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Limited Warfare : Even If They Did Give a Battle and No Enemy Came, It Was Awesome

June 15, 1989|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

An attack was expected at any minute, but the enemy was having problems getting its missiles off the ground.

More than 100 miles off the Ventura coast, a U.S. Navy battle group of five ships waited for the chance to blast the incoming missiles out of the sky.

And waited.

Officials had hoped to provide a rare public view of what goes on at the Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Mugu as well as a display of Navy firepower.

But the plans went awry back at the launchpad. In a sense, it was as if the Navy had given a war and nobody came.

The military dramatics began just after dawn on Tuesday when the commanding officer of the Pacific Missile Test Center, Rear Adm. G. H. Strohsahi Jr. told a room of reporters they soon would be in the middle of the coming action.

As the press munched on doughnuts, Strohsahi announced that they would be flown by helicopter to the Antietam, one of the nation's newest guided missile cruisers, for a rare glimpse of a Navy war game.

"Our purpose today is to give you a chance to see the real Navy in action," Strohsahi said. "The Antietam is in the middle of a war right now. You're going to go out and see four hours of that war."

The Navy's readiness exercise had begun Saturday. On this Tuesday, the Antietam was preparing to try to knock two incoming missiles out of the air before they reached the ship from their launch pad on San Nicolas Island.

But the enemy attack never got off the ground. While the Navy was preparing to blast the daylights out of any "enemy" missiles aimed at the Antietam, there was an unexplained breakdown at the launch site.

An aging Navy H-46 Sea Knight transport helicopter had already delivered the Antietam's visitors to the expected battle site, and the ship's commanding officer, Capt. Larry E. Eddingfield, had delivered his welcome speech when the launch problems were first reported.

At first, there was talk of a brief delay. Then there was talk of a long delay. Finally, there was a decision to scrub the public missile deal altogether.

"Things break," Eddingfield commented.

One immediate consolation as reporters proceeded with a scheduled tour of the Antietam was the rather obvious conclusion to be drawn that it would have been a pretty lopsided war in any event.

Heading to the bow of the missile cruiser, Lt. Cmdr. Lanny King, the ship's combat systems officer, first pointed out the Antietam's missile launching system, capable of firing a mix of 122 Standard, Harpoon and Tomahawk missiles with nuclear capability if deemed appropriate.

Then King showed off the rest of the ship, including the sophisticated AN/SPY 1A radar system that makes the Antietam and other AEGIS missile cruisers the most electronically advanced surface battleships in the U.S. fleet, virtual floating radar shields for the battleships and aircraft carriers they were designed to protect.

Against the Antietam's formidable defenses, the Navy had been planning to launch two of its antique and unarmed Talos missiles, once part of the nation's military arsenal but now useful only as expendable targets for high-tech Navy firing practice.

Some of the Antietam's officers pointed out that the Talos missiles occasionally never got close enough to a cruiser to get shot down anyway, sometimes barely making it off the ground before sputtering into a quick form of missile suicide.

Pausing on the bridge of the Antietam, King said the momentary launch failure was not too upsetting.

"I'm disappointed but there will be plenty of chances in the future to test ourselves," he said. "This would have been my 86th shot, so I think I can afford to miss this one."

In lieu of a missile blasting out of the 30-foot mini-silos built into the Antietam's deck, reporters were given the chance to watch the ship fire some 5-inch shells from a front gun position and a demonstration of a modernized Gatling gun known as CIWS, for Close In Weapons System, capable of firing 3,000 rounds a minute at approaching targets.

Then the helicopter returned and it was time for the Antietam's visitors to return to shore. Navy spokesmen shrugged off the minor glitch of the day and said plans call for more public glimpses of the Navy in action in the future.

Meanwhile, the Antietam, one of two missile cruisers escorting the battleship New Jersey on this particular readiness exercise, continued to prowl the coastline, waiting for the inevitable.

Soon enough, the enemy would figure out how to get its missiles launched.

And the Antietam would be there, waiting.

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