Military puts war preparations in high gear

The world may not be ready to accept a war on Iraq. Even many in the Pentagon have doubts. But the military buildup is well under way.

The Marines land in Kuwait. The Air Force bombs Saddam Hussein's command posts. Covert teams slip into Iraq. Army tanks rehearse crossing the Euphrates River. Navy crews race to ready their warships for sea. Transport vessels laden with supplies steam unheralded toward the Persian Gulf. Factories churn out precision weapons at an ever-accelerating pace.

The world may not be ready to accept a war on Iraq. Washington may not be, either. Even many in the Pentagon have doubts. But the military buildup is well under way. The armed services of the United States have put a formidable amount of force into position just since September 11, 2001. And in truth, they have been preparing for this fight since the end, 11 years ago, of what we may soon have to call the First Gulf War.

The Persian Gulf is where the post-Cold War world began. Hurried deployments to unfamiliar lands; precision air strikes, like lightning from clear skies; the professionalism of the all-volunteer force; the need for an endless U.S. presence afterwards-all these recurring motifs of the past decade were first seen in the war against Iraq. Since then, U.S. forces have been to Somalia, to Bosnia, to Kosovo, even unto the ends of the Earth in Afghanistan. Now they have come full circle: the same place, the same enemy, even some of the same Americans who fought last time. But the forces have changed.

In 1990, the U.S. military was still blinking at the collapse of its 50-year foe, the Soviet Union. The Army and the Air Force, in particular, were geared for a stand-up fight in Central Europe, close to major bases, lavish stockpiles of supplies, and well-established U.S. garrisons. To deploy a half-million troops halfway around the world was a tremendous stretch, mentally and physically. Transport ships set sail only to break down in midocean. Overworked cargo jets literally started showing cracks. Without clear manifests of what had been shipped, logistics officers had to stage scavenger hunts through thousands of containers of supplies-and many supplies were sent back unused, after the war. Building up sufficient forces to attack took six sometimes-nerve-racking months.

Since then, "there's been a massive improvement," said retired Gen. Charles Krulak, former commandant of the Marine Corps. "We have aircraft that can carry more people and equipment further and faster than we had in 1990. We have ships that are far more capable, [and] weaponry has gained even greater lethality, so the amount you need to transport has been cut down.... But the most important thing is a mind-set that has you agile enough to respond when the whistle blows."

What follows is a look at how far the military has come since the first Gulf War, in getting ready for a possible second.


The race is not always to the swift. Sometimes the way to win is through the art of guessing where the battle will be, and the science of warehousing enough matériel there in advance. The military calls this "prepositioning."

The U.S. military had actually been stockpiling supplies, quietly, in Saudi Arabia and its neighbors for some years before Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990. But the vast bulk of the Pentagon's overseas war stores were in Europe, awaiting World War III. Since 1991, the focus, and much of the equipment, has shifted to the Gulf.

And even more has moved since 9/11. It is difficult to get an exact tally of what has been moved to the Gulf region, because the Pentagon has essentially been playing an intercontinental shell game, involving chartered commercial ships, the military's own sealift ships, and ports in the United States, Europe, the Gulf, and the British-owned island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. "They are definitely doing what they can to obscure exactly what is where," said analyst John Pike, head of, a research group in Alexandria, Va. But by Pike's count, the Army's stockpiles in the region are being doubled-and those hard by the Iraqi border in Kuwait may triple by year's end.

Army prepositioning dates back decades. The Cold War military maintained not only hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe, but supplies and equipment for tens of thousands more: beans, bullets, missiles, trucks, even entire battalions of tanks parked in warehouses and waiting to go. The stockpiles held everything a unit needed except its men, the lightest part of a modern army. It took just days to fly the troops in from the states for the annual "Reforger" exercises in Europe, when they would break out their stored gear for war games. The problem was that "Reforger" stood for "Return of Forces to Germany." And in 1990, the military needed those warehouses to be a thousand miles to the southeast, in the Persian Gulf.

