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NEWS ANALYSIS : U.S. Would First Rely on Air Power in Gulf

October 10, 1994|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The United States does not have sufficient military forces in Kuwait to stop Iraqi troops on the spot if they invade Kuwait today or Tuesday, and it hopes to use air power to deter any attack at least until more U.S. troops arrive, military analysts said Sunday.

The United States has only about 3,000 ground troops in the area--a force that would be far outnumbered by the nearly 70,000-member contingent that Iraq has assembled near the Kuwaiti border.

And even though President Clinton has approved plans to send up to 38,000 troops by the end of the week, defense analysts say the United States does have enough aircraft and missiles on hand in the region to damage the Iraqi force severely and to retaliate against other targets if Baghdad launches an attack.

But they say Washington will have enough troops on the ground by midweek to repel any Iraqi invasion with a combination of armored and air forces, despite the lopsided advantage the Iraqis have in troop strength.

Pentagon strategists are betting that Iraq would not be able to launch a full-scale invasion before late this week, after it has put the logistics arrangements in place needed to sustain such an operation, and they say U.S. forces will be fully ready by then.

"Our goal (for the next few days) is to deter any Iraqi invasion," a Pentagon official said Sunday.

But some analysts question whether air power alone could successfully stop the nearly 70,000 troops who are assembled eight miles from the Kuwaiti border. By almost any measure, Iraqi forces could easily cross the border into Kuwait today or Tuesday.

U.S. officials have been approaching the issue of U.S. readiness gingerly.

On Saturday, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Sheehan, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to say specifically whether existing U.S. forces could actually block an immediate Iraqi push.

Instead, he noted that the United States has 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles in the area, which could hit Baghdad easily.

"If (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein does something, we can punish those forces," he said carefully-- punish , but not necessarily defeat.

Defense Secretary William J. Perry took a similar tack Sunday.

"I don't want to forecast a day-by-day account of how a battle would go, because that would depend on how quickly they decided to go in, how far a buildup had proceeded," he told the CBS program "Face the Nation."

But some analysts say the initial U.S. disadvantage would evaporate quickly.

Unlike the case in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the ground troops that the Pentagon is assembling in Kuwait will be able to hit the deck running--because their tanks and equipment already are in the country, having been stored there in case of an Iraqi resurgence.

Pentagon analysts say Hussein faces something of a trade-off: He could attack Kuwait now without full preparations, hoping to succeed briefly before his troops ultimately were destroyed by U.S. forces, or build up further and risk a stronger U.S. force.

He also might simply leave his troops near the border, hoping to force the United States into taking the first step in hopes that it would lose some face. Perry hinted Sunday that Washington most likely would attack rather than let Iraqi troops stay there indefinitely.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a Georgetown University military analyst, said the initial stages of any such battle would probably be a contest between "our (U.S.) air and missile power and their land power"--and Iraq could not sustain that test for long.

Although Iraqi forces have rebounded somewhat from their defeat in the Gulf War, they face some formidable problems: They still have no real air power, either to provide close air support for troops or to attack U.S. positions. And they are not good at ground maneuvering.

At the same time, U.S. forces are far more lethal than they were in 1991, with greatly improved ability to attack at night and to launch precision-guided munitions. And, thanks to the Gulf War, U.S. troops are now experienced desert fighters.

"It wouldn't be anything like the last (ground) operation (in 1991), and no doubt we'd have a little more difficulty" without massive numbers of U.S. troops, said retired Army Col. Raoul Alcala, a former Pentagon strategist. "But there's no doubt that U.S. forces could do the job."

There are other advantages for the allied side. Unlike the situation in 1991, U.S. officials are reacting quickly, in time to get forces to the region early. And Washington does not have to spend time trying to win permission to use bases in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

As a result, Cordesman said that although no one can predict confidently that the Iraqis would never make it to Kuwait City, their victory would be short-lived because the Iraqi invasion force would soon be wiped out.

Robert H. Gaskin, a former Pentagon military strategist now with Business Executives for National Security, agreed.

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