WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ordered the Navy to double the number of aircraft carrier battle groups positioned within striking distance of Iraq, defense officials said Tuesday.
The additional naval air power is part of a broader buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region. More than 60,000 troops already are there, to be joined over the next few weeks by about 120,000 more. When the buildup is finished, before the end of February, President Bush will have the option of attacking Iraq from multiple directions.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the Central Command commander who would run a war against Iraq, was departing his Tampa, Fla., headquarters Tuesday night for a weeklong visit to the Persian Gulf region, officials said. Details of his trip were being withheld for security reasons. He was last in the Gulf in December.
The carrier battle group led by the USS Constellation is operating in the northern Persian Gulf, the USS Harry S. Truman battle group is in the Mediterranean Sea, and Rumsfeld ordered two more groups to join them. They will be the Everett, Wash.-based USS Abraham Lincoln, now operating near Australia, and a carrier from the Norfolk, Va.-based Atlantic Fleet.
Lt. Cmdr. Dave Werner, an Atlantic Fleet spokesman, said the fleet commander, Adm. Robert Natter, decided Tuesday the Norfolk carrier will be the USS Theodore Roosevelt, assuming it successfully completes training now under way in the Caribbean Sea. The Roosevelt's last deployment began just days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and it operated in the northern Arabian Sea during the U.S.-led air campaign over Afghanistan.
Natter also has available for short-notice deployment the USS George Washington, which returned from a six-month tour in the Mediterranean shortly before Christmas and would normally not deploy again for at least 12 months.
Each carrier has an air wing comprising 70-80 aircraft, including F/A-18 Hornet and F-14 Tomcat fighters, as well as surveillance, electronic warfare, search-and-rescue and command and control aircraft. A battle group also includes surface ships capable of firing Tomahawk cruise missiles and at least one submarine.
Officials said Rumsfeld was considering sending one or two additional carriers to the Gulf region, for a potential total of six.
The Army, meanwhile, continued its surge of equipment and soldiers to the Gulf area.
The 4th Infantry Division, equipped with tanks, attack helicopters and artillery to defeat armored forces, is heading a group of 37,000 soldiers ordered to reposition in the Persian Gulf region. Their equipment will be shipped first, with the soldiers to go when final basing arrangements are worked out, officials said.
The 4th Infantry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, is considered the Army's most lethal, modern, and deployable heavy division.
In addition to about 12,500 soldiers from the 4th Infantry at Fort Hood, nearly 4,000 soldiers from the division's 3rd Brigade at Fort Carson, Colo., and more than 20,000 troops from 10 other installations comprise the task force, according to Fort Hood spokesman Cecil Green.
Green said he could not provide more details, such as the country where the soldiers will be deployed or when they will ship out.
Officials in Washington said it was possible that parts or all of the task force would go to Turkey. The Pentagon has wanted to put ground forces into Turkey to establish an option of invading Iraq from the north. Thousands of U.S. forces already are in Kuwait, training for a possible attack on Iraq from the south.
The Turkish government had resisted the U.S. request for base access for ground forces, but U.S. officials said Tuesday that an agreement was in the works to permit basing of roughly 20,000 troops there. The European Command already flies flight-interdiction missions over northern Iraq from Turkey.
Elsewhere on Iraq's periphery, Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to host large numbers of U.S. ground forces, although it does accommodate U.S. air forces. The operations center from which the air portion of an Iraq war would be orchestrated is at Prince Sultan Air Base, south of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. In the 1991 Gulf War, most U.S. ground forces entered Iraq and occupied Kuwait from Saudi territory.