WASHINGTON -- Air Force officers are increasingly worried that the pilots flying in the United States' $1 billion-a-year air campaign over Iraq face growing risks from anti-aircraft fire and the intense pace of the mission, which is straining the pilots and their jets.
As the United States pursues its quiet war with Iraq, a one-sided air battle in which U.S. and allied pilots have dropped more than 1,000 bombs this year, Clinton administration officials fear that a pilot will eventually be shot down or crash, giving Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a propaganda victory and raising the profile of a military mission that few officials want to talk about.
The specter of the loss of American lives was raised this week when the Pentagon said U.S. pilots have reported "a couple of close calls" with anti-aircraft fire in recent days.
"We think that's just dumb luck" on the part of Iraqi gunners, said Pentagon spokesman P. J. Crowley.
But Rep. Porter J. Goss, chairman of the House Select Intelligence Committee, said a malfunction because of the harsh climate and high number of missions could pose an even greater risk.
"This is risky, day in and day out," the Florida Republican said. "I'm very concerned that we are using the equipment, the planes, at such a rate that we are wearing out the planes and the pilots."
U.S. and allied pilots have been flying daily sorties over northern and southern Iraq almost since the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991 to protect the Kurds in the north and the Shiite Muslims in the south from Hussein's troops.
Iraq, which has protested the no-fly zones and repeatedly asked the United Nations to remove them, has stepped up anti-aircraft fire at U.S. and British aircraft since a four-day U.S. bombing campaign in December.
Since then, Hussein has offered a $25,000 bounty to any gunner who shoots down a U.S. jet. Though U.S. officials say Iraq's anti-aircraft technology is crude, pilots routinely fly at altitudes of at least 20,000 feet for their safety.
Crowley, the Pentagon spokesman, refused to give details about the recent near-misses, but he described the anti-aircraft fire as "ready, aim, fire -- just trying to put as much flak up in the sky in hopes of a one-in-a million shot."
U.S. Central Command says Iraq has fired at U.S. and British jets more than 350 times, prompting return fire from pilots. But U.S. pilots have also set off on a number of occasions in recent months on missions to bomb anti-aircraft batteries, including one that had attacked more than 30 targets.
This year, U.S. pilots have flown more than 6,000 sorties. The jets take off from bases in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. Since the end of the gulf war, no U.S. or allied jet has been shot down or crashed over Iraq.
"Considering the number of missions, the fact there has been no loss of life or aircraft is phenomenal," said Capt. Ron Watrous, spokesman at Central Command Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. "You're talking about operating in some very harsh conditions, for which you need a lot of time and care to put into those aircraft."
Watrous said officers have sufficient time to maintain the approximately 200 fighter jets. "The record speaks for itself," he said.
But U.S. officials said senior Air Force officers have expressed strong concern in recent months about the condition of the planes and the rigorous schedule.
Goss said that he has heard similar sentiments and that there should be much more public debate over the military mission in Iraq and its effectiveness.
State Department officials have said repeatedly that the U.S. flights have helped contain Hussein, a key component of U.S. policy toward Iraq.
But, Goss said, "it's a strange thing for Americans to agree to be bombing another civilization of innocent people because we don't like the guy who is running the railroad. This is not good for many reasons, including what I cynically call collateral damage, by which I mean arms and legs and human beings."