'Nighthawk' bombers poised to attack

Crisis in the Gulf
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United States forces were last night poised to launch an attack on southern Iraq which would dwarf earlier strikes with sea- and air-launched cruise missiles, although Saudi Arabia's refusal to allow the US to launch the attacks from its territory has undoubtedly constrained the options open to the US.

Aircraft based in Turkey supporting the "provide comfort" operation to watch over the Kurds in northern Iraq have so far not been involved in attacks on Iraq. It is unlikely that the US will begin any intervention in northern Iraq, not least because to do so there would mean providing indirect support to Iranian-backed Kurdish fighters, but nothing can be ruled out.

The crucial new element in the recent US reinforcements is the force of eight F-117A "Nighthawk" Stealth fighter bombers based in Kuwait, which suggests that the US is poised to attack strategic targets, command headquarters and communication centres - in or near Baghdad itself.

The Pentagon has officially refused to say where the planes are: merely that they are in the area. But with the Gulf war Stealth fighter base of Khamis Mushait in south-west Saudi Arabia denied to the Americans, and the limitations the Saudi ban on US flights imposes on air-to-air refuelling, Kuwait is the only sensible location.

During the Gulf war the angular F-117s were the only US planes to attack targets in downtown Baghdad. Although they made up only 2 per cent of the available air forces, and flew 1 per cent of the missions, they hit 40 per cent of the strategic targets - without a scratch. Their extraordinary survival rate is due to their unique shape, radar absorbent coatings, and other measures to ensure they cannot be detected by radar until they can be heard.

The US policy towards Iraq depends on avoiding the loss or capture of US pilots, and hitherto the US has used unmanned cruise missiles to attack Iraqi targets. Using Stealth bombers marks a significant escalation, but still with little risk of politically embarrassing losses.

Military sources yesterday said the presence of the Stealth bombers did not necessarily mean attacks on bunkers, command headquarters, secret police and centres for the ruling-elite in Baghdad, as happened during the Gulf war, but that they might simply be the most economical way of attacking other targets without massive groups of supporting aircraft. These air "packages" include electronic aircraft to suppress Iraqi radar; fighters to provide top cover; and air-to-air refuelling planes. Such groups would be necessary to launch more conventional planes without serious risk of casualties, but may be unnecessary for the $42m (pounds 27m) Stealth bombers.The packages also require ground bases in Saudi Arabia which are not now available.

The F-117s carry one 2,000lb, or two 1,000lb laser-guided bombs. They are ideal for attacking large, static targets, and to injure Saddam Hussein's military machine at its critical points. They are not suitable for attacks on columns of tanks dispersed across the desert, or even for attacking air-defence sites - the targets selected so far in the air campaign.

Any US attack will also use more cruise missiles launched from the US ships in the Gulf and the huge B-52 bombers based on the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The cruise missiles carry half-tonne (1,000lb) conventional warheads but can also do other jobs - for example, draping wires over Iraqi power stations and overhead powerlines to short circuit them.

There are now two US carrier groups in the Persian Gulf region - the USS Enterprise with a support ship, nuclear submarine, and missile-firing cruiser, has joined the USS Carl Vinson and its similar group of support ships.

At the Pentagon, the US Air Force spokesman Major Wes Davis said that 18 F-16Cs from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia were being dispatched to Saudi Arabia. They had been scheduled to relieve a group of F-16s from Hill Air Force Base in Utah that had been on station there, but the Utah aircraft are being kept in the region, Major Davis said. A Pentagon spokeswoman insisted that the move was a routine "swap".