FROM behind the dune, fine dust floats into the air like smoke. Next comes the sound: a deep-throated roaring like that of a hundred Harley Davidsons. Then the British tanks come over the top. They peel down the dune in formation, their waving guns giving them the look of giant mammals. They stop in a neat line, the dust cloud rolling over them. ``Well done, lads!'' says a British major, pleased at the media-genic nature of the exercise.
These are the ``Desert Rats'' of the 7th Armored Brigade, a major part of Britain's contribution to the multinational military force now confronting Saddam Hussein. Their approximately 120 tanks are based here deep in the desert, right alongside United States Army and Marine units and miles from any sort of civilization.
When 14,000 more troops arrive after Christmas to join the 16,000 already here, the British will become the largest member of the alliance after the US and Saudi Arabia. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was an early and strong supporter of President Bush's Saudi Arabian deployment, and British members of Parliament (MPs) visiting their forces here insist the Conservative Party shake-up won't make any difference in their country's Gulf policy.
As with the Falklands war, the British Gulf effort ``is not a particularly controversial subject'' at home, says Tory MP Michael Mates.
British commanders are predicting a quick victory if things come to war. They say the softening-up of artillery and air bombardment would effectively weaken Iraqi defensive fortifications, which include antitank ditches filled with flammable liquids to create a wall of flame.
Such things ``aren't the sort of stuff you stop armies with,'' Lt. Gen. Sir Peter de la Billiere, commander of British forces in the Middle East, said at a Riyadh press conference Nov. 26.
What the Desert Rats themselves think of their mission here is difficult to tell. A quick survey of the tank crews finds none of the kind of grumbling about the waiting, the dust, or the food that one can easily pick up from their US counterparts.
Perhaps the troops are keeping their mouths shut, what with British politicians just out of earshot. Perhaps, as officers privately insist, their morale really is better than that of the Americans.
One big help, say British officers, is that the troops know their government is putting the finishing touches on a rotation policy that will send soldiers now in Saudi Arabia home by next spring - absent fighting.
``The main problem for your guys is they don't know when they're going back home,'' says British Capt. Johnny Ormerod.
British forces operate often with Americans in this sector of the desert, says Captain Ormerod. And the Brits have learned much about desert life from US troops, such as how to check your boots for scorpions. While the British train on the expansive, but cool, plains of Canada, almost all front-line US units have participated in summer exercises on the parched California Mojave Desert.
Both sides admire some of the others' equipment. The British covet the US secure-speech radios, and, to a certain extent, their M1 tanks, which are more modern than the British Challengers. The Americans eye the minelaying equipment of the British and their chemical-warfare protection suits, which are lighter and cooler than US models.
The terrain where the Desert Rats are based, not far from the Kuwaiti border, appears designed for heavy tank warfare. Large, open plains with little but scrub roll up to low dunes and hillocks. There's enough cover for tanks to maneuver, but not enough for them to hide very long.
British encampments dot the vast area, their netting-covered equipment and weapons looking at first glance like nothing but large, sharp rocks. Only after settling into this sector did the British discover its main disadvantage. ``There was a problem,'' says Capt. Tim Wilson. ``We were live-firing in a key camel grazing area.''
With camels worth upwards of $3,000 apiece, this was no laughing matter to the local herdsmen. So, for four days light tanks from a reconnaissance unit were assigned to camel-interception duty. They dashed about the firing range chasing large, humped interlopers out of danger. ``It was hilarious,'' says Staff Sgt. Dave Sparks.
The problem was that camels don't like to be herded, at least not by clanking armored vehicles. Once driven out, a camel would simply turn around and beat back in again.