WASHINGTON — When will U.S. President George W. Bush have to decide whether to go to war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein?
The Pentagon has recently decided to send the entire 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division from the U.S. state of Georgia and several Air Force fighter wings to the Persian Gulf, while also notifying two aircraft carriers and two amphibious-ready groups that they could be sent soon. These facts suggest a decision on war is already near, if not already made. But diplomatically and publicly, the administration does not yet claim to have a conclusive case for war.
If and when he does claim such a case, in one sense, Bush could decide to go to war at any point thereafter. American forces can defeat the Iraqi military anytime of the year, and there is no absolute requirement that war occur in 2003, if it is to take place.
In practical terms, though, a number of pressures will soon begin to weigh heavily on the president. Average daily high temperatures in Baghdad reach 30 degrees Celsius by mid-April (and over 32 by early May), too hot for American forces to operate very long in chemical-protection gear. They could try to fight at night as much as possible (in which case combat would be feasible throughout the summer, since even in July, when daytime highs are typically well over 37 degrees, nighttime temperatures are in the mid-20s). But given the nature of war, they may have to fight in the daytime under certain circumstances beyond their control.
That suggests that, if war is to occur in the cooler weather this year, it should begin by mid-March at the latest, to allow a reasonable amount of time for various tactical maneuvers as well as a final battle for Baghdad by early April if that proves necessary.
A “rolling start” to battle might not require all 250,000 U.S. troops at first, but it could also take longer than a few weeks to ensure victory. So either way, prudence argues that the United States should plan to have all 250,000 forces, including perhaps four main combat divisions, in the Persian Gulf region by March 15.
In one sense, Bush could of course send all 250,000 troops to the Persian Gulf without having decided anything about when or if to begin a war. But using American forces in such large numbers as a tool of coercive diplomacy seems undesirable under most scenarios, especially because any concessions Hussein might make in the face of such military power would probably be reversible once forces had gone home (short of his own departure from the scene, or a quick elimination of virtually all the illicit weapons and technologies we believe he possesses).
Based on the above considerations, the president will have to make this decision by early February at the very latest. The simple reason is that it will likely take at least 40 days to deploy three additional full combat divisions to the Persian Gulf and get them ashore, particularly if Saudi ports are not available.
Although press reports have been full of information about U.S. military exercises, command-headquarters relocations and equipment deployments to the Persian Gulf region, a great deal remains to be done prior to any war. Many advance supplies — bridging equipment, port unloading equipment, construction and engineering gear, fuel and spare parts, and probably many precision-guided munitions — are already in the theater.
However, except for the Army’s 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division, the main ground combat forces are not yet en route to the Persian Gulf. Those likely to be employed in any war, but not yet en route, include the 101st Air Assault Division in Kentucky, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in California, and the 1st Cavalry Division in Texas (or perhaps the 1st Armored or 1st Mechanized Infantry from Germany instead).
What does it take to deploy these three divisions, plus a good deal of additional backup that would likely accompany them? Probably 40 days, and maybe even more, for the primary reason that most of these units only have one set of equipment, and that equipment remains with them at home base as of this writing. Some equipment is on prepositioned ships at Diego Garcia or already on shore in the Gulf region, but it is enough for only about 1 1/2 divisions.
Why is the time requirement at least 40 days? It takes units a few days to say farewells, make final personal preparations, pack up equipment and so forth. Then a few days are needed to travel to ports of debarkation in the U.S. Another few days are needed to load up equipment, assuming sealift ships are not out of service or otherwise delayed. (The good news is that the U.S. has enough fast, available sealift in the form of “roll-on/roll-off” vessels that allow easy loading and unloading to enable the quick, simultaneous transport of equipment for up to three heavy divisions.) Then 10 to 20 days are needed to transit the oceans (personnel would of course be flown to the Persian Gulf, but equipment in general would not be). These steps combined will take about a month.
If only Kuwait’s main port is available for unloading, as is quite possible, a line will form at that port. Perhaps 15 to 20 ships will need to be unloaded, for 1 1/2 to two divisions’ worth of heavy equipment plus support capabilities. It may take a day per ship on average. If Saudi Arabia’s two major ports are also available, that can be reduced to perhaps 10 days. Either way, add all that up and one is pushing a month and a half even in a good case.
War is not yet inevitable. But if one assumes that the administration would strongly prefer to wage war this year rather than next year, and to conclude any battle before the hot summer months, Bush is likely to face perhaps the most momentous decision of his presidency within a few short weeks.
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