Union Tribune

October 16, 2002

Task force ordered to gulf

Local ships, planes and troops being sent to trouble zone

By James W. Crawley
STAFF WRITER

and OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

The San Diego-based aircraft carrier Constellation and its escort ships will depart for the Persian Gulf in early November earlier than originally scheduled as preparations increase for a possible war against Iraq.

Meanwhile, Pentagon sources said several hundred Marines from Camp Pendleton's 1st Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters including high-ranking officers, intelligence experts and logistics planners are leaving soon for an exercise in Kuwait, along with an Army command staff from Germany.

"Certainly, coupled with the early deployment of the Constellation, those can only be construed as preparations for war," John Pike, president of GlobalSecurity, a think tank that monitors the military, said yesterday.

The Constellation and other local warships will start a final training exercise tomorrow, spending about two weeks off the Southern California coast practicing bombing missions, Tomahawk cruise-missile strikes and maritime interceptions.

After the exercise's completion Oct. 30, the warships will be in port for several days before departing for the Persian Gulf, said several military officials who requested anonymity.

Citing security considerations, 3rd Fleet spokeswoman Cmdr. Jacquie Yost would only confirm that the battle group would deploy by year's end.

Normally, a carrier has about 18 months between six-month deployments for maintenance and training. The Constellation returned from its previous Persian Gulf deployment in September 2001. Navy sources said the Constellation's original departure date had been early 2003.

Word that the carrier which carries about 5,000 local sailors and Marines and about 70 aircraft is leaving comes days after the Pentagon ordered a Marine command staff to the Persian Gulf.

Brig. Gen. Andrew Davis, the Marine's chief spokesman, said the move is needed because "the Marine Corps wants to be absolutely ready for any contingency in the world."

Another Marine spokesman, Lt. Col. David Lapan, said the Pendleton Marines and the Army's 5th Corps staff, based in Germany, will take part in the annual "Internal Look" exercise along with the Central Command headquarters staff.

While the Marine and Army staffs will be in Kuwait during the exercise, the higher command will operate at a new headquarters in Qatar. Kuwait borders Iraq on the south, and Qatar is on a peninsula that juts into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia.

Central Command, headed by Army Gen. Tommy Franks, oversees the war in Afghanistan and would be responsible for action against Iraq.

Pentagon officials say the command shift is only part of the exercise, but analysts see the move as an important war indicator.

"That's the final move, everything else is in place," said retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information.

The military has fewer than 5,000 combat-ready Army and Marine ground troops in the region not enough to fight a war.

Tens of thousands more troops, including up to 40,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton, Miramar and Yuma, could be airlifted to the Persian Gulf in a matter of days and weeks, utilizing tanks, artillery and equipment prepositioned in the region. More Marines could be moved to the gulf from North Carolina and Okinawa.

Baker noted that the Navy, with its 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, and the Air Force, with a command center at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, are already in place.

Military experts say that having part of the command staffs in the region will speed planning for a potential invasion of Iraq. The staffs will be setting up command posts, debugging computer and communications networks, updating troop deployment schedules and finishing operational plans, Pike said.

The difference between planning a war game and preparing for war is virtually "indistinguishable," Pike said. "It's inconceivable that Internal Look would be looking at anything other than a regime change in Iraq."

Franks could have U.S. ground forces ready to fight in less than a month after he gets a "go" order from President Bush, Baker said.

Because it takes four weeks or more to steam from San Diego to the Persian Gulf, local sailors and Marines could be in the war zone in early December.

Joining the Constellation are five San Diego-based warships the cruisers Valley Forge and Bunker Hill, destroyers Milius and Higgins and frigate Thach. Also, the crew of the destroyer Kinkaid will take over the destroyer Fletcher, which is deployed with the Lincoln battle group in the Persian Gulf and will be part of the Constellation flotilla.

Hornet jets from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station's squadron VMFA-323, along with three Navy squadrons Viking tankers, Seahawk helicopters and Greyhound transports from North Island Naval Air Station, will be aboard the carrier.

While thousands get ready to leave, no plans have been announced to keep 2,000 Camp Pendleton Marines already deployed in the Persian Gulf or speed up deployment of more Marines.

The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, assigned to the Belleau Wood Amphibious Ready Group, left Kuwait recently after one Marine was killed and another wounded by Kuwaiti attackers during a training exercise on Failaka Island.

The unit and three San Diego ships, the Belleau Wood, Denver and Mount Vernon, are still scheduled to return home in mid-December.

The aircraft carrier Lincoln is the only U.S. carrier in the Persian Gulf. Based in Washington state, the Lincoln is being escorted by several ships, including the San Diego cruisers Mobile Bay and Shiloh. It also has two aircraft squadrons from North Island Naval Air Station on board.

Although no official due date has been announced, the carrier group would return to the West Coast in January or February if no delays occur. However, military officials said, orders can be changed.