DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- If U.S. field commanders get their way, the most powerful military juggernaut ever assembled in the Middle East will roar across the desert and defeat Iraqi forces with a combination of fast-paced and lethal engagements.
But if the weather turns bad, the timing and coordination of the multiphase operation slips or allied errors and misjudgments multiply, the commanders fear that the fighting could seriously bog down, requiring a slow, methodical approach to oust the enemy from Kuwait.
In any event, they agree that the next phase of the war against Iraq -- the land battle -- will be bloody.
Some American commanders are warning that front-line U.S. combat units can expect casualties of 10 percent over 30 days of ground fighting.
"They've got to toughen their minds for certain things that will happen," Col. Mike Burton, commander of a tank battalion in the Army's 3rd Armored Division, said of his troops. "They will make mistakes, and the impact of their mistakes will be critical."
To him and other Army and Marine officers in the field, the prevailing question is not whether to launch ground strikes against Iraqi strongholds in Kuwait and southern Iraq, but when.
While U.S. and allied warplanes have been trying to eliminate much of Iraq's ability to fight back, the ground commanders have been busy refining their plans for driving the enemy from its defensive positions and out of Kuwait.
The ground war, according to military officials and pool reports from forward U.S. positions, would focus initially on breaching the Iraqi forces' minefields, anti-tank ditches and other obstacles and attacking the Iraqi artillery batteries.
While Marines would launch a shallow strike into southern Kuwait, and possibly stage an amphibious landing on the eastern coast, Army troops and tanks would move around the flanks, sweeping north along Iraq's border with Kuwait.
The Army would maneuver to encircle Iraqi troops, cut them off from resupply and possible escape routes and draw them out to expose them to air attacks.
There also is some possibility that airborne units might drop deep behind the Iraqi front line, with helicopter gunships and allied ground-attack planes working to pin down enemy troops.
A coalition of Arab forces is expected to join a frontal assault into Kuwait, but U.S. and Saudi officials have been deliberately vague about the extent of Arab participation in any ground offensive.
Although Defense Secretary Dick Cheney suggests that a bloody frontal assault might be considered only as a last resort, no matter where the allies try to attack on the ground, layers of deadly, fortified defenses will await them.
Rows of minefields and other obstacles stretch from Kuwait's beaches to the Kuwaiti-Saudi border to the Wadi al-Batin region of Iraq, considerably west of Kuwait. Iraq extended its defensive line west only a few weeks before the war began to thwart any flanking maneuver.
U.S. field commanders, well aware of the killing power of Iraqi minefields, tanks and artillery, say any land battle would require effective "synchronization," or coordination, to take advantage of combined ground and air power.
The Air Force, for example, would send in its A-10 Thunderbolt jets, with their tank-killing Maverick missiles, as well as F-16 fighters, to strike at rear-area formations.
Artillery fire and Cobra helicopters with TOW anti-armor missiles would suppress Iraqi defenders and screen advancing U.S. troops. Apache helicopters would join the ground attack forces in direct engagements with Iraqi tanks.
"All that fire from helicopters, field artillery, A-10s, direct fire, become a synchronized problem," said Lt. Col. Steve Main, a 1st Cavalry Division tank battalion leader.
"To bring tanks, aviation, artillery, at the point you need is very difficult to do," he said.
Other officers conceded that the type of war envisioned -- requiring tactical surprise, rapid maneuvers and night operations makes it harder to finesse such tasks as calling in air strikes at precisely the right place and time.
"You can make this battlefield as difficult as you want to make it, but it comes down to how well we coordinate, do the little things right and exploit his weaknesses," said Capt. Jeff Coverdale, a 1st Cavalry Division officer responsible for coordinating aircraft operations.
Timing will be especially critical at the start of an all-out ground offensive because U.S. and British engineers must overcome the long Iraqi obstacle belt, believed to be several thousand yards deep in some areas.
Several commanders told reporters that they were counting on B-52s and massive artillery barrages to clear paths through the minefields.
But Army and Marine engineers still expect to use explosives, mine plows and mine rollers mounted in front of tanks to breach the Iraqi defenses -- even while vulnerable to enemy artillery and infantry fire.
"We have to avoid the accordion effect," said Capt. William Rapp, a company commander in the 27th Combat Engineer Battalion. "If we don't do our job fast enough, the first echelons in the [tank] column will have to slow down. That will work its way back, like a Slinky, until far enough back, the column could be at a standstill.
"We can't afford that," Captain Rapp said. Idle tanks and vehicles "are just a bunch of big targets for enemy artillery."
Iraq's formidable artillery batteries could be the main cause of allied casualties. There were 3,200 Iraqi artillery pieces in and around Kuwait before the war began, and senior allied military officials disclosed yesterday that they so far had destroyed only in excess of 650.
"We're overwhelmed by their numbers," said Col. John F. Michitsch, artillery commander for the 3rd Armored Division.
But he said most of Iraq's guns were dug into fixed positions and wouldn't be able to adjust quickly to rapid allied maneuvering. "We're not necessarily impressed by their accuracy," he added.
Another major concern is the weather, which could hinder A-10 attack missions against Iraqi tanks and blind laser-guided munitions. Low clouds, fog and sandstorms would discourage the kind of high-altitude, long-distance attacks A-10 pilots prefer, Air Force personnel said.
Striking ground targets from 10,000 feet or more off the desert floor "keeps jets out of surface-missile and anti-aircraft fire a good bit," said an Air Force liaison officer to the Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. "It's not unusual to work at 3,000 feet or so, but you must give them protection" with friendly artillery, he said.
Helicopter pilots say they need clear weather to fly reconnaissance missions and to fire their weapons at the longest range.
But one Army battalion leader remarked, "Nothing goes exactly the way you diagram it."
Other officers said they were placing their confidence in the realistic training their troops have received in the last few weeks. But for soldiers untested in battle, that still does not rule out the unexpected.
"The first casualty could bring some units to a screeching halt," said Captain Rapp of the 27th Combat Engineers.
"My guys will see their buddy dead alongside the road," said Lt. Col. Ron Stewart, a battalion commander and fellow engineer. "They'll stop, they'll cry, they'll puke, and there I'll be behind them, kicking their ass, saying, 'Come on, men, we've got a job to do.' "