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The Associated Press January 4, 2003

Carrier to get under way early for predeployment training


NORFOLK, Va. -- The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt battle group will head to sea shortly--about two weeks early--for training to get ready for deployment, Navy officials said Friday.

Citing security concerns, Atlantic Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Dave Werner would say only that the carrier "is getting underway shortly for intermediate level training."

However, two sources who asked not to be identified said the ship is to leave Monday. And last week, the Navy informed Puerto Rico's government that bombing exercises on the island of Vieques could start as soon as Jan. 13 and last for up to a month.

Once the mandatory training is completed, in about two weeks, the Roosevelt would take over from the USS George Washington as the Atlantic Fleet's "surge carrier" on call in case of emergency. That means it would be ready to deploy early to bolster forces in the Middle East, although officials stress that no orders have been given and it is still on schedule to deploy in the spring.

The Navy had said last month that the Roosevelt's training would be moved up a couple weeks in January so the George Washington could enter a shipyard for maintenance.

"This gives us some added flexibility," Cmdr. Ernest Duplessis, spokesman for the Second Fleet, said Friday.

The training is part of the routine cycle for a carrier, Duplessis said. "Once this level of training is completed, the sailors know you're designated as the next guy to go in an eventuality," he said.

The George Washington has been on call since it returned to Norfolk Dec. 20 from a six-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. Its sailors have been told to be ready to redeploy within 96 hours notice.

"That the TR's schedule has been pushed up a couple weeks is interesting but not alarming," said defense analyst Patrick Garrett of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit military intelligence and space research organization based in Alexandria. "The fact that it is leaving on Monday is interesting in the sense that it means the GW will most likely not be the surge carrier for very much longer."

Garrett also noted that there has been little activity on the pier to suggest that the George Washington is getting ready to redeploy. "We haven't seen any indication from the GW that she's gotten an order where she needs to start loading up food and getting ready to leave," he said.

While the United States is on the brink of war with Iraq, just how many Norfolk-based ships would be involved in that battle remains a question mark, Garrett said.

Another Norfolk-based carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, and its battle group deployed in early December and is in the Mediterranean Sea. Three ships from the George Washington battle group that departed later than their counterparts remain deployed and are to return to Hampton Roads this month.

Meanwhile, the San Diego-based carrier USS Constellation is in the Gulf. The carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which recently left the Gulf en route to its home port at Everett, Wash., is being held in the western Pacific in case Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld decides additional carriers are needed for war against Iraq.

As far as the Roosevelt being able to deploy, that's probably about a month to a month and a half away, Garrett said.

After the training, the battle group could reach the Persian Gulf in as little as two weeks if ordered to deploy, he said. Typically, though, a battle group returns to port for a short period after the intermediate training and then goes back out for final training.

But "if the Navy wants her there, nobody is going to say, 'Oh, we've got to check off all the dots first,' " Garrett said.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press