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Aircraft Carrier Crew Ready for Any Coming Iraq Mission

Anticipation is rising on the Lincoln, currently supporting coalition forces in Afghanistan but not far from Hussein.

October 16, 2002|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, in the northern Arabian Sea -- Navy Cmdr. Rick Simon, leader of a squadron of electronic warfare planes, was talking about the possibility of President Bush ordering an airstrike on Iraq.

"If it kicks off, it's going to be very aggressive, very sudden and very lethal," said Simon, 44, whose EA-6B Prowlers from Whidbey Island, Wash., could jam Iraq's air defenses and communication systems.

"We have a saying: 'Go big or stay home,' " he said this week. "If we do it, it's going to be overpowering."

While the Lincoln's current mission is to support coalition forces in Afghanistan by carrying out surveillance flights and staying prepared to bomb Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, much of the talk among the aircraft carrier's 5,500 crew members is about Iraq and the possibility of a preemptive strike to topple President Saddam Hussein.

The ship's warplanes won't "go in there to tie," said Cmdr. Jeff Penfield, 42, of Lemoore, Calif., commander of a squadron of F/A-18 Super Hornet attack planes. "The way you win is with a full-frontal assault, using overwhelming power to dominate the enemy and break his will to fight."

Of the Navy's 12 carriers, the Lincoln is the closest to Iraq. So its 70-plus warplanes are the logical candidates to take a leading role in any airstrikes against Hussein's regime. Based in Everett, Wash., the Lincoln arrived in the Persian Gulf region Sept. 11, a year to the day after the terrorist attacks on the United States.

Anticipation is rising aboard ship about the possibility of airstrikes, among both veterans who were part of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and a decade of enforcing "no-fly" zones over Iraq, and young crew members on their first deployments.

"I want to be part of it," said Jaclyn Dwyer, 21, of Brentwood, who works the flight deck. "I was in boot camp on 9/11."

"The man's got to go," Petty Officer 2nd Class Jovaughn Frierson, 27, of Philadelphia, said of Hussein.

When not flying Afghanistan missions, flight crews practice bombing runs over open ocean. The looming possibility of war with Iraq has not changed that training, officials said. Bombing is bombing, and the basics remain the same.

"Blocking and tackling basics are the things that spell success in combat," said Capt. Scott Swift, 44, deputy commander of the carrier's air wing, using a football analogy. "We're always doing that."

Still, talk of Iraq has put extra snap into the orders of senior enlisted sailors to the hundreds of airplane handlers and mechanics, many of whom are only a few years out of high school.

"We're telling our gang: Our back-ends better be up, they better be sweet," said Master Chief John Sais, 43, a 25-year veteran who supervises crew members working on the E-2C Hawkeyes, a command and control aircraft that carries much of its electronic equipment in the rear of the plane.

Unfinished Business

Sais has been on several deployments to enforce the "no-fly" rules imposed on Iraq after a U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait from Baghdad's troops in 1991. For Sais and others, Hussein represents a kind of unfinished business: The missions to enforce the "no-fly" restrictions have not kept him from brutalizing his own people.

"It's always the same," said Sais, whose Hawkeye squadron is based at Point Mugu. "We go in there, we work hard, and we do the mission.... It's sometimes frustrating for us."

For aviators, the Afghanistan missions have become somewhat routine. The Lincoln arrived after the bombing had ended. Iraq, by comparison, will be anything but routine, a fact that adds to the impatience.

"It's a mood of 'if we're going to do it, let's do it fast,' " said Lt. Michael Orr, a Prowler pilot. "Once a decision is made, I hope it comes quickly."

Familiar Territory

Penfield's Super Hornet pilots have discussed what missions they might fly. Prowler crew members have talked about what targets will need to be "neutralized" with jamming.

If the Iraqi leader finds himself unable to broadcast messages to the Iraqi people during the attack, it will probably be because Simon's planes have blacked out Iraq's television sets. A dozen years of flying over Iraq has taught the Navy a good deal about where Hussein's communication systems are located.

Although the Lincoln crew has had little official word about the status of the standoff between Hussein and Bush, shipboard TVs provide a virtual minute-by-minute update. "Everybody is watching CNN on their off-time," said Troy Richey, 42, the top enlisted man in the Prowler squadron.

But even with constant news coverage, there is still an aura of unreality.

"I never thought I'd be here when this happened," said deck sailor Nathan Sotello, 19, of Midland, Texas. "But I'm here and I'm ready to take him [Hussein] down."

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