WASHINGTON — While the air war showcased the awesome capabilities of modern missiles and warplanes, the ground campaign represents an even tougher challenge to America's massive defense investment, testing exotic new weapons that will more directly determine how many U.S. soldiers live and how many die in the Persian Gulf War.
Initial reports indicate that the opening phase of the ground war is going far better than U.S. commanders might have hoped and that at least some American weapons systems are functioning with devastating effectiveness.
But it also appears that the Iraqi army--so far, at least--is not putting up the massive defense that had been feared, and allied commanders remain well aware that ground combat could still produce serious casualties.
As a result, much may yet depend on the performance of ground weapons systems that have never faced the test of full-scale combat and--in some cases--were the subjects of substantial controversy during their development. For one thing, experts say the U.S. ground arsenal has serious deficiencies in terms of its ability to counter threats from Iraqi tanks at short and medium range.
There were no reports of major problems with these weapons in the early hours of ground fighting, and only scattered problems in the practice assaults and artillery exchanges that preceded the ground war. Many troops went into battle saying they had absolute confidence in their new high-tech weapons.
Leading the way were the deadly--and controversial--AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. Early footage from the Apaches' night-vision gun sights showed ghostly scenes of Iraqi infantrymen fleeing their bunkers and being cut down by fire from an adversary they could not even see.
Thus, they seemed to bear out the assessment last week of Maj. Lee Stuart, executive officer of an attack battalion for a paratrooper division: "The Apaches rule the night."
The new ground weapons waiting to prove their worthiness in battle range from 62-ton tanks to a two-pound, high-tech compass that gets its readings from satellites rather than magnetic poles.
Most of these weapons were designed for a more fearsome conflict that never happened--a war against Soviet forces in Europe.
"NATO realized they could never match the Soviets tank for tank, plane for plane, artillery piece for artillery piece," says Jeff Shaffer, a military analyst with the Center for International and Strategic Studies. Unable to beat the Soviets with sheer firepower, the Western alliance put its money on speed and maneuverability.
So while allied ground weapons may not produce television pictures as breathtaking as those of Tomahawk missiles slamming through doorways and Patriot missile batteries knocking Iraqi Scud missiles out of the nighttime skies, "this will be a test of that entire strategy," Shaffer said.
Further, many of the weapons themselves have provoked intense political battles over the past decade, with opponents insisting they are overpriced and unreliable. The ground war is not likely to put an end to the debate, but it will certainly provide the combat test that many critics have said has been lacking.
Supporters of these arms believe they will perform well enough to earn the rave reviews that helped overcome skepticism about many new air weapons in the early weeks of the war.
Chief among the new ground weapons is a $2.5-million armored behemoth: the M-1 tank, which along with its upgraded and more deadly version, the M-1A1, makes up almost half the total U.S. tank force in the Persian Gulf.
Given a flat terrain, the M-1 can speed across a battlefield at 40 m.p.h., more than twice as fast as its predecessors. Its high-tech aiming system, coupled with a state-of-the art suspension, will, for the first time, make it possible for tank gunners to hit targets without having to stop.
Before the Vietnam-era M-60 tank could fire a round, its crew had to find cover, pause for a few moments and line up the target. Even with all that preparation, the chance of a direct hit at 2,000 yards was "pretty nil," said Ralph Hallenbeck, a defense consultant who had a quarter-century of experience in mechanized infantry. "You couldn't see jack-diddly, especially at night, when you had no depth perception," he said.
Today's M-1 crew, by comparison, probably has a 90% chance of hitting an object at that distance, thanks to night-vision devices, lasers, and computers that automatically adjust for everything from wind velocity to heat, Hallenbeck said. "When you push the button and it goes bang, you're pretty much done."
The M-1's frontal armor, made from a special alloy that includes depleted uranium, is expected to make it almost invulnerable to most antitank weapons, although its flanks and rear are less secure, said James F. Dunnigan, author of a book called "How to Make War." Like all tanks, he said, it may also fall victim to mines, which can account for more than half of tank kills.