WASHINGTON – The Pentagon, preparing for a possible Gulf War, may send at least three more aircraft carriers to join two already within striking distance of Iraq, defense officials said Thursday.
By stationing carriers in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, the military would have Navy fighter-bombers in position to attack from three directions, complicating Iraq's effort to defend its airspace.
The USS Harry S. Truman battle group is now in the Mediterranean and the USS Constellation is in the northern Persian Gulf. Aircraft from the Constellation help patrol the "no fly" zone over southern Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had made no decision as of Thursday, officials said. Under consideration was a plan to send the Norfolk, Va.-based USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is conducting training off the East Coast of the United States; the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is undergoing repairs at Perth, Australia and originally was scheduled to return home to Everett, Wash., this month, and the USS Kitty Hawk, which is based at Yokosuka, Japan, and is the only Navy carrier permanently stationed abroad.
The proposal included having the USS Carl Vinson fill the Kitty Hawk's mission in the western Pacific. The Carl Vinson, which had not been scheduled to deploy from its homeport of Bremerton, Wash., until this summer, is headed for exercises near Hawaii.
In another sign of Pentagon preparations for war, the Air Force announced Thursday that it had canceled a major training exercise, called Red Flag, scheduled for this month at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
It was scrapped because the 4th Fighter Wing from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., has been ordered to deploy to the Gulf region. It was to have been the lead wing in the exercise at Nellis. The decision frees up 24 air combat units and nearly 2,800 personnel from the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army.
Officials who discussed the carrier plan on condition of anonymity cautioned that Rumsfeld could choose a different approach, but other officials familiar with deployment planning said it was almost certain that at least five aircraft carriers would be positioned within striking distance of Iraq, regardless of which they might be.
Also available for potential deployment from the East Coast is the USS George Washington, which returned to its homeport at Norfolk just before Christmas after a six-month deployment. The Navy has ordered the George Washington to be ready to get under way again on short notice.
Each aircraft carrier travels with a battle group of destroyers, cruisers and other ships, plus a submarine. Aboard each carrier are about 70 aircraft, including F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters and support planes.
Only the Abraham Lincoln, which just completed a tour of duty in the Gulf, has the new F/A-18 Super Hornet, which has more range and is less vulnerable to enemy radar than the older Hornet. The new version made its combat debut last November in strikes from the Lincoln against air defense targets in southern Iraq.