Iraq Crisis: Strike crews on target in hours

Emma Daly reports from on board USS George Washington in the Gulf
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The Independent Online
AS TOMCATS and Hornets roar on and off the flight deck with a thunder fit to waken the dead, it is business as usual aboard the nuclear- powered USS George Washington. The five-year-old aircraft carrier left port on Monday after a brief respite and has returned to active duty in the Gulf, prepared if necessary to launch a wave of air strikes against Iraq.

"We really are ready to go on our mission if that's what is called for," said Rear Admiral Mike Mullen, commander of the George Washington battle group, which includes 12 other ships and operates alongside the USS Independence, another carrier, and its battle group. The admiral emphasised his ship's hope for a diplomatic solution, but warned that the strike aircraft stationed aboard could reach their targets in Iraq within hours of any orders to attack.

As the ship has been stationed in the area since November, its pilots have flown hundreds of sorties over Iraq to enforce the no-fly zone, and know the terrain well. The F-14 Tomcat crews - a pilot and a radar officer - have even practiced bombing runs over Iraq, to the extent that officers are now training against complacency.

"I think we can do the job if need be," said Lt Bryan Fetter standing in the pilots' briefing room, walls adorned with a large-scale map of the Gulf and a home-made calendar decorated with lingerie. But, "I'd really like to see a political solution."

Lt Fetter (call-sign "Cheese", as in feta) will be charged with finding and locking on to targets in the event of a bombing run and he knows he might inflict civilian casualties. "I've thought about that," said Lt Fetter, who has yet to fire a shot in anger. "It's something I think about every time, and the conclusion I've come to is: all the targets we are targeting are military, and they are primarily to stop the chemical and biological weapons programme."

His comrade Lt Keith Parker, a Tomcat pilot, admits that every professional wants to use his training but adds: "For us, that's a life or death matter. I don't think you're going to find any warmongers."

Life aboard the USS George Washington will not change radically if President Bill Clinton orders an attack against Iraq, since the 70-plus aircraft aboard have been flying 100 sorties a day, armed with missiles and bombs, since last November.

The flight-deck is an extraordinarily noisy and dangerous place. During take-offs, a fearsome catapult hurls aircraft after aircraft off the tiny runway; landings are noisier still, as a wire cable catches the hook of an aircraft and yanks it to a dead stop. The sounds reverberate throughout the 17-deck ship - but anyone passing the engine room where the arresting gear operates is practically deafened by the screech as the cable rips out to catch the speeding jet fighter.

As each aircraft is readied for take-off, dozens of staff scurry about the deck signalling pilots or clearing debris or fixing bombs and arming missiles - including the horrifyingly expensive laser-guided smart bombs. Each crew-member interviewed aboard (and there are 36 women serving on the George Washington, or GW, as it is known) seemed calm and purposeful, aware of their roles as tiny cogs in a vast military machine.

"Their spirits are high and morale is up. They understand their mission," said Admiral Mullen, who defined that mission as ensuring the long- and short-term economic stability of the region, as well as the "diminishment" of weapons of mass destruction.

It is the latter reason that strikes a chord with the crew. If the order to attack comes, "It won't ruin my cruise," muttered one ordnance man. "I just don't think they should be using those weapons."

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