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Toronto Star December 22, 2002

U.S. arsenal deadlier than ever

By Lynda Hurst

If, as looks increasingly likely, the United States invades Iraq this winter, Saddam Hussein will be up against a more deadly array of high-tech military hardware than he's ever before encountered.

The development of at least three new American weapons systems has been jumped up in the past two years for use in a conflict Washington has long viewed as inevitable.

Paramount among them is the unmanned Predator drone aircraft.

Used only for surveillance in the 1991 Gulf War, the Predator has since evolved into a remote-controlled killer, fitted with two precision-guided anti-tank missiles called Hellfires. Several of them are already patrolling no-fly zones over Iraq. Last month, the sleek, 8.2-metre UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) was used with pinpoint accuracy by the Central Intelligence Agency in Yemen to fire on a moving car, killing six suspected Al Qaeda terrorists.

A pilotless Predator can linger over an area for up to 24 hours, its sophisticated sensors igniting a Hellfire within seconds if an enemy missile or a mobile radar dish moves out of hiding. It can take hours for manned aircraft to be scrambled and move on a target that could be re-hidden by the time they arrived.

The U.S. Air Force has about 20 Predator UAVs, some of which were deployed in Afghanistan with undisclosed results last winter. This year, President George W. Bush ordered another 22. The CIA has an unknown number.

"Unmanned aerial vehicles like the Predator will be the superstars in any new war," predicts Jack Spencer, a defence analyst with the Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington.

A second new addition to the U.S. arsenal, already the biggest and most formidable in the world, is the high-precision Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, a satellite-guided, all-weather "smart" bomb.

In the last Iraq war, 90 per cent of air strikes used either conventional "dumb" bombs that simply fell to the ground or laser-guided bombs that can be disrupted by rain or battlefield smoke, making it difficult for pilots to lock them on to targets. Next time, at least 50 per cent of bombs deployed will be smart JDAMs.

Guided by invisible signals from orbiting Global Positioning System satellites, a JDAM is programmed with the co-ordinates of a location, but once released can find its own way, reputedly to the exact target.

Because pilots don't need to see the target with JDAMs, as they do with laser-guided bombs, they can fly at higher, therefore safer, altitudes.

"They're an example of what the U.S. military calls 'economy of effort,'" says David Rudd, executive director of the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies.

"You don't need a flood of bombs to hit a target, just one smart one - and that helps with the political hypersensitivity on collateral damage and civilian casualties."

If it comes to another war, Iraq's forces will certainly recognize the U.S. military's main battle tank, the 70-tonne M1A Abrams. But it's now called the M1A2 and has improved sensor capabilities and upgraded armour.

Similarly, the F-18 Hornet that flew regularly in the Gulf War is now the Super Hornet and is capable of carrying one-third more bombs than before, including the 2,000-pound JDAMs.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush allocated $30 billion (U.S) for the procurement of brand new, not just upgraded, munitions. Among others being rushed into combat readiness are so-called "agent-defeat" penetration weapons, which include guided cluster bombs that scatter 4,000 titanium rods on impact. They're capable of burning up bunkers and storage tanks containing chemical weapons, as well as neutralizing biological agents with disinfectant chlorine and acids.

Another exotic new device is the "directed-energy" weapon, which uses high-powered microwaves to short-circuit electronic connections. It was successfully field-tested last year - destroying the ignition system and air-fuel mixing system of an army vehicle - and has been described by the military as "elegant, safe, well-built and user-friendly."

There has been no confirmation that directed-energy microwaves or agent-defeat incendiaries will be used in Iraq, but analysts say it is highly likely they will. Striking with conventional bombs at sites suspected of containing weapons of mass destruction is simply too dangerous, with the risk of toxins being dispersed over wide areas.

Despite America's new high-tech weaponry, experts are quick to stress that all bets are off if the war moves out of the desert, where the Pentagon wants it, and into the streets of Baghdad, where Saddam is determined to take it.

As senior Iraqi cabinet minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh put it this fall: "If they want to change the political system in Iraq, they have to come to Baghdad and we will be waiting for them there."

Urban warfare is known in the military as "primordial combat" or "the great equalizer." Buildings can shelter enemy forces from reconnaissance UAVs; enemy personnel can blend in with the civilian population, whose presence makes the use of even the smartest bombs extremely high-risk.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, a former Middle East commander, told a U.S. Senate committee last month that the "nightmare scenario" is the hunkering down of 100,000 of Saddam's best troops in Baghdad for a block-by-block battle in the midst of 5 million civilians.

"The result would be high casualties on both sides," Hoar testified. "All our advantages in command and control technology and in mobility are in part given up and you are working with corporals and sergeants and young men fighting street to street."

There are no regular army divisions in Baghdad, but three Republican Guard divisions are stationed on the outskirts.

"Are we prepared to fight in the urban environment? Sure, but it's going to cost us," U.S. Navy Capt. Tom Johnston, head of the Center for Joint Urban Operations, told the Washington Post last month.

If U.S. troops are forced into the capital, the plan is to cordon off sections of the city to provide escape routes for civilians and hoped-for military defectors. Critical facilities, such as the electrical grid, would be incapacitated (not destroyed as they were in 1991), their loss eventually making the government fall, Johnston speculated.

Special operations units have always been drilled in urban combat, but about 18,000 regular U.S. troops from 36 battalions are now receiving intensive training for the first time. It will continue, says the Pentagon, until they are deployed, likely next month.

"If this all happens," says Rudd, "the U.S. will have to have a ground war for the simple reason that, to control the situation on the ground, you have to be on the ground. This is a chess game and Iraq will play to what it perceives is the American weakness."

That works both ways, counters Patrick Garrett, an analyst at Global Security.org, a defence policy and research organization based in Alexandria, Va.

If the U.S. invades, Garrett says, it likely will begin by running tanks up from the south. Meanwhile, as many as five naval battle groups will have positioned themselves in the Persian Gulf, each armed with 70 to 80 warplanes.

Garrett says the USS Harry S. Truman battle group, which departed for the Gulf early this month, has with it an unprecedented three guided-missile destroyers, alongside two frigates and one, possibly two, Tomahawk-firing submarines.

The carriers will be used as air bases if Saudi Arabia and Turkey continue to equivocate on American use of their facilities.

"If the battle stays in the field," says Garrett, "it will be a short war. If it goes into the city? I don't know. That's the real question."

There is only one certainty about both sides' battle strategies, says Rudd, citing 19th-century Prussian militarist Karl von Clausewitz's famous, still-valid remark: "No plan survives its first contact with the enemy."


Copyright 2002 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.