U.S. Navy reinvents itself for world after Cold War Tomcat fighter jets become 'Bombcats'

October 04, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Staff Writer

ABOARD THE USS JOHN F. KENNEDY -- Lt. Cmdr. Te Wirginis didn't flinch when the sudden roar of afterburners and the blast of a steam-driven catapult thundered through the decks of this aircraft carrier. He was too busy examining one of his squadron's F-14A Tomcats.

As jets shrieked off the flight deck above, the 33-year-old fighter pilot from Duchesne, Pa., stepped carefully on the black, greasy hangar deck and crouched low to view the underside of the fuselage.

There, in place of the usual complement of air-to-air missiles, was a symbol of the Navy's new emphasis on "flexibility" in the face of Third World threats: a rack capable of holding up to four 2,000-pound MK-80 bombs.

"Somebody made the decision we're not going to do only air-to-air, we're going to be dropping bombs," Commander Wirginis said. "This gives us a challenging new mission."

On Wednesday, when the USS John F. Kennedy leaves its home port of Norfolk, Va., for the Mediterranean, it will be the first Navy carrier to deploy with F-14 bomb racks designed for heavy munitions and Tomcat pilots who have completed full training with live bombs, Navy officials say.

For months, the Navy has been converting Tomcats into "Bombcats" and skilled air-to-air combat specialists like Commander Wirginis into bomber pilots. The Navy also has been using S-3B Viking submarine hunting planes more often to refuel aircraft in midflight and coordinate air combat missions.

These changes are part of the Navy's readjustment to what the top brass calls a "new world" full of uncertain regional threats and conflicts. "It's a different kind of problem, [so] we need to adjust our tactics and equipment to some extent," Adm. Henry H. Mauz Jr., commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, said in an interview here.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has forced the Navy to seek relevance in a world where future adversaries are more likely to be attack ships with mines, surface-to-surface missiles and diesel submarines that lurk near coastlines, rather than with overwhelming numbers of planes and nuclear-powered submarines in the open seas.

Strikes against an enemy's land-based targets are expected to become more demanding as surface-to-air missiles and other defenses become more sophisticated.

Future missions will require more joint operations with the Air Force.

"It really came to a head with Desert Storm," said a senior aviator who helped wage last year's war against Iraq from the carrier, which was stationed in the Red Sea.

"The skies were swept [of Iraqi aircraft]. The ones that weren't shot down were afraid to fly, were broken up on the ground or were flown to Iran. We switched to an air-to-ground campaign: Kuwait. Kill boxes. Vehicles in the open.

"We needed lots of interdiction sorties and on our precious real estate we had two squadrons of great big, supersonic, long-range -- not applicable -- guys."

During its six-month deployment, the Kennedy air wing may be among the first to use "Bombcats" under fire. At the request of NATO commanders, the carrier is leaving two weeks ahead of schedule to relieve the USS Saratoga, which since July has operated in and out of the Adriatic Sea near the besieged republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"Sneaky" strikes

The Navy says the Saratoga was not equipped with removable F-14A bomb racks until June, when its tour in the Mediterranean was well under way. Racks were also delivered ** this summer to two other carriers: the USS Independence and USS Ranger, which recently replaced the Independence in the Persian Gulf and assumed its enforcement of the "no-fly zone" in southern Iraq.

To prepare for possible action in the Balkans, Iraq and Libya, the Kennedy traveled about 200 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., for a war game with 17 other U.S. ships, a Marine Corps amphibious unit, Air Force B-52G bombers and K-135R tankers and five vessels of the British Royal Navy.

Throughout the exercise, F-14As flew simulated bombing missions and several nuclear submarines posed as hostile diesel subs in shallow coastal waters.

"We're changing emphasis in our training," said a Navy intelligence officer who helped design the game, the first fleetwide exercise to focus on "a realistic Third World scenario."

"A Third World country's goal is to cause you to take a loss, no matter how small, to embarrass you, and then declare victory," the officer said. "They'll do sneaky, dastardly things like sneaking behind merchant ships for cover and then attacking. ++ Our job now is to train across a wider spectrum of threats."

The Navy designated part of Virginia and North Carolina a "no-fly" zone for combat air patrols, carving out a large piece of a hostile "country" called Korona.

During the exercise, a breakaway region called Kartuna in the northeast sector declared its independence, while Korona's dictator defied United Nations resolutions and vowed to kill all ethnic "Kartunans."

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