The Line in the Sand :...

The two most powerful men in the American military sat across from each other in the basement war room deep inside the heavily guarded Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defense compound in Riyadh. Around the 20-by-20 room were maps showing the detailed disposition of the hundreds of thousands of U.S., allied and enemy troops, thousands of tanks and hundreds of aircraft in the region. Key strategic targets--airfields, missile launchers, oil installations, weapons plants, command centers--were highlighted on another set of charts.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, following established protocol, spoke first.

"The President and the Secretary believe that we need additional assets in the region," said Gen. Colin L. Powell, wearing crisp new desert camouflage fatigues with four matte black stars on the lapels. Aides who attended the Oct. 23 meeting said Powell didn't need to explain how President Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had reached that conclusion. Satellite and aircraft reconnaissance showed that Iraq had tripled its forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq and dug them deep into reinforced earthen bunkers. Kuwait was being picked clean. Kuwaitis and Westerners trapped inside the captive emirate were being rounded up and sent to serve as human shields at critical military sites. The siege of the American Embassy there continued; food and water were running low. The United Nations embargo was having a frustratingly slow impact on Iraqi military capabilities and no apparent effect on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's intention to keep his rich prize on the Persian Gulf. The President was losing patience.

"What do you need, Norm?" Powell asked.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander-in-chief in the Middle East and a blunt instrument of a man, responded quickly: "What's the mission, sir?"

"The President hasn't decided what he is going to do, but he wants the forces in place to pursue all options"--including a full-bore land, sea and air assault on the 430,000-man Iraqi army in and near Kuwait and a drive toward Baghdad, Powell said.

"Then, I'll need more, a lot more," said Schwarzkopf, who already commanded the largest expeditionary force that the United States had assembled since D-Day--240,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. He ran down his wish list: a full armored corps--more than two divisions and 1,000 tanks with all the support elements. Additional armor and artillery and mechanized forces. Four more Marine Corps amphibious brigades, more than 50,000 troops. More naval firepower to pulverize the beaches in advance of Marine landings. More heavy bombers, more assault choppers and troop transports, more naval air support. More fuel, food, spare parts. More guns, more troops, more bullets, more bombs. More hospitals.

"You know and I know, sir, that if we have to push him out of Kuwait it's going to take time and it's going to be bloody. Do they know that back in Washington?" Schwarzkopf said.

"They know," Powell said.

The late October decision to nearly double U.S. forces in the Middle East was the most fateful turning point of the Persian Gulf crisis. It marked a change in the American military posture in the region and signaled a willingness to wage war--offensive war--to enforce the President's demands that Iraq leave Kuwait. Everything up until then was prologue.

The consequences that flow from that decision will be enormous. Bush hopes that the sheer size of the force he is assembling on the Saudi sands--nearly half a million men and women--will intimidate Saddam Hussein into withdrawing. But if it does not, Bush says, the inevitable outcome is war.

Either way, the balance of military power in the Middle East will be changed forever. The United States military, too, will be fundamentally altered in ways that now are difficult to predict.

When the crisis hit, the American armed services were in the midst of the most wrenching period of soul-searching since the Vietnam War. They were under orders to shrink by 25%, to scale back their overseas deployments, curtail training, padlock bases, kill new weapons programs, rethink their missions in a radically changing world. The Soviet Union, for two generations the focus of virtually all U.S. military planning, had almost overnight abandoned its confrontational stance.Pentagon planners sardonically joked that the U.S. military was taking more casualties on Capitol Hill than it ever suffered on Europe's central front.

On Wednesday, Aug. 1, the Pentagon's policy planning staff was wrestling with these questions, putting the final touches on a major speech that Bush was to deliver the next day in Aspen, Colo., laying out a new U.S. military strategy for the coming decade.

"We're entering a new era," they wrote for Bush. "The defense strategy and military structure needed to ensure peace can and must be different . . . And in this world, America remains a pivotal factor for peaceful change. Important American interests in Europe and the Pacific, in the Mediterranean and in the Persian Gulf--all are key reasons why maintaining a forward presence will remain an indispensable element of our strategy."

