"Battle Alert in the Gulf"

PBS Airdate: February 23, 1999
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NARRATOR: Since 1991, US Navy Battle Groups have been stationed in the Persian Gulf. An aircraft carrier is the centerpiece, surrounded by submarines, cruisers, and destroyers - all armed with the latest weapon technology. It is a fearsome projection of US military might. Twice in the last year, the battle group has been brought to the brink of war. And on December 16, 1998, the call to strike finally came.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I have ordered a strong, sustained series of air strikes against Iraq.

NARRATOR: The Battle Group began an aerial assault within hours of the President's order. One hundred sites were targeted, and nearly all were hit. But the crisis that brought coalition forces into war has not been resolved. After years of working to dismantle Iraq's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, UN inspectors are now banished from the country. And in the skies over Iraq, missile attacks against US and British aircraft continue almost daily. A renewed conflict is almost assured. But is the Battle Group the right force for the job? In the dramatic months that preceded the latest confrontation with Iraq, NOVA went behind the scenes to examine the inner workings of this enormous force - on alert in the Persian Gulf.

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NARRATOR: January, 1998. Amid growing tensions with Iraq, the USS Independence is suddenly deployed to the Persian Gulf. The carrier and its 80 aircraft arrive in the region with a formidable array of supply ships, cruisers, destroyers, and hunter-killer submarines. Together, they form a Battle Group. One of the most powerful military forces on Earth. Eight years ago, when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, the Independence was the first carrier on the scene. Its Battle Group led the charge that would become operation Desert Storm - the largest military encounter since the Vietnam War. Today, the Independence returns for the last time. The oldest warship in the Navy, it is scheduled to retire after this six-month tour of duty. But as the threat of conflict grows, the crew is put on maximum alert. Pilots aboard the Independence are assigned the dangerous mission of enforcing the no-fly zone.

LT. CMDR. JESSE KINGG: We're flying operation southern watch missions, which means we're actually going and enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq. We're flying jets over Iraq, and ensuring that Iraqis don't fly any fixed-wing aircraft below the 32nd parallel.

NARRATOR: The no-fly zone was put in place by US, British, and French forces. It was designed to contain Saddam Hussein's aggression by limiting the movements of his military. Following the Gulf War, coalition forces designated areas in the north and south of the country where Iraqi planes would not be allowed to fly. For pilots enforcing the no-fly zone, missile attacks are a constant threat. In recent weeks, Iraq's surface to air missiles have targeted US and British aircraft almost every day.

VICE ADMIRAL TOM FARGO: There's obviously concerns over surface to air missile systems that the Iraqis have. They have very effective surface-to-air missile systems such as the SA2, the SA3.

NARRATOR: Coalition forces have retaliated, knocking out some of Iraq's missile launch sites. In at least one incident, missiles have missed their target, causing civilian casualties. Aircraft flying missions over Iraq are sent out in strike packages, a mix of planes with different capabilities. Fighters, bombers, and electronic warfare aircraft all work together as a team. The E2-C Hawkeye, with its huge dome radar, tracks all air activity over a 500-mile radius. It sends that information electronically to the other planes and ships of the Battle Group. If an airborne threat is detected, it is the job of the F-14 Tomcat to shoot it down. This two-manned fighter is primarily designed for air-to-air combat, and is the carrier's long range protector. But it is the FA-18 Hornet that is the carrier's most advanced aircraft. The Hornet is equipped to strike both air and ground targets, and requires only one pilot to operate its navigation and weapons systems.

LT. CMDR. JESSE KINGG: Prior to the F-18, most airplanes in the Navy had two people working in them. One guy was supposed to fly the plane, and the other guy was supposed to work all of the weapons systems. So, they developed the plane to be very user-friendly. They put some features in the plane that allow this one person to do all these different things. All the information that he needs from his various gauges and instrumentation is projected up onto the glass, and the pilot can see this information without having to look down below the glare shield.

NARRATOR: The take-off of the strike package is coordinated through the carrier's tower. Every 30 seconds an aircraft is launched.

SHOOTER: Man's out, thumbs up, winds are good.

AIR BOSS: The pilot salutes, return the salute, he's ready to go. Salute! Four-fifty, clear forward. Lights, wind, interval, checkers, thumbs, head steady. Goodbye.

