Carrier completes 1st duties, takes break from air sorties

Next phase uncertain, Vinson's captain says

War On Terrorism : The World

October 12, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON - After five days of launching air sorties over Afghanistan, this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier cruising the Arabian Sea ended the opening phase of its mission last night, a senior officer said.

But what the next phase will be is unclear, the officer said.

"We're going to take a break from flying," Capt. Rick Wren, the commanding officer, announced to his 5,500-member crew before last night's wave of sorties. "We're going to shift our energies ... time to restock."

He added, "Be ready to rumble for whatever is tasked for us."

The carrier is scheduled to be resupplied today from two vessels, the USS Sacramento and the USS Niagara Falls, in an intricate, hourslong dance of logistics and seamanship. The carrier's supply of jet fuel is also scheduled to be topped off with more than 1 million gallons.

"We're going to recharge our sailors, recharge our fuel tanks, recharge our refrigerators, and we're going to refocus the troops by getting them some rest and stand by for the next call," Wren said during an interview. "Frankly, I really don't have any good feel for where we're going to go. I think that answer will obviously take place way, way above us."

Wren said he wanted the ship prepared to fly jets by tomorrow.

"There are lull periods planned in there, but to say that we have achieved any kind of end state and say, `Hey, we're done now,' I simply don't know that," Wren said.

The first five days of the global war against terrorism have clearly left their marks on the ship's machinery and sailors, who participated in the opening salvos against Afghanistan on Sunday night and then continued to apply increasing pressure, launching and flying 65 to 70 sorties daily.

"We've picked our way through the target list," Wren said, "and apparently we have achieved some level of accomplishment with what our boss set as a goal."

Looking out his cabin's porthole and noting the murky yellow sky, Wren said dust is thick over Pakistan. "The southern third of the country, visibility is extremely low. In fact, it impacted some of the target area [in Afghanistan]. And I think you can see a lot of aircraft come back with no drops. So they bring their weapons back."

The pace has been relentless. After flying strike missions on the opening night, the ship's planes and pilots concentrated on escort missions for larger aircraft such AWACS surveillance planes and tanker refueling planes while remaining prepared for further strikes. Resistance from the ground was minimal, but pilots reported being peppered with anti-aircraft artillery.

"From the ship's standpoint, there's a very, very, even repetitive pattern," Wren said. "The choreography on the deck, the meal hours, the sleep hours, and that machine just cranks out sorties.

"What happens with those airplanes is determined by the weaponeers, the targeters and the controllers. From a ship's standpoint, we just get on the pace we maintain, whatever number of sorties that need to be generated for that period of time."

The pace didn't ease yesterday, yet the mood was upbeat as sailors sent e-mails home - a day after the lifting of a near-weeklong blackout. But there was a lot of work to do, from servicing jets lined wing to wing in the cavernous hangar bay to loading bombs for last night's missions. "The problem is that it's a very unconventional enemy that we are against, who doesn't play by any rules of which we are familiar with," Wren said. "He plays by absolutely gut-wrenching, I-am-not-going-to-lose tactics."

With reports from Washington indicating that a potential ground war may be looming, there may still be a significant role for the Vinson, which is capable of dispatching an aerial armada to supply close air support.

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