WASHINGTON -- In the opening hours of war in Iraq, volleys of terrain-hugging cruise missiles and torrents of precision-guided bombs would seek to blind Saddam Hussein's military, cutting military communications and clearing the way for a ground invasion that would sweep north from Kuwait.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the idea is to create "such a shock on the system that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on that the end is inevitable."
The end Myers and others hope for -- but aren't counting on -- is an Iraqi collapse so quickly after the first shots are fired that U.S.-led forces could enter Baghdad without a fight.
How Iraq responds to the initial air barrage will be a key factor in determining the timing of the ground war. Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of Central Command, may launch the ground assault just a few days after the air attack. In Desert Storm in 1991, the air campaign stretched to five weeks before the ground war that lasted only 100 hours.
Of the 250,000 U.S. troops arrayed against Iraq, about 130,000 are in Kuwait. That would be the main launching pad for a ground invasion, to include about 30,000 British troops. Franks on Monday met with his Army commander in Kuwait, Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, and then returned to his base in Qatar, where he would give the first attack orders to U.S. forces throughout the region.
The overall scenario would differ from the 1991 war over the same ground, So-called "swarm tactics" -- simultaneous, coordinated attacks by air, conventional forces and commando units, designed to confuse and overrun Iraqi defenders -- would replace that war's five-week softening-up by air strikes.
The main Army forces are the 3rd Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division, the Army's only helicopter assault division, both in Kuwait.
With more than 200 tanks, the 3rd Infantry is expected to spearhead the drive to Baghdad. In a sign that soldiers of the "Iron Fist" division have moved to the brink of battle, troops of A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, were issued their "basic loads" of live ammunition on Monday. They were told to break camp and be ready to move into action on a moment's notice.
Also assembled in northern Kuwait are more than 50,000 U.S. Marines. Some are expected to take part in a dash up the western flank of the Tigris-Euphrates Delta toward Baghdad, while others take the southern city of Basra and the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, Iraq's outlet to the Persian Gulf.
If the Iraqi defense doesn't crumble swiftly, the war could last weeks and pose grave risks for U.S. troops. One perilous possibility is that Saddam might foil the U.S. battle plan with a pre-emptive chemical or biological attack on allied forces.
A senior defense official in Washington said Monday that U.S. intelligence had detected signs -- but no solid proof -- that some soldiers in an Iraqi Republican Guard unit south of Baghdad had been given chemical munitions. Other officials called the signs inconclusive but troubling.
About 1,000 U.S. and British warplanes are arrayed on Iraq's periphery, and analysts have said they expect as many as 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles to be launched in the first 48 hours.
The first planes to penetrate Iraqi airspace may be the Air Force's radar-evading stealth jets -- the F-117B Nighthawk fighter, which led the attacks on Baghdad in the 1991 Gulf War, and the bat-winged B-2 bombers.
At about the same time, some 30 Navy ships and submarines in the Gulf and Red Sea would launch hundreds of satellite-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Anthony Cordesman, a leading expert on Iraq and U.S. military power, foresees a new kind of air war.
"It will be designed to paralyze enemy forces rather than destroy them," he wrote in an analysis March 15. Once the shooting starts, he concluded, the Iraqi government "will be gone in days or weeks."
Another key element of the air campaign would be Navy F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats flying from five aircraft carriers -- three in the Persian Gulf and two in the eastern Mediterranean. Each carries about 50 strike planes and some two dozen support aircraft.
The Air Force's fighters and bombers would launch from bases around the Gulf, plus the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Some might even come from Europe. The Marine Corps has dozens of F/A-18 fighters, AV-8B Harrier jets and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters.
The U.S. strategy is predicated on speed -- not just in the time it would take ground forces to reach Baghdad, but also the speed of communications that would enable fighter and bomber pilots, for example, to switch target coordinates in mid-flight.
Once under way, the ground assault is designed to be a lightning movement similar to the opening of the Gulf War, with M1A1 Abrams tanks, mine-clearing vehicles and other armored forces blasting through dirt berms and across oil-filled trenches on portable bridges laid by combat engineers.
Close air support would come from Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and Marine Corps Harrier jets, among others. "We've been practicing 'the dance' -- the battle rhythm," said "Scott," the commander of a Harrier squadron based on an assault ship offshore.
The main axis of attack was expected to involve the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division, striking northward on the western side of the Tigris-Euphrates Delta and crossing the Euphrates near Ramadi.
From there they would wheel east toward Baghdad and Tikrit, Saddam's hometown and clan stronghold, which he was likely to defend with his best troops, a Republican Guard division.
Cordesman and others say that despite years of intermittent U.S. and British bombing of Iraq's air defenses in the southern and northern "no fly " zones, Iraqi retains formidable batteries around Baghdad. These include sophisticated surface-to-air missiles that could pose serious danger to allied pilots, even at night.
Most analysts say Iraqi ground forces are far weaker than 12 years ago, having lost huge numbers of tanks and artillery pieces in the Gulf War and being short of spare parts for those that remain.
Saddam's wild card could be chemical and biological weapons; he claims he has none, but U.S. commanders believe he does and may use them if his survival is at stake.
In addition to attempting to neutralize Iraq's air defenses, the air campaign would target key communications "nodes," while generally avoiding civilian infrastructure like bridges and power stations.
Also to be targeted early are the H-3 airfields in far western Iraq where Saddam may have Scud missiles. Some believe U.S. and British special operations forces would secure these sites. Likewise, the oil fields in northern and southern Iraq will be key objectives in the first phase of war, since U.S. intelligence believes Iraq has wired them with explosives for a would-be reprise of the Kuwaiti oil fields destruction in 1991.
Franks' original plan to stage the 4th Infantry Division in Turkey to open a northern front was thwarted when the Turkish government refused to allow access to its bases. The division's role is in doubt, as is the U.S. strategy for moving forces into northern Iraq.
The most likely approach is that some or all of the 101st Airborne would make a helicopter-borne assault into the north, which is one of the trickiest aspects of Franks' war plan.
U.S. special operators -- commando-type forces -- reportedly already have been securing landing strips in northern Iraq.
Another possibility for action in northern Iraq is the 82nd Airborne Division. "Our mission is to jump in denied terrain. We'd be the candidates for that," said Capt. Paul Jackson, commander of a 105mm howitzer battery in the 82nd's 2nd Brigade.
Associated Press writers Ellen Knickmeyer in Kuwait and Robert H. Reid in Qatar contributed to this report.