Air Power Faces Its Biggest Test

The allies' first strike will come from the skies

The sign at a U.S. airfield in Saudi Arabia says it all: SEND US IN TO KICK SOME OR SEND US HOME TO GET SOME. Fighter jocks have always been a gung-ho breed. But as war looms, the confidence of American pilots in the Persian Gulf is soaring. At one frontline air base in Saudi Arabia, pilots of the 71st Tactical Fighter Squadron have already designed a symbol to paint on their fuselages after each Iraqi jet they shoot down: a neat triangle of green and red, two colors of the Iraqi flag. The notion that Iraqi pilots might be doing the same with red, white and blue hasn't occurred to the U.S. airmen. "You respect any [enemy]pilot," says Capt. Greg York. "But I respect our technology and I respect our pilots. We are better."

The can-do spirit is even stronger in Washington. To Air Force brass, war with Iraq is a long-sought opportunity to demonstrate the decisive role of air power in modern warfare. Iraq's own Air Force is relatively weak. In the treeless desert, Iraq's troops could be exposed to relentless aerial pounding. Best of all, a successful air war might obviate a ground assault on dug-in Iraqi troops in Kuwait-thus sparing the United States thousands of casualties. And if what the admistration wants is not merely to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, but also to destroy Saddam's missile facilities and nuclear-, biological- and chemical-weapons plants, then only air power can do that.

But could air power force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait? "Only armies hold territory" is the mantra of U.S. Army commanders-who happen to include Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell and Desert Shield commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. To land warriors, air power has been oversold almost since the Wrights raced down the sand at Kitty Hawk; it didn't break the Viet Congs' will to fight, they say, and it won't break the Iraqis'. As one U.S. tank-war officer in Saudi Arabia put it: "You can shoot down all the MiGs you want, but if the enemy tank commander has a beer in your officers' club, you lost the war." Air-war advocates counter that after a sustained air campaign, Saddam will be cut off from his demoralized troops. As one senior Saudi diplomat said: "If the Iraqi troops in Kuwait are bombarded day after day, what choices will they have? If they remain, they will get killed. If they come south into Saudi Arabia, they will be killed. Their only choice is to move back into lraq."

The outcome of a war-and billions of dollars in future Pentagon budget authority-could hinge on which service winds up carrying the brunt of combat against Iraq. The squabble came to a head last September, when Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael J. Dugan was fired for publicizing his case for massive air assault. But lately Dugan's ideas have made something of a comeback. In a classic Pentagon compromise, the two strategies have been merged: U.S. plans now call for massive airstrikes of varying duration, to be followed by ground attack. American generals settled on this plan after realizing that a frontal assault on dug-in Iraqis, even with the extra ground forces President Bush ordered in on Nov. 8, would be nearly suicidal. Those Iraqi defenses-and the armored divisions in reserve behind them-will first have to be hammered from the air.

The other assumption behind the Pentagon's new thinking about air power is that there will be calls for a cease-fire-perhaps from the United Nations, conceivable even from Saddam Hussein - soon after a war breaks out. The White House wants Saddam's military machine crippled before the peace offensive begins. So the order from Bush, to which the allies have agreed, is that the initial air attack on Iraq will be sudden and massive, as Dugan envisioned. American warplanes will be assigned to destroy not just Iraq's Army, but its entire defense resources. Iraq's nuclear-, biological- and chemical-research facilities are early targets (map, page 28), say U.S. and British sources. High on the list also are Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party leadership. If all goes according to plan, carrier-based A-6 jets from the Mediterranean will destroy Saddam's Scud missiles before he has a chance to fire them at Israel or Saudi Arabia. The A-6s and British Tornadoes will also strike Iraqi power stations and cripple Iraq's national electrical grid.