NARRATOR: In the Gulf, it is not just the airwing that is vulnerable to enemy missile attack. Ships must be constantly on alert. If an air assault ever got by the carrier's fighter jets, the Independence, on its own, would be virtually defenseless. The carrier must be constantly guarded. One ship in particular is assigned this role: the guided missile cruiser, San Jacinto.

CAPTAIN JIM WOODS: Our job is to make sure that nothing touches the carrier at all. Even if a small boat came in in the middle of the night and got close enough to the carrier to splash a can of red paint on the side of her, then the United States loses. So, we're here to make sure that that doesn't happen.

NARRATOR: While the San Jacinto never leaves the carrier's side, the John S. McCain, the Battle Group's most modern warship, patrols a much larger region. Equipped with an arsenal of weapons, it uses more advanced technology and fewer crew compared with the cruiser. The destroyer also protects the carrier from enemy attack, both from the air and the sea.

JEFF KAMEN: The Battle Group is not impenetrable. The people who run the submarine warfare operation know very well, through their own drills, that they can be hit. That's why they drill and drill and drill.

NARRATOR: Today, it is the carrier's own hunter-killer submarine, the USS Tucson, that is preparing to strike. As part of an unscheduled exercise to test the Battle Group's defenses, the Tucson tracks the carrier - undetected. It is the McCain's job to monitor the movements of submarines throughout the Gulf. Failure to detect the Tucson would suggest that the Battle Group is vulnerable to a real attack. The McCain's sonar team is searching for any unusual sound that may signal a potential threat. Sixty-three feet below the surface, the Tucson hides in the carrier's wake, an area known as the baffles. This confuses the McCain's sonar picture.

CMDR. JIM MILLER: What we have is a carrier to the north. His only escort to the south. Two more ships to east. Upscope! We're coming right now to clear baffles, get a good solution on the aircraft carrier, and engage you with a one-mark 48 torpedo.

NARRATOR: The submarine is penetrating the Battle Group's defenses. If it succeeds, the implications are serious.

CREWMAN: Camera request photos.

CMDR. JIM MILLER: Photos. Photos. That's an easy target. Observation Master 5-1, number 2 scope.


CMDR. JIM MILLER: Set starboard 9-0.

CREWMAN WITH HEADPHONES: Set starboard 9-0 . . .Aye sir.

CMDR. JIM MILLER: Unit observation.

CREWMAN WITH HEADPHONES: Captain, reached. The status is 5,000 yards. Range rate is closing 4-5-0 yards per minute. Recommend final bearing and shoot. Time is 22 minutes after the hour.

CREWMAN WITH MUSTACHE: Very well. Five point procedures, master 5-1, 2-1.

CREWMAN WITH HEADPHONES: Five point procedure is mastered, 5-0-2-1.

CREWMAN WITH MUSTACHE: Assess the weapons ready.

CMDR. JIM MILLER: Launch primary launcher.

CREWMAN WITH HEADPHONES: Launch the primary launcher.


CREWMAN WITH HEADPHONES: Start a report. Pass of additionalization complete.


CREWMAN OFF CAMERA: Move a launch, 2-1.

CREWMAN WITH HEADPHONES: It's a little bit lower.

CREWMAN OFF CAMERA: Reports a loud explosion bearing a CR-87. She sleeps with the fishes.

CREWMAN WITH HEADPHONES: That was the flare that we shot. It's a green flare, and that's what we use in exercises to signal we fired a torpedo. It would have exploded beneath the keel and caused considerable damage.

NARRATOR: The carrier's sense of invulnerability has been destroyed. Alerted by the submarine's flares, its helicopters from the carrier begin a frantic search. They chase down the submarine using dipping sonar, placing it in the water in an ever-shrinking circle.

CMDR. JIM MILLER: Diving 100 feet to eight knots.

NARRATOR: In the restricted waters of the Gulf, options for escape are limited.


NARRATOR: Stung by the fact that the Tucson got through her defenses, the John S. McCain's sonar team zeros in on the submarine. The noose is tightening. The submarine crew is running out of places to hide.

CMDR. JIM MILLER: They're not going to be easy to get away with at all. They are professionals and they're good at this. And with the limitations of the shallow water, it will be tough to get away.

