The Pentagon's contingency plans for renewed military operations in the Persian Gulf would dispatch F-16 and F-15 fighter jets to bolster an already sizable air armada in Saudi Arabia and off its coasts, defense officials said Wednesday.
At a minimum, the additional forces, which could be rushed to their posts within 36 hours of receiving orders, would allow the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia to provide blanket air cover for U.N. teams making inspections of suspected Iraqi weapons sites.
In addition, the beefed-up force could provide an offensive option for air strikes against weapons caches and other targets if the Iraqis fought back.
The new deployment would push the number of U.S. warplanes in the region to well over 200 and reflect the Defense Department's strategy of using overwhelming force to prevent effective resistance.
"We could do a hell of a lot of punitive damage now," said one defense official who requested anonymity.
Pentagon officials said they are readying other U.S. warplanes that might be sent to Turkey, where they would bolster the multinational air force protecting Kurds in northern Iraq from possible attack by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's forces.
While the deployment of more aircraft to Turkey could take place before the end of the week, Pentagon officials insisted that such a move is unrelated to the U.S.-Iraqi dispute over the U.N. inspectors' access to Iraqi weapons sites by helicopter.
As they assessed the significance of the contingency plan unveiled Wednesday, several experts cited the Pentagon's decision last October, at the midpoint of the Operation Desert Shield deployment, to double the number of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf to 540,000.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, explaining that move later, said that he and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, belonged to the "don't screw around" school of military planning. That view, Cheney said, dictated that if American GIs are to be sent into a potential fight, they should have as much offensive firepower as possible.
On Wednesday, officials said that any renewal of U.S. operations also would take place under the defensive shield of Patriot missile batteries, which are to be rushed to Saudi Arabia from Germany today or Friday. The Saudis, worried about Iraq's remaining force of Scud missiles, requested an emergency shipment of Patriots several weeks ago, officials said.
"We believe Iraq still possesses several hundred Scud missiles of the type used against Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said in confirming the planned shipment.
Pentagon sources said the air armada that has remained in Saudi Arabia since the end of fighting includes F-15s and F-16s, as well as F-117 Stealth fighters, F-111 fighter-bombers and A-10 and F-4G attack planes.
Navy officials said a total of 26 warships are steaming into and around the Persian Gulf, and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln has taken up station close to Saudi Arabia, where its combat aircraft could reach points in eastern Iraq. In the Mediterranean, also within striking distance of Iraq, are the aircraft carrier Forrestal and 18 other warships.
All together, close to 200 U.S. warplanes are operating in and around Saudi Arabia, flying training missions that include surveillance of Iraqi aircraft activity, officials said. If the Pentagon puts its contingency plan into place, that number could rise to close to 250 planes.
Roughly 36,300 U.S. military personnel remain in the Gulf region, including 11,200 Army, 4,750 Air Force and 16,000 Navy personnel.
On Wednesday, officials said several U.S.-based wings of fighter aircraft were placed on higher levels of readiness.
Iraq's accounts of its weapons programs have been repeatedly contradicted by inspectors dispatched there by a U.N. special commission.
What Iraq Claimed: It provided list of 52 Scud and modified Scud missiles with range greater than 90 miles; also launchers and transport equipment.
What U.N. Found: Inspectors discovered and destroyed more missiles than claimed by Iraq. They suspect hundreds more may be hidden.
What Iraq Claimed: Baghdad said it had no nuclear weapons program. Under pressure, it later admitted it had uranium-enrichment programs but still denied having a weapons program.
What U.N. Found: Inspectors found secret facilities where uranium was being enriched to weapons-grade quality. They decided Iraq could have produced two or three bombs a year by the mid-1990s.
What Iraq Claimed: It listed more than 10,000 chemical warheads for rockets, missiles, bombs and artillery shells, as well as unfilled shells and tanks of raw materials.
What U.N. Found: Iraq has at least 40,000 loaded and unloaded weapons, which they are moving to a depot for eventual destruction.
What Iraq Claimed: It insisted it had no biological weapons program. Under pressure, it later admitted conducting research with deadly anthrax and botulin.
What U.N. Found: U.N. says it is clear Baghdad had a research program to develop such weapons. Inspectors found sophisticated hardware indicating Iraqis could produce biological warfare agents.
Source: Associated Press