As these words were being written, an urgent rush of highly classified cables began pouring into the Pentagon. U.S. and allied intelligence agencies reported that Iraqi forces on the Kuwaiti border were preparing for an attack. Aircraft were being fueled and deployed forward. Command and control radio networks were being activated. Frog missile transporters were moving toward the Kuwaiti frontier.

"It looks like it's going to be a long night," one official remarked. It proved to be 100 long nights. And the "forward presence" that these Pentagon officials spoke of in their draft speech took on an ominous new meaning.

Four days later, the decision was made to commit nearly a quarter-million U.S. troops to the defense of Saudi Arabia and the oil lifeline of the industrial world. Virtually every weapon in the American arsenal--many never before used in combat--would be loaded on ships and aircraft and sent to the theater. The force would sit in the wind-swept moonscape of eastern Saudi Arabia until the job, still only hazily defined, was done.

Out of this adventure may arise a costly, decades-long commitment to police the region with large standing forces, not unlike the armies the United States has maintained in Korea and Europe for 40 years. The basic war-fighting doctrine that now guides the American military, a concept known as AirLand Battle, will be tested for the first time. The high-quality, high-technology volunteer services built up over the past decade at a cost of more than $1 trillion may be decimated by casualties and a rush of early retirements.

"This experience is the crucible for our defense posture for the rest of this century and the first part of the next," said Lt. Gen. Henry Viccellio Jr., Air Force deputy chief of staff for logistics.

As Vietnam shaped a generation of military leaders--including those who are commanding this operation--so the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990 will resonate through the American defense Establishment.

And like the Vietnam experience, different people will come away with different messages.

"One of the lessons we got out of Vietnam is that gradualism never works," said the Air Force's chief of operations, Lt. Gen. Jimmie V. Adams. "If we want to inflict pain, we would hope to inflict it rapidly and with an overwhelming capability, not unlike the Christmas bombing campaign which, in fact, brought the Vietnamese to the bargaining table."

Another Air Force three-star general, Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, an officer with perhaps a broader perspective on war and history, also cited the dangers of gradual escalation. But Horner, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, added: "I think Vietnam was very helpful. I think all of us came away from there with a very deeply ingrained sense that we're never going to let it happen again. Dishonesty, well, not dishonesty but a case of not being quite honest with your allies, and with your own system.

"We're not going to let that happen here."

IN THE SAUDI PALACE

King Fahd listened in brooding silence as U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Gen. Schwarzkopf presented their plan to land a quarter of a million U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. We understand how difficult a decision this is for you, the Americans said, we know what a cultural and political shock this will be. But in order for our force to be credible, it must be large, it must be heavy, it must be lethal, they said.

Intelligence photographs were displayed. They revealed that at least 100,000 crack Iraqi troops were in Kuwait, taking up positions near the Saudi border. Key pipelines and refineries--the heart of the Saudi oil industry and the soul of the nation's economy--were less than 100 miles south of the gun barrels of the forward line of Iraqi tanks.

It was 8:20 p.m. on Aug. 6, in the Saudi royal family's private council room in the summer palace in Jidda. King Fahd ibn Abdulaziz al Saud, who had cautiously directed the modernization of a traditional sheikdom, was about to make a decision that would forever change his insular desert domain.

After the Americans completed their remarks, according to three participants, the King said to his son, Crown Prince Abdullah: "The Kuwaitis waited too long. As a result, no longer is there a Kuwait."

"Oh yes there is, father," the prince said.

Fahd retorted dismissively: "Yes, and the entire nation is living in our hotel rooms."

He then turned to address Cheney and the rest of the small U.S. delegation.

"We accept your proposal," he said, on the condition that the Americans solemnly promise to respect Saudi sovereignty and withdraw the troops when they are no longer needed.

"Never before," King Fahd said, "have we had foreign forces on our soil. But I have to put the security and survival of the Saudi people first. I believe that President Bush is a man of his word. We trust the United States. We know you will do what you say . . .