CREWMAN AT CONTROLS: Door open. All stations sonar. Weapon away.

NARRATOR: The McCain has found its target, and launches its own dummy torpedo at the submarine.

CMDR. JIM MILLER: This is where we're glad that we're on their side. We would have been killed once or twice. My criteria for success is, we got the first shot off, and they didn't find us until then. So, I'm pretty happy with that.

NARRATOR: Attacks by enemy submarines are not the only threat these warships must face. In the Gulf, where Naval forces patrol close to shore, missiles launched from land also pose a significant risk. To help counter such an attack, the Independence, its cruisers and destroyers are equipped with all-directional defense radar called Aegis. The Aegis system links the Battle Group electronically. As each ship monitors activities in the Gulf, its information is shared with all of the others.

CAPTAIN JERRY FERGUSON: All of these screens are essentially networked computer systems where we feed everybody's picture in, and that includes information we get out of satellites, information we get from signals intelligence. You name it, we collect it, and we collate it, and we pass it around to all the units. When you have 10 or 12 ships that are combining their picture and passing that information around, you get a very good picture of activity in the Gulf.

NARRATOR: The backbone of the Aegis system is a specially designed radar that can track even baseball-sized targets over a 100-mile radius. If an airborne threat is detected, the Aegis system then guides the Battle Group's own weapons in a defensive counter-attack.

GUNNER'S MATE ELIAS DAMO: The Aegis weapon system is a thinking system. All of the information comes through this umbilical into the can, into the missile. It spins the missile up appropriate to the approximate range and azimuth towards whatever target we're interrogating. And should it deem necessary to shoot the missile, we'll shoot it.

NARRATOR: Since the Gulf War, many more weapons are now equipped with guidance systems.

REAR ADMIRAL CHARLES MOORE: In Desert Storm, only 9% of the weapons delivered against Iraq were in the category of precision-guided munitions. But there has been a tremendous improvement and an increase in our capabilities, our lethality, our combat power, since then.

NARRATOR: One Standard Navy Missile costs over $400,000. At almost a million dollars, the newest generation of Tomahawk missiles is guided by satellite and can travel up to 1,000 miles to reach a target. Advances in weapon technology have enhanced the Battle Group's capabilities. But its ultimate strength resides in the configuration of its ships - a strategy that has not changed for over 50 years. The concept of the Battle Group was forged in World War II, when for the first time, sea battles were fought by a force made up of different ships grouped around an aircraft carrier. This replaced the traditional order of battle, where ships lined up to confront their enemies. This flexible concept was first used in the battles of Coral Sea and Midway, where the new Battle Group outflanked and outmaneuvered the Japanese Navy. During the war, as America's power and influence expanded, Naval bases were established throughout the world. The US Navy divided the globe into spheres of influence with a fleet based in each area. At the heart of every fleet is a battle group. The Navy relied on this force to counter the Soviets throughout the Cold War.

JEFF KAMEN: In many ways, carrier Battle Groups were designed to be highly predictable. We wanted our adversary, the Soviet Union - And remember, that's what the Battle Group was designed to confront - to know about the power of the Battle Group, to know where it was deployed, what its weaponry was, so that there would be no surprises, no miscalculations.

NARRATOR: With the Cold War over, shifting regional crises replaced a global Soviet Threat. The mobility of the Battle Group appeared to be an answer to new strategic demands. Today, 12 US Navy carrier Battle Groups are able to project an American presence anywhere in the world. But are they the right force for every job? Battle Groups were built to operate in the deep oceans of the world. The Persian Gulf is a very different environment.

JEFF KAMEN: It's the best tool we've got. It isn't a perfect tool for this. This is not a place where the US Navy is really comfortable. It's a big, blue water machine we've got, and the truth is that the littoral coastline is really in many ways more like what you want to have Brown Water Navy in small ships, quick-acting.

NARRATOR: The Brown Water, or littoral zone, is any area of sea close to shore. In the Persian Gulf, the coastal region is full of territorial claims, no-fly zones, and disputed international boundaries.

CAPTAIN JERRY FERGUSON: It's a very compressed battle space area. I mean, there's relatively shallow water. There's all sorts of things in the water, oil derricks and stuff left over from the Gulf War. In addition to that, just a routine amount of traffic going on.

