MICHAEL GORDON: What I was really struck by was the degree to which the aircraft carrier the Navy is using its no flight operation over Iraq as a way to prepare for a war with Iraq, and the extent to which operational missions have really become rather critical training missions.
These are people who know they may have to go to war with Iraq, and who are using every opportunity that they are over Iraq to prepare for that in a very, very concrete way.
CAPT. KEVIN C. ALBRIGHT: Southern Watch is the enforcement of the southern no- fly zone in Iraq. And we're participating as a member of the coalition forces. We have U.S. Air force, royal air force from United Kingdom, as well as U.S. Navy assets.
MICHAEL GORDON: The no-fly zone over southern Iraq was started about a year or so after the gulf war to protect the Shiite population there from the Iraqi air force. Iraq has never accepted this, and not only have they protested it, they have taken action against it. And the kind of action they take is... they are actually trying to shoot down an American or British war plane.
SPOKESMAN: Three and four. You guys take --
MICHAEL GORDON: As we saw on the Lincoln, when we went to the debrief for the pilots before the mission, they have a list of targets pre-approved, generated by American intelligence that they are to strike in the event that they are targeted. It may not be the same sites that fire at them. In fact, it almost certainly isn't.
I think partly it's to exploit the opportunity to hit things you really, really would go after. You'd really like to take out that command center. Just give me an excuse to do it. I think also it's just a safer way to go about it.
Iraq could be firing a piece of anti-aircraft artillery from a civilian neighborhood or near a mosque. If you hit just at the source of the fire, you could cause a lot of civilian casualties. It could be an international incident.It's better, safer for everyone to pick in advance the target you want to strike, and no matter what they fire at you, you go hit that pre-designated target.
SPOKESMAN: For sure, the F-0?
MICHAEL GORDON: You can feel the kind of energy, the sense that they're going potentially into combat.
CAPT. KEVIN C. ALBRIGHT: There is a little bit more attention in the air because we just finished flying for a month in Operation Enduring Freedom over Afghanistan. We didn't get shot at, at all. We didn't drop any weapons there. This is probably the first taste of getting shot at or combat for most of our crew.
MICHAEL GORDON: This was not only the first day that the Lincoln spent doing the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, it was really the first time this squadron was over Iraq, and it's a super hornet squadron. They call it the "super hornet" but actually the guys who fly it call it "rhino" because it's so big and tough. It's an FA-18-E -- and what this is, is a new type of aircraft. It's modeled on the existing FA-18, but it's about 25 percent bigger. It can carry more weapons. It's the new hot aircraft in the Navy arsenal.
There is also an important training advantage. I mean, when you are flying over Iraq, you get used to the winds over Iraq, you get used to what the terrain looks like. You get a feel for the environment. They also had several stimulated targets. These are the targets they weren't actually going to strike, but which they were going to use to carry out mock bombing runs to hone their skills for a potential confrontation with Iraq.
CAPT KEVIN C. ALBRIGHT: Because it's expensive to operate these aircrafts, the training opportunities are limited. Anytime we go flying, we're going to usually either simulate air-to-air or air-to- ground. The Iraq theater gives us an opportunity to do both.
MICHAEL GORDON: What struck me is just how much work, preparation and discipline is required: Hours and hours of it for the actual relatively small portion of what they call "vul time"-- the vulnerability period, the hour- and-a-half in which they are over Iraq.
MICHAEL GORDON: How long was your mission?
SPOKESMAN: About 3.4 hours or so.
SPOKESMAN: Three [hours], 3.30 for me…
MICHAEL GORDON: How long was your vulnerability period?
SPOKESMAN: We were in about an hour and 15-20…
COMMANDER JEFFREY PENNFIELD: The way you are effective in combat is you... you train in peacetime to the point where everything is second nature, because in your combat, your brain shrinks down to the size of a pea, and you really are just reacting. I mean, your... your habit patterns is what makes your effective.
CAP. KEVIN C. ALBRIGHT: We are in the theater. We are basically in the same environment that the weapon and the weapon systems are going to have to work in. So you get a very, very good feel for what range you're going to see break out, start to recognize targets.
Also, you're flying in the same environment. We're looking at winds up there today. We're checking to see what the winds are doing. So you're basically training in the same environment that you are going to go to war in, and that's a good thing.
MICHAEL GORDON: The pilots you talked to saw that there is a great added advantage of operating week in and week out over the territory of a potential adversary.
The downside is there's risk involved, risk that the Iraqis may get lucky and hit your aircraft, risk there could be some kind of accident, risk that you could maybe even collide with one of your coalition's own planes, since it seems to be a very, very busy area.
MICHAEL GORDON: We actually did go on a "Southern Watch" mission, which was carried out by a P-3. P-3 is a land-based Naval aircraft, which has a historic Cold War mission of ferreting out submarines. But it's been adapted to new role here, which is looking at the situation at sea, but also at land, for potential threats to patrols and ships at sea.
PETTY OFFICER JOHN CLARK: I guess you could call us like the eye in the sky, so to speak, to make sure they're not capable of reaching our aircraft or our troops on the ground or our ships at sea.
MICHAEL GORDON: Just got off the P-3 aircraft here on a seven-hour mission. It's basically become one big intelligence- gathering platform for the American military operation in the Persian Gulf.
MICHAEL GORDON: In a sense, all of southern Iraq has become one big training area for a future conflict with Iraq. And this gives them a huge advantage over the pilots who fought in the last Gulf war. They hadn't flown over Iraq before. These guys fly over it several times. They are week in, week out, wearing down and weakening the Iraqi air defenses, and that's useful and they are basically knocking the door down in case there is a war with Iraq.