IF war does break out between Iraq and the allies arrayed against it, fighting will likely be faster and more intense than forces in battle have ever experienced, say American military commanders here. But they add that, if anything, this progress in the technology of war only emphasizes why a peaceful solution to the Gulf crisis is devoutly to be wished. ``War is mankind in its most ludicrous state,'' says Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, chief of US Central Command Air Forces and a veteran of 111 combat fighter missions over Vietnam.
Asked who is responsible for bringing the Middle East to the brink of such ludicrousness, General Horner smiles a tired smile and refrains from directly condemning Saddam Hussein. ``Mankind is responsible,'' he says.
Lt. Gen. John Yeosock, head of Army Central Command forces, adds that anyone who thinks a Gulf war would be quick, easy, and surgical is wrong. ``Warfare is violence,'' says General Yeosock, also a veteran of Vietnam.
Seen close up, the sheer size of the military buildup in Saudi Arabia is sobering. Dickering over a United Nations resolution on the use of force seems something very distant; reality is the convoys of M-60 tanks on trailers and ammunition trucks traveling along the main road to Kuwait.
Huge United States tent cities have sprouted where only a few weeks earlier there was nothing but dust and scorpions. Networks of new roads, complete with signs and traffic cops, have sprouted behind the front lines, while at one air base US refueling aircraft are lined up on the flight line for two miles.
And all this is only the first wave. Advance officers from US units in Germany are already arriving to see where their troops will be based. The scale of the deployment is ``far beyond everything I've ever experienced,'' says Horner, interviewed at a Saudi air base upon return from an inspection tour. Neither is the deployment ad hoc. Over the last 10 years US Central Command, the section of the military charged with keeping tabs on this part of the world, quietly stockpiled equipment at several sites in the region. Pre-positioned material included air-traffic control equipment, munitions, and weapons for a Marine amphibious force kept on ships at the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
Yeosock has been thinking for years how he might move 200,000 Army troops to Saudi Arabia if necessary. An early 1990 planning exercise dubbed ``Operation Internal Look'' left him with detailed contingency plans. A month after the exercise ended, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Yeosock himself lived in Saudi Arabia for several years in the early 1980s when he was a modernization adviser to the Saudi National Guard. ``I've spent a considerable amount of time in the deserts of the world, he says.
So have many US soldiers. Many of the units now in Saudi Arabia have trained at the Army's National Training Center in California's Mojave Desert.
The Army has long focused on a possible Soviet invasion of Europe, and US tanks now on their way from Germany will have to be repainted from green to sand camouflage. But ``just because Americans don't know much about this part of the world doesn't mean their soldiers don't,'' says Yeosock.
The military arsenal the US has moved here includes a number of weapon systems that were first deployed in the 1980s and have yet to be tested in major combat, such as the M-1 tank, the Apache helicopter, and new model F-15Es. If they work as advertised, these weapons promise to give US forces access to something they've never used much before: the night.
``The thing unique to this deployment is the great employment of night-fighting capability,'' says Horner.
Both the F-15E and F-16s, mounted with new targeting pods, can make precision bombing runs at night, says Horner. Night vision equipment for Apaches, M-1 tanks, even sentries on guard duty gives Army troops similar capability.
In past wars such as Vietnam and World War II night brought lulls, particularly in ground fighting. Though there might be exchanges of artillery, important maneuvering was often saved for first light. The ability to fight round the clock, plus the increased accuracy and speed of modern weapons such as the M-1, is what would make any Gulf war one of unprecedented ferocity.
Firepower could be focused on much more distant points than in the past, says Yeosock. Ground fighting would range over vast areas of the desert, an ideal environment for heavy armor.
Of course, US forces wouldn't be facing Iraq alone. They might not even be facing them first. US and British forces are deployed in a large semicircular pattern in the northeastern portion of Saudi Arabia, while Egyptian, Syrian, Saudi, and other Arab forces are entrenched closest to the border, in a generally straight line near the northern Saudi city of Hafar al Batin.
Top US commanders insist there is no command-and-control problem with this multinational force, since the US has long planned for alliance fighting with multilingual allies in Europe. Generals Horner and Yeosock meet with Saudi counterparts every day. For ground forces above the battalion level the language of communication is English, as it is for all military pilots.
Fighter jets of different nations constantly share combat air patrol duties across the whole front, says Horner. ``Right now I don't know who's guarding the sky,'' he says.
Neither the Central Command Air Force chief nor his Army counterpart face the prospect of war lightly, or enthusiastically.
They know that some troops are ``gung ho.'' Others want to go home, and that almost all of them are plain tired of waiting.
``We are Americans. We like things to happen very rapidly,'' says General Yeosock.
But as professional military officers they are ready to do what they see as their duty. ``For many people,'' says General Horner, ``this might be the most important thing they do in their lives.''