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Reuters October 03, 2002 04:44 PM ET

U.S. Carrier Deployments Could Hold Iraq Key

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As many as four U.S. aircraft carriers are expected to be within striking distance of Iraq by the end of December, Navy officials said on Thursday, marking what may be the earliest possible moment for a full-scale U.S.-led attack.

Two carriers and their battle groups are in the region, the Navy said. They are the George Washington, which deployed on June 20 and is in or near the Mediterranean, and the Lincoln, which got under way on July 24 and was in the Gulf this week.

Scheduled to relieve them are the Constellation, due to leave the U.S. West Coast next month, and the Harry S. Truman, due to ship from the East Coast in December, officials said.

The four battle groups would bring together as many as 250 precision strike aircraft and more than 2,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles -- assuming the nuclear-powered Washington, homeported in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Lincoln, based in Everett, Washington, stayed on beyond their normal six-month cruises.

"I cannot see a full-scale invasion happening until the critical addition of a couple more carrier battle groups to the regional force structure," said retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, former chief of staff for the U.S. Central Command's naval forces.

The carriers are accompanied by destroyers, cruisers and submarines capable of firing Tomahawks, the Navy's land-attack weapon of choice.

On Oct. 7, 2001, Tomahawks were fired at Taliban and al Qaeda targets more than 500 miles away from Los Angeles-class attack submarines and Aegis guided-missile cruisers and destroyers in the first phase of the U.S. war on terror sparked by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

A fifth carrier, the San Diego, California-based Nimitz, could also be in the Gulf region by late December, said Patrick Garrett, who has been tracking U.S. deployments for GlobalSecurity.org, a research group in Alexandria, Virginia.

And a sixth, the Yokosuka, Japan-based Kitty Hawk, also would be available to be sent there by the end of the year, he said.

UNFETTERED OPERATIONAL CAPABILITIES

Multiple battle groups in the region could be essential at a time that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states may remain loathe to let the United States use their soil to launch a war unless it is authorized by the United Nations.

"The carriers provide virtually unfettered operational capabilities," said Scott Truver, who has studied the issue for decades and is now vice president for national security studies at Anteon Corp., a Fairfax, Virginia, defense contractor.

Another prerequisite is large-scale deployment of land-based fighter aircraft and bombers, said Baker, who served during the 1991 Gulf War as chief of staff for operations and plans for the Theodore Roosevelt battle group and is now with the private Center for Defense Information.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated this week that five aircraft carrier battle groups would be used in a "Heavy Air Option" against Iraq costing about $9 billion above that budgeted for routine operations. Such a force likely would also include two and one-third Army divisions, 10 Air Force tactical air wings and about one-third of a Marine expeditionary force, the nonpartisan budget office said.

By contrast, it said six carrier battle groups had taken part in Desert Storm, the 1991 U.S.-led war that drove Iraq from Kuwait. But Truver, the aircraft carrier expert, said he understood that no more than four carriers had been engaged in Desert Storm at any one time.


Copyright 2002, Reuters