Breaching The 'Saddam Line'

Allied troops call it the "Saddam Line," a hellish frontier reminiscent of World War I battlefields in Central Europe. Its ribbons of sand berms, trench works, tank ditches, barbed wire and minefields stretch from the gulf along the Saudi-Kuwait border deep into Iraq (chart, page 26). Invaders entangled in its hazards could find themselves languishing in "killing zones" controlled by Iraqi guns. The first coalition forces into this no man's land will not be tanks or infantry. Breaching Saddam's defenses is the job of U.S. and British combat engineers, also known as sappers. A speedy ground campaign could hinge on their ability to clear the way by erecting temporary bridges, flattening berms and removing enemy mines--all while under fire. "There are three groups who go eye to eye with the enemy: infantry, armor and the sapper," says Lt. Col. Roger Somerville, who teaches the perilous art at the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Armies have long sought engineering solutions to military objectives. The Assyrians used inflated animal skins to cross defensive moats. American sappers knocked out German minefields and blockhouses on D-Day. In October 1973, Egyptian combat engineers employed water cannons to break through Israeli sand ramparts on the eastern side of the Suez Canal. Desert Storm's ground campaign will be heavily engineered as well. Bombers will be able to eliminate some of the Iraqi defensive perimeter, but most allied air power will be focused on artillery and tank positions in the rear. American war-fighting doctrine, which calls for lightning-quick thrusts of overwhelming armored force, will depend on combat engineers to remove obstacles with precision and dispatch. A delay of just a few minutes in completing a bridge or eliminating a minefield could allow Iraqi artillery to lock in. "If we take too long, we'll have a dramatic increase in losses," says Col. Anthony Nida, deputy assistant commandant at the engineering school. "There's a window that we must meet to achieve success or we will bog down."

While high technology dominates many elements of the allied campaign, combat engineering remains a no-frills affair, a combination of brute force and slide-rule pragmatism. Tanks fitted with rakes and plows will skim the desert sand and soil for mines. British and American assault vehicles carrying a 165-mm demolition gun can remove hardened enemy emplacements. The U.S. version can pierce seven inches of concrete from a range of nearly 3,000 feet. Other armored vehicles can flatten berms and hydraulically launch 60-foot sections of bridge, or drop bundles of fascines--lengths of pipe linked by chains--across trenches or canals. Still, a lot can go wrong. Swift-rising desert winds could dissipate mortar-launched smoke screens, exposing sappers to fire. Intense heat from flammable liquids burning in enemy ditches could prevent deployment of the hydraulic bridges.

Mines are probably the engineers' greatest worry. For years Iraq has been a voracious consumer of the low-cost antitank and antipersonnel mines readily available on the international arms market. Allied officials estimate that Saddam may have placed some 500,000 of them throughout Kuwait--along with countless homemade booby traps. Their inventory is believed to include older Soviet-made mines with pressure-sensitive detonators, as well as new "smart" models triggered by seismic or electromagnetic waves. British and American engineers plan to clear paths through minefields by shooting off rocket-propelled hoses packed with high explosives. The British model, the Giant Viper, can create an opening nearly 10 yards wide and 200 yards long. But because of their volatile payload and exposure to enemy fire, the Viper and its American counterpart, the Mine-clearing Line Charge (MICLIC), are both virtual bombs on wheels. "If we get a direct hit, it won't be so bad," one Marine engineer gamely joked. "We just won't know what hit us."

Engineers will also find themselves relying on measures that have been around for years. The Bangalore torpedo, a length of explosive pipe effective at blasting concertina and barbed wire at close range, was used on D-Day. There is also the grim prospect of having to put lone soldiers in the field with bayonets or mine detectors. Sometimes, finding a minefield "Comes down to somebody stepping on one," says Army Capt. Jeffrey Jerome of the First Engineers Battalion.

Both British and U.S. engineers have been training hard for months using elaborate replicas of Iraqi perimeter defenses. American commanders in the gulf concede that the British have the edge in experience, training and equipment, While the First British Armored Division has three full Royal Engineer regiments attached, a similar Army or Marine division normally has only one engineer battalion. The United States is trying to bulk up, though. Recent graduates at Fort Leonard Wood, normally assigned to various posts throughout the world, are being held at the school for extra training in mechanized-combat engineering and possible shipment to the Persian Gulf. "Everything we've trained for is over there," says Pvt. Thomas O'Connor. Training is one thing, combat quite another. The ability of O'Connor and others like him to bridge the two will determine how quickly the Saddam Line falls.