WASHINGTON - Some senior U.S. military officers both in Washington and in the Persian Gulf are troubled that U.S. forces in Iraq do not have enough tanks and other armored vehicles to complete the drive on Baghdad and protect the long supply lines that have been vulnerable to attacks by irregular Iraqi forces.
These officers, who are mostly in the Army and requested anonymity, complain that there is only one tank-heavy unit in Iraq - the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Ga. - and that some tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles might have to be pulled back from their approach to Baghdad to protect supply lines, perhaps delaying what has been a fast-paced campaign to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Officers fault Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for sending in light infantry forces, such as the 101st Airborne Division, and not more armored units with greater firepower.
One Pentagon official familiar with the discussion among top officers said, "There is concern we've got to get the right forces on the ground. There is growing concern about keeping this pace.
"We were supposed to have two more divisions on the ground, the 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division."
Added one Army officer, "The top guys are concerned the right guys didn't get there." Those who feel that way include senior officers now in the Persian Gulf, he said.
Help is weeks away
But it could be at least two weeks before the heavily armored 4th Infantry Division gets to Kuwait from the Mediterranean, and at least five weeks before the 1st Cavalry Division, with tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters, arrives there from Fort Hood, Texas, officials said.
The officers also say that a decision should have been made earlier by the Pentagon to send the 4th Infantry Division to Kuwait, rather than wait three weeks hoping the Turkish government would let it establish a northern base in Turkey.
Asked yesterday about concerns over the lack of armored forces, Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who is commanding the allied campaign, has other units that can do the job, including helicopter-borne Army troops, Marine units and British forces.
"I think he's doing pretty well with what he's got right now," McChrystal told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
'Right mix of forces'
Victoria Clarke, Rumsfeld's spokesman, said at the same briefing, "Most people with real information are saying we have the right mix of forces. We have a plan that allows it to adapt and to scale up and down as needed."
Meanwhile, Franks told reporters in Qatar that his plan is on schedule.
"Progress toward our objectives has been rapid and, in some cases, dramatic," he said.
But retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Mechanized Division in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, echoed the worry of the active-duty officers.
He said that, over the past several months, he has raised similar concerns with top Pentagon civilian officials about what he believed was an inadequate ground force set aside for the Iraqi war.
McCaffrey said the Pentagon should have at least doubled the number of armored divisions before starting the war.
"In my judgment there should have been a minimum of two heavy divisions and an [armored cavalry regiment] on the ground - that's how our doctrine reads," he said.
Long supply lines
With a supply line that stretches about 300 miles, McCaffrey said, armored cavalry regiments - with their helicopters, tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles - along with military police battalions, should be providing security for the convoys servicing the frontline troops.
The re-supply operation taking place behind the troops advancing toward Baghdad is one of the most complicated and critical components of the invasion, Pentagon officials say.
As soon as the first tanks breached the Iraqi border, a steady flow of fuel tankers, water trucks and other support vehicles followed them, racing back and forth to the front lines.
Sticking to the major highways, those support troops have established "forward logistics bases" roughly every 50 miles, stocked them with supplies, and even opened small maintenance facilities.
Each base is roughly 10 acres in size, ringed with concertina wire and staffed by 200 or more troops, Pentagon planners say.
The strategy for re-supplying troops headed for Baghdad calls for "leap-frogging" materials from base to base, following as closely behind the front lines as practicable.
American engineers have also been laying a fuel pipeline from Kuwait, to shorten the distance that tanker trucks must travel to refill.
Tank divisions need to refuel every four to six hours, mostly because of the thirsty M1 Abrams tank, which requires roughly two gallons of fuel to drive a mile.
"This isn't just a refueling operation, it's a massive re-supply chain," said one Pentagon planner. "We're talking about thousands of tanker trucks, container trucks filled with ammunition and supplies, medical equipment, spare parts, water, food - we're still trying to give them one or two hot meals a day."
Travel in no-man's land
The re-supply operation is also vulnerable, as the first few days of the war have shown. Vehicles traveling between bases - be they water trucks, food haulers or 5,000-gallon tankers loaded with fuel - must traverse a vast no-man's land that might require them to travel in small convoys that momentarily leave communications range.
The re-supply effort is so mammoth that the open highways are busy with coalition vehicles, including tanks and other armored vehicles. And soldiers within the supply units are outfitted with 50-caliber machine guns, grenade launchers, shoulder-fired weapons and other protection.
But the supply chain is so long that empty stretches of road are common. The maintenance unit captured by Iraqi troops Sunday was believed to have been on a mission to collect and repair broken-down equipment between forward logistics bases.
Wrong turn, ambush
Two dozen American soldiers were attacked by Iraqi irregular forces after their convoy of six vehicles made a wrong turn near An Nasiriya, about 230 miles south of Baghdad. Ten soldiers were rescued by U.S. Marines, seven others were reported killed and five - including a woman - were taken prisoner.
Even more potentially vulnerable are the forward area refueling points - FARPs - that the Army has established in Iraq as temporary refueling posts for helicopters. Because the helicopters must work so close to the front, the FARPs are sometimes stand-alone operations without nearby tank units to protect them.
Some military officers said that tanks and armored vehicles from the 3rd Division might have to be moved south from around Baghdad to protect the supply routes.
McChrystal said he knew of no such proposal. "I'd be speculating on any plan General Franks has," he said.
Should some of the division's armor be pulled back to support the rear areas, it could delay the rush to Baghdad.
"We may be forced to give up the initiative," said one defense official.
Risk at the rear
"General Franks is going with a bold, aggressive attack plan," said one officer with the 1st Cavalry Division, which is part of the war plan but not expected to arrive in Kuwait until early May. "He's accepting some risk in the rear areas."
Said another officer, "It's a long supply line without security."
McCaffrey and other officers say the heart of the dispute with the defense secretary and his top advisers is over what warfare should look like.
Rumsfeld and his advisers are pressing for a fast-paced operation with a heavy emphasis on airpower, special operations forces and quick-moving light infantry, while the Army continues to favor heavy armor formations.
Living in the past
"I think several brilliant high-ranking civilians have accepted the notion that this war will be like no other and that Army generals have their feet planted in 1944," McCaffrey said.