ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT — After spending nine months in the shipyard last year for routine maintenance, this 24-year-old Nimitz-class aircraft carrier and her crew are preparing for the ship’s fourth deployment to the Persian Gulf since 9/11.
“The missions haven’t changed,” says Capt. Ladd Wheeler, the ship’s commanding officer.
The primary goal is to support troops on the ground, he says. The TR’s fighter pilots will serve as the eyes for Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq.
“Every flight, you’re talking to a guy on the ground, and you’re providing some service to him that seems to benefit him. It might not be bomb dropping, but it’s still a very critical mission,” says Capt. Dan Dixon, the carrier air wing commander.
“If our use is just for building a better picture for the folks on the ground, that’s great. If called upon to do a low fly-by and make noise, that’s great. If called upon to strafe or drop bombs, we’re ready to do that as well,” he adds.
In an exercise in the Atlantic Ocean several hundred miles off the East Coast, warplanes are flying 90 to 100 sorties a day practicing strike warfare — dropping ordnance on target ranges in Florida, talking to joint terminal attack controllers who call in air support and conducting fly-bys, or shows-of-force.
Pilots also are practicing night strafing, which is something they didn’t always do in training, says Dixon.
The TR will deploy with a typical carrier air wing that is composed of seven squadrons: four strike fighter squadrons with 44 F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, a squadron of E-2 Hawkeyes, a squadron of EA-6B Prowlers, a squadron of SH-60 helicopters and two C-2 Greyhound logistics aircraft, known as CODs.
Pilots are arriving in “incredible shape,” Dixon says.
Almost half of the aircrew has never been on deployment. “Part of what we’re doing now is stressing them in the exercise so that they’re not overwhelmed when they get over to Iraq,” says Dixon.
In this conflict, it is important to have precise information about the location of targets so that if a weapon is dropped, civilians are not harmed. “There are strategic implications of a bomb that goes astray,” says Dixon. “In an urban environment, it’s important that we only affect the folks that the ground troops want us to affect, and nobody else. That’s the challenge.”
On the ship’s 2005 deployment, the wing’s aircraft ranked among the oldest in the fleet by a decade because they included the last F-14 Tomcat squadron, says Dixon. But when the air wing returned home, the Tomcat squadron transitioned to brand-new F/A-18E and F Super Hornets, which reduced the average age of aircraft dramatically.
The wing still has the oldest E-2s, an old version of the EA-6B Prowler, and the F/A-18A-plus Hornets, which are 20 years old.
The air wing received new reconnaissance pods, which are aircraft-mounted sensors. “It’s a big plus for us to learn how to use that,” says Dixon. The wing also is beginning to operate the advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which is new to the Navy.
In Iraq, the EA-6B Prowler is in high demand because of its electronic warfare capabilities. “That’s the number one priority,” says Dixon. The squadron will receive the new EA-6G Growlers when they come back from deployment. “They’re excited about that. They’re going to have a new AESA radar in the front and it’s going to be a huge step up in their capabilities,” he says.
The TR deploys later this fall for a six- to seven-month cruise.
One of the threats they may encounter in the Persian Gulf are small boats, commanders say. In January, five fast boats operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard confronted three Navy warships, and in March, a lone Egyptian motorboat approached a U.S.-flagged cargo ship and was fired upon. Intelligence officers here say the Navy does not have sufficient visibility of the threat, and that tracking the number of small boats is difficult given the limited surveillance technology available on the carrier. Commanders say they need more access to imagery and streaming video aboard the ship.
“They do operate with media that require larger processing and larger pixels to get their job done,” says Wheeler. “I can see that they might be interested in getting more bandwidth, but I would be more interested in getting better formatting and packaging,” to enable large files to be sent and received.
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