This Nimitz-class aircraft carrier and a dozen other ships in its battle group are raising the profile of the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean Sea after a lengthy period when it was largely absent following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks , said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem aboard his flotilla's flagship.
The renewed Navy presence is significant because it comes as U.S. war planners are eyeing the eastern end of the Mediterranean, off the coasts of Israel and Lebanon, for a possible role in any new war with Iraq. None of the six carriers that fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War operated in the Mediterranean, but that is likely to be different if another war occurs. During the last war, U.S. aircraft couldn't use Jordanian airspace, but they might receive permission this time.
Flying over Israel and Jordan would open a corridor for carrier-based warplanes to speed from the Mediterranean into the western Iraqi desert, a crucial area of concern to the United States and Israel. The Pentagon's war plans call for swift action at the outset of any combat to shut down the ability of the Iraqi military to launch missiles or drone aircraft from western Iraq across Jordan into Israel.
Whether the Truman's aircraft are given that mission is in doubt, said Capt. Michael Groothousen, the commander of the 97,000-ton nuclear-powered ship , the newest carrier in the Navy. "It all depends on how the coalition comes together," he said. From a military perspective, he said, the more points of entry to Iraqi airspace, the better: "You want to hit with power from as many directions as you can."
The Truman, commissioned in 1998, has about 5,000 sailors and 80 aircraft aboard. It resembles the seven previous Nimitz-class flattops and carries the same warplanes -- mainly F-14 Tomcats and F-18 Hornets -- that other carriers do.
But the information revolution has taken hold in the military over the past decade, and there are few places where that is more evident than on this ship. The Truman is plugged into the Internet and the military's secure internal "Sipernet."
That constant flow of data is changing how the ship fights and how its sailors live. A decade ago, the Navy's reconnaissance photos were made with "wet" film flown back to the United States for analysis. Now digital images from airborne fighters are beamed back to the ship and analyzed in time to transmit targeting coordinates to waiting aircraft.
Stufflebeem, the commander of the Truman-led battle group, said the mission now is to show the flag and work with allies in this part of the world. "Since 9/11, American carriers -- eight, I think -- have operated in Central Command's area" near Afghanistan, near Iraq, and around the Horn of Africa, he said. "We're operating in the Med because it's been awhile since an American carrier has done that."
"People need to see us," said the admiral, who is better known than most one-star officers because of a previous assignment on the staff of the Joint Chiefs in which he appeared with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as a press briefer during the Afghan war. He also is the only admiral to have been on the roster of the Detroit Lions, who signed him as a punter in 1975, before he abandoned professional football to become a full-time Navy flier.
To boost the U.S. military presence in the region, Stufflebeem has deployed his Norfolk-based battle group: the carrier, a cruiser, a frigate, five destroyers and a group of supply ships and submarines that come and go. "We are spread from the Strait of Gibraltar all the way to the eastern Med," said Capt. M. Stewart O'Bryan, the day-to-day commander of the surface ships in the battle group. "We are showing presence. We are querying ships in the war on terrorism." The Navy is questioning an average of about 50 ships a day in the Mediterranean, he said. Boardings are rare, though.
The battle group is also providing escorts to ships in such choke points as the Strait of Gibraltar, where terrorists might attack, O'Bryan said. "There are indications that, like with the episodes with the USS Cole and the French ship [off the coast of Yemen], they may try that in other places in the world," he added. O'Bryan commanded the Cole in the late 1990s, before the Oct. 2000 terrorist bombing in a Yemeni harbor that killed 17 sailors and wounded 39 others.
In a more traditional side to showing the flag, ships from the battle group also are making port calls across the region -- three ships visited Spain and Gibraltar, two visited Turkey, a sixth went to Portugal and Malta and a seventh stopped in Italy.
Exercises with regional navies, neglected over the last 16 months, are resuming. Two ships participated in a joint search-and-rescue exercise last month dubbed "Reliant Mermaid" with Turkey and Israel. A delegation of Turkish officials flew to the Truman over the weekend to meet its commanders. Navy officials said it was a routine visit, but the meet-and-greet came as both the Turkish government and its military have been hesitant about supporting a U.S. military campaign in Iraq.
Two ships in the battle group began a multipurpose exercise Sunday with the Israeli military called "Noble Dina."
Coming up this month is an air-defense exercise with the Israeli military, which could be crucial in keeping Israel out of any war with Iraq. As part of that exercise, two Army Patriot anti-missile batteries have been deployed to Israel and are expected to remain there indefinitely. Stufflebeem said he expected that part of his battle group would participate in the exercise.
There also is a possibility that, in the event of war, a U.S. ship with an Aegis system, which can track hundreds of targets simultaneously, would be parked off the Israeli coast to help coordinate anti-missile operations in the region.
Stufflebeem said he hadn't been told what role the Truman or its sister ships would play in a conflict with Iraq. He said he was prepared to operate in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf. "I've got my guys thinking through all the possibilities," he said as an F-14 Tomcat catapulted off the flight deck just a few feet above his head, shaking his suite. "We don't know when we're going to go, or where we're going to go."
But whatever orders eventually come down, Groothousen, the Truman's commander, said he was confident that "when the time comes, we'll live up to our namesake -- we'll give 'em hell."