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Volume 2, Number 40               November 10 -16,  2002            Quezon City, Philippines

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U.S. Pilots in Gulf Use Southern Iraq for Practice Runs

By Michael R. Gordon
New York Times | International 

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ABOARD U.S.S. ABRAHAM LINCOLN, in the Persian Gulf, Oct. 30 -- When Navy warplanes roar off the flight deck of this aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, their official mission is to patrol the no-flight zone in southern Iraq.

But they also have an unadvertised task: practicing bombing runs against Iraqi targets.

Navy pilots are conducting mock strikes against airfields, towers and other military sites in Iraq, acquainting themselves with targets they may be called on to strike as the Bush administration prepares for a possible military campaign to topple Saddam Hussein.

"It gives us the opportunity to train in the same environment that we may possibly go to war in," Capt. Kevin C. Albright, who commands the Abraham Lincoln's air wing, said of the Navy patrols over southern Iraq. "We are looking at target sets and practicing."

The no-flight zones in southern and northern Iraq were established after the 1991 Persian Gulf war to prevent Iraq from carrying out airstrikes against Shiites in southern Iraq and Kurdish forces in the north of the country. The zones have been patrolled by the United States Air Force and Navy and by the British.

At the beginning of the Bush administration, there was some debate within the American military whether the patrols were worth the wear and tear on equipment and the risk to allied pilots, who have repeatedly been fired at by Iraqi antiaircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles and who have responded by bombing Iraqi air defenses.

But with Washington and Baghdad on a collision course, that debate is long forgotten. The allied patrols, in fact, have grown into a low-grade war. According to Pentagon officials, Iraq has fired at allied patrols more than 130 times since mid-September.

The Iraqi goal, said Rear Adm. John M. Kelly, the commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battle Group, "is to shoot down a coalition aircraft."

To make it harder for allied warplanes to retaliate, Admiral Kelly said, the Iraqis have tried to minimize their use of weapons radar, which the planes can detect and attack. The Iraqis have also tried to anticipate allied flight patterns and guide their fire by eye.

In response, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has given American warplanes the authority to attack a broader array of targets, Pentagon officials said. Instead of focusing on mobile antiaircraft systems, which Iraq can hide, the Pentagon has authorized the military to attack an expanded set of command and control centers, communications relay stations, military radars and other stationary targets. These are nearly impossible to conceal, costly and difficult to repair and essential for Iraq's air defense network.

By bringing in the Lincoln, the United States has further expanded its options. As the Navy likes to put it, a carrier represents four and a half acres of sovereign American territory, which means that political considerations by Persian Gulf nations do not affect the Navy's ability to conduct bombing missions.

That is not the case for land-based allied patrols, which have been limited by political constraints. American F-15E Strike Eagles and British Tornados based in Kuwait are authorized to bomb targets in Iraq. But many planes that help monitor the no-flight zone are based in Saudi Arabia, which does not allow them to be used in actual bombing missions.

The Lincoln is the only aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, but more are expected to arrive. The Constellation and the Harry S. Truman are scheduled to leave ports in the United States and could reach the gulf by December. The George Washington is in the Mediterranean, but could quickly reach the Persian Gulf.

"You could make a case that with normal rotations, if you did the math, you could have up to four carrier battle groups deployed," said Vice Adm. Timothy J. Keating, who commands the Navy's Fifth Fleet. "Could they end up in the Arabian Gulf? Sure. It depends on where we want them to go. It depends on what the president tells us to do."

After the Lincoln turned its attention away from Afghanistan and steamed into the Persian Gulf this week, Cmdr. Jeffrey Penfield, who leads the VFA-115 strike fighter squadron, prepared to enforce the no-flight zone in southern Iraq.

The squadron is the first to be equipped with the Navy's F/A-18E Super Hornet. The new planes are bigger than the old F/A-18 Hornets, allowing them to carry more bombs and fly farther without refueling. The pilots have their own nickname for the formidable aircraft: Rhino.

When the aircrews from the Lincoln patrolled Afghanistan, their missions were largely uneventful. But flying over Iraq on the eve of a possible war has sent a jolt of adrenaline through the aircrews.

"In Afghanistan we did not get shot at," Captain Albright said. "So this is probably the first chance of being in combat for most of our crew for a while."

Commander Penfield's patrol mission began at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, when his squadron convened in its ready room on the carrier for a briefing.

