Union Tribune

War would be swift and lethal, officer says

By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

March 13, 2003

ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION The commander of the large force of warships surrounding this San Diego-based aircraft carrier predicted yesterday that if war with Iraq becomes necessary, a combination of improved U.S. capabilities, familiarity with the region and reduced Iraqi defenses will ensure a swift and deadly conflict.

Rear Adm. Barry M. Costello said that although the United States and its allies have about the same number of ships and aircraft in the Central Command theater as they did for the Persian Gulf War in 1991, "never has there been this much firepower in one place."

The aircraft aboard the Constellation and the four other U.S. carriers have much better ability to drop precision-guided weapons than the 1991 force, he said. That means instead of sending a number of aircraft to strike one target, each aircraft can be counted on to hit multiple targets.

Costello also noted the increased capability of the surface ships and submarines accompanying the carriers to shoot Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can hit targets with great precision from nearly 1,000 miles away.

"Any attack that will happen will be preceded, most likely, by a Tomahawk strike," the two-star commander of the San Diego-based Cruiser-Destroyer Group One said at a news briefing.

"There are 30-plus ships that will be shooting into Iraq, hitting preplanned targets," he added.

At least six of the surface warships in the Persian Gulf and nearby waters in the Central Command region are from San Diego.

He said the unmanned missiles "will clear the way" for Navy and Air Force strike aircraft. "And between the Tomahawks and our air assets, we will pave the way for our ground forces."

Costello also noted that 12 years of air patrols and numerous air strikes in enforcement of the no-fly zones have weakened Iraq's air defense over nearly two-thirds of the nation.

He said air defenses around Baghdad "are a concern," but "it is not a concern we can't handle."

The continuing air missions over Iraq also have given the allied fliers considerable familiarity with the country and its defenses, the admiral said.

Airplanes from Constellation's Carrier Air Wing Two have been flying missions over the southern no-fly zone since the carrier arrived in the Persian Gulf on Dec. 19, and many of the pilots were flying similar missions more than a year ago, he said. His briefing was punctuated by the heavy thump and roar of landing jets returning from their latest missions over Iraq.

Four of the squadrons in the air wing are based at San Diego air stations, including Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

But sending aircraft over Iraq is only one of the major responsibilities Costello has in his added duties as commander of Task Force 55. He is responsible for escorting allied ships through the narrow and potentially dangerous passages out of the Red Sea and into the Persian Gulf.

The warships under his command also are responsible for ensuring that Iraq does not threaten the allied navies with sea mines, which crippled two U.S. ships during the 1991 conflict. And they enforce the U.N. sanctions that restrict exports of Iraqi oil and import of arms and other banned items.

Costello noted that 15 small ships carrying illegal oil tried to sail out of Iraqi waters the previous night but were stopped and forced to return by the patrolling allied ships.

"There is pretty much a steady flow of people (ships) coming out. We're turning them back," he said.