian-style arch at the entrance to Hussein's palace grounds. Others are balanced atop mounds of dirt standing out along the city's skylines. And there are signs that Hussein may try to move critical military and government functions out of Baghdad in anticipation of an allied attack, hoping to prevent a breakdown of day-to-day operations.
Still, diplomats in the Iraqi capital do not seem to doubt the ability of the combined allied air forces to eventually knock out the country's air defenses. That, say U.S. military men, is when the bombardment will begin in earnest.
Hundreds of land- and sea-based bombers flying thousands of sorties a day will pound the 500,000-man Iraqi army in Kuwait and southern Iraq, attempting to level the elaborate defensive fortifications and isolate units from their commanders and their supply lines. Formations of B-52s will fly high overhead, dropping thousands of 2,000-pound bombs in an effort not just to flatten the Iraqi bunkers, but to terrorize and demoralize the lightly armed soldiers.
Iraq's armaments factories, weapons depots, missile assembly plants and railroad yards will be smashed. Airport runways will be cratered and littered with cluster bombs that will kill repair crews and further damage the tarmac. Highways, pipelines, dams, power plants, refineries and laboratories will be targeted.
The bombing will continue around the clock for days. And that's just Phase One.
The Rain of Horror