The Marine Corps, by contrast, had come up with the idea of a floating warehouse. Focused even during the Cold War on responding to brushfires around the world, the Marines had stationed cargo ships (what they call the "Maritime Prepositioning Force") in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific. Each of the three squadrons held enough weapons, vehicles, and other equipment to outfit a Marine Air-Ground Task Force of about 15,000 riflemen, pilots, and support personnel apiece. In addition, the other armed services maintained several ships full of fuel, ammunition, and other supplies (although not weapons and vehicles as with the Marines). In 1990, all of these vessels could converge on the Gulf in a few weeks.

After the war, the Marines lobbied successfully for more floating stockpiles. The Maritime Prepositioning Force has expanded from 13 ships then to 15 today, and a 16th is planned for 2003.

The Army, meanwhile, both borrowed a page from the Marine Corps manual and updated its own Cold War playbook. On land in the Persian Gulf, the Army has been steadily acquiring more warehouse space in Qatar and Kuwait. Three times a year since 1996, a couple of thousand Army troops have flown to Kuwait, driven their armored vehicles out of the warehouses, and practiced in the desert, sometimes less than 30 miles from Iraq. And they stay in place until the next practice battalion flies in to relieve them-in a kind of perpetual rotating Reforger. In the past few months, this rotating force has been tripled to brigade size-about 6,000 troops.

The stranger change since 1991 is that the Army now has a navy, in the form of a dozen ships. The bulk of the Army fleet is seven Watson-class LMSRs-Large Medium-Speed Roll-On/Roll-Off ships-anchored off the British territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, a few days' sail from Iraq. An eighth LMSR, finished this September, is due at the island in February. Each 1,000-foot-long ship has decks reinforced to hold 70-ton tanks and includes ramps to let them drive right off without laborious unloading by longshoremen with cranes. All told, these ships carry equipment and supplies for an armored brigade, plus an array of supporting units: according to one official memo, some 10,000 troops.

And more matériel is on the way. Months before 9/11, the Army was already planning to move its remaining prepositioned stocks from Germany into the Gulf. "One of those brigade sets, I believe, showed up at Diego Garcia this past spring," said Pike, who has been tracking published reports of commercial vessels chartered by the military. Another appears to be headed for Kuwait, where a huge new warehouse complex, Camp Arifjan, was finished this summer. And the Army has publicly acknowledged transferring equipment from its Qatar stockpile to Kuwait, closer to Iraq. "At the beginning of this year," said Pike, "the Army had one heavy division of equipment in theater. And I think it's entirely possible that that they either have or very soon will have an additional heavy division."

Two armored divisions would comprise nearly 40,000 troops. The three Marine task forces whose equipment is prepositioned at sea would add 50,000 more. The total, it so happens, would be comfortably in the middle range of estimates for how many ground troops it would take to invade Iraq.


For all the Pentagon's far-flung stockpiles and bases, the United States homeland remains the chief arsenal of democracy. Most U.S. forces are here (indeed, a larger percentage than in the Cold War), as is America's arms industry. Any sustained combat overseas requires a steady stream of reinforcements and supplies from home. The "pipeline" that pumped power from the United States to the Gulf in 1990-91 was staggering: At its peak, a ship was sailing every 50 miles across the ocean, while a flying bridge of transport planes outdelivered the record 65-week Berlin airlift of 1948-49-and did so in the first six weeks of Desert Shield. Since then, the military's capacity has only increased-and in ways that make possible new and more daring operations, as shown in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Airplanes may be faster and more glamorous than seagoing vessels, but even a large plane carries only about 1 percent of the cargo of a single big ship. So the most efficient way to supply a war is still what it was in World War II-by sea. The good news is that there are no more submarines lurking in ambush for our transports. The bad news is that there is not much of a Merchant Marine left, either. So as the commercial shipping industry has shifted overseas-and has come to rely increasingly on standardized containers that cannot accommodate bulky items such as tanks or helicopters-the U.S. government has had to build up its own fleet.

In 1990, the military had a reserve of moored cargo ships and part-time civilian crews on standby, able to set sail for any destination as soon as four days after getting the order. The Gulf War was the fleet's first test. It passed, but not with flying colors. Some transports were creaky geriatrics: "I loaded on a ship that looked like it came out of a Humphrey Bogart movie," recalled Patrick Sweeney, a Gulf War veteran who now teaches at the Naval War College. And even newer ships had problems. Eight "Fast Sealift Ships" acquired in the 1980s could travel at a staggering 30 knots, faster than any civilian transport-but engine problems stranded one ignominiously in the mid-Atlantic during the buildup for Desert Storm.