NARRATOR: There has been a Navy presence in the Gulf for over 20 years. They were there when Iranians took American hostages in 1979, and they have been there ever since. Supporting friendly Arab nations and protecting the flow of oil have been the US Navy's primary objectives. And for the last 10 years, it has been Iraq, not Iran, that has most disrupted the region, first drawing fire in 1991 after its invasion of Kuwait. But the war did not end with Iraq's defeat. Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction were still a threat. The United Nations mandated that they be found and destroyed. Weapons inspectors were put to the task while Battle Group forces in the Gulf remained to help ensure that Iraq would not obstruct their efforts. US troops also stayed to enforce trade sanctions against Iraq. Sailors, like those aboard the destroyer John S. McCain, search merchant ships in an effort to stop the flow of restricted goods.

CAPTAIN JERRY FERGUSON: One of the things that the UN Security Council did is, they established a list of cargoes that are allowed into Iraq - food and medicine, principally - and they embargoed anything else. So, technology and anything that has any sort of war-fighting potential, basically anything except food and medicine, and then, that's only allowed under UN Charter.

CMDR. JAMES E. WISE: We're out here intercepting merchant vessels, boarding merchant vessels to make sure that they're complying with the UN resolution. So, we're out here every day doing this, day and night. We're the cop on the block, so to speak.

NARRATOR: Twenty-six-year-old Lieutenant Vince Watson is in charge of the ship's boarding team. This will be the crew's first interdiction of the day.

LT. VINCE WATSON: Good. The main vessel, we're going to be doing the first one. The name is Luc Nam. She is home ported out of Hai Fong, which is in Vietnam. However, her crew is mainly Indian. We were having a few language problems when we were talking over bridge to bridge. So, just take care and speak slowly when you have to speak to them. Always have your head turned around backwards to maximize your field of view when you're going up ladders.

CMDR. JAMES E. WISE: We train our boarding teams. They go for a rigorous training cycle before they get here. They do the actual real thing when they get here. And sometimes, it can go bad, so they've got to be prepared for that.

NARRATOR: They depart the relative safety of the ship wearing bullet-proof vests and weapons. Although routine, these boardings are never without danger. Like a police officer stopping a car, the team expects that the crew of the Luc Nam will cooperate. But all of them know that anything could happen.

LT. VINCE WATSON: Captain. I'm the senior US officer on board, sir, and I intend to conduct an inspection of your cargo.

NARRATOR: The Captain has been ordered to move the ship's crew above deck, and to open all cabins for inspection - orders that clearly were not followed.

CREWMAN: Anybody in there?

NARRATOR: Fortunately, no weapons are raised in this encounter. During the search, this radio is discovered. Too powerful for conventional use, the boarding team suspects that it may be intended for Iraqi military communications.

GUNNER'S MATE ELIAS DAMO: I'm in the radio room at this time. Since he has pretty sophisticated equipment, we need to take an inventory of what he has.

NARRATOR: The ship will be detained until an explanation for the radio is provided.

CAPTAIN JERRY FERGUSON: We query any ship that's going to the Northern Arabian Gulf, and we'll see, oh, anywhere on a slow day, three or four queries, and maybe as many as 10 or 12 on a busy day, because there's a lot of merchant traffic that goes up there.

NARRATOR: US forces have been controlling Iraq's trade and military movements ever since the Gulf War. After eight years of sanctions, Saddam Hussein announced a year ago that he will tolerate them no more. In defiance, he ejects United Nations weapon inspectors - a direct provocation to which the United States quickly responds. Within weeks, the United Nations authorizes the use of force against Iraq. And a second battle group is quickly deployed to the region. It centers around the John C. Stennis, America's newest carrier on her maiden voyage. It will join the Independence and her battle group. As tensions mount, war seems imminent.

REAR ADMIRAL R.E. "BENNY" SUGGS: Stennis left on the 26th of February, and in less than two weeks, she was on station, ready to go, averaging around 30 knots or so. We bring to the region all kinds of capabilities. We're doubling up, if you will, the carrier Battle Group's potential here, with us joined together as a big, awesome team.

