Armed and Dangerous

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JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES

U.S. sailor Aaron Harris of Las Vegas onboard the U.S.S. Constellation in the Persian Gulf

The U.S. military is planning to launch the mother of all salvos should war begin in Iraq. That much has been made obvious from the massive naval deployment in the Gulf. "This is the largest ever naval deployment in history," in the words of Rear Admiral Barry M. Costello, the Commander of the CTF 55. To be precise, there are three aircraft carriers — Constellation, Kitty Hawk and Lincoln — choking up the narrow Persian Gulf. Combined, they send nearly 200 sorties into Iraq every day and can double that within hours. Add to that more than 130 cruisers, frigates and destroyers.

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As of now, war targets have been picked and planning moves along swiftly. On the U.S.S. Constellation, the ordinance department has been stocking up the Joint Direct Attack Munitions, the gray 'smart bombs' that operate with GSM locators to find their exact target. Red vested youngsters bring them up from storage and leave them lying casually on one side of the flight deck, an area they call the 'bomb farm'. From there they are loaded onto fighters. Plus, there are the dumb green bombs that just make a hole in the ground and the smarter laser guided missiles. All of them have numbers and yellow stripes around the snout to show that they contain live ammunition. "We are 'oh, so' ready," grins Captain Mark.I. Fox, head of the Commander Air Group. "In fact, my challenge is to sustain the excellence without burning people out."

Much of the war effort is spent programming high-tech bombs to hit targets in Iraq. Over an encrypted email system, strategists are dotting the map, marking coordinates, which are entered into a missile's guidance system using Global Positioning technology. As soon as they have their orders, some 30 ships will shower these pre-planned targets with Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, an 18 foot long weapon that carries a 1000 pound warhead. Saddam has seen these before, during the Gulf War. They seldom miss their target — something that Iraqi civilians are banking on as they brace themselves for war. In Baghdad, when asked why they were not building shelters, most Iraqis shrug and say that the missiles never struck civilian areas unless they were mistaken for defense targets. Fighter jets, loaded with smart bombs, will follow the missile barrage. Over the last 12 years, the U.S. military has gathered significant intelligence on Iraq's defense capabilities. These can, say experts, be taken out in days. "We want to prepare the way and quickly create an environment where our land forces can succeed," says Costello.

To that end, pilots are already in constant practice. Lt. Blaine Tompkins, a pilot on the U.S.S. Constellation, takes out an F-18 Hornet at least once every day, may be twice, kills his lights, rams on the night goggles and flies into the "Box" as pilots call Iraq. Pilots are being trained to be particularly careful to prevent loss of civilian lives or vital infrastructure. Last week, they used precision-guided weapons to target five underground military communication sites just 60 miles southeast of Baghdad, without taking any civilian lives — though forces were met with Iraqi ground fire. According to the United States Central Command, Iraqi defense has fired at US planes least 110 times since January, although most of the fire came from ineffectual 'Triple As', Anti aircraft artillery guns. Tompkins says it does not really bother the pilots. "They just don't have the equipment or may be they don't want to use it," he says. "There has been no firing that has come even close to me."

Planners are not, however, underestimating the opposition. "Some element of air defense has already been cut back in southern Iraq," says Admiral Costello. "But there will be significant air defense near Baghdad which will be a concern for any pilot that goes north." That will be an issue particularly if Turkey does not allow US troops to sandwich Saddam from the north. US planes will have to travel a long way. "It can be done," says Capt Fox. "It only depends on how much fuel we have in the air." The whole operation, agree experts, will be very quick. "See that you don't blink because the war will be over by then," one officer laughed.