On paper, at least, the 1,300 plane allied aerial armada in the gulf, capable of flying at least 1,800 sorties per day from six U.S. aircraft carriers and almost 3O bases in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, seems unbeatable. Essentially the same force that NATO arrayed against the Soviet bloc in Central Europe, it represents a 40-year effort to negate the Warsaw Pact's numerical advantage through advanced technology. But the Iraqis have only about 650 operational jets, of which only between 65 and 75 are top-of-the-line Soviet models. The allied air forces face good defenses by Third World standards, but nothing like the forest of Soviet surface-to-air missiles in the Warsaw Pact. American warplanes will move in "force packages," which incorporate the specialized capabilities of some of the most advanced aircraft and missiles in the world:

Striking at night, F-117A Stealth fighters will hit Saddam's four air-defense centers and his six key long-range early-warning radars.

F-15s can spot enemy aircraft on radar 80 miles away and bring them down with missiles from a range of 40 miles.

A single AWACS plane flying over Saudi Arabia at 29,000 feet can track aircraft taxiing on runways north of Baghdad, then direct allied aircraft to intercept the incoming raid.

One British or Italian Tornado ground-attack jet can, in a single pass, put 60 bomb craters in a runway, at the same time scattering 430 mines to kill the repair crew. Tomahawk cruise missiles, fired from U.S. cruisers and destroyers in the upper gulf or in the eastern Mediterranean, will follow up.

EF-111A Raven defense-suppression aircraft jam long-range radars using 10 separate high-powered jamming transmitters. Flying high over Saudi Arabia, the EF-111A will jam Iraqi long-range radars and fly flank guard for deep-penetration strikes against targets far inside Iraq.

F-4G Wild Weasels will seek to knock out Iraqi SAMs using radiation-homing Shrike or HARM missiles, plus 750-pound cluster bombs, which shred radar antennae and their support vehicles.

All of this assumes, of course, that the vaunted but little-tried U.S. technology works as advertised. The Stealth fighter missed undefended targets in Panama, due to pilot error. In a ground assault, U.S. forces may find themselves relying most heavily on the Vietnam-era B-52 bomber and A-10 tank-killer, a low-tech, slow-flying but punishing airplane. Some A-10 pilots worry that the fast-flying F-15E and the Army's gadget-laden Apache helicopter will be of little use against Iraqi tank columns-and the Iraqis may be able to mount an effective low-tech air defense using concentrated machine-gun fire and thick smoke from burning Kuwaiti crude. Interservice wrangling may have been papered over at the top, but not in the field. "We're not only fighting against Saddam Hussein here," one Air Force officer in Saudi Arabia says. "The Army won't let the Air Force win this one, especially with an Army man in overall command." Rep. Les Aspin, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, observes the air-first, ground-second plan means "advocates of air power will get a full opportunity to see if air power alone can win the war." If it can, war with Iraq could revolutionize U.S. military thinking-and utterly devastate Saddam Hussein.

F/A-18A SERVICE: Navy

MISSION: Fighter, coastal bomber

COMBAT RANGE: 460 to 630 miles

ARMAMENT: 2 Sidewinder and 2 Sparrow missiles, 20-mm cannon; assortment of air-to-ground weapons, including Harpoon and Maverick missiles

A-10 THUNDERBOLT SERVICE: Air Force

MISSION: Close support tank-killer

ENDURANCE: 2 hours at 230 miles from base

ARMAMENT: 30-mm 7-barrel cannon plus up to 6 Maverick and 2 Sidewinder missiles

TORNADO GR-1 SERVICE: British, Italian and Saudi Air Forces

MISSION: Anti-airfield, antitank strikes

COMBAT RANGE: 875 miles

ARMAMENT: Cluster bombs (JP233 anti-airfield; MW-l antitank), or four 1,000-pound bombs

EF-111A SERVICE: Air Force

MISSION: Jamming air-defense radar

COMBAT RANGE: 1,032 miles

ARMAMENT: none

B-52G SERVICE: Air Force

MISSION: Bomber

COMBAT RANGE: 3,680 to 5,550 miles

ARMAMENT: 51 Mk.82 2,000-pound bombs