WASHINGTON — Even before President Bush orders American forces to loose bullets and bombs on Iraq, the military is starting an ambitious assault using a growing arsenal of electronic and psychological weapons on the information battlefield.
American cyber-warfare experts recently waged an e-mail assault, directed at Iraq's political, military and economic leadership, urging them to break with Saddam Hussein's government. A wave of calls has gone to the private cell phone numbers of specially selected officials inside Iraq, according to leaders at the Pentagon and in the regional Central Command.
As of last week, more than 8 million leaflets had been dropped over Iraq — including towns 65 miles south of Baghdad — warning Iraqi anti-aircraft missile operators that their bunkers will be destroyed if they track or fire at allied warplanes. In the same way, a blunt offer has gone to Iraqi ground troops: Surrender, and live.
But the leaflets are old-fashioned instruments compared with some of the others that are being applied already or are likely to be used soon.
Radio transmitters hauled aloft by Air Force Special Operations EC-130E planes are broadcasting directly to the Iraqi public in Arabic with programs that mimic the program styles of local radio stations and are more sophisticated than the clumsy preachings of previous wartime propaganda efforts.
"Do not let Saddam tarnish the reputation of soldiers any longer," one recent broadcast said. "Saddam uses the military to persecute those who don't agree with his unjust agenda. Make the decision."
Military planners at the Central Command expect to rely on many kinds of information warfare — including electronic attacks on power grids, communications systems and computer networks, as well as deception and psychological operations — to break the Iraqi military's will to fight and sway Iraqi public opinion.
Commanders may use supersecret weapons that could flash millions of watts of electricity to cripple Iraqi computers and equipment, and literally turn off the lights in Baghdad if the campaign escalates to full-fledged combat.
"The goal of information warfare is to win without ever firing a shot," said James R. Wilkinson, spokesman for the Central Command in Tampa, Fla. "If action does begin, information warfare is used to make the conflict as short as possible."
Senior military officials say, for example, that the American radio shows broadcast from the EC-130E "Commando Solo" planes follow the format of a popular Iraqi station, "Voice of the Youth," managed by Saddam's older son, Uday.
The American programs open with greetings in Arabic, followed by Euro-pop and 1980s American rock music — designed to appeal to younger Iraqi troops, perceived by officials as the ones most likely to lay down their arms. The broadcasts include traditional Iraqi folk music, so as not to alienate other listeners, and a news program in Arabic prepared by Army psychological operations experts at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Then comes the official message: Any war is not against the Iraqi people but is to disarm Saddam and end his government.
American commanders say they believe that these psychological salvos have, to some degree, influenced Iraqi forces to move their defenses or curtail their anti-aircraft fire.
"It pays to drop the leaflets," Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, commander of allied air forces in the Persian Gulf, said by telephone from his headquarters in Saudi Arabia. "It sends a direct message to the operator on the gun. It sends a direct message to the chain of command."
Deception and psychological operations have been a part of warfare for centuries, and American commanders carried out limited information attacks — both psychological operations, or "psyops," and more traditional electronic warfare like jamming or crippling the enemy's equipment — in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and 1999 air campaign over Kosovo, as well as in Afghanistan. But commanders looking back on those campaigns say their current planning is much broader and more tightly integrated into the main war plan than ever before.
"What we're seeing now is the weaving of electronic warfare, psyops and other information warfare through every facet of the plan from our peacetime preparations through execution," said Maj. Gen. Paul J. Lebras, chief of the Joint Information Operations Center, a secretive military agency based in Texas that has sent a team of experts to join the Central Command info-warfare team for the Iraq campaign.
As modern combat relies increasingly on precision strikes at targets carried out over long distances, the military is likewise increasingly aware that there are many ways to disable the operations at those targets.
An adversary's anti-aircraft radar site, for example, can be destroyed by a bomb or missile launched by a warplane; it can be captured or blown up by ground forces; or the enemy soldiers running the radar can be persuaded to shut down the system and just go home.
"We are trying very hard to be empathetic with the Iraqi military," said a senior American information warfare official. "We understand their situation. The same for the Iraqi population. We wish them no harm. We will take great pains to make those people understand that they should stay away from military equipment."
Even so, the military's most ardent advocates of information warfare acknowledge that American pilots ordered into enemy air space would rather be told that anti-aircraft sites were struck first by ordnance, rather than by leaflets.
Aerial pictures help the military assess bomb damage to a target. The softer kind of strike is harder to assess.