"God willing, we will be victorious."

Moments later, Cheney, Schwarzkopf and the others left the room. Cheney called Bush to inform him that Fahd had agreed to the deployment.

Schwarzkopf went to a secure phone to call his Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. He ordered the 82nd Airborne Division to depart immediately for Saudi Arabia.

American military training, doctrine and hardware will be sorely tested in the coming months, no matter how the crisis ultimately ends. The desert, the sea and the enemy will teach many lessons; whether they are learned will be the true measure of this massive exercise of American might.

Already the nation has learned that it lacks sufficient airlift and sealift to move a large force quickly to a distant conflict. Had Saddam Hussein pushed south in early August, there would have been nothing to stop him. From this lesson will come a costly new commitment to pre-position huge stocks of war-fighting equipment in the Middle East.

Pilots have learned how easy it is to become disoriented in the barrenness of the Saudi desert. New training requirements and routines will result. Reserve and National Guard troops have learned that their pay and benefits come at a high cost, a realization that many believe will lead to fewer volunteers.

The Pentagon "bet the farm" on the ability of the services to rely on the guard and reserves in time of crisis, a senior defense official said. "We'll know at the end of all this whether it works."

Expensive new weapons, from the Apache helicopter to the M1-A1 tank to the F-117 stealth fighter and a thousand smaller systems, will all be tested in real-life conditions. So far, military officials in Saudi Arabia say, they have held up well. But until called into actual combat, their performance remains in question. Multibillion-dollar decisions on how to equip the force of the future will be made based on this experience.

Perhaps most critical, the military services' 15-year investment in people will face a searching examination. In no area has the military expended more money, more energy, more self-criticism than in preparing its men and women for battle. Civilian and uniformed officials all contend that the military of 1990 is the highest-quality American fighting force ever assembled. Soon, perhaps, we shall see.

"You have to have the right sergeants and officers, and they've got to have the competence that instills confidence in the soldiers. That's a very important part of lessons learned," said the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Carl E. Vuono. "As I've been out visiting units, I've seen that. I've seen a quiet confidence in the soldiers. You certainly see concern in the eyes of the soldiers, and that is something that one should expect. That says we have positioned the Army properly for a situation such as this," the four-star officer said.

Schwarzkopf, the commander who ultimately will be responsible for the lives of nearly a half-million American men and women serving in the gulf, is achingly aware of the burden he bears.

A ground war in the desert, he said last month, "could last a long, long time and kill an awful lot of people. I guess I'll say this: There are a lot of these people that keep saying WE ought to go over there and do this, WE ought to go over there and do that, but they are not talking about being with us when it happens.

"The WE that they are talking about is the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, sailors, Air Force and Marines. . . . We ought to think a little bit about what the cost is going to be. Not only to us, but to the enemy, too."

INSIDE THE PENTAGON

On Thursday, Aug. 2. Vice Adm. Francis R. Donovan, chief of the Navy's Military Sealift Command, gathered his staff in Washington to review overnight message traffic on the situation in Kuwait and prepare for the possibility that U.S. troops would be dispatched to the region. If they were, it would be his duty to transport the millions of tons of beans and bullets it takes to fight a major war.

"Where are the MPS ships?" Donovan demanded, referring to the fleet of maritime pre-positioned ships stationed around the globe with stocks of fighting equipment for the Marine Corps. He was keenly interested in the five ships ordinarily docked at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, the closest major U.S. supply base to the Persian Gulf. They can fully support a Marine Expeditionary Brigade, 16,500 troops, with aircraft, weapons, ammunition, vehicles, food, fuel and medical supplies for 30 days of high-intensity combat.

Three of the ships were in Diego Garcia, Donovan was told, according to a senior aide who attended the sealift command planning sessions. One was in Florida for repairs, completely offloaded and unavailable. The fifth, the Fisher, had just rounded the southern tip of Africa on its way to Jacksonville, Fla., for maintenance. Every hour, the Fisher was getting farther from the potential theater of operations, burning fuel it would need to return to the gulf if pressed into service.

