Analysis: Joint Chiefs of Staff to Meet With President Bush on Possible War Against Iraq

Morning Edition: September 26, 2002

Iraq War Options


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

Iraq will be getting more attention at the White House today. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are due to meet with President Bush. Defense officials say the president and the chiefs are likely to discuss how US forces would take on Saddam Hussein, when and if President Bush gives the order. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that military commanders have largely agreed on an Iraq war plan, though key details remain unsettled.

TOM GJELTEN reporting:

The chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have not met, as a group, with President Bush for several months. With Iraq war preparations in high gear, today's meeting is an important one. Under US law, the service chiefs can express opinions on military issues independently from the Joint Chiefs' chairman or the secretary of Defense. Military officers aren't supposed to comment on whether they think it's a good idea to go to war against Iraq; that's a policy decision. But they are expected to identify the risks associated with different war approaches, and the armed services have debated how best to go after Saddam Hussein. Loren Thompson is a military analyst at the Lexington Institute.

Mr. LOREN THOMPSON (Military Analyst, Lexington Institute): Many Air Force officers believe that air power is potentially a winning weapon. On the other hand, it's the view of the Army that, without boots on the ground, as they put it, we won't be able to find many of the most important targets and we certainly won't be able to secure the countryside.

GJELTEN: Whether the service chiefs would discuss any of their differences in front of the president, of course, is another question. Probably not, especially since the broad design of an Iraq campaign has already been drawn up.

Some highlights: US and allied forces would go after the regime leadership, not the Iraqi military, in the hope Iraqi officers and their troops might turn against Saddam Hussein. A US attack would be precise, with air strikes carefully aimed and raids by elite, special operations forces on the ground. An early target of the military campaign would be Iraq's biological and chemical warfare capability, the production facilities, stockpiles and the missiles or guns in which the warheads may be loaded.

Beyond such features, many aspects of the war plan are still undecided, Defense officials say, not so much because of debate among the war planners but because so many variables are still unknown. One example, the exact mix of air and land forces will depend on which countries support the war effort and in what ways. Whether Saudi Arabia, for example, decides to cooperate is a key question. Another unknown is the degree to which Iraqi opposition forces prove reliable in the fight against the Hussein regime. A senior Defense official says the war plan has built-in, quote, "decision points," unquote, where the commanders would proceed in different directions, depending on what's happening on the ground.

And this is where there is debate. Many senior military officers say they're wary of what looks like overconfidence on the part of some hawks in the Bush administration. Retired Marine General Joseph Hoar, a former chief of the US Central Command, expressed this concern at a Senate hearing this week.

General JOSEPH HOAR (Retired, US Marine Corps; Former Chief, US Central Command): There are people in this city that believe that the military campaign against Iraq will not be difficult, especially because of the enormous advances in technology and the willingness of some groups in Iraq to revolt once the campaign has begun. I am not as certain that a campaign of this nature will take that course.

GJELTEN: General Hoar's caution is widely shared in the Pentagon. Senior US officers say Saddam Hussein's military operation is, in many ways, weaker than it was a decade ago, but in other ways it's stronger. His command-and-control structure, for example, has been decentralized with extensive fiber-optic links. Several senior military officers interviewed for this story also said they worry the Iraqi people may not turn as quickly in the US favor as some Bush administration officials predict they will. Analyst Loren Thompson says he's not surprised the uniformed military leadership is approaching a possible Iraq conflict with some trepidation.

Mr. THOMPSON: Throughout history, one of the great constants of warfare has been that the closer people are to the front, the more prudent they tend to be. I don't think that the military, as an institution, is conservative. What I do think is that it's realistic about what warfare means, and increasingly the political appointees of both parties simply don't have the experience to see the meaning of warfare.

GJELTEN: Misgivings or no, military leaders are fast preparing for war. `There's a tremendous amount of momentum right now,' says one senior officials. `When the order comes, no one wants to say we're not ready.' Tom Gjelten, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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