WASHINGTON -- The American general who would run a war against Iraq is quietly assembling hundreds of battle planners in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar for a war game that will test their ability to command and coordinate land, sea and air forces throughout the region.
Although planning for the exercise, code-named Internal Look, began long before the U.N. Security Council gave Iraq a Dec. 8 deadline to account for any weapons of mass destruction, timing of the operation fits in neatly. It will begin a few days before or after the U.N. deadline, officials said Friday.
It is the first time U.S. Central Command has conducted the exercise in the Middle East. In the past it was done at American military bases because Central Command, headquartered in Tampa, Fla., had no deployable command post.
"This exercise will test Central Command's ability to communicate on the modern battlefield," said Jim Wilkinson, director of strategic communication for the command. He would not discuss the exact dates of the exercise or the war scenario it will test. Others said the computer-based scenario involves Iraq.
Gen. Tommy Franks will travel to Qatar to oversee the war game. He recently described the deployable command post as "containers of communications gear, very large communications pipes that we're able to put in the back of an airplane, fly it a long ways, land it on the ground and then set up a command and control complex." It has been developed since the start of the war in Afghanistan, which Franks commanded from his headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.
The transportable command post is already in Qatar and its buildings have been assembled and equipped.
About 600 members of Central Command's battle planning staff will participate in the exercise, and many of them already have arrived in Qatar, officials said Friday. The war game does not involve troops in the field; rather it is a means of testing the communications links that are vital to commanding forces in combat.
Franks has said it would last one week to 10 days.
Staying to prepare for Iraq
Movement of the command post to Qatar, where the U.S. Air Force has a major presence at al-Udeid air base, has raised speculation that Franks will remain there to prepare for war against Iraq.
Franks has not ruled out leaving the new command post and his battle staff in Qatar, although the original intent was to bring them back to Florida at the conclusion of the exercise.
In a recent interview, Franks cautioned against reading too much into the timing.
"This just happens to be a very good time, a very good place and a very good way" to do the exercise, he said.
Planning for Internal Look has been in the works for months -- long before the Bush administration began in August to make its public case for forcing Iraq's Saddam Hussein to give up any weapons of mass destruction.
Each military service that contributes combat forces to Central Command has its own headquarters, and they need sophisticated communications links to ensure that they coordinate air, land and sea-based operations.
The Army component, for example, is based at Fort McPherson, Ga., but has three forward headquarters sites in the Gulf -- in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. The command headquarters operated from Kuwait during the early months of the war in Afghanistan.
The Navy component is headquartered in Bahrain, off the coast of Saudi Arabia, because the Navy's 5th Fleet headquarters is there.
Central Command also has a Marine Corps component that normally is based at Camp Smith, Hawaii, but is now in Bahrain. Among those who will participate in Internal Look, in addition to the 600 Central Command planners, are members of the headquarters staff of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which began shipping out for Kuwait on Friday from Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The Special Operations Command component, based at Central Command headquarters in Florida, is operating from Camp Snoopy in Qatar.
Internal Look has been held periodically, most recently in November 2000. The 1990 version took on particular importance, since it was held just a few days before Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. In its own history of the Gulf War, the Army wrote that Internal Look provided a conceptual blueprint for the military campaign that ousted Iraq's army from Kuwait.
The 1990 war game was the first to postulate an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia. Previously the scenario was a Soviet invasion of Iran. When actual deployments of combat troops to Saudi Arabia began shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, planners would routinely remark, "We did this on Internal Look," the Army said it its account of the war.