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Iraq: 'Tip of the Spear' -- U.S. Combat Teams Near Border Prepare For Battle

Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers are now readying themselves near Kuwait's northern border for possible combat in Iraq. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division at a forward camp in the desert called Assembly Area Hammer. He reports on how the soldiers and equipment of a mechanized infantry task force will work together if there is a war against Iraq.

Assembly Area Hammer, Kuwait; 14 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Army is making its final preparations in the desert of northern Kuwait for a possible war against Iraq.

Some 120,000 U.S. troops are now in the emirate and more are arriving each day. To make room for the new arrivals, thousands of soldiers in the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division have moved from the relative comfort of tent cities -- such as Camp New York and Camp Pennsylvania -- to a series of tactical assembly areas just south of the Iraqi border.

At one barren encampment, called Assembly Area Hammer, three task forces in the Third Brigade Combat Team are poised in case U.S. President George W. Bush issues the order for battle.

Lieutenant Colonel John Charlton, the commander of Task Force 1-15, confidently smokes a cigar while a sandstorm rages outside his tent. He is certain his soldiers are ready after nine months of desert training in Kuwait during the past year.

"We're part of the Third Infantry Division. If and when we attack Iraq, we'll be one of the primary forces in that fight. This task force is part of a brigade combat team composed of several other battalion task forces. So you have several thousand soldiers in a brigade combat team," Charlton says.

Charlton says a successful U.S. battle plan depends on the integration of many different elements -- not just between the Army, the Marines Corps, the Navy, and the Air Force but also within individual task forces.

"I've got several hundred soldiers in my battalion task force. We're an infantry task force -- a mechanized infantry task force. Our primary fighting systems are the M1 Abrams tank and the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. We also have heavy combat engineers, mortars, scouts and, of course, a large number of logistics elements [such as diesel fuel trucks, medics in armor-protected ambulances, five-ton supply trucks, mechanics and cooks. It's the logistical elements] that keep the whole thing moving," Charlton says.

The 42-year-old Charlton says a war with Iraq would start with heavy air strikes and hundreds of cruise missiles targeting Iraqi command centers and heavy weaponry. He expects a ground assault to start soon after the air war in order to minimize Iraq's ability to set fire to its oil fields.

In the ground war phase, waves of war planes, helicopters, and unmanned spy planes would first fly over Iraqi territory in search of targets. Their intelligence information would be sent to the command-and-control cells of each task force on the ground.

Sergeant Major Rodrigo Arreolo works in command-and-control operations for Task Force 1-15.

"The command-and-control cell receives all the battlefield information. From there, we orchestrate and synchronize all the moving units that are attached to the task force and put them into play. According to the enemy's situation, we move the units to best fight the battle," Arreolo says.

Arreolo and his soldiers use radio signals to relay the air intelligence to the scouts of Task Force 1-15. The scouts drive lightly armored vehicles called Humvees. Using high-resolution thermal imagers, the scouts can see potential targets at night from as far away as 40 kilometers. They can positively identify a vehicle at a distance of 10 kilometers and broadcast target coordinates, accurate to within one meter, over the battalion's radio frequency for all of the troops to hear.

Air strikes would then be called in as artillery and armored carriers mounted with mortar launchers moved into position against the most powerful conventional weapon in Iraq's Republican Guard -- the Soviet-built T-72 battle tank.

Artillery in Charlton's task force has a range of about 17 kilometers. From a distance of about 7 kilometers, within the first minute of getting target coordinates, a typical mortar launcher can fire 10 shells, designed to pin down an Iraqi tank or force it out of a dug-in position.

While the Iraqi tanks are dealing from the combined air and artillery attacks, the U.S. Abrams tanks would move quickly to within their 3-kilometer firing range.

Sergeant Jerold Pyle is an Abrams tank commander in Task Force 1-15 who fought in the tank battles of the 1991 Gulf War. Our correspondent asks him about his expectations in any future combat against Iraq's Republican Guard.

"An Abrams tank in a battle? This is the heavy armor. These are the killers. This is what the enemy is afraid of. The Abrams was made to fight the Soviet Union, designed back in the 1980s. It's been updated over the last 20 years until it's the best tank in the world. This is the heavy armor. This is the tip of the spear" Pyle says.

As in any battle, Charlton says his tanks also will need support from foot soldiers to prevent rocket attacks by Iraqi infantry on their flanks or from behind. That is the job of armored troop carriers called Bradleys.

A Bradley is a box-shaped armored vehicle with a three-man crew that can fire heavy machine guns or antitank missiles. Six infantrymen are transported in the rear compartment of each Bradley. Once the troop carrier gets close to Iraqi infantry, the rear hatch is lowered and the soldiers disembark in squad formation, ready for battle.

Combat engineers are positioned in the middle of each task force and can move forward under the protection of tanks and Bradleys to clear minefields or to build bridges over the irrigation canals near Baghdad.

An armored mobile chemical-detection laboratory, called a "Fox," is positioned in the middle of each task force to warn troops about any chemical or biological attack against them.