Union Tribune

April 8, 2003

Air combat even more complex now

By Otto Kreisher

ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION As the number of targets for the Constellation's aircraft shrinks, concern grows about "blue-on-blue," or friendly fire accidents.

With coalition forces pushing into Baghdad and taking control elsewhere in southern Iraq, Constellation's Carrier Air Wing 2 flew fewer flights the last two nights than in previous nights.

"As the air space continues to contract, we want to be very careful about blue-on-blue, want to be very careful that we have the right number of airplanes for the right mission," said Rear Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the Constellation battle group.

More pilots than usual reported coming back to the carrier with their bombs yesterday morning because they could not find targets, even though the carrier sent up only about two-thirds as many strikes as Friday.

"It's a very, very complex environment," Costello said. "Because you've got a significant number of airplanes that continue to be compressed in order to help those ground controllers, the troops on the ground, to eliminate the enemy as they make their way through the city."

There also are fewer targets for the Tomahawk missiles that Costello controls, although a few were fired last night against "time sensitive" targets north of Baghdad, he said. The missiles were launched in just over an hour after the target was identified.

Ironically, the drop in targets came just after the Constellation was restocked with 215 tons of bombs and missiles.

As a result, "we have more ammo today than on the first day of the war," Costello said.

And the number of naval strike aircraft increased substantially as the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Nimitz reported for duty in the Persian Gulf after a 34-day voyage from San Diego.

Leaders of the Nimitz and its air wing are getting briefings from their counterparts on the Abraham Lincoln, which is expected to leave within days after a war-extended deployment that is setting a post-Vietnam record for length.

The Lincoln left its home port in Everett, Wash., July 20, and was on its way home when it was turned around for the pending war with Iraq.

Nimitz's air wing will start flying with the three other carriers' planes to get familiar with the battle theater before the Lincoln departs, Costello said.

The Kitty Hawk, a conventionally powered carrier like the Constellation, also is in the Gulf.

The abundance of weapons on board "does not reflect our anticipation . . . that the war will go on indefinitely," Costello said.

"It anticipates that this carrier and the two other carriers will continue to be full-up rounds to support the ground forces as they slug it out in Baghdad and north of Baghdad and as we consolidate our positions around the various other cities," he said.

But Costello also expressed concern about the pace and the duration of the Constellation's efforts in the conflict.

The crew has not had liberty since Feb. 10, when it left Bahrain, and the air wing has not had a day off for rest and maintenance since March 17.

"We're doing fine, morale is fine," he said, but the leadership has to think about "the impact of the fatigue factor of both the crew and the aircraft.

"We have to watch very closely to make sure that we don't overstress in our desire to support our ground forces," Costello said.

But the signs that the conflict could be nearing an end may be the real boost the crew needs, suggested Lt. Patrick Cornyn, an EA-6B flight officer with Electronic Warfare Squadron 131.

"When we heard there were tanks in Baghdad, there were a lot of smiles," he said.