- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 18 (UPI) — Maybe the armchair strategists and the talking heads on TV are right and the invasion of Iraq will be a cakewalk with few casualties and cheering crowds of Iraqis welcoming their liberation.

But among military attachs in Washington, and in quiet chats among military historians and some ex-officers, there is a nagging worry that the U.S. and British forces may be going in too light.

So far, there are three moderately heavy units ready to attack. There is the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division which has 250 of the heavy M1 Abrams tanks, the U.S. Marines' First Expeditionary Force with another 120 M1 tanks, and there is the reinforced British 7th armored brigade, with 120 Challenger tanks.

These pack a powerful punch, and are far in advance of the 1970s-vintage Soviet-built T-72 tanks, which are the best the Iraqis can muster. The coalition hardware shoots more lethal rounds further and faster and with far greater accuracy than anything the Iraqis can throw at them. In theory, a few squadrons of M1 or Challenger tanks could devastate an Iraqi armored division.

But the Iraqis are estimated to have 2,600 battle-worthy tanks, and while most of them are obsolete, they still have to be dealt with. The Iraqis, true to the Soviet military doctrine in which they trained, depend heavily on artillery and have lots of it — some 2,800 big guns. Again, this presents no serious danger, since they are mainly towed guns, and will probably be able to fire only a single salvo before being tracked and destroyed by the U.S. Army's computer-calculated counter-battery fire.

Still, it is a discomfiting thought that even if only one in every 10 Iraqi tanks or heavy guns scores a hit, the coalition forces have no more armor.

Unless the U.S. buys or steals the Saudi and Kuwaiti tanks, there is no more armor in theater until the really heavy units like the 1st Cavalry Division finally lumber into the Persian Gulf, dock, unload, deploy their troops to their tanks, calibrate the guns and radios and toil north to battle — sometime in April.

The 1st Cav, the 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment all remain in Germany — their route to the Gulf interrupted by the Belgium government's decision to forbid the use of its ports.

An uncomfortably large proportion of the coalition forces for the first phase of war is composed light troops — the 101st Airborne, the British Air Assault Brigade, the British Commando Brigade. Elite forces all, they are not designed for prolonged, slogging battles against armored units — even of Iraq's unimpressive quality.

But the coalition generals are convinced that they can overcome such difficulties because they have an equalizer. The crucial advantage for the coalition forces is air power, which includes not just the conventional fixed wing bombers and fighter-bombers and the new unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, but the combat helicopters.

Light airborne troops can withstand tank assault if they have enough A-10 Warthog tank-killing aircraft and Apaches choppers in support. And if the U.S. forces that are currently in Kuwait and poised to attack are worryingly tank-light, they are reassuringly aviation-heavy.

But this raises another difficulty. It was not just the heat that made the Pentagon planners want to start this war much earlier, in January or February rather than at the end of March, (and already by midday the tanks are too hot to touch). It is the season of sandstorms that comes with the spring in Iraq.

There have already been two sandstorms that blew away tents from the sleeping troops in Kuwait. More alarmingly, the storms brought home to the allied commanders the vulnerability of their air power — and its delicate equipment — to the disorienting pilot blackouts that come with the swirling sand.

To have the limited amount of coalition armor fully engaged, the light troops facing Iraqi tanks and all air power grounded must be the ultimate nightmare for the U.S. and British generals.

All this is before the coalition troops come to the real challenge — the growing likelihood that Saddam Hussein wants to turn the city of Baghdad into a Stalingrad on the Euphrates. It does not take many snipers and rocket-propelled grenade launchers to turn a city into a battleground — and Saddam has 12,000 troops in his special security force.

War is the land of Murphy's Law, where whatever can go wrong, probably will — repeatedly. If it does, the Pentagon might have some embarrassed explaining to do over the next week or two.

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