Union Tribune

March 25, 2003

Connie's air wing now targets Iraqi troops

By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION The Constellation's air wing yesterday increasingly shifted its emphasis from bombing targets and air defense sites around Baghdad to attacking the Iraqi ground forces confronting coalition troops.

The most important of the more than 25 targets hit by Constellation aircraft overnight were "Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard positions, which are being faced by our land forces," Rear Adm. Barry M. Costello said, referring to the Iraqi units.

Those strikes "were able to knock out a number of tanks and artillery pieces in front of the advancing ground forces," said Costello, commander of the naval task force that includes this San Diego-based aircraft carrier.

The focus for Carrier Air Wing 2's fighters is changing because "as the ground forces go forward, they become a significant priority. . . . That's clearly what we're going to get involved in," the admiral said.

That shift began on Saturday but became more pronounced in subsequent attacks.

The warships in the Constellation's battle group, however, continued their attacks on regime targets, firing Tomahawk cruise missiles into Iraq.

Sunday night's launchings brought to more than 500 the number of the $1 million missiles launched by the cruisers Bunker Hill and Valley Forge and the destroyers Milius and Higgins, Capt. John R. Miller, the carrier's commanding officer, told his sailors.

Those ships are based in San Diego.

The focus of the ground support missions, Costello said, is southwest of Baghdad, where the troops of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Pendleton and the Army's V Corps are approaching the Iraqi capital.

Close air support is a specialty of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, as it has been for generations of Marine fliers.

Ground support missions require different levels of coordination, said Maj. John C. Spahr, operations officer for the Marine F/A-18 squadron.

Usually when pilots begin a close air support mission they do not have a designated target, Spahr said. Instead, after refueling from an airborne tanker, they check in with an air controller in an Air Force AWACS or Navy E-2C to get a target in front of friendly ground forces, he said.

Or they could get a mission directly from a FAC, or forward air controller, on the ground or a "fast FAC" flying in the rear seat of an F-14 Tomcat.

In Marine ground units, the FAC usually is a Marine flier.

"There are a combination of things going on now," Spahr said, with missions that can include hitting fixed targets, conducting airborne interdiction or close air support.

"Everything is moving kind of quickly," Spahr said about the ground conflict.

To minimize the risk to their own forces, Spahr said, "here on the ship, it's important that we take a step back, to do an assessment, to make sure we know where everyone is."

As the air wing shifted its focus, Costello was monitoring one of his missions as the surface force commander in the northern Persian Gulf.

Mine warfare helicopters and surface ships under Costello's command are screening the Khawr Abd Allah waterway, which leads to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, to make sure it is clear of anti-ship mines.

During the 1991 war, Iraq spread about 1,300 mines in the Gulf. They badly damaged two U.S. warships.

But Costello also is trying to ensure that relief supplies for the Iraqi civilians can get to Umm Qasr.

"A number of different people clearly are making it a priority to get the humanitarian relief up there . . . Our job is to make sure it gets there safely," he said.