NARRATOR: After so many years of using these war ships to enforce sanctions, it may now be time to use them to actually fight a war. But in a last minute effort by the United Nations, a strike is narrowly averted. Saddam Hussein steps back from the edge, allowing UN weapon inspections to continue. After the biggest military build-up since the Gulf War, peace is restored - for the moment. Across the Battle Group on every ship, there is a collective sigh of relief. It's a moment to slow down, reflect, and attend to personal business. Some men and women take time to record a video message to send home.

CAMERA MAN: I'll get you all set up. OK.

MALE CREW MEMBER: Hi, Josie. Hi, RJ. I love you. I miss you. As you can see, I got package number one. I got what looked like the remnants of package number two, which had a little bit of melted chocolate on the bottom. It's hot over here.

FEMALE CREW MEMBER: I'm doing fine. Everything is going well.

MALE CREW MEMBER: Kyle. Just be careful. The skateboarding and the rollerblades really, really will hurt you if you're not careful.


FEMALE CREW MEMBER: See you later.

MALE CREW MEMBER: Para ti mamita (For my mama) - (blows two kisses). And this is for you, baby.

MALE CREW MEMBER: Mahalo, I love you.

MALE CREW MEMBER: Thank you for loving me, and I love you back. See ya.

MALE CREW MEMBER: I hope you write. Write me soon, because I don't have any letters. I need one.

NARRATOR: Mail arrives at the ship almost every day. It is a time of great anticipation.

MALE CREW MEMBER: (Reading from letter) Jordan misses you so much. He says "Daddy" and points to your car.

NARRATOR: These seamen and their families know only too well the dangers they face with Saddam Hussein and his arsenal of deadly weapons. Troops are vaccinated against anthrax, a germ agent that attacks the lungs.

REAR ADMIRAL CHARLES MOORE: It is clear that we all face the threat. The threat of chemical or biological weapons on the battlefield is real. They are out there. We know they're out there, and we are likely to have to deal with them for the foreseeable future.

LT. TAMARA SCHNURR: An anthrax comes in a six-shot series done over an 18-month period. It's been ordered to be given to the entire military, so the entire Department of Defense, starting with the ones who are mostly to have a threat of anthrax, being the people in the Gulf.

NARRATOR: Aboard the Independence, Lieutenant Schnurr is the only woman. The USS Saturn arrives to re-supply the carrier and its warships. Fifty tons of essential items can be airlifted by these huge, Sea Stallion helicopters in less than three hours. Every week, sailors of the battle group will consume 40,000 eggs, 5,300 gallons of milk, and 15,000 boxes of cereal. The Independence and the Stennis have their own fuel requirements, too.

REAR ADMIRAL R.E. "BENNY" SUGGS: The differences between the ships are tremendous, actually. They look almost the same. The acreage here is about the same, four and a half acres or so of non-skid steel, American turf, if you will. The airplanes look the same. The capabilities are about the same. The strike potential for both airwings is about the same. But there are an awful lot of differences as well.

NARRATOR: On the Independence, the steam boilers that run its engine consume 100,000 gallons of oil every four days.

ENGINEER: Steam's pretty old, and a lot of people look at the Independence and say she's a 39-year-old. We look at her and say she's a classic. And believe me, she can do everything today that she did 39 years ago when she came off the line.

NARRATOR: The Stennis is nuclear powered. It can dedicate its entire store of fuel - all four million gallons - to its airwing. This allows the Stennis to keep its jets flying twice as long. The Stennis also has facilities to accommodate women. They comprise 6% of her crew and are involved in all aspects of carrier activity. Jennifer Keefer is training to become a yellow shirt. Yellow shirts are responsible for getting these multimillion dollar planes on and off the deck. Airman Keefer is "UI," under instruction. Her every move is shadowed by her supervisor.

JENNIFER KEEFER: I get here, and I start off as a blue shirt. And what they do is, they chalk and chain. Then, I went from blue shirting, and I became a tractor driver. And I drove tractors for like a total of a week. After I got off work there, I went up on the flight deck to work, to let them know, "Hey, I'm here. I mean business, I'm ready to rock and roll." And so, then from there, I made yellow. And I made yellow in a total of six months, the quickest yellow shirt on the deck. My responsibility is to get it all the way to that line, parked, chalked and chained, without hitting anything else.

