Compared to her Nimitz-class brothers and sisters the USS Enterprise is not exactly the newest ship off the block, but 45 years after its launch, she was again proving her worth in some of the most inhospitable waters on the planet. Tony Osborne embarked for Fighter Control.
For a ship designed to race through the North Atlantic to take on the Soviet Northern Fleet, it is now being asked to operate in the hot climate of the Persian Gulf where the 5,000 men and women onboard face working in temperatures in excess of 45 degrees each day at the height of a Arabian summer.
Air conditioning output is less than half that of a Nimitz-class carrier and one of the first things you notice onboard is the temperature differences between compartments. Indeed a running joke for visitors is how quickly they will end up with a cold.
One of a kind, the Enterprise was the world’s first nuclear-power aircraft carrier – equipped with no fewer than eight nuclear reactors – Enterprise remains one of the fastest ships in the US Navy’s fleet, easily capable of 35 knots.
But throughout its life, the ship has been one big experiment. Ship’s media officer and historian, LCDR David Nunnally said that the Enterprise developed new tactics and new systems throughout its life. It was the first carrier to get the RAM, Rolling Air Frame Missile system, and when it finally goes out of service – a date currently slated for between 2012 and 2018 – the ship will be another experiment in how to decommission a nuclear-powered surface ship.
When Fighter Control went aboard in June 2006, Enterprise had just replaced the newly commissioned USS Ronald Reagan on station. Enterprise arrived in the Northern Arabian Gulf in June 2006 to conduct a Maritime Security Operations (MSOs). Such missions deny international terrorists use of ships to attack or to transport personnel, weapons or other material
But it’s most important mission was to support the coalition forces on the ground in Iraq.
In the Gulf, the USS Enterprise was the flagship for Commander of Carrier Strike Group 12 and is also home to Carrier Air Wing 1 and Destroyer Squadron 2.
Other ships in the strike group included guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul, the guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf, the frigate USS Nicholas, the attack submarine USS Alexandria and the fast combat support ship USNS Supply.
The squadrons of CVW-1 include the “Sidewinders” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA-86), the “Checkmates” of (VFA-211), the “Knighthawks” of (VFA-136), the “Thunderbolts” of Marine Strike Fighter Squadron (VMFA-251), the “Screwtops” of Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW-123), the “Rooks” of Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VAQ-137), the “Maulers” of (VS-32), the “Rawhides” of Carrier Logistics Support Squadron (VRC-40), and the “Dragonslayers” of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS-11).
Everyday, from the late morning into the late hours of each day, dozens of sorties are being flown by the embarked Air Wing made up predominantly of Super Hornets and Legacy Hornets as well as Vikings, Prowlers, Hawkeyes and the Seahawk helicopters.
But while all attentions look north to Iraq, eyes occasionally have to look east towards Iran whose military likes to keep an eye on what the American fleet is doing by sending patrol boats and even the occasional P-3 Orion, hardly a surprise when the fleet is operating in waters often just 60 miles from the major port city of Bushehr.
The ship’s look-outs have plenty to keep an eye on, from the aforementioned Iranians, to container ships, oil tankers and oil rigs flaring in the distance. On the flight deck, crews carry out FOD walks for the slightest trace of potentially dangerous materials that could be sucked into engines. Others load up Mavericks, laser-guided and GPS-guided bombs onto weapons pylons.
During Fighter Control’s visit, the carrier drew first blood, when on June 21 Hornets from the Enterprise conducted a precision strike against anti-Coalition insurgents. The terrorists were amassed in a courtyard near the town of Al Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad.
Called in by coalition Forward Air Controllers, the aircrews loosed a Maverick missile into the courtyard, apparently killing 10.
Among the squadrons routinely flying missions into Iraq at the time were the Maulers of VS-32 whose elderly S-3 Vikings are being used in several roles, chiefly that of air-to-air refuelling, but now also in battlefield reconnaissance using the newly-integrated LANTIRN, navigation and infrared pod, to try and locate Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) on the ground, ahead of approaching convoys.
Brad Whittington, one of the Viking pilots on VS-32, with 500 hours on the type, said: ““The Viking community onboard brings a lot to the operations, our missions might last three to four hours and we are operating at 10,000ft over Iraq.
“The job we are doing out here is hugely satisfying, just our mere presence and knowing the enemy can hear us above watching them has a big morale effect on them, and a positive one for the coalition guys on the ground.”
“We fly a lot of missions, some of it might be just circling around up there, but the idea that we could save just one guy on the ground from an IED or spotting trouble up ahead, then it will make the hours of flying up there seem worth it.”
The ship remained in theatre for a further three months, and well into the hottest months of the year in the region, but there can be no doubt of the professionalism and skills of the crews onboard even in those extremes. USS Enterprise is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2012-2014, with the exact year dependent on the state of the nuclear fuel currently in the carrier’s reactors.
Many thanks must go to LCDR David Nunnally and Lt Amy Carmickle of the USS Enterprise and the crew onboard who were a delight to chat to, there are to many of you to name here. Thanks also to Lt Denise Garcia of the USN 5th Fleet for arranging the visit and all the others who worked hard to make our visit as successful as possible.