Since 1991, the military has tightened standards for its standby fleet, which now numbers 70 vessels ranging from fuel tankers to troopships. The civilian Maritime Administration, which oversees the fleet in peacetime, has stepped up inspections-especially in recent months, say analysts at Stratfor (for "strategic forecasting"), a private, Washington-based provider of intelligence. And since the Gulf War, brags the military's Transportation Command, during 147 no-notice drills only two ships sailed behind schedule, and then by less than 10 hours.

The fleet is not only readier, but larger. The focus has been on "roll-on/roll-off" ships ("Ro/Ros" in Pentagonspeak), a kind of giant seagoing ferry that has grown ever rarer in commercial shipping, but which is prized because it enables military vehicles to drive straight on and off, without having to be loaded and unloaded by crane. The 1980s-vintage Fast Sealift Ships, still in service, are of this type. And since the Gulf War, the reserve fleet has acquired 10 new Large Medium-Speed Roll-On/Roll-Off ships-slightly smaller versions of the seven LMSRs prepositioned at Diego Garcia-and 14 smaller Ro/Ro transports. All are kept on four days' notice to sail.

Still, the swiftest ship cannot catch a plane. Even where the military has prepositioned whole warehouses of equipment, it has to rely on aircraft to quickly bring in the personnel necessary to operate the equipment. And as shown in Afghanistan, the United States now has so many cargo planes that it can sustain a fair-sized war in a landlocked, all-but-roadless country, halfway round the world, by airlift alone.

In 1990, by contrast, an airlift to the Mideast was considered nearly a worst-case scenario because it would have to carry nearly the same tonnage of supplies as for a war in Europe but would have to take it on much longer flights. One expedient was to call up commercial jetliners, the first-ever use of a program called the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (which still exists). But most of the burden in the Gulf War rested on the military's own aircraft. The Air Force had and still has hundreds of propeller-driven C-130s, able to land on short, rough airstrips, but these were smallish aircraft with a rather short range. The giant C-5 Galaxies, by contrast, could carry two 70-ton tanks apiece and fly a longer distance, but they required a correspondingly enormous runway, and lavish maintenance to match, and so had to land mostly at major airbases far from the front. In between these extremes were the C-141 Starlifters, the workhorses of the Gulf War airlift. But these 1960s-vintage planes were flown so hard that they simply wore out. In 1990, the Air Force had 234 Starlifters in service; only 76 remain.

Their replacement is the C-17. In its early years it was an extraordinarily troubled program, even by Pentagon standards, but the C-17 has become a favorite of the military and Congress alike, with 91 built and 89 more on order. It can fly as far as a C-141 with twice the cargo and needs only 60 percent as much airstrip. Unlike older transports, it can also jam or decoy the enemy missiles that just may be aiming for it as it arrives at forward bases. In Afghanistan, according to Transportation Command's Col. Curt Ross, "the self-defense system on the C-17 allowed us to go into places that we probably couldn't have taken a C-141, certainly in the early stages of the war."

And the C-17's recent performance in Afghanistan suggests daring new possibilities in Iraq. There are repeated reports that U.S. engineers are already in Iraq, upgrading airfields in the Kurdish-controlled north. Such primitive frontline landing strips would be inadequate for U.S. attack aircraft, but they could help greatly with the airlift. Now, an airlift alone cannot sustain an all-out ground attack on Iraq. But the Pentagon could use these small, forward fields to deploy substantial Special Operations units that would direct air strikes and stiffen Kurdish resistance against Saddam, or even-with the C-17-deploy a small armored force to attack the Iraqi military's flank.

Air Bases

Airpower has inspired an almost religious terror ever since the first fighters sputtered aloft in World War I. The uncanny precision of modern weapons has only added to that aura. But in fact the U.S. Air Force is mostly earthbound. Every knight of the air requires scores of grease-stained squires on the ground to refuel, rearm, and repair the planes; radars and command centers to direct their flight; and thousands of yards of smooth, hard runway to land on and take off from in the first place.

