We seem to have seen it all before, and not very long ago. An aircraft carrier group pulls majestically out of the port of Norfolk, Virginia, bound for the Middle East. A blanket of secrecy descends on military bases across America. Missions officially described as routine take on an ominous new significance.
For the second time in barely a decade, the US is going to war in the lands around the Persian Gulf.
Military strategists proliferate across the airwaves and the editorial pages. Amid the speculation, the usual golden rule applies. Those who talk don't know, those who know don't talk. Except that this time there is a difference. Quite possibly, even the policy makers at the summit of the Bush administration who are keeping their cards so close to their chests, still aren't sure what they are going to do.
So much is familiar about the massive military operation intended to root out terrorism. Cruise missiles struck at Afghanistan, the country at the eye of the storm, as recently as August 1998.
In normal times, the weary doctrine of "keeping Saddam in his box" means that the US keeps a major presence in the Gulf region, averaging around 15,000 men and up to 150-200 aircraft. About half of the latter belong to whichever carrier group is in the Gulf region; the remainder are at forward bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and at Incirlit in Turkey.
Between them, they enforce the no-fly zones that operate in Northern and Southern Iraq, and that witnessed fresh clashes yesterday between Iraqi defences and patrolling US and British warplanes.
In times of crisis, such as when the US and Britain launched massive strikes three years ago after Saddam evicted United Nations arms inspectors, the number doubles. Under Infinite Justice, these forces will triple or quadruple.
Of all the symbols of US global power and reach, a carrier battle group, with its cluster of submarines, destroyers, amphibious vessels and cruisers around the mother ship, must be the most potent. Within a few days, there will be not one but three in the region.
The USS Enterprise and its 14 accompanying vessels, which was to be rotated out for leave, is being repositioned in the Arabian Sea. The USS Carl Vinson, accompanied by eight ships which replaced it, is standing ready, also in the nearby Arabian Sea.
Both carriers have around 70 F-14s and F-18s apiece. Now, they are to be joined by the USS Roosevelt, which left Norfolk yesterday, along with its own similar array of firepower. Between them they are carrying more than 6,000 marines.
Also, on their separate way are two dozen heavy B-1 bombers with their satellite-guided bombs that were used to great effect during the recent Kosovo war.
Meanwhile, a further 2,000 marines left the US separately yesterday from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, accompanied by helicopters and amphibious vehicles, on what was described as a "scheduled" mission, but whose destination was almost certainly the Middle East.
However, despite the visible display of force, probably the sharpest end of America's response is the part that no one sees. Yesterday, the Army Secretary, Thomas White, confirmed that deployment of units from his service, which would be involved in ground operations, had already begun.
First and foremost among these units, almost certainly, are some of the US elite forces. The stuff of military legend in the movies and real life. Their numbers and missions are secret at the best of times, but never more so than now.
Many analysts believe some detachments have already been sent to the region, to start work on forward staging bases. "We are seeing the ships and the planes, but not the people," says Paul Balash, a former Marine Corps colonel.
But although the build-up will be far quicker than the six months required in 1990-91 for the Gulf War, the logistical difficulties of distance and transport are still considerable, meaning that any ground action could still be weeks away. For a while, the special forces may be based aboard ships in the task force, or in countries nearby that are friendly to the US.
In all, the US is reckoned to have 35,000 special force troops at its disposal. They feature Navy Seals teams, the shadowy Delta Force and a battalion of the Ranger regiment, all under the aegis of the US Army plus the Special Operations units of the Air Force.
These units, in turn, work closely with airborne elite forces, notably the 82nd and 101st divisions, headquartered at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, under the overall umbrella of the Joint Special Forces Command. The 82nd, a specialist in rapid assault missions, has one battalion on permanent maximum readiness, which may already have been dispatched to the region around Afghanistan.
And even these forces in theatre, declared or undeclared, do not represent the full might the US can bring to bear against the terrorist networks. In 1999, some of the 62 B-2 bombers based at Whiteman Air Force Base in the mid-western state of Missouri were used to strike directly at targets in Kosovo and Serbia, refuelled above the oceans during flights which lasted 31 hours.
The pattern may be similar this time if a massive bombing campaign of terrorist headquarters and training camps is ordered by President Bush.
Cruise missile-carrying US B-52 bombers will probably be called into action from Britain's Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia as they were during the Gulf War and for Operation Desert Fox in December 1998.
The military campaign will be run by US Central Command (Centcom), based in Tampa, Florida, whose commander, General Tommy Franks, is the successor of General Norman Schwarzkopf, the leader of Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War.
But will it suffice? As its name implies, Infinite Justice is open-ended in both space and time and a world away from operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, which both had a known enemy and clearly defined mission at hand.
"Combat?" the Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wondered publicly yesterday, catching the dilemma; "What does the word combat mean in a situation like this?"
This, a war without contours, without frontiers, which may last for years, if not for ever. In that sense, this week's deployments are the first and perhaps least relevant part.Reuse content