THE ground war might begin like this: In the dark of night, engineers of a United States Army battalion on the Saudi-Kuwait border blow a path one-vehicle wide through an Iraqi mine field. As they work, the engineers' cumbersome armored mine plows are covered by fire from some of the battalion's 150 M-1 tanks and 100 artillery pieces. When they're done, a column of M-1s and infantry fighting vehicles races spear-like up the path, breaking through a point Army VII Corps intelligence long ago confirmed to be held only by Iraqi light infantry.
Once on the other side of Iraqi defenses, the column spreads like a river that has breached a dam. Iraqi troops desperately call division headquarters for artillery fire to help - and find that US airborne troops have landed deep in their rear to spike any guns left after weeks of bombing.
The Iraqi's clear-channel radio - their only remaining means of communication - crackles with reports of a massive coalition column moving past the far west end of Iraqi fortifications. And there are rumors of US marines landing on beaches near Kuwait City. The Gulf war has suddenly become three-dimensional, with synchronized deep strikes, air cover, and ground assault: what US military doctrine calls AirLand Battle.
This scenario is one in which everything goes right. That doesn't often happen in war, and Iraq retains enough ground power to inflict significant casualties on the coalition's combat troops.
Nor does a ground assault appear imminent. The continued success of coalition air power in whittling away at Iraqi forces appears to have convinced President Bush to hold off the Army, at least for now, and let bombing continue.
But barring a negotiated withdrawal or mass surrender, there will have to be a ground offensive at some point to take back Kuwait. It will be a fluid attack designed to explode where Saddam Hussein least expects it.
``We will go against his weaknesses with our strength,'' said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, earlier this week. Pentagon planners have been poring over intelligence assessments for months to determine just what those weaknesses are. The key, say US officials, is how Saddam has arrayed his forces in southern Kuwait. ``Two-thirds of his force is light infantry that's dug in, and one-third of his force is mobile, and armored,'' says a Pentagon official. ``The true threat is the armored force.''
Iraqi fortifications are formidable, but once they are penetrated or outflanked, the dug-in infantry manning them becomes irrelevant. Coalition forces will move to deal with the mobile Iraqi tank forces held in reserve behind the front lines to stop just such a breakthrough.
Coalition forces would receive quick intelligence on troop movements from such assets as new JSTARS radar planes, while the Iraqis, without air cover, would largely be fighting blind.
``We will be able to outmaneuver them very quickly,'' says the Pentagon official.
Precise plans are secret, but most analysts believe coalition forces would take advantage of their superior mobility and begin a ground war with some sort of flanking movement to the west, around Iraqi defenses. This flanking move by a corps-sized force would then split, with part moving north to block Republican Guards coming from southern Iraq, and part moving east to deal with armored reserves already in Kuwait. At the same time airborne troops would drop in the rear and marines would mount an amphibious assault somewhere on the Kuwaiti coastline.
This outline merely hints at plan complexities, however. Take the scenario of a battalion punching through Iraqi lines. Such small frontal attacks could well take place all across the Saudi-Kuwait border in the opening minutes of a ground campaign. Their purpose would be to fix the defenders in place, keeping them occupied while the main attack sweeps in from elsewhere.
Some of these frontal attacks would be real. Some would be feints.
``At the front you're going to have to at least present a threat,'' says the Army operations official.
The AirLand Battle doctrine that is the framework Pentagon officers use for thinking about ground operations has been official US Army doctrine since the early 1980s. Though originally drawn up to deal with a Soviet force that could throw more troops at the front lines than NATO, it is just as applicable to the Gulf situation, say officials.
AirLand Battle has four tenets:
Initiative. The side that sets the terms of battle and acts more quickly has a huge advantage, according to the doctrine. By refusing to be drawn quickly into a ground war, and relying on massive air power to pound Iraq as long as possible, the coalition is already defining the war's terms, note officials.
``Initiative, the ability to set the terms of battle by action, is the greatest advantage in war,'' says Field Manual 100-5, the Army's basic how-to-fight handbook.
Agility. Moving faster than the enemy is crucial to Army doctrine, both literally, via quick M-1 tanks and Bradleys, and figuratively, with superior command and control that allows quicker decision making.
Depth. In striking at Republican Guards and military targets in Iraq itself, far from the front lines, coalition forces are already using the full depth of the Kuwait theater.
Synchronization. This means making timing come out right, with air power, diversionary attacks, and deep strikes all working together. War seldom goes like clockwork, however. ``US casualties due to Iraqi artillery may still be high,'' notes an analysis by Michael Eisenstadt, military expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.