On Aug. 5, Donovan took a gamble. He ordered his communications officer to send a message, classified Top Secret/Special Access/Op Immediate, to Navy 7th Fleet Headquarters in Yokosuka, Japan, which had operational control of the Fisher. The classification insured that no one who was not directly involved in the operation would have access to the message; "Op Immediate" gave it the next-to-highest priority on the World Wide Military Command and Control System secure communications network. Only a "Flash" message--ordering an immediate military strike or warning of an incoming ICBM, for instance--would move faster.

Donovan wanted the Fisher turned around. It was a risky move, because the President had not yet given his order to send any troops, a decision that would not be made until late the next day. The United Nations had not yet voted an embargo on Iraq. The Saudis had not yet formally asked for American military assistance. Donovan had no specific authorization to prepare for war. If word leaked that a Marine Corps ammunition ship had been diverted and ordered to sail toward the Persian Gulf, it would have been taken as a signal that the United States had unilaterally embarked on a major military action in the Middle East.

"Everyone assumes when you get in a situation like this you're going to call in the Marines," a Donovan aide recalled later. "He wanted all the MPS ships 'bunkered'--refueled--in case they were ordered to the gulf. He wanted to be ready."

As things turned out, Donovan bet right. For the Military Sealift Command--whose performance would come under harsher scrutiny than any other military unit in the ensuing weeks--Operation Desert Shield had already begun.

At the time of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, U.S. war plans for the Middle East were being extensively revised to reflect the evaporation of the Soviet threat to the region and the greater likelihood of a more localized conflict.

All the Pentagon's contingency plans had one thing in common: A need for rapid, large-scale deployment of U.S. forces to the gulf.

To meet the daunting transport requirements of these plans, the Navy and the Air Force spent billions of dollars in the 1980s to purchase new ships and aircraft and modify existing transports. The Navy alone spent $7.6 billion on strategic sealift in the 1980s, including the purchase of eight fast sealift ships which proved critical to moving the first heavy armored units to Saudi Arabia.

The Navy also assembled a fleet of 96 old commercial freighters, which it kept in mothballs as a strategic reserve in case of war.

While earlier exercises had revealed that the reserve ships were poorly maintained and unable to meet requirements to be prepared to sail on short order, Desert Shield dramatized a number of serious deficiencies in America's sealift capacity. Officials have said that one certain outcome of the gulf crisis will be an overhaul of the sealift program.

There was little debate within the Administration about whether to send troops to Saudi Arabia, and few dissenters in the military when Powell recommended that the Pentagon employ a war plan referred to as "1002." The plan called for a force of 250,000 troops, 60 ships and 1,000 aircraft.

"This was a no-kidding big operation," said the Air Force's operations boss, Lt. Gen. Adams. "We knew the whole enchilada was going to go."

But it is physically impossible to move a quarter-million troops, their tanks, their aircraft and all their supplies simultaneously. Following a computer-generated system known as a "time-phased force deployment data," or "tipfid," the lightest and the most deployable units moved first.

As a result, the early arrivals--the lightly armed 82nd Airborne Division, a handful of fighter aircraft squadrons, the first detachments of Marines--were seriously overmatched by the potent 100,000-man Iraqi tank army poised on the Kuwait-Saudi Arabia border.

Gen. Schwarzkopf was "absolutely terrified that Saddam was coming across in the first three weeks. There were a lot of sweaty palms here," said a high-level military operations officer.

Not until the armor units began to trickle in, during the third week of the operation, did American officers begin to breathe easier. But getting those tanks to the desert exposed the weaknesses of the sealift operation.

The first of the fast sealift ships to be broken out, the Capella, arrived at the port of Savannah, Ga., on Aug. 13 to take on cargo for the 24th Infantry Division, a heavy mechanized outfit based at Ft. Stewart, Ga.

