WASHINGTON -- Should President Bush order massive air strikes against Iraq, U.S. military commanders will be prepared to execute quick, simultaneous maneuvers to seize control of the skies and attack the vital parts of the Iraqi war machine, according to military experts.
Although this would require a general target list closely resembling the one disclosed by the recently ousted Air Force chief of staff, the experts said they believed military planners have compiled several versions, each tailored to a specific contingency and revised to reflect the latest intelligence culled from surveillance photographs.
"A strike plan is a very difficult thing to construct," said Anthony Cordesman, a Persian Gulf security analyst and an aide to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "They're drafted in many different forms, depending on the mission and the number of sorties that are possible.
"There is a danger in assuming there is some sort of fixed plan."
Senior military officials have declared that the deployment of aircraft to the Persian Gulf is nearly complete, giving Mr. Bush the ability to exploit an overwhelming advantage in air power in response to a provocation by Iraqi forces. The option of unleashing massive bombing raids could help avoid protracted ground combat, they said.
Along with Marine aircraft, Army attack helicopters and three aircraft carriers, the U.S. arsenal now includes 22 F-117A Stealth fighter-bombers; about 150 F-16s and F-15s; more than 70 A-10 tank-killing Thunderbolts; and unspecified numbers of F-4 Wild Weasel air-defense suppression jets, officials said. Long-range bombers include two squadrons of F-111s in Turkey and Spain and a squadron of B-52Gs based on Diego Garcia.
Gen. Michael J. Dugan said in an on-the-record discussion of military contingency plans, which cost him his job as Air Force chief of staff, that the United States would subject Iraq to saturation bombing if diplomatic efforts failed.
He outlined the following list of Iraqi targets, in order of priority: air defense installations; airfields and aircraft; ballistic missile launchers; communications, command and control centers; chemical, nuclear and conventional munitions plants; and armor formations. Other targets would include Iraqi power systems, roads, railroads and perhaps domestic petroleum production facilities -- but not the oil fields.
General Dugan said the list was expanded -- after seeking advice from Israeli sources -- to include Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, his family and mistress. "If and when we choose violence, he ought to be at the focus of our efforts," he said.
Military experts said that the targets identified by General Dugan were appropriate for a sweeping air attack against Iraq and suggested that advice had been sought from other Middle Eastern sources, including Syria. They also agreed, however, that air strikes alone would not assure the defeat of Iraqi forces or their withdrawal from Kuwait.
"There is kind of a generic [target] list that could apply not only for Iraq, but any place," said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor. "As part of your routine for gaining control of the air, you've got to take out their airfields, aircraft and air defenses.
"The next thing is to carry out your air campaign in Iraq and do what you want to do: go after the war-making potential and the economic potential."
Most analysts have discounted the importance of targeting the Iraqi leader in a bombing campaign. "The idea that we could pick off Saddam Hussein and solve all our problems is, to my mind, simplistic," said retired Adm. Eugene Carroll Jr., recalling the manhunt for Panamanian Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
If U.S. and allied troops and tanks move to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the high-priority targets must include the Iraqi tanks that have pulled back from the Saudi Arabian border to assume a counterattack posture, he and others said.
"What you want to do is use your air power to cut them off," General Trainor said of the Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait. "You go after their command-and-control compounds. Then you go after their infrastructure -- the supply depots, the logistics.
"If you cut the guy's throat -- the command and control -- and let him bleed -- the logistics -- the body's not going to last very long."
"The general's list may look decisive and complete because it has all the key target areas typical of any good planning," Mr. Cordesman said. "But all the writing I've seen on it implies that everything on a given target list will be destroyed. There is a great danger in thinking that.
"A small arms munitions plant is not on the same order as one with artillery shells and chemical weapons," he said. Military planners must engage in selective targeting, taking into account possible "collateral damage" to civilians and non-military sites, the location of Western hostages and the number of sorties to accomplish a mission, he said.