ABOARD THE USS NIMITZ April 13 —
The Navy's combat role in Iraq is fading fast, with most of the
country under the control of U.S.-led forces and few targets left
for cruise missiles or warplanes to strike.
Fewer jets are throttling off the decks of the five aircraft
carriers in the region. Those that do are increasingly coming back
without having dropped a bomb or fired a missile.
Vice Adm. Timothy Keating, the commander of naval forces in the
war, said Saturday that two or three of the five carriers may head
First to leave, he said, would be the USS Kitty Hawk, possibly
"in a couple of days," then the USS Constellation, followed by
either the USS Theodore Roosevelt or the USS Harry S. Truman.
"The fight has changed," said Capt. Chuck Wright, the commander
of the air wing on the USS Nimitz, which arrived a week ago to
replace the departing USS Abraham Lincoln.
Some pilots still report coming under fire from anti-aircraft
guns but the widespread bombing is largely over and "we're now at
the point where we're providing 24-hour support for troops on the
ground," he said.
Those patrols will continue for months, if not years, to come.
But the ground troops' need for air support has diminished
considerably in recent days as coalition forces took control of
Baghdad, and then the northern cities of Mosul and Kikurk, Wright
The Navy deployed tens of thousands of men and women, more than
half of its 305 ships and more than 4,000 aircraft to the Persian
Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean for the Iraq campaign.
At the height of the air campaign over Iraq, each carrier was
launching well over 100 combat sorties a day, and warplanes were
dropping tens of thousands of pounds of ordnance on Iraq. In the
past week, the number of sorties launched from each carrier has
dropped to around 30 a day.
The length of flight operations has also gotten shorter, with
carriers cutting back from 15 hours a day to around 12.
In the early hours of Saturday, more than a half-dozen jets
returned to the Nimitz from their missions over Iraq. All appeared
to be carrying the bombs and missiles they left with; of the 22
sorties flown from the carrier during that 12-hour flight cycle,
only four bombs were dropped by jets flying off the ship.
In a sign of how much the air campaign has slowed, the Nimitz is
planning one or two "no-fly" days next week to catch up on
maintenance and chores such as washing the deck.
Although neither President Bush nor top American military
officials have declared the war over yet, the role of coalition
warplanes is slowly beginning to resemble the one U.S. fighters and
bombers currently fill in Afghanistan, Wright said.
In that country, U.S. warplanes routinely patrol the skies and
when called upon provide crucial air support for American troops
still hunting down the remnants of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's
But on most days, the patrols which now are flown exclusively
from land bases don't fire a single missile of drop one bomb.
Despite the sharp drop-off in combat missions being flown by navy
pilots, there are traditions that never stop.
Saturday afternoon, as pilots buckled into the cockpits of their
warplanes, Lt. Dan Reardon, the Nimitz's Catholic chaplain, walked
the flight deck, blessing each plane and pilot.
Touching the nose of every jet, he said, "Bless this aircraft and
bless this pilot. Bring them back to the USS Nimitz safely ..."
|Senior Chief Jeff Garber,
top-center, hugs his three children, Taylor Garber,10, left,
Paige Garber,8, center-bottom, and Josh Garber,6, right,
Friday, April 11, 2003, after the USS Portland returned to
Norfolk, Va. Hundreds of families stood in the rain and fog
Friday as the USS Portland steamed into port after delivering
Marines and equipment to Kuwait. It was the first Navy ship to
come home from the war. (AP Photo/Gary C.
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