Paratroops, Ground Troops Up Next

March 20, 2003 -- As Operation Iraqi Freedom unfurls at a furious pace, air power is expected to intensify over Baghdad and special forces operations are likely paving the way for what could be one of the largest airborne operations in decades.

"What will follow will not be a repeat of any other conflict," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said today. "It will be of a force and scope and scale that has been beyond what has been seen before."

Making Way for ‘Shock and Awe’

ABCNEWS' John McWethy reported that military sources affirm the air campaign is intensifying and will continue to focus on government and military leadership targets.

At the same time, air and ground forces have begun to clear territory south of Baghdad to open passages for more ground and air power. This involves taking out sand berms and missiles and artillery that still threaten U.S. forces in Kuwait.

Preparing southern regions will also involve removing air defense radar and communications in the region, say military sources, so Baghdad can't know when aircraft is approaching. This will clear the way for what has long been touted as the U.S. military's "shock and awe" air assaults.

Retired Gen. Richard Hawley, former commander of Air Combat Command, expects the powerful wave of air attacks could last two to three days and will be aimed at a number of targets. The air power is likely to strike any areas where military leadership is based, including bunkers and government buildings. It will also seek to take out all of Baghdad's air defense systems to eliminate the city's ability to defend itself.

The bombs will also likely target Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units.

"These are the ones who are expected to fight," said Hawley. "By targeting them we will try and demonstrate to the other Iraqi troops that it will be senseless to resist."

Chute to Kill

In addition to the airstrikes, there are plans for a massive drop of paratroopers, say military sources, in what will be the largest airborne operation in decades. Thousands of U.S. troops are expected to parachute into Iraq to help seize remote airfields and secure bridges and command centers.

Tony Cordesman, an ABCNEWS military analyst, said that some of these operations may already be underway.

"Paratroopers offer a unique strategic ability," said Gen. Charles Horner, a former air commander of Desert Shield/Desert Storm. "They are a precise force for seizing airfields and targeting bridges and possibly convoys with prime targets like Saddam Hussein."

There are several airfields across Iraq that Hawley says Iraq will have trouble defending completely. Special forces will likely be used to begin initial seizure of the airfields, says Hawley, followed by paratroopers who will then prepare the strips as landing sites for U.S. and coalition airplanes.

"That will be what opens the northern front," said Hawley.

Although paratroopers may be key in opening up landing sites in northern and western Iraq, Horner cautions that troops parachuted into locations do have vulnerabilities. Namely, they are equipped only with what they can carry and need coordinated support from airplanes to keep them supplied with food, water and artillery.

"They don't have a lot of staying power," said Horner, "and a lot of coordination is required."

Keeping Ground Troops Fresh

Once ground forces move in from both northern and southern points, the hope is to avoid conflict with Iraq's drafted soldiers, who Hawley says "by that time will be hopefully 'shocked and awed.' "

"What we hope through all of it is that the Iraqis worry about attack from every direction and that causes them to not only have to defend more places than they would like, but worry about being cut off and surrounded," Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, former director of operations for the Joint Staff, told ABCNEWS.

Ground troops would then move into key cities, including Baghdad, says Hawley, and then may face urban warfare with Iraq's Republican Guards.

"The biggest challenge is the ground operation," said Hawley. "Just keeping these forces alive is a real challenge."

Hawley says that capture of the southern city of Basra will be key to secure a hub to help sustain ground forces.

Although plans like this may be in place, military sources stress that the chaotic nature of war requires that all plans remain very fluid.

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