ABOARD THE USS SARATOGA — First there is the shriek of twin jet turbines winding up to full power, then the sudden smack of a catapult that hurls the F/A-18 fighter into flight and sends a tremor through this aircraft carrier, the size of a city block. One by one, the planes lurch off the deck and into the dusk.
The Saratoga, originally bound for the Mediterranean and quiet port stops in Marseilles, Cannes and Tangier, was diverted on Aug. 4, two days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to the Red Sea to join what will soon become the largest naval buildup since the Korean War.
Here, the Saratoga--a relic of the 1950s and the U.S. Navy's second-oldest aircraft carrier with combat patrols off Vietnam, Lebanon and Libya on its logs--has been largely responsible, along with its 10 sister ships, for turning away virtually all commercial cargo bound for Iraq through the Gulf of Aqaba.
The interdiction effort has reduced overall shipping traffic in the normally bustling Red Sea by 80%. And as a Jan. 15 United Nations deadline nears for Iraqi troops to pull out of Kuwait, this naval task force known as "Battle Group Red Sea" is also quietly targeting, charting, briefing and training to become a rolling, floating platform for a deadly aerial assault against the forces of Saddam Hussein.
Says Lt. Cmdr. Mark Fox: "The role of aircraft carriers is really to persuade those who don't want to do business with us to do business with us--our way. The beauty of naval forces is you can be blunt when you need to be.
"I'm not wishing for war," he adds, gathering his gear to launch another aerial patrol over northwestern Saudi Arabia. "The military man is probably the one who wants peace the most, because he's the one who's going to pay the price the soonest. However, if there is a war, I'm the best guy to fight it. If the house burns, I'm the one to put the fire out."
The Saratoga is a floating city of 4,600 people, with eight decks above the flight deck and eight decks below. It gulps 150,000 gallons of jet fuel a day, another 120,000 gallons of diesel fuel; serves 20,000 meals a day, desalinates 300,000 gallons of water for drinking and washing, pumps 200,000 gallons of sewage. Running the Saratoga, someone calculated, costs $434 a minute.
Two days before setting out for the Mediterranean on the carrier's first cruise in 18 months, the orders came in for the Red Sea. The captain radioed the engineer room to crank up speed to 25 knots. The guys in engineering looked at the same turbines that have been turning the propeller shafts since 1956, crossed their fingers, and turned up the boilers. A trip that was supposed to take 10 days took only 5 1/2.
Except for eight days in port in Turkey, the crew of the Saratoga has been at sea ever since--four months, or almost twice as long as a normal deployment. The carrier's pilots have also flown more than twice the normal number of sorties--7,500 of them. The flight deck is so slick with jet fuel it's slippery even in tennis shoes. There has been little time to shut it down and scrub it.
There's an alert on this night, ordered by command headquarters in Riyadh for fear of a preemptive strike from Iraq. Men are at combat stations. The fighter jets rocket off the deck all night long, turning the warm autumn darkness into a cacophony of screeching engines and hissing steam.
Lt. Mitch Dudney, an officer in the aviation maintenance division with an Alabama drawl, is engaged in two of his major pastimes of this long voyage: missing his wife and thinking about what his career might have been had he been just a little younger than his 42 years.
A lot of new Navy officers are going into the space program, he notes. "That's my biggest regret about the Navy: too late to join the space program. . . . I think you're going to see stuff like the starship Enterprise, planetary travel, space stations. And I think you'll see that in our lifetime now."
Dudney figures that, with the end of the Cold War, peace is the wave of the future. "There will always be that group of some people who want to rule everybody else. But I think those days, hopefully, are mostly over," he says.
Still, the possibility of combat is something nobody forgets, not for a minute, not with the news updates about the United Nations and Iraq interspersed with scenes from the flight deck on the ship's closed circuit TVs. Most of the crew, Dudney says, doesn't question whether there ought to be a war or not.
"I try to be a military professional," he says. "We're paid to carry out the policies that are set by the President and the Congress, so as military people, we'll do what we're told to do, and do it the very best way we can. I don't think it's up to us to determine what the reasons are."
Lt. Cmdr. Tony Barnes, assistant strike officer for the ship, says letters from kids at home make him feel better. "Thank you for protecting us. I hope you don't die. I think you are brave," says one.