In the Gulf of 1990, most of this had to be made from scratch, or rather sand. Since then the Air Force has built up more than a decade's worth of infrastructure and experience in the region. And since 9/11, its bases in the region have been getting bigger, and its air strikes have become larger and heavier in the two no-fly zones that U.S. aircraft patrol in Iraq.

When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors had already been constructing major airfields with U.S. help. But when Desert Shield dawned, these were mostly incomplete, some of them little more than landing strips cutting through bare desert. Everything else that makes a base-the machine shops, the weapons stores, the quarters for personnel-had yet to be constructed. "In the Gulf War, we had to literally create cities in the sand," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales. "That won't be necessary this time around."

The reason is that once the Air Force set up for Gulf War I, it never entirely left. The no-fly zones meant to prevent Saddam from strafing rebel villages in Iraq's north and south have kept U.S. (and British) aircraft in the region for the past 11 years. Although reluctant Middle East allies often restricted U.S. operations against Iraq from their airfields during the 1990s, they also permitted the steady upgrading of those bases, especially in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. And some Gulf states have outright vied with their neighbors to build the most lavish facilities for the Americans. After 9/11, Saudi qualms over attacking Iraq raised the threat that the United States could not use its Arabian bases, including an elaborate command center just completed in 2001. But Qatar, a small peninsular country that juts out from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf, let the Air Force shift equipment to an alternative site at Al Udeid, where a huge new base boasts the longest runway in the region. The war on Afghanistan also saw unprecedented U.S. access to airfields in the Gulf state of Oman-where reports hint that a proposed airfield at Musnana'h is closer to completion than the official public schedule says.

The flip side of these physical improvements has been an equally important shift in mind-set. In the Gulf region, U.S. pilots have been on patrol continuously, and in combat repeatedly, over Iraq for more than a decade. The weight of this burden has reshaped Air Force culture. After decades of dependence on well-established garrisons in the United States and Europe, where personnel would live with their families for years, the Air Force learned to cycle units-including Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard squadrons-in and out of countries constantly and quickly. Those airmen who did not quit in exhaustion accumulated practical experience that their Cold War predecessors never had. And starting in 1999, most squadrons were put on a planned and scheduled rotation so they knew when they had to be ready for the next deployment; this "Air Expeditionary Force" system was designed in part for the recurrent flare-ups over Iraq.

Those flare-ups have also worn down Iraqi air defenses. The air strikes peaked in 1999. But since 9/11, the bombing has picked up again-and shifted focus. In August, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explicitly ordered that retaliation for Iraqi threats to U.S. aircraft should fall, not on the anti-aircraft gun or missile batteries themselves, but on their command and communications centers. There has even been at least one strike against Iraqi anti-ship cruise missiles-which are no threat to airplanes overhead, but a real worry for ships unloading supplies in Kuwait, or for Marine amphibious ships landing in Iraq.

This fall's stepped-up air strikes do not approach the aerial onslaught of 1991. But the increased use of smart bombs makes today's limited attacks hit harder than much larger raids a decade ago. For all the awe that they inspired, precision weapons made up just 7 percent of the U.S. bombardment in the Gulf War-and almost all of that was dropped by the Air Force; the Navy had only a few aircraft with the electronic gear necessary to launch smart bombs. In Afghanistan, the percentage of precision weapons surpassed 60 percent-and every Navy fighter could drop them. More precision means more damage from fewer raids, which use up not only fewer bombs, but also a lot less fuel en route to the targets. And that efficiency, in turn, dramatically reduces the sheer tonnage that U.S. logisticians must put in place for war. Army veteran Scales noted, "The two greatest bulk items for strategic deployment are not men and equipment: They're munitions and fuel."

Command And Plans

Modern warfare is a matter of mass. Since 1991, the American military has done much to reduce the mass it must move into the Gulf for war. It has built up infrastructure, prepositioned equipment, and smartened up its bombs with precision guidance so it takes fewer to destroy the targets. And the Pentagon has increased its ability to haul what still needs hauling, with a larger and more capable inventory of sea and air transports.

