How the new war is likely to play out
By Max Blenkin
DOHA: Will it be Desert Storm II or some other scenario? With a war in the Gulf now just days away, there has been much speculation about how it could be fought.
The reality is that only the United States top brass, headed by Central Command (CENTCOM) and General Tommy Franks, are privy to the full range of options and they aren’t saying.
But enough is known of US and coalition capabilities to put together a reasonable picture of what could happen.
Every military move to date seems to have formed part of a vast psyops (military-speak for psychological operations) plot designed to force Saddam Hussein to capitulate or to encourage a coup d’etat by disaffected officers.
It could still work and then there will be no need for war.
But Saddam’s long history of tenaciously and ruthlessly clinging to power suggests this remains a long shot.
The psyops thesis is backed by public statements from Prime Minister John Howard, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Defence Minister Robert Hill who have said Australia’s predeployment of forces was intended to maintain diplomatic pressure on the Iraqi regime.
Key elements of the US military machine, specifically a full contingent of Apache attack helicopters, did not arrive in Kuwait until last week, suggesting that the US never really anticipated playing the war card much before now.
A US private sector intelligence analysis body called Stratfor notes four possibilities for conduct of the war:
* Operation Desert Stun: a sudden, overwhelming attack on Baghdad using airpower and Special Forces to force a rapid conclusion.
* Operation Desert Slice: a sequential attack on the various regions, isolating Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
* Operation Desert Storm II: a multidivisional armoured and mechanised attack on Baghdad.
* Operation Desert Thunder: an extended air campaign designed to cripple Iraq militarily and economically.
Stratfor concluded that the war plan would most likely comprise a combination of the first three options.
That would certainly create a role for Australia’s 2,000 personnel, particularly 150 Special Air Service Regiment troops and squadron of 14 F/A-18 Hornet fighters.
What doesn’t seem likely is a protracted air campaign ahead of a ground attack. In 1991, the US and just about everyone else expected Iraqi forces to put up a tough fight indeed with Saddam Hussein gloating of the mother of all battles to come.
The ground attack on Kuwait was preceded by a vast air campaign which started on January 17, 1991. The ground campaign started on February 24 and the war ended four days later.
The impressive qualitative superiority of US forces was amply demonstrated by such encounters as the Battle of 73 Easting in which the Tawalkana Republican Guard division lost 200 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in a matter of minutes, for negligible US losses.
It would follow this time round that Saddam Hussein won’t play to US strengths by attempting to fight in the open desert. Rather he will retreat to Baghdad ahead of a general US advance from Kuwait. It’s expected the US will occupy most of the north and south of the country within days, even hours.
The US plans have been complicated by Turkey’s refusal to allow use of its territory as a springboard for attack on the north of Iraq.
Hence, the land attack will start from Kuwait with a rapid advance north by armoured forces. They will be preceded by air attacks and rapid seizure of territory and key points by helicopter-landed airborne forces.
It’s also likely that US, British and Australian Special forces will play an important part, specifically seeking out hidden weapons of mass destruction, ahead of the main forces.
Air attacks will target Iraqi military concentrations, communications and command centres.
The US is abundantly aware of the need for minimal civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.
It remembers all too well the appalling tragedy of February 13, 1991, when a single US air strike on the Al Firdos bunker in Baghdad killed as many as 400 civilians, overwhelmingly women and children.
The US intelligence community still suspects the Iraqi military leaked the information which led US planners to conclude the bunker was actually a military command centre. It’s just as likely to have been a tragic blunder on the US side. Either way, the US was forced to curtail air attacks in and around Baghdad.
Stratfor says a key variable remains the capabilities of the Iraqi soldier and his officer and how well they will fight. The US is hoping they mostly won’t.
“We expect the United States to win,” Stratfor said in a recent analysis.
“We would be surprised by neither the collapse of the Iraqi army nor by strong resistance by some elements. We would be very surprised to see broad resistance, the ability to establish a sustained guerrilla movement beyond random terror attacks or to find that the Iraqis have nuclear weapons.
“We think it most likely that we will see a war lasting between two and four weeks. But once the first shot is fired, all guesses become meaningless.”
Another imponderable remains Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. If it has them in a usable form, will they be employed - or secretly passed on to al-Qaeda for future use against US targets.
From Iraq’s viewpoint, the best opportunity to use chemical or biological agents would be shortly before the US attack when maximum coalition forces are gathered in one place across the Kuwait border.
Alternatively, it could use them tactically, such as on crossing points of the Euphrates River. This wouldn’t stave off Iraqi defeat but it would complicate and delay US victory.
It would also prove for the world to see that Saddam Hussein had been economical with the truth in his persistent denials of possessing weapons of mass destruction. —AAP