Middle East

By infinite moonlight, US readies for war
By David Isenberg

Reasonable people might be forgiven for being confused by media coverage of the so-called debate about whether or not the US will invade Iraq. Much of the coverage has been based on two assumptions: first, that the administration has yet to make a decision to go to war with Iraq; second, that if it does decide in favor of war, there will be a measurable deployment of forces to the theater a la Desert Shield in 1990.

Both assumptions are wrong.

First, what exactly do people think the US military has been doing during the past decade? It has been conducting a war, albeit an aerial one with significant political limitations, over the northern and southern Iraqi no-fly zones. All told, nearly 300,000 flights have been flown in the zones, including about 265,000 in the south since 1992 and 33,000 in the north since 1997. This year alone, Iraqi air-defense facilities have been bombed eight times in the north and 19 times in the south.

The northern arm of this operation is Operation Northern Watch (ONW), the successor to Operation Provide Comfort, which officially ended in December 1996. ONW is now the longest active combat operation in US European Command history. Provide Comfort originally set up the northern no-fly zone, which bans Iraqi flights north of the 36th parallel, to ensure that Saddam’s aircraft did not harass Kurds and other minorities in the north near the Turkish border after the Gulf War. It is based out of Incirlik Air Base in south-central Turkey and has 45 or so planes assigned to the mission. Operation Northern Watch began January 1, 1997, with an initial mandate of six months.

The Turkish parliament reviews and renews the ONW mandate semi-annually, in June and December, and maintains fairly strict control over ONW activities, much to the irritation of the United States. Turkish rules of engagement are strict. The Turks allow ONW planes to fly 50 hours per month, but no more than three hours per day and three days per week, according to a spokesman at Turkey’s defense ministry. ONW planes are limited to 18 flying days per month, and ONW commanders can base no more than 48 aircraft at Incirlik.

Still, ONW has a considerable amount of firepower, though the exact number of aircraft is classified, and the mission provides a glimpse of what to expect if the United States goes to war against Saddam Hussein. A standard ONW "package" - the groups of planes flying into northern Iraq - includes air-defense suppression planes such as Navy EA-6Bs and Air Force F-16CJ Wild Weasels, Air Force strike fighters such as F-16Cs and F-15Es, refuelers, and AWACs battle management aircraft, according to Air Force documents. With regular flights, US and British crews electronically eavesdrop on communications and watch how the pieces of Saddam’s air-defense network communicate and function.

Operation Southern Watch flights, which fly from a number of bases and aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf region, began in August 1992 in response to Iraqi efforts to pursue and kill refugees, mostly Shi'ites, fleeing persecution from the Iraqi government. Southern Watch established a southern no-fly zone over Iraq and extends to the borders to just south of Baghdad.

As for the second assumption, that a decision for war would require a major deployment of forces and materiel, that's not necessarily true. The forces already in place in the region are substantial and have been that way for the past decade.

It is a little noted fact that the prospect of fighting another war with Iraq has been driving US military planning since the end of Desert Storm, and has served as a force-sizing contingency in such high level reviews as the 1997 and 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review and the Pentagon’s annual Defense Planning Guidance. In fact, the oil fires were not even out in Kuwait when then-secretary of defense Richard Cheney arrived in Riyadh in May 1991 seeking permission to store military equipment in Saudi Arabia. That same year, the Pentagon confirmed that the United States and Kuwait had reached agreement on a 10-year security pact which reportedly provided for the stockpiling of military equipment.

The United States and Bahrain also signed a defense cooperation agreement regarding the prepositioning of material. Central Command's Naval Component Commander (NAVCENT) for all naval forces in the region is based in Bahrain. The 5th Fleet headquarters is in Manama, Bahrain. Retained in the Gulf are some surface escorts, operating as Task Force 50, conducting maritime interception operations and enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq. The force includes destroyers, frigates and at least one submarine.

