DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Iraq has shown an "exceptional" use of decoy targets to deceive allied bombers and frustrate attempts to assess damage to key Republican Guard positions, U.S. military officials said yesterday.
Besides fake tanks and fake mobile Scud missile launchers, which have been in wide use since the war began three weeks ago, the Iraqis
have resorted to positioning phony artillery pieces to draw allied fire, officials said.
A spokesman for the British Royal Air Force also disclosed that Iraqi soldiers were setting some oil-coated tanks afire to generate enough dense smoke to fool pilots into thinking they had scored a direct hit.
This tactic would be consistent with other attempts by Iraq to exaggerate bombing damage. Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed two weeks ago that Iraqis have been spotted painting runways to make them look as if they had been badly damaged.
Yesterday, a senior U.S. military official said about the Iraqis, "Their use of decoys and deception is exceptional.
"It is a critical element within their order of battle -- the deception option and use of decoys."
Although U.S. officials continued to claim that Iraqi forces were being devastated by round-the-clock aerial attacks, they said they still lacked
any precise measure of Iraq's current military strength in fortified areas of Kuwait and southern Iraq.
They have accumulated a lot of anecdotal information and videotape from pilots, which make a compelling case for a qualitative assessment of Iraqi strength, officials said.
Nonetheless, if a pilot reports "killing" a tank, "it's very difficult to say whether that tank is still an operational tank, it's a dead tank or if it's a decoy," the senior military official said.
Nor has the use of decoys come as much of a surprise, because modern armies, including the U.S. military, regularly engage in this kind of deception, he added.
Other military officials said the current phase of the air campaign against Iraq -- which has shifted away from targets deep in Iraq to tactical positions within Kuwait -- would intensify in coming days.
The destruction of Iraqi ground forces, especially the 150,000 elite Republican Guards, is simply a matter of time, they said.
This week, B-52 raids on the elite forces have been occurring every three to four hours, officials said. Repeated poundings of tank and artillery positions will eventually render the Iraqi decoys ineffective, they said.
U.S. aircraft are flying 600 combat missions a day "against front-line forces," of which half are aimed at the Republican Guards, one U.S. official said. "That's going to do nothing but increase."