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Orange County Register October 22, 2002

'Connie' prepares for war: The USS Constellation plays war games by San Clemente Island.

By GARY ROBBINS Photos by Jebb Harris The Orange County Register

ABOARD USS CONSTELLATION - An aging warrior is tuning up for what could be the final and most storied attack of its long career.

Out near San Clemente Island, where the wind always seems to pack extra pop, the "Connie" is using its steam-driven catapults to hurl F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets off its deck at 150 mph.

Pilots from squadrons with names like Vigilantes and Bounty Hunters and Death Rattlers are taking to the skies in minutely choreographed war games meant to prepare the USS Constellation carrier battle group for deployment to the tinderbox that is the Middle East.

The two-week exercise, involving at least 8,800 people and more than 15 ships, was planned long ago. But it has taken on a palpable sense of urgency as the prospect of a U.S. strike against Iraq has risen.

The war games will last until Oct. 30. The Constellation will then return home to San Diego. But only briefly. The 41-year-old flattop and most of the eight ships in its battle group will depart for the Middle East around Nov. 2, ending an abbreviated work-up for the carrier.

"This exercise could turn out to be a dress rehearsal for flights over Baghdad," said Patrick Garrett, who analyzes carrier operations for Globalsecurity.org, a military-intelligence research firm in Alexandria, Va. "And the timing is impeccable. The Constellation will be heading to the gulf region very shortly after the war games end.

"She'll have the freshest crew on station if war breaks out with Iraq in the December-January time frame."

The Constellation, which has done everything from rain hell on North Vietnam to enforce the no-fly zone over Iraq and maintain peace in Korea, could reach the gulf region in as little as three weeks, perhaps a little sooner.

Regardless of when she arrives, the 1,047-foot-long Constellation will become part of what is turning out to be the largest buildup in the Persian Gulf region since Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91.

A carrier battle group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln is already in the northern Arabian Sea. A second group headed by the USS George Washington can hit Iraq from its position in the Mediterranean Sea.

About 2,100 Camp Pendleton Marines also are in the gulf region as part of the USS Belleau Wood Amphibious Ready Group. And 2,100 more Pendleton Marines are expected to head over in January, if not earlier, as part of an amphibious group led by USS Tarawa.

U.S. military might will swell further when a battle group led by San Diego's USS Nimitz reaches the Middle East late this year or early in 2003. And the USS Harry S. Truman group will embark for the area in December.

Many of the ships are being pressed into service faster than normal.

The 18-month period that a carrier is normally given between deployments has been shaved to less than 14 for the Constellation, which is scheduled to be decommissioned sometime next year.

Navy officials are downplaying talk about the buildup. And they declined to give specifics of the war games off Southern California, other than to say they involve such standard training as bombing runs and interdiction.

But the specter of war is clearly on the minds of the 5,300 officers, sailors and Marines aboard the Constellation.

A mural has been painted inside the carrier's hangar, which was jammed with Tomcats and Hornets on a recent morning. The painting depicts the American flag, a brawny eagle and a message that says, in part, "Terrorist Elimination Unit."

The mural refers to the Constellation's air wing, which is composed of 72 tactical aircraft and the roughly 100 pilots who fly them.

The wing's commander is Capt. Mark Fox, 46, a Tomcat pilot whose office echoes with the KA-THUMP of every fighter plane that lands on the non-skid deck above.

"This is gold, this time at sea," Fox said last Friday as his pilots went through C.Q.s, or carrier qualifications, the take-offs and landings they must perform correctly before going on deployment.

But Fox also recognizes that some of his pilots don't have combat experience - a shortcoming that won't be erased during the current war games. Missiles will be launched and bombs will be dropped. But the live fire won't be aimed at carrier pilots. And until an aviator goes through combat, says Fox, "You face a nagging question. Am I going to do OK?"

The question will be answered quickly if the Constellation joins any attack on Iraq.

Defense experts expect Iraq to make full use of its limited air defenses if war breaks out.

How long those air defenses exist is another matter.

"Desert Storm is ancient history," Fox says. "There have been incredible advances in precision guided weapons since then. We used to talk about how many sorties it would take to destroy the target we wanted. Now, we talk about how many targets one plane can destroy."


Copyright 2002 The Orange County Register