But logistics is also about information-and in this intangible realm, the United States has also made real strides. In 1990-91, the pipeline pumping supplies overseas was massive, unceasing, and opaque: Nobody knew exactly what was in it. The Pentagon's unified Transportation Command, intended to reduce the overlap between Army, Navy, and Air Force transport assets, was only three years old back then. Transcom, as it is known, had barely begun to bring order to a Cold War array of mutually incompatible tracking systems, which had fallen far behind the standards of commercial shippers such as FedEx. Shipments hauled across the ocean got stuck just short of the front line because the combat units did not know the goods had been delivered. Many containers did not even have clear printed manifests. Recalled retired Col. Scott Feil (now with the Association of the United States Army), the attitude among logisticians inevitably became, "I don't know whether it got there, so I'd better send another one." Piled on top of a worst-case estimate of how long the war would take, this inefficiency led to vast desert stockpiles that ultimately had to be shipped back.

"There were a lot of stories after the war of acres on acres of unopened containers," said Transcom's Ross. "There were also stories of people who ordered parts and ordered them again and again." But since the Gulf War, the military has been working on new processes, and new computer networks, that help supply front-line forces with what they need, instead of piling three of everything in the rear. Getting Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force logisticians to enter the same data in the same electronic formats is still problematic. But now they can track every transport, sea and air, and have a decent idea of what's inside it.

Transcom is not the only headquarters that has grown up. In 1990, the Pentagon's Central Command, which oversees the Middle East theater, did have a detailed plan for fighting a Gulf War-but the conflict envisioned was in Iran, and against invading Soviets. The parts about pouring friendly forces into Saudi Arabia still held good when the enemy became Iraq; everything else had to be thrown out. Since then, a new war against Saddam has become the standard planning scenario, not just for Central Command, but for the entire Pentagon as it works out its budget, force structure, and global strategy.

Indeed, military reformers have often said that all the attention lavished on preparing for another big tank battle in the Gulf has drained energy from more-innovative planning. In recent years, however, the example of an all-airpower war over Kosovo has shaken up the Pentagon. So has the Special Operations-dominated fighting in Afghanistan.

And the Afghan war has not only changed the way U.S. planners think, it has changed where they are. Central Command's naval component, the U.S. 5th Fleet, has been based on Bahrain, an island state near Qatar, since the Gulf War. But the corresponding Marine Corps command had stayed in the Pacific-until its top general and much of his staff moved to Bahrain in January. The month before, the U.S. Third Army headquarters moved from Fort MacPherson, Ga., to Kuwait to be closer to ongoing ground operations in Afghanistan. The Air Force now has two alternative command posts in the region, one in Saudi Arabia and the other, in case of Saudi jitters, in Qatar. The Central Command itself remains at its headquarters in Tampa, Fla. But 600 of its staff will deploy to Qatar in November as an exercise. No one expects them home right away.

Considering these relocations, the increased air strikes, the prepositioning of supplies, repeated stories of covert operations inside Iraq, and intense war games from Kuwait to Texas, the invasion may seem imminent. But these moves can be overhyped. This summer, a minor media storm erupted over a State Department solicitation to humanitarian groups for $6.6 million of aid work in Iraq-including regions still under Saddam's control. Some analysts said the contract showed that Washington was already preparing for the aftermath of an invasion. But officials hastily emphasized that the program was aimed at displaced Kurds in the rebel-held north. And $6.6 million would hardly be even a down payment on rebuilding a post-Saddam Iraq.

"These small things that are happening, [such as] two thousand Marines doing an exercise in Kuwait,... look less like the vanguard of a deployment than the prudent preparation of a defense" of our bases in the Gulf lest Saddam try a pre-emptive strike of his own, said Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. To deploy forces for a full-scale invasion, which O'Hanlon estimates would require more than 100,000 troops, would take about two months.

Even's Pike, who suspects that an invasion might take as few as 50,000 troops deployed in just 10 days, agreed that such troop movements would produce telltale signs we have not yet seen: "There's no way you can deploy that number of troops, and that number of aircraft, without it being obvious."

But it is well worth noting that even O'Hanlon's conservative estimate still presumes a much smaller force, and a much quicker time line, than in the Gulf War. The consensus of experts, military and civilian alike, is that a second Desert Storm would blow in far faster than the first. "It's not going to be a six-month buildup," said Army Lt. Col. Robert Boyko, recently retired from Transcom. "In a sense, we've had a 10-year buildup."