Aircraft carriers deployed to Iraq pack massive punch

Sunday, March 16, 2003

ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT -- The U.S. Navy battle groups now in position to strike at Iraq bristle with fighting power: long-range missiles, jets and a menacing array of cannons, Gatling guns and attack helicopters.

The five battle groups -- aircraft carriers and accompanying warships -- deployed in the Persian Gulf and eastern Mediterranean are a key part of the military buildup against Baghdad.

If it comes to war, much of the long-range punch brought to bear on Iraq will be launched from ships like the USS Roosevelt and its three destroyers, two cruisers and frigate.

Of the five carrier groups stationed near Iraq, the Roosevelt and the USS Harry Truman are in the eastern Mediterranean, while the USS Abraham Lincoln, the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Constellation are in the Persian Gulf. Another carrier group, the USS Nimitz, is reportedly en route. Nuclear submarines are also close by.

Overland missile strikes

As they did in the Persian Gulf War and against Afghanistan, the fleet's cruisers stand ready to fire low-flying Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can hit targets 690 miles away.

"We can strike deep overland with Tomahawk missiles or with our tactical aircraft," said battle group commander Rear Adm. John C. Harvey Jr.

If attacked, the cruisers, destroyers and even the small frigates can respond with missiles, rapid-fire cannon or attack helicopters to conventional threats much greater than Iraq is thought to be able to mount.

The USS Kitty Hawk, for example, is traveling with the cruiser USS Cowpens and the destroyer USS John S. McCain, which both have the advanced Aegis radar-weapons defense system.

"We are never more than five miles away from the big boy, and we are here to protect him," said Capt. Charles Dixon, skipper of the Cowpens, referring to the Kitty Hawk.

And the battle groups are ready to deploy wherever needed.

On Friday, for example, five warships attached to the Truman and Roosevelt crossed the Suez Canal after Turkey refused to grant overflight rights for U.S. aircraft and missiles, harbor officials at Egypt's Port Said said.

"We can get moving anywhere in that vast domain of international water," Harvey told The Associated Press. "We can go wherever we need to go, whenever we need to go."

And wherever they go, they bring their powerful air wing. The Kitty Hawk's air wing has more than 70 planes, including the F/A-18C Hornet and the F-14 Tomcats. Both planes have a 20mm cannon and can be armed with laser-guided and regular bombs, and Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles.

On the Roosevelt, the thunder of F-18 jets flying daily mock combat missions attest to the state of readiness in the eastern Mediterranean and in the Gulf.

So does the mood in the "Blue Room" -- the Combat Direction Center in the bowels of the ship, where aircraft are tracked and incoming threats dealt with.

Under the dim glow of blue lights, sailors follow the action on monitors that show the position of the other ships and aircraft above. Other screens are covered with paper keeping classified information away from visitors' eyes.

A gunner sits near two control panels. One fires what the crew colloquially calls the "Seawhiz" -- three six-barrelled gatling guns that fire 4,000 rounds a minute. The other controls three Sea Sparrow missile launchers.

Above deck of the $5 billion carrier, an F-18 pilot who asked to be identified only by his call sign "Heed," said his fighter-bomber -- one of 48 combat aircraft on the Roosevelt, along with three attack helicopters -- can "carry almost any missile and almost any bomb."

Despite the power of his fighting machine, Heed, 34, of Seattle, is still careful.

"You'd be foolish not to feel that knot in your stomach," in combat, he said. "Their surface-to-air missiles are older, but if they get a lucky shot, technology doesn't matter."

Editors: Associated Press reporters Rohan Sullivan aboard the USS Kitty Hawk and Miron Varouhakis aboard the USS Harry Truman contributed to this report.

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