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Wednesday, March 12

Missile bombardment likely first step in U.S. attack, admiral says

By William H. McMichael

ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION - A U.S. attack on Iraq probably would begin with an onslaught of sea-based cruise missiles fired by as many as 30 ships, one of the Navy's three battle group commanders in the Persian Gulf said Wednesday.

"On any attack that will happen, it will be preceded, most likely, by a Tomahawk strike," said Rear Adm. Barry M. Costello, commander of the Constellation Carrier Battle Group, during a news conference aboard the carrier. "And it'll be a significant Tomahawk strike by a lot of these ships out here that will be firing."

When the decision was made to attack Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait in 1991, the U.S. military launched a three-week aerial bombardment that preceding the eventual 100-hour land attack. If this Bush administration decides to attack Iraq to rid the country of its weapons of mass destruction and its leader Saddam Hussein, a devastating initial strike, followed by air strikes that combine precision-guided and gravity bombs, would help make the entire war significantly shorter than that one-month effort 12 years ago, Costello said.

"There is a well-founded confidence that if we are ordered to go forward, it will be lightning quick, it will be devastating, it will be lethal, it'll be persistent, it'll be precise. I can't give you how many days. But it's gonna be quick." Asked if he was referring only to the "air war," he replied, "This is the whole war."

Of the approximately 70 U.S. and 60 coalition ships now in the 5th Fleet area of operations, more than 30 are carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles, Costello said. They would fire at pre-programmed targets in Iraq and would "help clear the way" for follow-on U.S. planes flying from carriers and land bases in the region. Costello did not address whether the initial strike also would include Air Force Tomahawks.

"Between the Tomahawks and our air assets, we would create the environment where our land forces can succeed," Costello said. "And that's really what we do. We pave the way for them." Such an effort would reflect the operation's joint composition, Costello said, noting the coordinated planning between Navy and Air Force air assets, particularly Air Force airborne fuel tankers, and the Army and Marine Corps as their ground forces move forward.

Meanwhile, Navy and Air Force aircraft continue flying a high number of sorties into the United Nations-mandated no-fly zone over southern Iraq, an effort known as Operation Southern Watch. The Constellation's Carrier Air Wing Two began its patrols soon after the carrier group arrived in the gulf Dec. 14 on a regularly scheduled deployment. In the 24 hours that ended at mid-morning Wednesday, 27 air wing aircraft flew no-fly zone sorties.

Although some have called the stepped-up patrols a de facto softening of the future battlefield, Costello said they are just "an extension of what we've been doing for quite a while." But with the Abraham Lincoln and Kitty Hawk battle groups also in the gulf, along with land-based Air Force assets, the patrols now take place around the clock, he said.

"Are we flying more sorties over southern Iraq? You bet. A lot more sorties, and 24 hours a day," Costello said. Yet while more Iraqi targets are currently being hit, Costello said that is a function of the patrols being increasingly targeted by Iraqi forces and fired upon with surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery.

"There's no change in policy in the sense that we respond to fires on our airplanes," Costello said. "When that occurs ... we have the opportunity, under our current rules, to respond. And we go after some air defense-related site and take it out. "

In addition to searching for Iraqi violations of the no-fly zone, Navy and Air Force aircraft continue to drop informational leaflets over pre-designated sites aimed at influencing Iraqi public opinion. According to the U.S. Central Command, about 120,000 leaflets were dropped Tuesday night over several locations 200 miles southeast of Baghdad and north of Basra. Air Wing Two aircraft dropped the leaflets, written in Arabic and contained in two modified bomb canisters.

One leaflet tells Iraqis where they can tune their radios for information and where to go and how to escape in the event of an attack. Another is a warning that any unit using weapons of mass destruction "faces swift and severe retribution by coalition forces" and that commanders of such units "will be held accountable" if such weapons are used. A third contrasts Saddam Hussein's wealth with the impoverished lives of many Iraqis.

The Constellation group also is coordinating the anti-mine warfare effort in the gulf. Costello noted that Iraq doesn't have nearly the access to the sea that it had during the 1991 gulf war.

"Our mission up here with our ships to the north is to stop anybody who's coming out, and we inspect everything that comes in the water," Costello said. "It is clearly my No. 1 mission, my No. 1 concern, to make sure we do that.''

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McMichael, a writer for Gannett's Navy Times newspaper, is helping to cover the conflict with Iraq for Gannett News Service.