WASHINGTON - Sometime this week, perhaps as early as tomorrow night, Tomahawk cruise missiles with 1,000-pound warheads launched from Navy ships in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf could arc through the sky over Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and begin landing on hundreds of military targets in Iraq.
The destroyer USS Fletcher in the Red Sea and the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill in the Persian Gulf are among the more than 30 "Tomahawk shooters," surface ships and submarines that would begin the barrage of precision-guided weapons that ushers in the second Persian Gulf war.
"The Navy has a huge part of this in the first hours," a Pentagon official said.
The aerial assault is to include four B-2 stealth bombers, flying from the British base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as well as a dozen F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters from bases neighboring Iraq. Both radar-evading Air Force planes carry 2,000-pound bombs, while the B-2 can carry 5,000-pound "bunker buster" bombs that can punch through 30 feet of rock or reinforced concrete. Munitions handlers call the bomb "the crowd-pleaser."
Several thousand targets would be hit in the first two or three days, centering on President Saddam Hussein's sophisticated air defenses and radar around Baghdad, as well as his palaces, secret police headquarters, command centers and communications facilities that enable him to direct his forces.
The U.S. military would send aloft scores of drone aircraft called Chukar that would simulate incoming cruise missiles and confuse Iraqi radars, which would then expose their positions, making them vulnerable.
The invasion would likely be under less than ideal conditions. While the military - with its advantage of night-vision gear - prefers a moonless night, the March moon will be full tonight, waning nightly until April 1. Pentagon officials do not see that as a stumbling block, owing to the overall superiority of the U.S.-led force and the planned swiftness of the operation.
Special Operations Forces such as Green Berets and Navy SEALs would range the country, surging in from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, said a defense official. The commandos would search for Scud missiles in Iraq's western desert, trying to call in airstrikes before the weapons can be launched. The special operations troops would try to prevent Iraqi sabotage of bridges and dams that could slow an allied advance.
Iraqi airfields would be taken by commandos or airborne troops so that humanitarian aid could be flown in quickly, possibly within hours of an invasion, a Pentagon official said.
Navy and Air Force attack aircraft, such as F-18 Hornets and F-15 Strike Eagles, would sweep in from aircraft carriers and land bases in the region. They would strike troop concentrations or armored vehicles, as would Air Force B-1 and B-52 bombers.
The battle scheme is based on operations going as planned. But as the 19th-century Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke was fond of saying, "No plan survives contact with the enemy." Potential hazards facing the U.S.-led force include an Iraqi attack with chemical or biological weapons, burst dams that could flood approaches to Baghdad, thousands of refugees who could stall an advance and urban warfare.
The Pentagon expects much of the estimated 370,000-soldier Iraqi army to surrender or flee, as during the Persian Gulf war in 1991. But some of Hussein's elite forces, the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard, which cumulatively number about 80,000, are expected to stand and fight, perhaps around Baghdad or Tikrit, Hussein's hometown about 100 miles north of the capital.
The Pentagon is contacting Republican Guard commanders by e-mail or cell phone and are getting positive results, officials said. The cruise missile attacks would signal the beginning of an intensified psychological operations campaign, with Iraqi army divisions being told by leaflets to surrender or face annihilation.
The battle plan calls for Iraqi television and radio stations to be overridden by broadcast signals from Commando Solo, a C-130 cargo plane with a studio on board. The broadcasts would include warnings to civilians to stay inside or away from any fighting.
The Pentagon expects to use electromagnetic pulse weapons or what Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of the likely allied invasion, calls "offensive electronics," to destroy Iraqi communications facilities or computers without explosions that could lead to civilian casualties.
"We're trying to work this so the average Iraqi is not going to suffer," a Pentagon official said.
The main U.S. ground force, made up of the 3rd Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, would begin streaming from Kuwait into Iraq soon after the initial air bombardment.
The 3rd Division, together with the bulk of the Marine units, would head north along the Euphrates River valley toward Baghdad, while a brigade of Marines would join a larger British force to take the southern Iraqi city of Basra. A small contingent of Australian troops - about 2,000 - rounds out the allied force.
Helicopters from the 101st Airborne are expected to seize small operating bases in front of the main column of U.S. forces or capture oil fields in the north, perhaps assisted by Army Rangers and a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division.
The U.S.-led force is not expected to immediately move into Baghdad, but instead to encircle the capital and wait for its surrender, officials said. If U.S. forces have to go into the city, they could face grinding street-to-street, building-to-building fighting.
There were indications yesterday that Turkey's government might be moving to reverse its previous failure to approve the deployment on their soil of some 62,000 U.S. soldiers, a force that had been expected to open a northern front against Iraq.
But Pentagon officials say it is probably too late to move armored troops overland to Turkish bases, as originally planned, for that mission. Elements of the 101st Airborne, now in Kuwait with more than 250 helicopters, could assume that role. The 4th Infantry Division, which was supposed to spearhead the assault from Turkey, is still at Fort Hood, Texas, with its equipment aboard ships in the Mediterranean Sea.
The 4th Division, along with Fort Hood's 1st Cavalry Division and the 1st Armored Division, based in Germany and Kansas, would likely be arriving in the coming weeks for occupation and peacekeeping duties, Pentagon officials said.