Information warfare experts look for what they call "the voil moment."
"In Afghanistan, the biggest lesson we learned in our tactical information operations — the radio and TV broadcasts — was the importance in explaining, 'Why are we here?' " a senior American military officer said. "The majority of Afghanis did not know that Sept. 11 occurred. They didn't even know of our great tragedy."
During the war in Afghanistan, this officer said, "The voil moment came when we saw that the population understood why coalition forces were fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida."
In Iraq, he said, "it will be when we see a break with the leadership."
Delivering radios to the people of Afghanistan presented a particular problem. About 500 were air-dropped over the country, and all of them were destroyed on impact. The military and aid groups passed out more than 6,500, and millions of leaflets were dropped telling the Afghan people of frequencies used for the American broadcasts.
The American military also took over one important frequency, 8.7 megahertz, used by the Taliban for its official radio broadcasts. That became possible once the towers used by the Taliban for relaying their military commands were blown up as part of the war effort. As in most totalitarian governments, the military and government used the same system for their radio broadcasts. The American military continues to broadcast to the Afghan people over that channel.
Improvisation remains a hallmark of the emerging information war, said Brig. Gen. Thomas P. Maney, with of the Army's Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command.
In Afghanistan, Maney said, the American military found it hard to get its radio and television messages out to many villages that had access to neither. So Special Forces troops made contact with local coffee-house managers and offered them the same radio programs being broadcast from Commando Solo planes, but on compact discs to be played over a boom box for the patrons.
The program gave birth to a new icon on the military's maps of Afghanistan: a tiny picture of a coffee mug to indicate the location of village businesses that agreed to play CD copies of the American radio programming.
If Bush orders an attack against Iraq, the information offensive will expand to a fierce but invisible war of electrons. Air commanders will rely on a small but essential fleet of surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, including the radar-jamming EC-130H Compass Call and electronic-eavesdropping RC-135 Rivet Joint. There are just over a dozen of each aircraft in the American arsenal.
Flying out of Prince Sultan Air Base, outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the Rivet Joint is already playing an important role in collecting Iraqi radio and radar emissions, which are jammed when American and British planes in the no-flight zones periodically attack targets on the ground. The RC-135, a military version of a Boeing 707 jet with a bulbous nose filled with sensors, is essentially a flying listening post, orbiting at the edge of the battlefield above 30,000 feet.
In the rear of the planes, filled with high-powered computers and other sensors, intelligence specialists, many of whom speak Arabic or Farsi, monitor the airwaves, intercepting conversations from military communications links or other networks. Much of this information is passed to the National Security Agency for analysis.
At the front of the plane, which has a 32-member crew, electronic warfare specialists sit at a separate bank of computers, gathering up radar signals of all kinds, including Iraqi air defenses. Rivet Joints have the ability to scan automatically across an array of communications frequencies, allowing an operator to home in on individual frequencies and pass that information on to the Awacs radar or Jstars ground-surveillance planes, which have better ability to pinpoint the locations of the transmissions.
The Compass Call is a modified C-130 cargo plane, also filled with high-powered computers and sensors. Usually flying at above 20,000 feet and, ideally, about 80 to 100 miles from the target to be jammed, the Compass Calls are directed to their targets by the Rivet Joints, other aircraft or targets identified in their pre-mission planning. The 13-member crews include linguists, cryptologists, other analysts and the flight personnel.
Metal antenna cables hang down from the plane's tail in a distinctive pattern that looks like a metal trapeze or cheese-cutter. Electronic signals are collected from sensors in the blunt nose of the airplane; antennae in the rear of the aircraft blast electrons that jam enemy radar and other communications.
Flying perpendicular to the target to maximize the jamming, on-board specialists lock on to the frequencies to be disrupted. The plane can jam multiple targets at once. When it comes time to carry out a mission, a flight officer pushes a little red button on computer keyboard, "JAM," and up to 800 watts of power is zapped at the target. If the target switches frequency, the Compass Call operators are ready to jam that in a constant cat-and-mouse game.
In a war against Iraq, military commanders say new technology will probably allow these electronic combat planes to plant false targets in Iraqi radars and spoof the air defense systems.
In an interview, Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, declined to discuss the highly classified technical advances, except to say, "We're approaching the point where we can tell the SA-10 radar it is a Maytag washer and not a radar, and put it in the rinse cycle instead of the firing cycle."