When the possibility of "military action" was raised, many assumed this meant air strikes on selected targets, followed by a resumption of more normal relations - as has happened several times since the 1991 Gulf War. But last week the US Defense Secretary, William Cohen, gave the clearest indication yet that if action is necessary it will be "a serious blow" against Saddam and will be protracted - the longest operation since the 1991 Gulf War. That lasted six weeks, after nearly six months of preparation.
Last night Mr Cohen signed an order to send 19 combat planes and 23 support aircraft to join the US force gathered in the Gulf. A Pentagon official said the planes - six F-117 stealth fighter-bombers, six B-52 bombers, six F-16 fighters and one B-1B bomber, would go to Kuwait, Bahrain and the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
The longest comparable operation since the Gulf War has been the air attacks against the Bosnian Serbs in the summer of 1995, which lasted two weeks. The emerging picture is of a month-long air campaign, where targets are struck, the damage assessed, and struck again, until they really are disabled. The use of ground troops has not been ruled out.
Many commentators have expressed doubts whether air strikes can achieve what is really wanted - the elimination of "weapons of mass destruction" - without potentially catastrophic side-effects. Such attacks might well kill civilians and spread the very contaminants they sought to destroy. But to launch air strikes to hit something other than the principal objective would seem like a slap on the wrist. So, what are the options?
First, find your target. The ultimate targets this time, unlike 1991, are biological weapons, production facilities and expertise. Seven years ago chemical weapons and the Iraqi nuclear programme were of greater concern. During the 1991 war, the Salman Pak and Taji research facilities and the suspected biological weapons production plants at Al Latifiyah and Abu Ghurayb were attacked. So were about 20 refrigerated bunkers scattered throughout Iraq and suspected of containing biological and other special weapons. To minimise the risk of contamination, attacks on these targets were designed to expose as much of their contents as possible, since the US planners had learned anthrax spores could not long withstand sunlight.
But the risk of releasing biological agents can never be ruled out. At the time, 50 Iraqi guards were reported to have died from a "rapidly progressing disease" that spread to Baghdad after a strike on a biological weapons facility near the city. A new offensive against Iraq could therefore concentrate on biological, and possibly chemical, warfare targets much more specifically than was possible, or thought necessary, in the Gulf War - but only as long as those facilities were away from populated areas.
The official US history of the war freely admits that the failure to disable Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical potential was primarily due to inadequate intelligence. Intelligence now is probably far better than it was in 1991, though it would be clear this was due mainly to the UN inspectors. One way round the problem would be to target only those facilities to which access has been denied, on the grounds that denial arouses suspicion.
All the biological and most of the chemical weapons manufacturing sites identified during and after the Gulf War are in the centre of Iraq, within 50 miles of Baghdad. To make sure they were disabled, special forces teams could be landed by air. They would run a high risk, not only of contamination, but of being killed or captured by the Iraqis, with all the associated risk of humiliation for the US, Britain and the UN. Memories of the US debacle in Iran and of dead Americans being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu are still fresh.
To seize a chemical or biological weapons factory and hold it while experts find out what is there and then make preparations to disable it - safely - is a big operation, not least because most Iraqi installations are huge. If the US really wants to disable those facilities, without spreading gas and germs all over the civilian population, it might consider using air-landed troops to occupy some of them. Discussion of the possible role of British troops included "armoured reconnaissance" - using light tanks. These can be landed from transport planes, Entebbe-style. Rather than committing small teams, doing the job properly might require an entire air-landed battalion or even brigade for each site.
Iraqi airfields were also attacked in the Gulf War as part of the campaign against chemical and biological weapons. The Iraqis had delivered chemical weapons from aircraft and a number of airfields had storage bunkers.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iraq no longer has any long-range missiles of the type fired in the Gulf War - the most likely means of delivering chemical and biological warheads. But sites suspected of containing undiscovered missiles would inevitably be a target, as would the airfields from which aircraft carrying such munitions could be launched.
There is, however, another way to get at the weapons production facilities. Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons production all require large amounts of electricity. Cutting power supplies to suspected production facilities would severely hinder them, although they could be restored fairly easily. Although attacks on the power grid would add to the sufferings of ordinary Iraqis, the US has demonstrated that instead of bombing, carbon-fibre cable can be used to create a short circuit.
The heavy and repeated blows against Iraq in a future conflict would therefore be more focused than those of the past. In 1991, there were 12 "target sets", but destruction of an Iraqi army in the field was the main priority. This time, the US and Britain would attack just eight: weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqi leadership, the Republican Guard, telecommunications, electricity, airfields, anti-aircraft defences, and any remaining missiles. Only an attack on this scale would do real damage to military targets, wipe out stocks of chemical and biological weapons and stop their production. It would also strike at Saddam's pride, confidence and possibly members of his inner circle, while making him look vulnerable.
The US has steered clear of direct attacks on Saddam, but it has always been permitted to attack places where he might be. The eight presidential palaces are probably the most tempting part of the "leadership" set of targets: UN inspectors have been denied access to them, they represent extravagant expenditure by Saddam on himself, and they might contain hidden weapons or senior people.
A final possibility is that, this time, the US might use the new generation of non-lethal weapons, although it is difficult to see how they could be delivered from the air in the quantities needed to be effective. Chemical and biological weapons could be neutralised by specially developed chemicals and bugs, and factories could be sealed with foam, keeping the Iraqis out and the contents in.
Communications and computers could be disabled with an electromagnetic pulse and leadership targets hit with low-frequency sound - making the inhabitants ill but not killing them, in case, as in 1991, ordinary civilians have been put there. The US has put great effort into developing these, and if they can use them, they will.
If military action is authorised, it will not be over quickly. Like peacekeepers in Bosnia, the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq have been operating with a degree of consent from the Iraqis, who have shown considerable courtesy and correctness. Bomb them and that consent will be blown away, too. Before authorising a military strike, we need to be sure that everything else has failed - for when the first bomb falls, we will really be back at war.
t Christopher Bellamy is Reader in Military and Security Studies and Deputy Director of the Security Studies Institute at Cranfield University. He reported on the Gulf War for 'The Independent'.Reuse content