ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATIONThe bombs were out again Monday night, neatly arranged in rows like huge concrete cigars. "About 40,000 pounds of explosives," confided one senior ordnance officer of the dance-floor-size spread in the ship's 2 million-cubic-foot hangar bay. Pointing out bombs stashed all around the room, another officer agreed the total spiked well over 100.
Typically, munitions are stocked deep within the ship's magazines; but when pilots need bombs in a hurry, the yellow-lit and wheezy hangar bay, with its enormous open-air elevators, is prime storage space. Near midnight, junior ordies began hurriedly, gingerly wheeling the massive explosives, many more than 12 feet long, into the lift. Within minutes, the bomb field was harvested, the fruit of the ordies' labor on its way up to the flight deck: "It's not a normal night," conceded the second officer, of the number and speed of the ammunition ascending upward.
Normalcy is a moving target these days on the Constellation, where the pace of bombing since A-Day has been fairly steady, while the nature of the campaign has changed incrementally. The air war's first few days focused on clearing fixed targetspalaces, armories, government buildings. "Before, we were going way ahead of the line of troops and getting designated military targets," says Marine Corps Maj. and Hornet pilot Dan Shipley of Summit, N.J. This conventional kind of bombing continues: Last night, Tomahawk missiles from the gulf and the Red Sea pounded Baghdad leadership targets missed by the initial strikes, and hazy weather kept most of the ship's 35 sorties confined to taking out immobile targetslike Saddam International Airportwith precision-guided weapons.
But as the rough beast of this second gulf war slouches toward Baghdad, Connie's planes will become the airborne arm of a largely ground-based battle. Air missions now focus on unseating Iraq's special Republican Guard, taking out surface-to-air missile sites in Baghdad and drying up Iraqi field forces' weapons supply. Such nuanced goals mean "a high percentage" of flights now focus on targets of opportunitymobile arms caches and enemy troops on the move, for instanceoften identified by ground troops while pilots are already in the air, says Rear Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the Constellation's battle group.
It's called close-air support, or CAS; it has already helped secure the port city of Umm Qasr, and it can be dicey. "The battlefield is changing hour by hour," said Marine Corps Capt. Travis Kelly of Frankfurt, Ind., who flew a Hornet last night to provide CAS for the Army's Fifth Corps in a skirmish near Karbala, south of Baghdad. "The assignment was in flux, and we got our coordinates in the air" just a few miles before reaching target range, said Kelly.
Literally warfare on the fly, CAS requires that pilots put immense trust in their weapons. An emerging sandstorm last night meant "we couldn't see our troops, and I couldn't tell how far apart the two sides were," noted Kellybut the four planes in his squadron dropped eight precision-guided weapons anyway, trusting the bombs would hit the Iraqi resistance troops they were meant for.
" 'Go after the stuff that's in the tree line' could be a command," says the Constellation's Air Wing commander, Mark Fox, noting the stark contrast of the precisely plotted first few days of "shock and awe" with CAS's often amorphous operations. But, he notes, there are rules: "There's a 'no hit' list. It's not just the Wild West." Pilots and planners on board have canceled hits on tanks stationed near mosques or hospitals, for instance. And the strategy's responsiveness makes it perfect for save-the-day missions: During the battle for Umm Qasr, says Marine Corps Capt. Guy Ravey of Berkeley, Calif., a platoon of ground troops under fire called for tanks to help. When that wasn't enough, "they called in antitank warfare," says Ravey. "Didn't work. So they called in airstrikes."
Still, as ground troops move to Iraq's heavily armed capitalthe "supermez" of concentrated SAM sites in Baghdad "was the most heavily defended place on Earth," says Kelly, before coalition airstrikes whittled some defenses downCAS may take a back seat to standard ground fighting. "In urban areas, it's a blurry line between civilian and combatant," says Ravey, a Hornet pilot who hunted for enemy vehicles around Nasiriyah hours before fighting broke out. Friend and foe mix so intricately in tight urban spaces that planes' bombs simply might not be appropriate"like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer," says Raveyespecially as the United States tries to limit civilian casualties. So, as the fight moves to the city streets, Constellation officials expect to largely retreat to the suburbs, venturing downtown only when desperately needed.
Not that such missions aren't important: Colleagues asked one Constellation pilot, returning from a "hop" south of Baghdad last night, about a suburban SAM site that had been shooting at U.S. planes overhead. He responded: "It's not firing anymore."