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April 12, 2003
 
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(AP Photo)
Navy's Combat Role Fading in Iraq
Navy's Combat Role Fading As Coalition Forces Solidify Control Over Iraq

The Associated Press


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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 home soon.

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 said.

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 al-Qaida network.

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 ..."


photo credit and caption:
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. Knapp)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 
 
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