It is the year 2003 and a resurgent Iraq has invaded Kuwait--again. But this time, Baghdad is brandishing a weapon that it didn't have in 1991: a nuclear arsenal. And it is threatening to use it if allied forces intervene.
The U.S. response is quick. In the Pentagon, military intelligence officers pool the computer data they have painstakingly collected on the locations and interior layouts of all of Iraq's nuclear facilities, including their structural weak spots.
Special operations teams sneak into Iraq from Saudi Arabia, fanning out--in dangerous missions--to disrupt communications at a pre-appointed hour. Tacticians prepare for ground attacks with special weapons, aimed at confusing the Iraqis and putting them off guard.
Squadrons of B-2 radar-evading Stealth bombers take off to drop deep-penetrating, precision-guided munitions that can pinpoint the vulnerable parts of a nuclear facility and pierce its protective bunker--without sending clouds of radioactive debris across the country.
Finally, the United States deploys aircraft equipped with radar-tracking missile hunters that can destroy mobile ballistic-missile launchers. If any Scuds actually are fired, the military has a new theater air-defense missile system that can shoot them down.
The air war is noisy, destructive and swift. Within a few hours, the Iraqi nuclear threat is gone.
No such high-technology scenario is yet within the capability of any U.S. military commander, but if the Pentagon has its way, at least some of it may be a part of the U.S. arsenal by the year 2003.
The need is indisputable. As the United States discovered to its horror during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq and perhaps other Third World dictatorships are far more advanced in developing weapons of mass destruction than U.S. intelligence agencies had believed.
Analysts said that U.S. troops escaped serious exposure to chemical and biological weapons mainly because Iraq was afraid of provoking the allies into using their nuclear weapons. Next time, Baghdad may not be so timid--and may have nuclear weapons as well.
Moreover, military analysts pointed out that of the handful of countries that the United States would be most likely to face on a battlefield in the next few years, virtually all--Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Syria--have some weapons of mass destruction.
Pentagon officials warned that even a few of these "special" weapons, as they are called, could wipe out regional airfields and depots that the United States would need to stage a second Operation Desert Storm and seriously jeopardize the chances for an allied victory.
Yet, until relatively recently, the Pentagon had not made much of a push to equip U.S. forces to meet those kinds of threats.
"We simply weren't prepared to deal with what we were facing in Iraq," one U.S. official said.
That may be about to change.
Just last December, the Clinton Administration launched a new "counter-proliferation" program aimed at equipping U.S. armed forces to destroy nuclear, chemical and biological weapons at the beginning of any conflict--before they can be used against U.S. troops.
The plan, which is only beginning to get under way, calls for a wide array of initiatives, from bolstering existing intelligence-gathering capability and developing new high-tech weapons to reorganizing the nation's military forces to carry out such a mission.
The Administration has also begun sounding out U.S. allies on the possibility of joining forces in the counter-proliferation effort. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has already begun work on the broad outlines of such a plan.
"This really is a serious problem," said Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The United States, he said, is "behind the curve. . . . We need to have more tools in our toolbox" to deal with weapons of mass destruction.
The implications for the military are enormous. Facing enemies who have even a handful of nuclear weapons might preclude the United States from using bases in countries such as Saudi Arabia or Japan, which might quickly become skittish about exposing themselves to nuclear fallout.
The United States might be forced to find more--and smaller--staging areas rather than concentrating its deployment at a handful of bases, as it did during Operation Desert Shield. Intelligence agencies would be used mainly to locate targets, as in anti-submarine warfare.
And the Pentagon would have to reshape most of its forces to enable them to handle the new counter-proliferation mission. It would also need an array of new weapons and high technology to help pinpoint--and destroy--weapons of mass destruction.
Although most of those tools are a long way off, the Pentagon is looking into a variety of proposals, from deep-penetrating bombs that can plow through thick concrete bunkers to tiny sensors--shaped like twigs--that can be dropped in the countryside to detect chemical weapons.
But, as Shalikashvili is the first to admit, the job will not be easy.
To begin with, acquiring the technology and weapons is certain to be expensive. Some experts said it could take as much as $35 billion a year for a decade to finance a serious counter-proliferation program--no easy job in an era of declining defense spending.
Second, for all the spectacularly high-tech weaponry that the United States displayed during the Persian Gulf War, Pentagon officials conceded that they still are a long way from having the technology to carry out the new counter-proliferation mission.
Critics of the initiative said they fear that it will only divert the Administration from traditional diplomatic efforts--including renewal of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty--and expand the role of nuclear weapons into the counter-proliferation area.
Indeed, the defense secretary's own annual report to Congress, submitted in January, calls for formal consideration of "whether and how U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear posture can play a role in deterring the acquisition or use of nuclear weapons by other nations."
The Administration, however, says it has no intention of permitting the use of U.S. nuclear weapons to destroy those of other countries.
Ashton B. Carter, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, contended that the counter-proliferation program envisions using nothing but conventional weapons to deal with the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.
"Our intention is to have a military that doesn't need to use (nuclear, biological and chemical) weapons," Carter said. "We can use conventional forces to prevail anywhere around the world."