THE United States has thrown the most sophisticated technology ever used in warfare at the Iraqis - a gee-whiz array of sensors and stealth and ``smart'' bombs that have yielded impressive results for coalition forces. But despite the apparent success of the air war, bigger military tests still lie ahead. While the bombardment of Iraq, at times carried out with Swiss-watch accuracy, has allowed coalition forces to control the skies, it appears unlikely to bring the quick capitulation from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the US had hoped for. With each passing day, a ground war to evict Iraqi troops from Kuwait seems more likely - a move that will almost certainly bring heavy casualties and involve reliance on a whole other array of high-tech weaponry.
How well these perform will help determine the length of the war, what the casualties might be, even what the shape of future armies will look like.
``I know how long this is going to last,'' says one Pentagon uniformed official. ``I've laid in groceries. This is going to take weeks and weeks.''
From the outset, the US has known that if it got in a ground war with Iraq it would have to rely heavily on advanced technology to help overcome the manpower of the world's fourth largest army and a culture that has fought in the desert for 4,000 years. (With high-tech munitions being expended rapidly, will defense contractors win lucrative reorders? See story, page 9.)
A ground war will match the maneuverability of the US Army and Marine Corps against an entrenched, centrally controlled force trained and equipped in the past by the Soviet Union. It will be agility and sophistication against artillery and vast experience in defensive battle.
US officials are confident that the coalition military force will ultimately prevail on the ground, as it has so far in the air. But the sheer weight of Iraqi numbers could result in sharp, occasional setbacks that the US public must be prepared for, they say.
``We're looking at engagements where we could lose 30 tanks in 10 seconds,'' says the Pentagon official.
As of this writing, no full-scale assault had yet been launched by coalition ground troops. In one sense the ground war has already begun, though, with coalition and Iraqi patrols exchanging gunfire. The US Army has begun firing a brand-new type of guided surface-to-surface missile, called the ATACMS, at front-line Iraqi command and control facilities, according to the Pentagon.
Artillery duels are likely the next step up the escalation ladder, as US and coalition ground forces move forward to their jump-off positions. Tanks may be the symbol of armies to the public, but it is artillery that is often the most deadly ground weapon, and the coalition forces want to do all they can to soften up Iraq's long-range guns.
One new Army high-tech weapon that will undoubtedly be used in this effort is the Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS). Untested in combat, MLRS was added to the Army arsenal for the purpose of counterbattery fire and suppression of air defenses by quickly saturating an area with rocket fire at very long range.
``I would not want to be an Iraqi artilleryman over the next several weeks,'' says a consultant who studies ground weapons for the Pentagon.
Other ground weapons of technological sophistication that the Pentagon will evaluate closely in the coming fight include Copperhead, a laser-guided artillery shell; the Patriot missile, an air-defense weapon already famous for shooting down incoming Iraqi Scuds; the Apache attack helicopter, whose avionics and Hellfire missiles have yet to be fully tested in battle; and JSTARS, a radar-packed aircraft that is intended to illuminate and help control the ground battle in the way AWACS jets do for the air.
Technology, however, is not the end-all of war, caution experts. Microchips and lasers aren't the only reason coalition warplanes can put bombs down the air shafts of military buildings. Intelligence has to locate those air shafts beforehand, and it's now obvious that US spy satellites have been busy for the past five months. Soviet officials likely provided information about their former military client, as did the French, who sold Saddam aircraft and other military equipment.
``Apparently all of Hussein's suppliers were happy to be helpful,'' says Norm Friedman, an author of weapons systems handbooks.
The Iraqi Air Force and air defense systems are also relatively easy targets for US technology. Cruise missiles, F-15E fighter-bombers, communications jamming electronics, and other US weapons were designed to counter Soviet military might in general, and, in some cases, specific Soviet systems. The Iraqi armed forces are in many ways a less-capable copy of the Soviets.
``What I've seen so far is an extremely sophisticated technological nation beating up on an unsophisticated technological nation,'' says Kosta Tsipis, the director of the Program in Science and Technology for International Security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ``This does not tell us if a cheaper and less complicated technology would have done the same thing.''
Despite the high-tech coalition onslaught, Saddam has not yet backed down, as some thought he might. Enough of his mobile Scud missile launchers have survived to enable him to lob salvos into Israel and Saudi Arabia. Still, the US arsenal has yielded impressive results. The performance of the Patriot in shooting missiles out of the sky, plus stories of Tomahawk cruise missiles loping down streets in Baghdad enroute to accurate target strikes, have buoyed Pentagon officials and contractors criticized for years for ethical lapses and cost overruns.
Some critics have long argued that the US has gone too much for complex, expensive military hardware that wouldn't stand up in the rigor of combat. If many of these systems do end up performing well, it will buttress the cause of those in the Pentagon and defense establishment who argue for more electronics- and technology-driven improvements.