With long target list, each day seems repetitive

For sailors, third week of fighting similar to first

War On Terrorism

The World

October 25, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON - Around here, Groundhog Day isn't a movie, it's a way of life and the way sailors and pilots describe the daily repetition of eating, sleeping and waging war.

From the vantage point of this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier cruising the Arabian Sea, the third week of the air war over Afghanistan looks, feels and sounds much like the first.

Crews smudged with grease and sweat fight off exhaustion and continue the arduous and often dangerous task of maintaining, catapulting and retrieving high-powered strike jets.

The missions are undertaken from high noon to midnight, searing daylight temperatures giving way to balmy evenings.

And the target list remains ever present as the United States seeks to methodically crush the military assets of the Taliban in a bid to root out Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terror network.

"We're putting a good 40 to 50 [missions] in there a day, so that hasn't changed," said T.C. Bennett, the commander of Carrier Air Wing 11.

"What has changed is that we've transitioned a little bit for us from concentrating on airfields to artillery and tanks along Taliban positions, and taking out some of their big guns," he said.

And if Taliban troops get hit, so be it.

During a lengthy mission Monday in which he flew some 2,200 miles and darted to various locations in Afghanistan, Bennett said he saw tanks and artillery firing from the ground.

"I'm assuming there were people around them," he said. "Whether those were massive troop concentrations, I don't know, but they weren't just lying about. They were being actively used."

Bennett's mission Monday showed how things are now operating as the United States has free rein over the skies of Afghanistan. Maintaining air supremacy allows pilots to be given targets in so-called real-time, when they're over Afghanistan. Bennett said he received instructions on targets from AWACS surveillance planes.

"We get up in the country and they tell us where we want to go," he said.

Controlling the skies doesn't mean the U.S. strike planes are not coming under some threat, though.

"It's not a free ride," said a lieutenant from Bowie, Md., who as a radar intercept officer sits in the rear seat of an F-14 Tomcat. "It's most intense when you're getting close to your targets. They're obviously still a threat out there. It's at the front of your mind to avoid getting hit. Some guys have not seen a thing. For others, it's a fireworks show."

Tuesday, flight crews targeted bunkers and caves, using at least six BLU 109 bunker penetrators, 2,000-pound bombs that can burrow beneath rock before detonating.

In recent days, the pilots have also worked near where the Northern Alliance is battling the Taliban, delicate bombing missions that require pinpoint accuracy.

"Anytime we're working in coordination with a ground operation it greatly increases the complexity of the mission," said one senior pilot. "We have to be very careful where we're targeting and where the bombs will fall."

The Northern Alliance might be calling for more U.S. bombardment, but that doesn't mean they'll get it.

"Our goals and missions may not match theirs," the senior pilot said.

In effect, the pilots of the F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets concentrate on one piece of a complex puzzle. That was never more evident than Friday, when Bennett said his crews were airborne on "interdiction" missions while U.S. Special Operations forceswere on the ground.

At least 100 Army Rangers participated in an attack on an airfield near Kandahar and a residence of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader.

"We're still trying to figure out what those guys did, but they don't share with us," he said. "We were in there and we knew something was going on, but it was nothing specific."

Bennett said he didn't know where the Special Operations forces were, wasn't sure who was calling to drop bombs and said the communication sounded like any other. He wasn't even nervous not knowing the precise location of the ground forces, asserting too much information would be a hindrance while being called out on a bombing mission.

"We know they're professional enough not to give us coordinates to drop a bomb on them," he said.

"You've got to keep in mind when you're flying through the sky at 500 mph there's such a thing as too much information. They want you to come in from a certain direction, you've got to maneuver the plane around.

"When they do call you in, they want the ordnance there, they don't want you to go `Oops, I was listening to you on the radio and I forgot to push the button here.' That's not a good thing. There's a lot of concentration so you don't want too much information," said Bennett.

In a way, the goal seems to be to make one day and one mission seem like all the rest. It's an attitude best expressed by a recent cartoon that appeared on the ship's flight notes. A dinosaur was drawing up a map of October, with each Monday through Friday filled in with the words "Bomb Something."

And Sunday?

The cartoon dinosaur wrote "Brunch."

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