NARRATOR: On the flight deck, the yellow shirts have the power. Even the pilots, all officers, take direction and occasional admonition from the yellows.

JENNIFER KEEFER: And we had an E-2 come in, and he would have hit somebody. And I was like, you know, "Stop! Come on, listen to me, buddy."

NARRATOR: Keefer has one last step on her journey to be a qualified yellow shirt. A test conducted by her senior petty officers that is now only weeks away. Flight deck operations are never without danger. One of the most hazardous moments aboard any carrier is when aircraft return from a mission. Pilots rely on the air traffic controller to orchestrate the carefully sequenced return of the planes. Pilots are guided by landing signal officers on deck. Pilots themselves, the LSOs, mark and grade every landing. In a delicate and difficult maneuver, the pilot must use his plane's tail hook to snag one of four wires that extend only six inches off the deck. Catching the third wire will get him the best grade. But hooking any one of them will achieve the essential goal: a safe landing.

LSO: It's a little steeper than most airports. They usually use two and a half or three degrees for their glides. And then, everybody flares. Here, it's a controlled crash.

MALE CREW MEMBER: Next bird, steady approach Tomcat on Bravo.


NARRATOR: When a plane's tail hook misses the wire, the pilot is forced to "bolter," shove open the throttle and blast off the bow before coming around to do it again. Bolters are serious business. One too many, and the next flight the pilot will take is back to shore to re-qualify for carrier operations. FA-18 Pilot Jesse Kingg returns after another mission over Iraq.

LT. CMDR. JESSE KINGG: When you're coming back to the carrier, you're always a little apprehensive. There's a little tension that builds up, because landing is the most dangerous part of the flight.

NARRATOR: Today, Jesse lands successfully. Tomorrow, he will do it all again.

LT. CMDR. JESSE KINGG: It keeps on going. It never stops. Day in, day out, it's like Ground Hog Day.

NOVA DIRECTOR: Good luck, Jesse.

NARRATOR: Flight operations continue around the clock. As the day ends, a new group of aviators prepare for a nighttime intelligence operation.

LT. EWING: First, we'll go over the overall pictures...

NARRATOR: This crew will search the electronic signals that may indicate the presence of Iraqi missile sites.

LT. EWING: If we do see any contacts down there that we haven't identified electronically, when we come back, there's going to be eight people below us in the overhead stack. That will be 2 Tomcats and 2 Hornets at 2,000 feet.

NARRATOR: Lieutenant John Abbamondi is an electronics warfare officer. He and three other crew members are flying the night shift.


LT. CMDR. ERIC S. SLEZAK: No. I've been saving it just for you.

NARRATOR: Lieutenant Ewing is the pilot.

LT. EWING: The unfortunate part about that is, now I do have to go and fly at night, which is not so fun. Beautiful day out there, nice day to fly. Not a nice flight to fly. There's no moon. I think the percent of illumination from the moon tonight is 2%, and when ideal, it's 100%. So, it's going to be a dark night out there.

LT. JOHN ABBAMONDI: It was real dark last night.

LT. EWING: Thanks. (They laugh.)

LT. JOHN ABBAMONDI: The fighter's job is to protect the bomb droppers from getting shot down by other airplanes. Our job is to keep them from getting shot down by enemy SAMs. So, we have jamming pods on the aircraft that I'll show you. And they are capable of blinding the enemy radars.

NARRATOR: The airplane they fly, the 4-seat Prowler, is a relatively new addition to the Battle Group. Sent out ahead, it is the Prowler's job to locate and jam Iraqi radar. Iraqi missiles will then be unable to locate and attack the aircraft that follow. Unlike the fighter jets it protects, the Prowler has no air-to-air weapons of its own. This leaves the crew defenseless to enemy aircraft during its missions over Iraq.

LEEMER: When I was here in Desert Storm, I had a couple of airplanes in my squadron shot down. Two of those guys were POWs. Two other airplanes in my wing were shot down. One guy was killed.

LT. JOHN ABBAMONDI: We have a normal survival vest that we carry. That's this thing that Weed's got on here. It's got everything from a survival radio and flares and that kind of stuff.

