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Basic Ground War Plan a NATO-Type Scenario : Tactics: The air-land doctrine has been the U.S. military's bible for a generation.

January 23, 1991|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA — If U.S. troops are ordered into ground combat, their battle plan will be drawn from the air-land doctrine adopted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to counter the Warsaw Pact's numerical superiority in manpower and firepower.

A ground war against Iraq would, in fact, resemble the war that allied forces in Europe were trained to fight against the Soviet Union. It would rely on the integration of air power and ground strength to squeeze the enemy in a vise, striking his front and rear positions in a two-front attack.

"It (the air-land doctrine) has been our bible for a generation of officers," Maj. John Chapman of the 1st Armored Division said. "It is what we do extremely well."

Iraqi's centralized military structure is similar in many ways to that of the much-studied Soviet Union, which should prove an advantage to the allies. Both armies fight in echelons, massing armor and artillery. They try to lure attackers into killing zones while pouring their own troops through breaches in their enemy's lines. With Iraq fighting a defensive war, allied commanders believe that the flat, open desert terrain presents an ideal landscape on which to execute the air-land doctrine.

"We've talked about the doctrine for the past 10 years, planned our scenarios around it," said Capt. Jerry Niland, who commands a company of antitank TOW missile launchers. "Now it's payday."

Although Marine and Navy officers met Sunday on the amphibious command ship Blue Ridge to discuss plans for a possible amphibious assault on Kuwait, and trucks and C-130 cargo planes are moving huge supplies of missiles, ammunition and medical supplies toward the front, senior U.S. commanders want to delay any ground assault until Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots have severely reduced the Iraqi troops' fighting capability. Most of the allied air attacks have been directed against troops in Iraq, not in Kuwait.

Having established air superiority, allied forces have had the luxury of taking out their targets in order of priority. Before any ground attack, military textbooks on the air-land doctrine call for the destruction of antiaircraft defenses surrounding tanks. Iraq's tanks have been using overcast skies to move from one prepared position to another, apparently hoping to avoid detection. Iraqi troops remain in static, dug-in positions that are difficult--but not impossible--to detect from the air.

"It's eye-watering to see the activity on the ground. Lots of tanks and artillery," said Maj. Mike Beard, who flies an observation plane used to control air strikes. "It's pretty cloudy, which hurts our ability to do what we do. (But our) intelligence is really good. They've done a good job of telling us where the targets are."

After intense air strikes, a ground attack would be led by the hundreds of twin-engine Apache helicopters, each of which costs $10 million. Armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles that can hit targets 5 miles away, the 165-m.p.h., low-flying Apaches would target Iraqi tanks forced out of their defensive positions by aerial bombardments. The night-fighting capability of the Apaches and other U.S. weapons give allied forces an advantage denied the Iraqis.

"The mobility and deep-strike capability of the Apaches will be the most critical link to victory on the ground," said Lt. Col. Terry Branham, who commands an Apache squadron. By preventing Saddam Hussein from massing armor to effectively counter any U.S. ground thrusts, "the Apaches will take away whatever momentum the Iraqis may generate on the ground," Branham said.

If a ground war is launched, Marines and soldiers are counting on the ability of pilots and artillerymen to first devastate Iraq's counter-artillery and trench positions along the border. "We've got to just cross our fingers and hope these guys do their job real well," said an assault platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Mike Ahern.

This article was written in part from correspondent pool reports reviewed by a military censor.

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