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Heat Won't Preclude Iraq War

Unlike in 1991, analysts say, new technology means the Pentagon is prepared to battle Saddam Hussein in the spring or even summer.

October 23, 2002|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is prepared to invade Iraq even if political negotiations and Saddam Hussein's maneuvers drag on into winter and rule out action during the coolest months, defense officials and military analysts say.

For months, military analysts have spoken of a winter war as essentially the only option and suggested that it would be impossible for U.S. troops to fight in the searing Iraqi summer.

With an eye on the calendar, President Bush rushed to secure a tough resolution on Iraq from Congress and is pushing for a second one in the United Nations. Administration officials have grown increasingly impatient as the U.N. negotiations have dragged on for weeks. Bush has warned that once a resolution is adopted, he will tolerate no delay in inspections for chemical, nuclear and biological weapons after U.N. teams return to Iraq.

Yet even as diplomacy forges ahead on the presumption that the "weather window" for an attack will close in March, the Pentagon is ready to fight a war in the spring, one that could even spill over into summer, when temperatures in Iraq can hit 120.

Advances in weapons technology and military tactics over the last decade have dramatically altered the calculations for waging a second Persian Gulf war, making weather far less a determining factor than it was during the first conflict, in winter 1991.

Improved surveillance, new satellite-guided bombs that can plunge to their targets through thick cloud cover and less restrictive chemical-protection suits have made U.S. troops and their equipment more weatherproof than ever.

"We would prefer to get it done by May for lots of reasons, strategic as well as weather, but there's less constraint" than during the '91 war, said Michael Vickers, a former Green Beret and CIA operations officer now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington. "Even if Saddam manages to delay this until, say, May, it doesn't necessarily preclude conflict until next November. We might be willing to launch the campaign in the summer."

Gulf dwellers tend to scoff at the notion that the weather should affect U.S. plans.

"I think if you come from Texas or Arizona, the weather is not that different," said Bader Omar Dafa, Qatar's ambassador to Washington. A potential command center for U.S. air power is now rising in the Qatari desert.

Certainly, Pentagon planners say, U.S. forces would have to alter their strategy for a later attack. But in the end, a strike decision would be largely a matter of how as opposed to when.

"There are times when weather can be a detractor and when there's an optimum window. But we are capable of being an all-weather force," a senior defense official said. "Would we hate it? Sure. But putting a window on it isn't right."

As part of their contingency planning, military strategists say, officials at U.S. Central Command are already mapping weather patterns in Iraq, using technology to explore the nuances of their effects on warfare. A testing facility at Florida's Eglin Air Force Base, for example, can simulate any weather, from conditions in Antarctica to those in the tropics.

Under one option, U.S. and allied forces could rely mostly on air power during the hot months and employ special operations soldiers on land only in key operations, military analysts and defense officials say. Under the worst-case scenario, American and allied forces would simply prepare for high numbers of heat casualties in brief fighting that most analysts predict would last less than a month.

"You can work around it when you employ air power with the amount of effectiveness the U.S. Air Force and the Navy are capable of," said Col. William F. Burnette, vice commander of the Air Force Weather Agency at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. "We don't want thousands of guys crapping out in chem suits on the ground."

The Pentagon has more than a million new chemical protection suits and masks -- more than enough for the 250,000 or so U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen most analysts believe would be required to topple Hussein's regime. That's an improvement from 1991, when soldiers complained that supplies were inadequate and the suits suffocating, although Gulf veterans say problems remain.

Iraqi military defectors and senior U.S. defense analysts say there is a significant chance that Hussein would use chemical or biological weapons if attacked, because unlike the '91 war, which aimed only to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait, an invasion now would be aimed at toppling Hussein. Although the Iraqi leader denies having chemical or biological arms, the U.S. suspects that he does and notes that he has used chemical arms on Iranian soldiers and Iraqi Kurds in the past.

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