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Volume 2, Number 40 November 10 -16, 2002 Quezon City, Philippines
Michael R. Gordon
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they also have an unadvertised task: practicing bombing runs against Iraqi
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Iraqi goal, said Rear Adm. John M. Kelly, the commander of the Abraham Lincoln
Battle Group, "is to shoot down a coalition aircraft."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
practice sessions are recorded, and the pilots review the tapes of their mock
attacks after they return to the carrier.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
can only improve the likelihood of successful mission execution," Admiral
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November 3, 2002 Bulatlat.com
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