The ship had never before been "combat-loaded," with the full array of munitions and fuel for battle. An M1-A1 tank, for example, weighs 60 tons when equipped for normal exercises. When fully loaded for combat, however, it weighs 72 tons. As stevedores filled the ship, the Capella began riding lower and lower in the water, until it came to rest on the bottom of the 37-foot-deep Savannah river. A Navy official put it a bit more delicately: "We ran out of draft before we filled the ship."

A complicated ballast operation freed the vessel, but the sealift command's reputation had taken the first of many blows. Another of the fast sealift ships, the Antares, limped into Spain under tow after its boiler blew in the middle of the Atlantic. The huge hospital ship Mercy set sail from Oakland on Aug. 13 but suffered a steering breakdown before it was out of sight of land and had to be towed back.

When the sealift command moved to activate ships from the Ready Reserve Fleet, only 11 of the 45 ships called were ready to sail on time. One ship that should have been at sea in five days took 55 days to get under way. Another took 60 days.

Sealift officials said none of the late deliveries made any appreciable difference in military capability in the theater and that the Navy moved more cargo in the first three weeks of Desert Shield than it did in the first three months of the Korean War. They also noted that the Pentagon refused to spend several hundred million dollars that Congress appropriated to buy more sea transports.

Nevertheless, some military officials were frustrated to the point of fury by tardy deliveries of war materiel to Saudi Arabia and vowed to radically revamp the command. "When the war is over and the finger pointing begins," an angry Army officer said, "the sealift command's dress whites are going to be black."

AMONG THE TROOPS

The principal way station for U.S. troops headed for Saudi Arabia is the U.S. air base at Torrejon, Spain, just outside Madrid. A mammoth hangar has been turned into a bunkhouse, with row upon row of cots for GIs to catch some rest while their transports are refueled for the second leg of the long journey to the desert.

Each unit that has passed through the air base has left a calling card taped to the wall of the hangar, a sketch of the unit's insignia and its motto. Soldiers have added their own comments, a mixture of adolescent threats and macho promises.

"Reach out and touch someone--and kill them." 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment.

"Christmas in Panama. Summer vacation in Baghdad." A Company, 307th Engineer Battalion.

"Door gunners from Hell: If it walks, it crawls, it dies." B Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment.

"Night Stalkers: Death waits in the dark." 160th Aviation Regiment.

"The one you never see." 415th Tactical Fighter Squadron (F-117 Stealth).

"If you kill for fun, you're a sadist. If you kill for money, you're a mercenary. If you kill for both, you're a U.S. paratrooper." 3rd Battalion, 505th Airborne Regiment.

The young authors of such bravado were less than 24 hours from home. Within a few weeks, their perspective would change.

Up near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, the grunts of 101st Air Assault Division's 3rd Brigade were sweating it out one recent day in their two-man foxholes, encircled by sandbags and enshrouded in camouflage netting. They faced thousands of Iraqi tanks with only a handful of thin-skinned troop transports to protect them. Their job was to provide early warning of an enemy advance.

They felt naked in the sand.

"If the Iraqis come this way, I'm going that way," one private said.

Their days dragged on, first through the remorseless heat, now through bitter cold; their meals were dehydrated field rations known as MREs or Meals, Ready-to-Eat; their recreation was calisthenics and card games. Why are we here, they wondered, 8,000 miles from home, aliens in an alien land?

"Everyone kind of thinks we're over here getting ready to fight through all this just so everybody back in the States can save a few cents on a gallon of gas," said Cpl. Steven Richter, a 21-year-old team leader from Sioux Falls, S.D.

Not that he was complaining. This was his job, he said; these were his orders.

But no matter how much the politicians and diplomats and generals spoke of the principle of the thing, Richter said, most of the grunts felt sure they knew what the squabble was about. And it made them uncomfortable.

"Almost every conversation," Richter said, "goes like this: What's the use of losing thousands of lives all for the sake of the price of oil?"

Perhaps the greatest concern of military commanders in the nether zone between war and peace is maintaining troop morale. Videotapes, scorpion fights, letters from home, religious services and roughhousing go only so far to dispel the tedium and the terror.

