- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

The U.S. military is moving a dozen or more missile-firing ships from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea, bordering Saudi Arabia, as Gen. Tommy Franks puts the final pieces in place for a war with Iraq.

As the ships were preparing to move as early as last night, the Air Force announced it had deployed an unspecified number of B-2 stealth bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., to bases closer to Iraq.

The bat-wing bombers, making their first deployment outside the United States, would play a key role in the opening hours of war by knocking out important military targets in Baghdad. The Air Force has established special shelters for the B-2s on the island of Diego Garcia and in Fairfield, England.

The White House has set Monday as a deadline for Iraq to begin disarming. If it does not, a U.S.-led attack could come any day afterward.

Two battle groups are in the Mediterranean, headed by the carriers USS Harry S. Truman and USS Theodore Roosevelt. The Navy has in place around Iraq more than 30 surface ships and submarines capable of firing the terrain-following Tomahawk.

A Pentagon official said it is his understanding that Gen. Franks, chief of U.S. Central Command who will oversee any invasion of Iraq, will keep the two carriers and their 140-plus aircraft in place for now. Only surface ships and submarines armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles will move to the Red Sea, the official said.

The official said the reason could be that, since the missiles fly relatively low and slow to their targets, Gen. Franks would rather have them fly over the Saudi desert than population centers over Israel and Jordan.

Tomahawks are typically one of the first weapons fired in war to take out air-defense systems. If citizens spot missiles overhead, it would give Baghdad warning of an attack and perhaps ruin the tactical surprise Gen. Franks is seeking.

"Shooting over Israel and Jordan politically may not be viable," the official said.

The two carriers' strike aircraft are able to fly high, 30,000 feet or more, before descending over Iraq toward the target.

Turkey has not yet granted overflight rights. But Pentagon officials said they believe Israel and Jordan, which is allowing American special operations troops on its soil, will allow flights over their airspace to Iraq.

Three battle groups are in the Persian Gulf, spearheaded by the carriers USS Constellation, USS Kitty Hawk and USS Abraham Lincoln.

The USS Nimitz battle group has left Pearl Harbor and is three to four weeks away from arriving in the Gulf. It is scheduled to relieve the Lincoln, which had completed its six-month deployment and was heading home when the Pentagon told it to reverse course and prepare for war.

The military has 21 of the radar-evading B-2 bombers. Analysts say as many as 16 could participate in the opening night of strikes against Iraqi fixed targets: air-defense centers, command posts and Republican Guard concentrations.

The B-2 holds 16 1-ton bombs, guided by the global positioning system (GPS), meaning each bat-wing aircraft can hit 16 different targets in a single pass over Baghdad.

The capability marks a major improvement from the Gulf war 12 years ago. Then, only the F-117 stealth fighter, with two laser-guided bombs, penetrated Baghdad airspace in the opening nights.

More than 230,000 American troops are in the Iraqi theater, backed by about 40,000 British personnel.

Gen. Franks said at the Pentagon last week that he is ready to wage war if President Bush gives the order to topple Saddam Hussein and rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

The final piece may be the Army 101st Airborne Division, a helicopter assault force of 20,000 soldiers. The last of the 101st's helicopters are scheduled to arrive in Kuwait this week by sea. The division is expected to carry out several missions, including opening a northern front and patrolling western Iraq for Scud missiles and launchers.

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