Originally created 01/25/03

Britain prepares major force for possible Iraq war



LONDON -- Britain, which has staunchly backed the United States' tough stance on Iraq, now is matching its political support with a huge military force that will be ready for war in weeks.

While Prime Minister Tony Blair insists war is not inevitable, his government is assembling in the Gulf region a force of 35,000 troops, backed by everything from tanks and jets to nuclear submarines. In all, Britain is sending a quarter of its army.

"This is no token contribution to a U.S. force. It is a massive effort by Britain's armed forces," said Charles Heyman, an analyst with the publication Jane's World Armies.

While some U.S. allies, such as Australia, have backed Washington politically over Iraq, Britain is the only ally to offer substantial military aid. Full details - including a planned land force of 26,000 troops - were outlined Tuesday.

The British force, drawn up in consultation with U.S. commanders, is dominated by fast-moving assault units, giving insight as to what kind of fighting may be expected.

If there is a war, British commanders say privately they expect a campaign of lightning attacks designed to topple Saddam Hussein's regime and avoid protracted combat, which would inflict heavy casualties on the Iraqi military and civilians.

This scenario suggests U.S. and British forces will launch a series of land attacks on Iraq on several fronts, including a possible amphibious assault on the coast near Basra. Paratroops and air assault troops simultaneously will establish bases deep inside Iraqi territory from which to launch operations.

The shock of the onslaught is expected to overwhelm the demoralized Iraqi military and encourage opponents of the regime to revolt, British military sources say.

A British naval fleet of 16 ships is heading to the Gulf with about 4,000 marines on board. The marines can operate as special forces behind enemy lines.

The army is contributing two major combat units, including the 16th Air Assault Brigade, a force of paratroopers and assault helicopters designed for swift attacks. The other unit, the 7th Armored Brigade, with 120 tanks, artillery and four battalions of mechanized infantry, is for conventional armored warfare.

The Ministry of Defense said nothing about any role to be played in any war by British special forces, which are among the best in the world. The Special Air Service is expected to play a major role behind Iraqi lines, as they did during the 1991 Gulf War.

Britain deployed about 50,000 troops to that war. In 1982, it deployed fewer than 30,000 to drive Argentina from the Falkland Islands.

The British military has a reputation for being highly trained and very effective in combat. It has a close working relationship with the U.S. military.

But British forces also suffer from a shortage of troops, conflicting demands on their limited manpower and poor equipment.

British tanks and artillery did not perform well in desert exercises in 2001 in Oman, breaking down because of the sand. The government says repairs were made, but many soldiers are critical about the reliability of their rifles and other weapons.

The government was put on the defensive this month after press reports that poorly paid soldiers were buying their own boots and clothing because their military gear was shoddy. The government rushed through emergency orders for footwear and clothing.

The army, which has trouble meeting recruiting quotas, faces competing demands for its stretched units, including keeping a large force in Northern Ireland in case of political unrest.

About 20,000 soldiers are serving as temporary firefighters in Britain because of intermittent strikes by firefighters seeking hefty pay raises.