The Allied marine fleet in the area includes: the USS George Washington carrier battle group and its associated air wing, escorts and support ships, along with many allied naval ships from numerous countries. The Belleau Wood amphibious ready group (2,200 Marines) is also in the region. The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier battle group left the San Diego area in late July heading for the Arabian Sea area and would be available for operations. The Lincoln’s battle group, includes the carrier itself, Carrier Air Wing 14, USS Shiloh (CG 67), USS Mobile Bay (CG 53), USS Fletcher (DD 992), USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60) and USS Reuben James (FFG 57) the attack submarine USS Honolulu (SSN 718), and the USS Camden, a combat support ship. The Lincoln’s air wing includes VFA-115, the first F-18E/F Super Hornet squadron to deploy in the Navy.

In addition, at Shaikh Isa Air Base, 20 miles south of the Bahrain capital of Manama, the US Air Force has bombers, tactical fighters and air-refueling tankers in place, with an Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) also likely to be sent there. The AEF might consist of six B-1 bombers, 12 F-15s and 24 F-16s, of which 12 would be F-16CJs, specially equipped with radar-seeking HARM missiles designed to neutralize Iraqi air defenses. The United Kingdom’s RAF Tri-Star refueling tankers are based at the Bahrain airport in support of Southern Watch aircraft.

Contingency plans for an operation in Iraq call for up to 200,000 tons of heavy weapons, support equipment and other supplies afloat in the region on prepositioned ships and 350,000 tons prepositioned ashore throughout the region.

Since 1993 the US has pre-positioned weapons, supplies and vehicles in Kuwait and Qatar and on vessels in the region to equip at least three brigades of troops, roughly 9,000 to 15,000 soldiers who would fly there from the US. These troops could be airlifted and ready for action in 96 hours. The 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) from Fort Stewart, Georgia, is now rotating its three brigades through tours of duty in Kuwait, utilizing prepositioned combat equipment capable of fully supporting a three-battalion brigade based at Camp Doha, just west of Kuwait City.

At the moment, the 3rd Brigade from Fort Benning is deployed, using this materiel, and current plans call for a hand over to the 2nd Brigade, from Fort Stewart, likely around September. The force also includes a number of combat support and logistics units which support ongoing exercises to rehearse the unloading of tanks and equipment from prepositioned ships and the manning of Patriot missile batteries. It has been reported that these exercises have recently involved several thousand more personnel and that the total number of US military in Kuwait has increased to over 10,000.

The armaments in this area are stored in 37 warehouses, each averaging 60,000 square feet, in Kuwait and Qatar. Each of those countries holds in storage about 115 M-1A1 Abrams tanks, 60 M-2A2 Bradley fighting vehicles, 100 armored personnel carriers, 25 mortars and 20 155-millimeter howitzers. Ammunition is stored in both countries, with field artillery rounds in Kuwait. The Kuwait warehouses also hold 30 days' worth of food and fuel. In all, about 9,000 members of the American military are based in Kuwait, including crews for the planes that enforce the no-flight zone over southern Iraq.

The US Army has stockpiled enough equipment in Qatar for at least 5,000 troops of a brigade set, with one mechanized and two armored battalions, as well as equipment for combat service support units. Equipment for another armored brigade from the army and one from the Marine Corps - another 9,000 troops - is afloat on ships in the region.

In early August it was reported that the US Navy was seeking to charter a large roll-on-roll-off ship to carry military helicopters and ammunition from the United States to two ports in the Red Sea. It reportedly would carry about 48,000 square feet of helicopters, ammo and assorted rolling stock. The Military Sealift Command, the agency responsible for shipping the bulk of equipment used during the 1991 Gulf war, also asked for a roll-on-roll-off vessel to discharge at two ports in the Red Sea in late August. It did not reveal which ports, but brokers said that they were most likely to be in Saudi Arabia or Yemen.

The request followed an order for a vessel to carry military hardware covering an area of 38,000 square feet from Europe to the Middle East. The heaviest pieces, at 50 tons each, were probably tanks and armored vehicles. That shipment was also due for discharge in late August at an unspecified Gulf port. Together, the cargo of these ships total approximately 80,000 tons.