White House and Pentagon officials conceded early in November that sinking morale in the gulf was one of the chief considerations driving Administration policy--a major factor behind the decision to virtually double the fighting force in the region.

"It's tough to keep troops . . . out there in the desert with literally nothing to do," a senior White House policy-maker said in explaining the decision to send 200,000 more troops and put an effective deadline on Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. "As weeks grown into months, you lose your edge, morale goes down." In addition, he said, "this is a very heterogeneous coalition" of more than two dozen nations arrayed against Saddam Hussein. It won't stay together forever, he warned.

A longer-term concern is expressed by an Army colonel who advises the service leadership on future plans. He worries that whether the gulf crisis ends in conflagration or compromise, the Army's image and its future will suffer.

"How many kids will join the Army to be a tank gunner after this?" he wonders. "Kids don't enlist for the joy of being a soldier. They don't understand what soldiering is until they get in. I'm really afraid of this war destroying the Army. It'll kill the guys in my old battalion, destroy a ton of equipment. Who's going to sign up after this?"

Across an invisible frontier not many miles from the American troops sits the 430,000-man Iraqi army with 3,500 tanks, 2,200 heavy guns, hundreds of ballistic missiles and tons of poison gas. The American GIs are warned every day about a terrorist attack, like the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983 that killed 241 Marines. They are told to avoid contact with Saudi civilians, for fear of offending their conservative hosts. They're warned to watch out for night-prowling jackals, who've already bitten several soldiers, and camel spiders, which can kill and devour a rat. They're ordered to train and sleep and exercise and try not to think too much.

At the mobile field hospital at Dhahran Air Base, somebody has thought to bring board games to break the monotony. On a filing cabinet next to a shelf full of bandages sit Trivial Pursuit, Jeopardy and Risk.

Near the entrance to the hospital is a separate tent, specifically designed to decontaminate victims of chemical attack. "Welcome to Deconolodge," reads a hand-lettered sign on the entrance flap.

In a nearby tent city nicknamed Bedrock, two soldiers sun themselves and listen to a cassette player. A sign on their tent says: "For Sale by Owner."

Lately a slogan has arisen among the grunts: "Go home or go fight."

The President has yet to address the cost of Desert Shield, which will one day be measured in lost lives and lost treasure. And it also may rend the fabric of the armed services, which have been painstakingly stitched back together after the trauma of Vietnam.

Military and political leaders agree: If President Bush leads the nation into war, he must forcefully state his goals and meet them at an acceptable cost.

"The impact on the American military and the people will be directly related to the number of casualties," says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Navy flier who was shot down and taken prisoner in North Vietnam. "If the casualties are low, it will have an enhancing effect. If we get bogged down in some kind of a tank war . . . the American people will be very dissatisfied.

"We not only have to make sure we win this one, but we have to make sure we win so we can fight another one if we have to."

The Consequences What Next From the Military Look for: A commitment to pre-position war-fighting equipment in the Middle East and possibly elsewhere around the world to make future deployment easier. New training routines for pilots, especially over desert terrain. A reconsideration of the decision to depend so heavily on a military reserves system. More testing of new weapons systems. Sensitive Strategic Targets in Iraq

Major Iraqi Air Bases: Irbil Basra Kirkuk An Hasiriyah Havvaniyah Mosul Shu-aiba H-3 H-2 Major Nuclear Power Plants Basra Dibis Bagdad Nuclear Power Factories Tuwaybuh Mosul Irbil Petroleum Refinery Plants Kirkuk Bagdad Basra Rocket and Ballistic Missile Production Plants Hillah Mosul Falluja Chemical Production Plants Samarra Salman Pak Source: Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Times Wire Services Total forces in the Gulf projected for late January, 1991.

United Total Allied States Forces Iraqi Troops 430,000 630,000 680,000 Tanks 1,600 2,900 5,000 Aircraft 850 1,450 730 Ships 80 110 8

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°