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Dinosaurs At Sea : Aircraft Carriers Have Ruled the Oceans Since 1945. But Now the Floating Giants Are Threatened by Shrinking Budgets and Military Obsolescence.

May 15, 1994|Michael Wright | Michael Wright, executive editor of National Journal magazine in Washington, writes frequently on national security matters

A 45-knot wind whips along the sprawling flight deck of the Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the Navy's state-of-the-art supercarriers. As the ship launches and recovers airplanes--short, squat cargo haulers and sleek fighters--a rescue helicopter chatters in place a few hundred yards away, just in case. It's hard to imagine a noisier place on planet Earth. Or a place with more stomach-knotting tension.

Near the bow of the ship, a pair of steam-driven catapults punches planes into the sky. At the other end, homeward-bound planes glide in, wings wobbling with last-second alignments and--if all goes well--use the sturdy hooks suspended from their tails to snag one of four fat arresting cables that extend across the deck. With a slam and a roar, they're jerked to a head-snapping stop within 350 feet. This action is the stuff of World War II-era "Victory at Sea" flag wavers, and it's been a carrier's stock in trade for more than 50 years.

Between launchings and recoveries, as the catapults recycle and the arresting cable is retracted, sailors in distinctively colored shirts scurry to get ready for the next round. Yellow shirts are essentially traffic cops, directing planes toward catapults or to out-of-the way spots on the gently pitching deck where they'll be chained in place by blue shirts. The red shirts load and unload bombs and the air-to-air missiles that, once fired, home in on a target's glowing-hot tail pipe. The purple shirts--the "grapes"--top off the tanks with aviation fuel. Green shirts run the catapults and the arresting gear.

Fresh from a pit stop in a Virginia repair yard, the Eisenhower and its crew are cutting wide circles in the Atlantic, about 100 miles east of Norfolk, getting ready for another six-months-long deployment to the Mediterranean that begins this fall. Since the Navy picked up the keys and drove it away in 1977, the Eisenhower has also operated in the North Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. The ship steamed into the Red Sea not long after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. On its expeditions to foreign waters, the Eisenhower's "battle group" usually includes nine or so guided-missile cruisers and destroyers and a couple of submarines.

Carrier battle groups have been dispatched by American Presidents to show the flag in this or that trouble spot since the end of World War II. Between 1946 and 1990, according to a tally by the Congressional Research Service, carriers were involved in 140 "international incidents." Planes from two carriers flew in the 1986 raids on Libya. Half a dozen were involved at various times during the Persian Gulf War. More recently, carrier-based aircraft have helped enforce a "no fly"zone over southern Iraq. And this spring, jets from the Saratoga--a 39-year-old carrier that's due to be retired late this summer after its Adriatic cruise--patrolled over the rubble of the former Yugoslavia.

Back in Washington, as Congress thrashes out the federal budget, attempting to make tight dollars stretch further, a growing armada of critics maintains that these carriers are money-guzzling dinosaurs, vestigial remains of an era when the Navy had to be ever-ready to duke it out with the Soviet fleet. But that's light years away from the scene in the Eisenhower's bridge, a penthouse-control room packed with polished brass and glowing digits and dials. Here, junior officers are practicing the routines of steering the ship--not only getting from point A to point B but also, in the process, avoiding a collision with another ship or a hull-gouging sandbar that would bring a swift end to their (and their commanding officer's) career. And so, as Capt. Alan Mark Gemmill, the Eisenhower's skipper since March, 1993, looks on, young officers work with quiet intensity to sort out the course and speculate about the intentions of a fishing boat whose lights have been spotted a mile or two ahead.

Command of a high-profile ship like the Eisenhower is a primo assignment for Gemmill; if he doesn't screw up, he's a good bet to make admiral in a year or two. Unlike many other officers who are edging their way to the top of the heap, Gemmill isn't a blustering, damn-the-torpedoes kind of guy. He doesn't sport one of those five-pound Annapolis rings or a barely disguised contempt for civilians who haven't been off to war once or twice.

A soft-spoken native of Arizona, where he grew up on a cattle ranch, Gemmill isn't a graduate of the Naval Academy (University of Arizona, class of 1968). He didn't have his ticket punched in Vietnam (by the time he finished flight training, the war was all but over). And he hasn't risen from dry-land staff jobs in Washington, polishing social skills and schmoozing with members of Congress and lobbyists. Instead, he has dutifully toiled as a test pilot and run squadrons and, before taking command of the Eisenhower, pulled a wide range of duties on other ships.

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