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Boston Globe September 17, 2002

Rumsfeld adds targets in 'no fly' enforcement

By Robert Schlesinger

WASHINGTON - In the midst of the debate over war in Iraq, the United States has quietly changed its strategy in enforcing the ''no fly'' zones over northern and southern parts of that country, expanding the list of targets to include communications centers in an attempt to debilitate Iraqi air defenses, US officials confirmed yesterday.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he ordered the new strategy more than a month ago to increase the safety of US and British pilots.

''The idea that our planes go out and get shot at with impunity bothers me,'' Rumsfeld told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.

Asked whether the new strategy was intended to prepare for a full-scale war against Iraq, the secretary said he couldn't gauge whether it had effectively lowered Iraq's defenses. ''It can't hurt,'' he said.

Military analysts saw the new policy as part of a general increase in tempo in recent weeks that appeared to be the prelude to a broader US strike against Saddam Hussein's regime.

The new direction is ''part of their strategy of going ahead and softening up the air defenses now, so there's less to do on Day One,'' said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank. ''Every sortie that they fly today and every bomb that they drop today is one sortie and one bomb that they're not going to have to drop when the war starts.''

For more than 10 years, US and British jets have been enforcing ''no fly'' zones under United Nations resolutions designed to prevent Hussein from retaliating against opposition groups in northern and southern Iraq. US defense officials say pilots have encountered a rising number of provocative actions from Iraqi air defenses, including attacks upon allied aircraft.

Previously, allied policy had been to strike at specific batteries or radar sites, in a ''kind of tacit constraint on what our operations were,'' said Owen Cote Jr., associate director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Cognizant of the effect that US air supremacy had during the Gulf War, Iraq has built one of the most dense and sophisticated air defense systems in the world, with networks of fiber-optic cables linking surface-to-air-missile batteries and antiaircraft artillery with extensive radar coverage. Chinese specialists have reportedly helped develop the system, and Iraqi military officials in turn advised the Serbians in air defense tactics during the combat in Kosovo.

According to defense officials, the Iraqis have used 10 years of ''no fly'' cat-and-mouse with allied jets to experiment and hone their defenses.

The Iraqi integrated system uses multiple long-range radars to identify a target, feeding the information to individual antiaircraft units which then only have to turn on their short-range radars - whose distinctive signals make them a target for airstrikes - for a very brief period of time. That kind of system ''poses significant challenges'' for allied planes conducting air operations in Iraq, Cote said.

''Destroying just one radar or one battery in such a system doesn't necessarily diminish the defensive capacity,'' said Dr. Loren B. Thompson, Jr. of the Lexington Institute. ''You need to attack the critical nodes where the controls are located.''

The individual batteries are more mobile and more easily replaceable than the command-and-control centers.

While US defense officials have maintained for months that they have not stepped up air operations in the region, Rumsfeld and General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did acknowledge that the focus of the operations has shifted to more substantial targets, in an attempt to systematically disable the Iraqi air defenses.

''The recent strikes have degraded their air defense capabilities,'' Pace said.

Rumsfeld added that it is unclear whether Iraq's efforts to improve its defenses are keeping pace.

He said he had made the decision more than one month but less than six months ago.

Defense analysts said that the new strategy appears to be the prelude for war.

''They're sending a message to Iraq, and the essence of the message is: The Americans are coming,'' Thompson said. ''The fact that the new administration is being less discriminating, more decisive in its attack strategy underscores that it is getting ready for a major military operation. At the very least it underscores that we want Iraq to believe that.''

Allied forces have hit targets in five different sites in southern Iraq this month, bringing the number for both ''no fly'' zones to 32. The most recent strike was early Sunday morning against an air defense communications facility 160 miles southeast of Baghdad.

According to defense officials, there have been more than 140 provocations this year.

Analysts have particularly noted a Sept. 5 strike against a western Iraqi complex within the southern ''no fly'' zone but far afield of the usual allied activities. They also noted that the following day allied forces hit an antiship battery in the Arabian Gulf.

''There's physically no way you could connect that with Iraqi air defenses,'' said Pike.

The broader US strategy shift, he said, has seen rules of engagement ''moving from `no fly' zones to free-fire zones.''

Robert Schlesinger can be reached at schlesinger@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/17/2002.


Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.