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Iraq Could Be Saving Its Air Force for a Surprise : Strategy: But with airfields cratered and radar in ruins, an effective attack is viewed as improbable.

January 23, 1991|DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With its airfields pockmarked by bomb craters and its control radar reduced to rubble, the Iraqi air force seems to have been eliminated as a military force.

Or has it?

U.S. military officials have made confident statements about the destruction they have wreaked on Iraq's air power. At the same time, however, they concede that Saddam Hussein may well have more than 600 planes hidden in hardened shelters.

While many airfields have been devastated, others are still operable, and military officials say Iraqi forces are working overtime to repair the damage where they can. Allied forces have shot down only 18 Iraqi planes, military briefers say. And of those in shelters, as few as a dozen may have been destroyed, British military officials have said.

At least some analysts suggest that Hussein may yet try to use his remaining planes to alter the course of battle--or at least give his foes a nasty jolt.

The scenarios vary: an attack on Israel, an attack on U.S. ground forces, strikes against ships in the Persian Gulf. But all assume that Hussein is, in fact, husbanding his resources for some future use, and has the capacity to overcome the damage to his military infrastructure.

And although most attention is now focused on Iraq's airplanes--a highly visible example of both the destructive power and the limits of the U.S.-led aerial bombardment of Iraq--the debate over what Iraq might be doing with its planes illustrates a more pervasive question:

What is Saddam Hussein up to?

The question applies not only to Hussein's air power but also to his threats of terrorist attacks, which so far have not materialized, to his possible use of chemical weapons and to his naval forces.

"He's doing very little at this moment other than launching the Scud" missiles used to attack Israel and Saudi Arabia, said Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, who has been briefing reporters at the Pentagon.

Does that relative lack of punch show, simply, that Iraq is overmatched by the allied forces and is being relentlessly ground down? Or is Iraq hoarding its forces waiting for something?

"I think everyone is surprised" at how low allied losses have been so far, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Tuesday. "We did not imagine it to be possible," he said, "and we just don't have any way of knowing" why.

"We have theories which our military people have given," he added, "but the truth is we don't know why Saddam has chosen to react the way he has."

The prevailing view among U.S. military commanders is that Iraq was caught by surprise by the allied attack and is not responding offensively because it cannot.

"I don't think it's deliberate calculation at all," said David Ochmanek of the RAND Corp., which has studied the Iraqi air force for the Pentagon.

Iraq has kept its planes on the ground, "because when they go up, we shoot them down," he said.

Or as Kelly said, "holding back" and waiting to launch a strike later, "doesn't seem to make a lot of sense" because with each passing day, Iraq loses more of its military capability.

RAND analysts did extensive war-gaming exercises earlier in the crisis to study what strategies Iraq might be able to use in a war. "Our Iraq team played with this notion of husbanding air assets to extract a price from the United States," for use later in the war, Ochmanek said. None of those scenarios worked.

"Their best shot was on the opening day," Ochmanek said.

Others, however, suggest that Hussein may be looking at the war in a very different way than U.S. commanders or war gamers. Perhaps, they suggest, Hussein is more interested in the political impact his weapons could have than in their military significance.

Hussein "can't engage in an air war the way we think of it anymore, but maybe he was never planning to," said Joshua Epstein of the Brookings Institution.

As a strictly military weapon, the Iraqi air force, like Iraq's Scud missiles, may not be worth much. But as a political weapon--designed to rally Arab opinion by demonstrating that Iraq is still fighting or to demoralize opinion in the United States or to try to widen the war by dragging in Israel--the picture may be different.

So what might Iraq do?

One possibility, Epstein suggested, would be a last-ditch mass air attack on Israel designed, as the Scud missile attacks have been designed, to draw the Jewish state into the conflict.

The vast majority of Iraqi planes in any such attack would certainly be shot down by Israeli air defenses during the roughly one-hour flight, but if enough are launched, "they might have a chance of getting one or two through," said Greg Grant of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And even one or two planes could do considerable damage. Analysts do not know whether Iraq is capable of loading a chemical warhead onto a missile, but there is no doubt that Iraq can drop chemicals from an airplane.

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