WITH about 30,000 British troops deployed in the Gulf region, London-based military experts are debating what kind of war will have to be fought against Iraq if the Jan. 15 deadline passes without a peaceful solution. The consensus appears to be that a short, sharp conflict to free Kuwait producing an easy allied victory is by no means assured.
Much will depend on the ability of the United States and Britain to knock out the Iraqi air force and air defenses at an early stage and give the allies complete air superiority, says Col. Andrew Duncan, chief Middle East specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies here.
``If this can be done, Iraq will be wide open to any additional bombing or other forms of attack that will be necessary,'' Colonel Duncan said.
``But if [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein's forces succeed in holding on, and draw the allies deep into Iraqi territory, that will produce difficulties.
``They would obviously have to go some distance into Iraq to seal off Kuwait and outflank Saddam Hussein's main forces. But they must avoid being sucked into the Basra Delta area. That would produce acute problems, including control of the Iraqi civilian population, and prolong the conflict.''
Michael Gething, a specialist in air warfare with the authoritative Defence Journal, says that to be assured of gaining the upper hand in the early stages, the allied forces would have to mount a preemptive strike against Iraqi air bases, preferably at dawn.
``The most effective weapon in these circumstances would be the US Stealth fighter,'' Mr. Gething said.
``They could be used against Iraqi runways, but I doubt whether the 40 of these planes that the Americans have got deployed in the Gulf would be enough to do the job.''
Compared with the more than 2,000 bombers, fighters, and attack helicopters the allies would have at their disposal, Iraq has only 700 planes in its air force. But they will be widely dispersed, and Duncan expects air bases to be ``fairly well defended.''
One of the most effective forms of allied attack, Gething says, would involve the French-designed Durandal rocket weapon, which is dropped from aircraft and creates huge holes in concrete runways.
``This would be far more effective than the conventional bombs used to attack Argentine runways in the Falklands War.''
Tony Mason, a retired air vice marshal, appears to echo the views of serving senior British commanders when he puts the possibility of achieving victory through air power alone at little better than 50-50.
He notes that, in any case, the US under President Bush is planning a war involving land, sea, and air forces.
Perhaps the greatest imponderable is how effective chemical weapons would be if Saddam decided to use them. Duncan is skeptical about their value, except possibly as a deterrent.
He says: ``Chemicals are a horrific weapon, but allied troops in the field are unlikely to be stationery for long enough to become sitting targets of a gas attack. Chemical-tipped missiles could be used against our air bases, but the modified Scud missiles the Iraqis would use are pretty inaccurate and carry only a small payload.''
It would be easier for Iraq to use chemical weapons against civilian rather than military targets.
GETHING considers that Iraqi missiles with chemical warheads would be a real threat to allied forces if enough of them were launched.
``But the bases where they are located are fairly easily identified and would be obvious targets for US and British aircraft,'' he says. ``Air and satellite surveillance ought to make it possible to locate and target missile launch sites.
``Also, the Americans have the Patriot surface-to-air missile, which would be used to attack incoming Iraqi rockets and planes.''
The definition of a ``short war'' varies from expert to expert. Sir Peter de la Billi`ere, the British commander in Saudi Arabia, has said a conflict could be over in a few days. But for Gething, ``short'' is more likely to be four to eight weeks.
Duncan quarrels with those who say that the onset of the desert summer would inevitably make a war brief. ``I do not accept that fighting would be impossible in the temperatures certain to be encountered after April or May,'' he says.
So long as the troops had already had a chance to be acclimatized, even the crews of tanks should be able to continue fighting in high temperatures.
``The summer sun didn't halt fighting in the western desert during World War II, or in the Iran-Iraq war. I don't think it would in the Gulf, either,'' Duncan says.
He considers that the best prelude to a quick victory would be a sudden, massive air strike on the more than 40 bases and 60 missile sites the Iraqis would use. Stealth and F-111 bombers, plus British Jaguars and Tornados, would be the principal allied strike weapons in the early stage.
At the same time, allied air, sea, and land forces would attempt to jam Iraqi communications, particularly between Baghdad and Iraqi forces in Kuwait.