The missions are complex and involve choreographed flights of Air Force, Navy and British planes. The basic plan this time was for an Air Force U-2 reconnaissance plane and an Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic surveillance plane to monitor the Iraqi military.

Allied fighters would be aloft to protect the intelligence planes and shoot down any Iraqi warplanes that violate restrictions. Allied tankers would be flying to refuel the aircraft.

The mission for Commander Penfield and three other Navy Super Hornet pilots -- including Captain Albright, his superior, who served as his wingman on this mission -- was "strike." That meant they could bomb targets in Iraq if Iraqi air defenses fired on the allied patrol.

If the planes were attacked, one target would be a reinforced air defense command and control center. The Super Hornet patrol was prepared to attack it with bunker-busting bombs, weapons designed to penetrate concrete and guided to their targets by satellite. A second possible target was a surface-to-air missile battery in southern Iraq.

But that was not the only task. The Super Hornet pilots were also given several practice targets, including an abandoned airfield and a tower. By simulating attacks on those targets, the pilots would improve their fighting skills and prepare for a possible war with Baghdad.

Airfields are relatively easy to spot, but the tower had been picked because it was more difficult to find. Navy pilots say that by flying patrol missions, they become accustomed to the Iraqi terrain and winds, and learn how the weather affects their infrared targeting systems, which generate images from the heat of the objects they detect.

The mock bombing attacks also give the pilots an opportunity to maneuver their planes so that their radar systems can generate a good picture of the target. It is a chance to rehearse what pilots call "knobology," the complicated series of steps that are needed to target a precision-guided bomb.

Some of the aircraft are outfitted with satellite-guided bombs, but Navy pilots often simulate the more difficult task of dropping laser-guided bombs. To carry out an attack with a laser-guided bomb, the pilot needs to keep a laser focused on a target for as long as half a minute as he maneuvers his aircraft.

The practice sessions are recorded, and the pilots review the tapes of their mock attacks after they return to the carrier.

"You go through everything you would do as if you were actually going to drop," Commander Penfield said. "You fly a specific formation. You assign aim points. You make sure you have the right weapon on board. You use the radar. You go through the knobology as if you were actually dropping the weapons."

In carrying out their missions, the Super Hornet pilots also benefit from a mission conducted by one of Navy's oldest and least glamorous aircraft -- a P-3 Orion, which regularly flies seven-hour missions in the Persian Gulf and over Kuwait. The plane was designed for antisubmarine warfare during the cold war, but it uses its infrared sensors and electro-optical systems to monitor Iraqi threats to allied air patrols and ships in the Persian Gulf.

"We are monitoring various activities to make sure Iraq is not capable of reaching our aircraft, our troops on the ground or our ships at sea," said Petty Officer First Class John Clark, who operated the sensor systems on a recent Orion flight.

After completing his briefing and suiting up, Commander Penfield and his Super Hornet pilots were on the carrier deck at 7 a.m., getting ready for their catapult launching off the deck.

The nose of some of Navy fighters were festooned with paintings, many recalling the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. One depicted the crest of New York Fire Department Engine Company 54 and Ladder Company 4, which is in Times Square. The companies lost 17 firefighters in the attack on the World Trade Center, and their emblem boasts that they have "Never Missed a Performance." The pilots of VFA-115 wear the companies' patch on their shoulders.

At 8 a.m., the planes took off for their three-and-a-half-hour flight. The actual time over Iraq, what pilots call the vulnerability period, was about an hour and a half. The weather was cloudy. On this day, there was no firing by the Iraqis and no allied bombing. But it was the first Iraq patrol during the Lincoln's deployment, and the pilots are aware that there is a high probability that they will see their share of action during the rest of their time at sea.

The patrols are something of a double-edged sword. While they give the American pilots a chance to rehearse military attacks against the Iraqis, they also give the Iraqi air defense forces a chance to practice against allied patrols. The allies vary their formations, tactics and flight times to keep the Iraqis off guard.

The Navy's general assessment is that it learns more from the patrols than the Iraqis do. Navy pilots who attacked Iraq during the gulf war were often flying over unfamiliar terrain using bombing plans that were rushed to them at the last minute from commanders based in Saudi Arabia.

Now, the Navy pilots gain combat experience when they police the no-flight zone. They have the chance to practice bombing tactics when the Iraqis refrain from firing at the patrols and to hone their skills in case of war.

"It can only improve the likelihood of successful mission execution," Admiral Keating observed.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.) 

November 3, 2002 Bulatlat.com

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