UDAIRI RANGE, Kuwait — The sound of U.S. military might shook the Kuwait desert last weekend as the Army launched its biggest training exercise since the 1991 Gulf War.

The thundering whoosh and ground-shaking kaboom of Paladin howitzer shells pierced the air as M-1 Abrams tanks growled across the sands. Mock minefields were detonated with a blinding flash.

Conducted along a 40-square-mile swath of desert just eight miles east of the Iraq border, the exercises sent a clear signal to Iraqi forces that the U.S. Army was girding for war. And the two-day, live-fire training prepared mechanized infantry soldiers, doctors and pilots for what they might encounter in a real faceoff.

“This is a more intensified training to get us ready for any potential operation that may happen,” said Maj. Gen. Buford “Buff” Blount, commander of the Fort Stewart, Ga.-based 3rd Infantry Division.

About 4,000 soldiers from the division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team maneuvered 150 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and armored personnel carriers in a carefully choreographed plan. The combat team, one of three in the 20,000-troop strong division, would be on the forefront of the battle should President Bush’s threats of force against Iraq turn into actual war within the next several months.

That possibility wasn’t lost on Pfc. Adam Stever, whose face was flushed with exertion after he helped clear and secure a mock enemy bunker.

“You’ve always got to keep in mind that there’s always somebody out there trying to one-up you,” Stever said. “But they’re wasting their time. We know we have the best training and the best weapons. We’re going to annihilate anyone who wants to one-up us,” he said.

When the mock battle started at dawn Saturday, scouts using night-vision goggles already had patrolled the cold expanse of the battlefield for most of the night. With the morning light came a swift assault from above by Apache attack helicopters, followed by the Paladins launching their 155 mm shells ahead of the advancing ground troops.

For the first time, Blount and his staff of communications and intelligence experts kept pace with the troops in a new command and control vehicle that can travel up to 60 mph — as fast as a Bradley or tank.

Engineers cleared minefields and tore through barbed-wire obstacles to allow the tanks, Bradleys and APCs access to enemy territory. Medical units flanked the troops, conducting exercises treating men “wounded” on the battlefield.

Their training turned to a real-life emergency Saturday when a French television reporter was struck by a tank and evacuated by air to the Kuwait Armed Forces Hospital. The reporter later died of his injuries.

As night fell again on Saturday, the exercise was to be repeated in the dark, featureless landscape. The war games wrapped up Sunday.

“The 4,000 soldiers out there have incredible freedom to maneuver. This is the most tough, realistic training event that the military can conduct,” said Lt. Col. Charles Niles, the division’s staff general secretary.

The live-fire maneuvers followed the completion last week of the command-and-control exercise Internal Look, based in Qatar. The exercise was meant to test U.S. commanders’ ability to coordinate and direct a battle in the region.

In the Kuwait live-fire exercise, the troops presented a force designed to outman the enemy three-to-one, Niles said. Now, 13,000 coalition troops are stationed in Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Spring. In the event of real war with Iraq, analysts have said, that number would likely quadruple.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, some 200,000 U.S. troops were sent to the region for operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The Army and coalition troops have maintained a mission ever since.

The military already has pre-positioned tons of equipment and supplies in the country in case the need for more troops arises. The Army and Marines recently alerted up to 50,000 reserve troops in preparation for war.

Blount said his division was prepared to add to its forces here “on short notice,” massing additional men and machinery within 96 hours.

The increased war talk has sharpened soldiers as they fire thousands of artillery rounds in the desert exercises, Blount said.

“Soldiers know what’s happening in the news. They know there’s a real possibility that we’ll go to war,” Blount said.

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