Separately, the Military Sealift Command recently awarded a US$219 million contract to Maersk Line Ltd of Norfolk, Virginia, for its personnel to operate and maintain eight large medium-speed navy-owned ships that remain afloat as part of the Pentagon's pre-positioned force in the Gulf region. The vessels are used to carry tracked and wheeled vehicles, such as tanks, cargo and utility trucks, ambulances and tanker trucks for operations in the vicinity of the British island Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The contract period runs through November 2007.

As Saudi Arabia has refused to be a launch pad for strikes on Baghdad, Washington has poured money and labor into expanding its $1.4 billion Al Udeid air base in Qatar, about 28 miles west of the Qatari capital Doha, which officials say will be finished by December. Diplomats say that the Al Udeid base, equipped with command facilities and satellite links that can control thousands of air strikes daily, offers Washington an alternative to its Combined Air Operations Center at the Prince Sultan base in Saudi Arabia.

Since last November, US forces have transformed Al Udeid into a state-of-the-art facility with one of the longest runways in the Middle East, at 14,760 feet, and a base that can accommodate up to 120 fighter jets. It is now home to the 319th Air Expeditionary Group. Fighter/bomber aircraft and air-to-air refueling KC-10 and KC-135 tankers and JSTARS reconnaissance aircraft currently operate there in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch. It also has air force construction engineers and a smattering of army personnel.

The air base has three hardened concrete underground shelters that can each hold 40 aircraft capable of operating even if the base came under biological or chemical attack. Al Udeid stands next to a sprawling arms warehouse, where Central Command has stored tanks, armored personnel carriers and enough weapons to equip a whole brigade. Al Udeid currently hosts about 3,000 US troops and 50 planes. Officials say that, once complete, it will be home to 10,000 troops. The United States also has the option of repairing three airfields capable of landing C-130 transports in Kurd-controlled Northern Iraq.

According to the Washington DC-based Center for Defense Information (CDI), currently there are about 8,000 American troops in Afghanistan, with several thousand more aboard ships in the Arabian Sea or stationed in neighboring countries like Pakistan and Uzbekistan. More than 20,000 additional soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are in the Persian Gulf area.

Unlike the slow buildup of 1990, the US Central Command is now able to move at warp speed. It is able to deploy 10 tactical air wing equivalents within five days, and a minimum of two US Army divisions within two weeks. These forces would be followed by a five-division US Army Corps, Marine Expeditionary forces and supporting air wings in the weeks to follow.

A recent analysis by CDI notes that more than 1,000 war planners, logistics experts and support specialists are now at all of the command posts in the region. The command and control capabilities at the component commanders’ headquarters throughout the southern Gulf states are continuing to be fine-tuned by the ongoing Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and in preparation for offensive action against Iraq. The video teleconferencing, satellite imagery and communications capabilities are fused by an extremely robust computer network that has enabled a level of operational situational awareness never before achieved for any commander-in-chief.

Although Jordan has publicly been very vocal that it is opposed to any military action against Iraq, currently the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit is exercising with Jordanian forces in a long-scheduled series of maneuvers. Some sources have reported that this exercise, Infinite Moonlight, is also a cover for prepositioning forces at well-sited forward staging posts. There are two airbases that could well be part of US contingency plans: Ruwayshid, on the road from Rutbah in Iraq to Turayf in Saudi Arabia, and Wadi al-Murbah further north. Both are very close to the Iraqi border, about 100 miles from the H3 complex of airfields that harbor several potential Iraqi missile launch points.

In Oman, an airbase at a Musnana’h, approximately 120 kilometers west of the capital Muscat, is under construction through US funding. It will have a 14,000-foot runway and will be a major enhancement to air operations for US forces. Airlift hubs at Seeb, Thumrait and Masirah Islands in the Arabian Sea are currently providing substantial support. (Masirah, a former RAF base, is also a major supply depot.) The B-1 force in the area, with the 405th Air Expeditionary Wing, is probably now located in Oman, possibly at Musnana'h. The British Royal Air Force has additional air refueling assets at Seeb to support the no-fly zone in Iraq.

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Aug 29, 2002

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A series by David Isenberg  (Jul-Aug, '02)


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