Dispatch from the 101st
When the 101st Airborne tears into Iraq, any resistance may be wiped out before it can relay the news to Baghdad.
By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2003
CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait -- The comforting barrels of the 155mm howitzers, each as stout as a telephone poll, tilt brazenly to the sky. At the Udairi airfield to the north, dozens of Apache Longbows sulk on the tarmac, their black blades slouching, like young toughs spoiling to fight.
And at Mass Sunday in Camp Pennsylvania, infantrymen received absolution for what they are about to do on the battlefield.
With war almost certain, the 101st Airborne Division and other American units are almost finished assembling their war machine. When they strike, the allies hope overwhelming force in the form of aircraft, armor and infantry will quickly destroy Iraqi units that resist and persuade others to surrender.
After the initial wave of cruise missiles and guided bombs, the 101st Airborne likely will move north in trucks and helicopters, helping clear the way and holding ground for a mechanized Army division as it nears Baghdad. It will then attack the city if need be.
"Quite frankly, the first report Saddam Hussein could get is 'Sir, one of your Republican Guard divisions, they haven't checked in for a while,"' said Col. Thomas J. Schoenbeck of Seminole, the chief of staff for the 101st Airborne Division.
"Literally, it could be that quick of a strike, where (Iraqi) units are there, then units are gone. Obviously, that could have a very strong psychological effect on other units that are out there.
"They will not want to be next."
For 21/2 weeks, since they first began arriving here, officers and soldiers of the 101st have worked frantically for fear the war may start without them.
But after moving a division the size of a small city from the snow-sodden hills around Fort Campbell, Ky., to the parched desert of Kuwait, the 101st Airborne has one of its three brigade combat teams, the Rakkasans, ready to go.
The last two brigade teams, whose equipment was on later ships, are awaiting a few vehicles and their heaviest weapons, including portable antitank missiles and Javelin rockets. They should be complete by week's end.
The 101st Airborne's aviation brigades, including its Apache attack helicopters, its Kiowa scout helicopters and its Black Hawk and Chinook transport helicopters, also are up and flying.
If war starts, the plan calls for the 101st to follow the 3rd Infantry Division of Fort Stewart, Ga., into southern Iraq as the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force comes in from the east.
The Airborne also may send Black Hawks ahead to drop troops on key targets and positions before the 3rd Infantry arrives. The 3rd ID, as it's called, is heavily mechanized, with tanks, armored personnel carriers and attack helicopters -- perfect for rolling across the wide, open desert toward Baghdad.
"They will lay waste with their Apaches, our Apaches, and their M-1 tanks. ... This is their terrain," said Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne.
Once the 3rd Infantry begins hitting towns, rivers and valleys outside Baghdad, however, it will need the 101st Airborne's mass of foot soldiers to provide the infantry power needed to take bridges, roads and villages.
The Airborne also can leap to other positions as needed, keeping the enemy off balance. Virtually everything it owns, including Humvees, troop trucks and the 105mm and 155mm howitzers, can be slung to a Black Hawk or Chinook and carried into enemy territory, all within a matter of hours.
"Air assault provides us the ability to give the corps commander flexibility," said Schoenbeck, who is based at division headquarters nearby at Camp New Jersey.
"We always have to present the enemy with multiple problems, because he'll solve problems if we give them to him one at time."
The U.S. and British forces here are about half the size of the allied force that kicked Iraq out of Kuwait 12 years ago, but commanders are quick to note their equipment now is far better. Hussein's army also is smaller and less sophisticated than during Desert Storm.
War planners believe allied troops will meet little opposition in southern Iraq. Resistance is expected to stiffen outside Baghdad, however, where Hussein has massed his Republican Guard divisions.
Even if all goes as planned, commanders have identified some potential trouble spots:
The United States and Britain want to leave Iraq with as little damage as possible. Soldiers have been schooled repeatedly on handling civilians and soldiers who surrender, on using appropriate levels of force and on trying to safeguard roads, power grids, water supplies and other infrastructure.
"The sooner we get out of there the better, and the only way we're going to be able to do that is to leave enough infrastructure so they can get up on their feet," said Col. Ben Hodges of Quincy, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 327th Infantry, which includes three 700-man infantry battalions as well as engineer, artillery and support units. It's nickname is the Bastogne Brigade.
"Think of the irony. We are going to take huge risks to protect the Iraqi oil fields from the Iraqis."
Chemical weapons. Commanders differ in opinion on whether Hussein will use them, but many believe the risk is greatest soon after the attack, when U.S. ground forces are still far from Baghdad.
Even if chemical or biological attacks fail to kill or injure large numbers of troops, they will slow the allies' advance by forcing them to stop and decontaminate equipment and personnel. Such attacks also may hurt morale.
Urban warfare. This is the great unknown. Hodges said Hussein has massed paramilitary units and his Special Republican Guard -- a smaller, more elite unit than the Republican Guard -- inside the city, and American commanders dread the prospect of house-to-house, building-to-building fighting.
"This will be very hard, and the potential for more casualties is higher there than anywhere else," Hodges said during a break between planning sessions in his tent Tuesday at Camp Pennsylvania.
Hodges said he hopes the allies won't have to take on the whole city, which would be "like walking into Atlanta." It would be best if they need only to focus on key targets that will make it difficult for Hussein's ruling Baath Party to maintain control, such as state-run TV and radio stations, government and military offices and rail stations.
Major urban military actions, including the Russian debacle in Grozny, Chechnya, and an undermanned U.S. operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993 have not gone well for the invaders.
"Combat in an urban environment takes 10 times as much energy and 20 times as much supply," said Hughes, whose 2nd Battalion of infantrymen call themselves "No Slack."
No Slack will likely play a key role in sweating the enemy out of Baghdad.
"It's not that we can't do it; it's just in the history of modern warfare commanders have tried to avoid it," he said. "It's a very precision, very personal, man-to-man fight."
In the meantime, forces here are preparing as if war were imminent.
The 3rd Infantry Division pulled out of Camp Udairi last week (taking their mess tents with them) and took up attack positions closer to the Iraqi border.
At Camp Pennsylvania, phones were disconnected Tuesday to prevent soldiers from calling home and accidentally spoiling the surprise.
On the swirling sand flats inside the heavily guarded gates of the six U.S. border camps, Humvees, trucks and tankers are packed as tight as SUVs at the mall parking lot the week before Christmas. Convoys of more are running from the port at Kuwait City to the camps day and night.
At the Udairi airfield, helicopters come and go around the clock. Pilots are practicing landing in the desert, trying to get accustomed to the blinding dust churned up by their rotors, and checking their weapons.
At one point Tuesday afternoon, the Apaches and Kiowas filled the skies over Camp Pennsylvania. Some were heading to a nearby firing range, where the Apaches lit up the horizon with their missiles, and the rapid beat of their 30mm cannon, called a chain gun, could be heard from miles away.
The boom of their weaponry rolled across Pennsylvania through a special "appreciation dinner" prepared for the troops: lobster and steak, which soldiers said was also served to some troops on the eve of the Persian Gulf War.