WEED: I carry hard currency in my pocket when I fly over Iraq, just in case.

SPEW: Visa, baby. (laughter)

WEED: (Laughs) Visa, too.

LT. JOHN ABBAMONDI: And the other thing they give us is - we aviators refer to as a blood shit. Essentially, as you can see, it's got some serial numbers on here, and in a bunch of different languages, it basically explains that I'm an American and I'm not going to hurt you, I had to be separated from my aircraft. And it offers the guy a reward if he helps us out. So, we'll carry this. It's kind of a last resort. It's a good thing to have with you.

NARRATOR: John explains how he got his nickname.

LT. JOHN ABBAMONDI: (Laughs) It's an Italian thing. It's one of those stupid things that you would never think would stick, but the more you protest it, the more it does stick. You think they're going to call you Killer or Maverick or something like that. I got Eggplant.

NARRATOR: As night descends on the Gulf, operations begin on board the Independence with the launch of the Prowler. Just off the carrier's starboard stern, the guided missile cruiser San Jacinto prepares for a mission of its own.

CAPTAIN JIM WOODS: Our helo is headed up into the northern Arabian Gulf looking for merchant ships either inbound or exiting from Iraq. We find that these smugglers have a tendency to leave at night. Of course, they've got a better chance of trying to get through at night, they think. But we have all kinds of equipment that can detect in light or dark.

NARRATOR: Attached to the front of the helicopter is a specially designed camera called "FLIR," short for Forward Looking Infrared. It can turn night into day. This image was taken from over two miles away. Tonight, one of the helicopters sees a large cargo vessel traveling suspiciously close to Iranian shores. Images of the ship are instantly relayed to the destroyer, the John S. McCain. If the vessel is suspected of smuggling, it will be the destroyer that sends out a boarding crew to search it. During nighttime interdictions, the ship is dark. Even on the bridge, no lights are allowed. This scene was filmed using a night vision camera. Concealed by darkness, the McCain will track the suspect vessel.

CMDR. JAMES E. WISE: Right over here? All right. Just hang out right here.

NARRATOR: An Iranian warship pulls up next to the vessel.

PUOPOLO: Yeah. There are some folks out there on the deck, also, that are talking.

NARRATOR: But almost as quickly, it departs.

CMDR. JAMES E. WISE: Did they give us a track number?

MALE CREWMAN: They have several kinds. I'm not sure they gave us a force track number.

NARRATOR: Suspecting some kind of covert activity, the Captain reluctantly gives the order to board the ship.

CMDR. JAMES E. WISE: We don't like to board at night. It tends to be dangerous, and it's a risk that we really don't need to take.

NARRATOR: Dressed in body armor and armed with sub-machine guns, the boarding team begins a search of the ship. They take no chances.

PUOPOLO: Oh, has that guy got his hands over his head?


NARRATOR: The search party hits pay dirt. In one of the biggest finds since the embargo against Iraq began, 20,000 tons of smuggled oil is discovered on board. The ship will be detained, its cargo sold, and the proceeds will go in part to fund the UN operation in the Gulf. Back on the Independence, the Prowler crew returns at 3:00 a.m. For pilots, night landings are a tremendous challenge. Jesse Kingg knows the risks involved.

LT. CMDR. JESSE KINGG: You're coming in, and you're seeing this deck, and it's kind of floating in space and doing some weird things, rolling out there. And you get the sense of vertigo, so you're not sure when your winds are level and when you're not. And you're concentrating so hard. Yeah, I would say it's fear.

NARRATOR: On his first attempt, Lt. Ewing does a bolter, and is forced to go around again.

LT. EWING: Night ops are always terrible. But see, I gave it a little extra time to set up, so I took it around another time. Yeah, well, I think it was actually a hook skip. I hope. We'll see. (laughter)

NARRATOR: A hook skip occurs when the plane's tail hook bounces over the arresting wire. One of the LSOs will let Spew know whether he or his tail hook is to blame.

LSO: Fly through up on start, a little high on the middle. Low enough now to come in, and close. We'll fight you off the ramp and skip to two for the OK-3 wire.

LT. EWING: You're awful kind. Thanks.

