Canton Repository

March 30, 2003

Constellation commander, crew confident mission is on target

Copley News Service

ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION — Iraqi ground forces defending Baghdad already have been “decimated” by the relentless pounding they have been taking from U.S. air attacks, but more attacks may be needed before any assault on Baghdad can begin, according to the commander of the Constellation battle group.

After days of air attacks on the Republican Guard, the elite Iraq force, said Adm. Barry M. Costello, “we assess their capability to be decimated. We will continue to decimate them to the point where it makes sense for the ground forces to move forward.”

But Costello said that time might not be here yet.

He indicated that the ground thrust toward Baghdad might be delayed while the coalition air forces weaken the Republican Guard units blocking the way.

“Our ground forces are very competent. They could go forward very expeditiously,” Costello said. “But does that make sense from the goal to save coalition lives?”

Costello’s comments came in a briefing for reporters “embedded” on this San Diego-based carrier. It was also clear from the briefing that Costello is well aware of the questions being raised back home about how well the nine-day-old war is going.

It was just as clear that the Navy and Marine fliers conducting nightly strikes into Iraq and their commander believe they are making a difference and making good progress.

It may be partly due to the disciplined positive attitude required to sustain the heavy pace of operations after more than 50 days at sea. But the pilots and Naval flight officers returning from their missions early Saturday cite the targets they are hitting, the reduction in Iraqi air defenses and the advance of the ground forces for their upbeat views.

“My sense is that progress is being made,” said Lt. Cmdr. Richard Thompson, a F/A-18 Hornet pilot with Fighter Attack Squadron 151 just back from a bombing mission in front of the Marines near Al Kut.

“A week ago it was a big deal to cross the border into Iraq,” Thompson said, referring the ground forces. “Now we’re nearing Baghdad.”

Asked about the air defenses, he said, “we don’t see the type of triple A like they used on the first day,” referring to anti-air artillery.

Apparently in response to the home-front skepticism, Adm. Costello felt the need in his morning briefing to cite the achievements he saw in the first week-plus of the war.

He noted that the coalition ground forces had “advanced more than 200 miles across Iraqi territory and are now just south of Baghdad.

“By comparison, a similar accomplishment in 1991 took 38 days to complete,” Costello said, referring to Operation Desert Storm.

But in that war, the ground offensive did not start until after more than a month of intense air bombardment. This time, the air and ground campaign started the same day.

“We now have air supremacy over 95 percent of the skies” over Iraq and occupy 35 to 40 percent of the country, he continued.

Costello also noted that Iraq’s southern oil fields had been secured, U.S. paratroopers had landed in northern Iraq, coalition presence in the west had prevented missile attacks against Israel and humanitarian aid was beginning to move through the port of Umm Qasr.

“I think the war is going on about as expected,” the admiral said.

The fliers, however, bring a more narrow perspective to their appraisal.

“I’m very confident that the targets we’re hitting are having an effect,” said Lt. Col Gary Thomas, commanding officer of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, who was just back from a strike on leadership targets south of Baghdad.

The day before, the leader of the unit from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station had expressed his “frustration” at the emerging criticism of the war in the United States.