AS the last US troops that fought in the Gulf war pull out of positions in Iraq and Kuwait and begin planning journeys home, the Pentagon still isn't sure how much weaponry will be coming with them. US officials want to leave up to a division's worth of equipment stored in the Gulf area, as a hedge against future Saddam Husseins. After his trip to the region in early May, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney said that Gulf nations had agreed to such a presence, in principle. Trouble is, there still aren't any specifics.
``We don't know for sure what's going on,'' says a well-placed Pentagon official.
The Saudis and other Gulf states, in what could be an effort to keep publicity about prepositioned equipment to a minimum, are now hinting that things should not proceed so fast.
Despite the flow of US troops out of the region - only 60,000 to 65,000 are left in the Gulf, down from a high of 540,000 - there's plenty of time for a pre-positioning agreement to be reached. Preparing tanks and armored vehicles for shipment is time-consuming, and US logisticians are not planning on finishing their packing until fall at the earliest.
The giant Saudi base of King Khalid military city would be the Army's preferred spot to store the equipment. A heavy division worth of weapons typically would include up to 290 tanks and 270 Bradley fighting vehicles, plus anti-tank missile systems, self-propelled artillery pieces, and MLRS rocket launchers.
It's unlikely helicopters would be included in the stored equipment, as they quickly deteriorate if not flown. Routine upkeep would most likely be carried out by contractor personnel, to avoid having a contingent of permanently based US ground troops.
The US has long sought a greater military presence in the Gulf region, but until Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and most other regional nations turned down American advances. US Central Command was allowed a small headquarters staff in Bahrain. Oman, a secretive sultanate on the very tip of the Arabian Peninsula, quietly allowed the storage of nonweapon US military equipment.
Whether ground weapons are eventually stored there or not, it seems inevitable that US military cooperation with Gulf nations will now increase.
``The realization that the United States is a good friend and a staunch ally will go a long way toward ensuring our access to critical facilities in the region,'' Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who heads up the Central Command, told Congress last week.
Defense Department officials have already ordered the Navy to maintain more ships in the Gulf region than it did before the war.
``That part is noncontroversial,'' Defense Secretary Cheney said at a breakfast meeting with reporters.
US air squadrons will now make periodic deployments to Gulf nations and run more visible joint exercises with the Saudi Air Force, among others. There will not be any US planes based permanently in the Gulf, however, Secretary Cheney said.
Likewise, there won't be any US ground troops stationed in the Middle East. A US brigade composed of troops that did not see combat will be kept in Kuwait for the next few months, according to Cheney. As to prepositioned equipment, ``we're working on it,'' said the defense chief.
There have been reports that the US has asked the United Arab Emirates for the rights to station a larger US Central Command headquarters staff on its soil. However, General Schwarzkopf said last week the US has no intention of moving the entire Central Command staff to the Middle East from its current Florida base.
In long awaited appearances before congressional committees last week, General Schwarzkopf discussed his conduct of the war. Among other things, he complained about the quality of US battle-damage intelligence, saying intelligence-agency analysts were too conservative in their assessments and that intelligence data bases of the different military services were often incompatible.
Other areas of concern identified by Schwarzkopf included countermeasures against plastic mines that are resistant to being exploded by overpressure, better ways for aircraft to differentiate between friendly and unfriendly ground forces, and army food.