NARRATOR: His relief is understandable. As a Naval aviator, Spew knows that he is only as good as his last landing. The next morning, aboard the Stennis, it is crunch time for Jennifer Keefer. Today, she goes before her superiors to take her final test to become a fully qualified aircraft handler, a yellow shirt.

JENNIFER KEEFER: Right now, I'm about ready to take my board, and the board means I'm going to go in the yellow shirt locker, and there's going to be their bosun, all the chiefs in my division, all the flight POs and a couple of the second classes. And they're going to be throwing questions at me.

CPO ADRIAN TURNER: An opportunity for her to show her stuff, and we'll see if she's really ready to do what she needs to do.

NARRATOR: Keefer faces a tough crowd. Their standards are high. Even though she has worked hard to get here, they have no intention of just giving these yellow shirts away.

SENIOR OFFICER #1: Explain to me the procedures of moving a no-brake aircraft.

JENNIFER KEEFER: So, you'll have your tractor driver, your yellow shirt directing. If your tractor drivers yells to direct you, you're going to have your chalk walkers, whistles in their mouths, chalks fully extended, paying attention. You're also going to have a safety on the back, and two safeties on the side.

SENIOR OFFICER #1: OK. What part did you leave out?

JENNIFER KEEFER: I couldn't tell you.

SENIOR OFFICER #2: You're gear puller?

JENNIFER KEEFER: I'm the gear puller. I'm going to say, "Hold the retract." The dude is going to hold the retract.


JENNIFER KEEFER: Why? Because if not, you're just going to pull him back.


CPO ADRIAN TURNER: You have to understand why. That's the key to all of this. Not just knowing the procedures, but why the procedure. Why?

NARRATOR: Despite some difficulties, Airman Keefer does manage to pass the test.

CPO ADRIAN TURNER: She doesn't know everything she needs to know. She knows enough to, as we say, to be dangerous. She knows enough where she can go out here and effectively do what she needs to do, and do it correctly.

JENNIFER KEEFER: I came to the Navy to be a yellow shirt. And I'm finally a yellow shirt, and I feel really good.

MALE CREW MEMBER: Are you going to be able to take that "UI" off your helmet?

JENNIFER KEEFER: Yeah. (Laughs) As soon as my paperwork comes back, I'm going to rip it off. I can't wait. I can't wait.

NARRATOR: For the 25,000 men and women working aboard these ships of war, their six-month tour of duty ended before the call to strike ever came. Aboard the Independence, their departure is particularly meaningful. After 39 years, this will be the carrier's last patrol.

MALE CREW MEMBER: It's a different thing in your life when you've been assigned to a ship that you know that is going to be put out of service, you become tuned in with the ship, especially as much time as I've spent with this carrier and the people that are associated with it. You get tuned into the steel, so to speak, is the way I put it.

NARRATOR: The Indy has been around since the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Her missions have included Vietnam, Lebanon, and Granada. Many pilots have flown off her deck never to return. The Independence Battle Group will soon be replaced by another. A new group of pilots spends its days and nights gathering information about Iraqi troop movements, surveying missile sites, and identifying locations of Iraqi weapons programs. They are laying the groundwork for the strike that is soon to come. Tensions with Iraq escalate once again in November 1998, and it is the USS Enterprise that is sent to reinforce troops already in the region. But this time, Saddam does not back down. And in the early morning of December 16th, the Battle Group begins to rain down Tomahawk cruise missiles on Iraq. And during it all, Saddam Hussein remains defiant.

JEFF KAMEN: This is a very dangerous man, across the horizon of threat. This threat is going to continue, and it's going to expand. And we have to be ready for it.

NARRATOR: For the past 10 years, hundreds of thousands of troops have served in the Gulf working aboard the most advanced warships ever built.

MAN: OK, it's another busy day in here in the Arabian Gulf. We'll continue with our UN Security Council resolutions enforcement and sanctions against Iraq.

NARRATOR: And until the crisis ends, they will continue to cycle through these waters. Presently, there is no alternative to the Battle Group. This Blue Water Navy may not be comfortable in the shallow Brown Water of the Gulf. But for now, it is the best there is.

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ANNOUNCER: Next time on NOVA, is Earth on the verge of a catastrophic flood? Or the next Ice Age? Antarctica could hold the answer. "Warnings from the Ice."


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