WEB SPECIAL - Build-Up to War With Iraq

Reports by Iain Ballantyne (UK), Charles Strathdee (North America), Mrityunjoy Mazumdar (Asia-Pacific) & Guy Toremans (Europe)

The Royal Navy assault carrier HMS Ocean off Cyprus, during amphibious assault training. Photo: Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy assault carrier HMS Ocean off Cyprus, during amphibious assault training. Photo: Royal Navy.

UK NAVAL FORCES FACE DOWN SADDAM

The biggest British war-fighting task group since the Falklands War of 1982 is now gathered in the waters of the Middle East, having passed through the Suez Canal at the end of January.
Sailing from the UK at the beginning of the year, Naval Task Group 2003 (NTG 03), led by the carrier HMS Ark Royal (RO7), only paused in waters off Cyprus to allow embarked Royal Marines (RMs) to carry out amphibious assaults using beaches and training areas in UK Sovereign Bases on the island.

A Royal Marine from 40 Commando comes ashore during amphibious assault training on Cyprus. Photo: UK MoD.

A Royal Marine from 40 Commando comes ashore during amphibious assault training on Cyprus. Photo: UK MoD.

As marines from 40 Commando completed their training, the Commanding Officer of the unit's Alpha Company, Major Justin Holt, observed: “We are as ready as anyone. We have prepared for the worst and hope for the best.”

Liaison teams from the US Marine Corps, which the RMs may fight alongside, have been training with UK commando units both on Cyprus and in the UK.

Already waiting for NTG 03 in the Gulf was an RN Mine Counter-Measures (MCM) group, Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ships, the destroyer HMS Cardiff (D108) and the battle damage repair ship RFA Diligence (A132).

The Tomahawk-armed attack submarine (SSN) HMS Turbulent (S87) has also been diverted to join the task group, having deployed east of the Suez last summer in support of the War on Terrorism. The SSN HMS Splendid(S106), also armed with cruise missiles is also believed to be part of NTG 03.

While 40 Commando - one of three infantry assault units in 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines - sailed to the Middle East in the ships of the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) that is part of NTG 03, other elements, including 42 Commando and the brigade's HQ, flew down to Kuwait, where they set up camp ahead of the task group's arrival in the Gulf.

PREPARING THE WAY FOR ASSAULT

For the first time since the Gulf War of 1991, Iraqi anti-shipping missile launchers are being hit hard by air strikes. A campaign to eliminate the residual threat posed by Saddam’s remaining Silkworm sites has been initiated in the northern Gulf.

Sea King helicopters from the Fleet Air Arm land aboard the British casualty reception ship RFA Argus shortly before the vessel left Southampton. Photo: Royal Navy.Sea King helicopters from the Fleet Air Arm land aboard the British casualty reception ship RFA Argus shortly before the vessel left Southampton. Photo: Royal Navy.

When this magazine visited a British naval task group, led by HMS Invincible, up-threat in 1999, the Silkworm launchers were being kept under observation but, as the Iraqis were keeping their search radars turned off, British and American strike jets were leaving them alone. Now the Americans are destroying the batteries because, in the words of a US Central Command spokesman, they are “threatening coalition maritime forces.” The decision to start eliminating the Silkworm threat is seen as a necessary precaution ahead of deployment into the Gulf of the armada assembled by America and Britain.

USN FORCES CONVERGE ON GULF

A massive array of naval power is preparing for possible action against Saddam, if he continues to avoid complying with UN resolutions that require him to rid Iraq of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

A series of deployments by Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) and Amphibious Ready Groups (ARGs) has been underway on both coasts of the USA. Ships leaving in recent weeks from the USA have included the assault carriers USS Belleau Wood (LHA 3) and USS Boxer (LHD 4). The USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) has been under-going essential maintenance in Australia prior to returning to the Middle East, while the USS Constellation (CV 64) has been in the Gulf carrying out air strikes on targets in southern Iraq as part of enforcing the Southern Watch no-fly zone.

In January the USN's Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Vern Clark, visited the Constellation to give her sailors a boost with a strident pep talk.

“Remember, the American people are watching you,” the CNO told his sailors. “Be ready to go write some history.” He added: “If the call comes and if the President says do this…then do it. Hit fast, hit hard, hit with precision.”

The American amphibious assault carriers USS Kearsarge and USS Bataan sail in formation aft of the assault ship USS Saipan. Photo: US Navy.

The American amphibious assault carriers USS Kearsarge and USS Bataan sail in formation aft of the assault ship USS Saipan. Photo: US Navy.

American formations passing through the Mediterranean on their way to waters off Arabia have included the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) Carrier Battle Group (CBG) and ARGs headed by the USS Bataan (LHD 5) and USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), plus the USS Saipan (LHA 2). The USS Tarawa (LHA 1) ARG has also been ordered to the Middle East from the USA.

US Marine Corps tank crews practcie their small arms drill in a desert 'somewhere in Central Command'. Photo: USMC.

US Marine Corps tank crews practcie their small arms drill in a desert 'somewhere in Central Command'. Photo: USMC.

Meanwhile, already in Kuwait are the lead elements of the US Marine Corp’s (USMC’s) 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (1MEF), including the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (24th MEU). The latter has been carrying out intensive battle training in the Kuwaiti desert that has included firing range practice for its Abrams heavy tanks. When it comes to additional units committed by the US Navy to any action in the Gulf, further CBGs have been busy working up their readiness in case they are needed. Ships and aircraft of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) CBG started their Composite Unit Training Exercise (COMPUTEX) on January 13.

The Roosevelt CBG’s COMPUTEX was conducted two weeks earlier than scheduled in order to allow the USS George Washington (CVN 73) to commence her scheduled maintenance period prior to a possible deployment by the latter, or both, to the Gulf region. At the same time, on the USA’s west coast the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) CBG got underway from San Diego to begin its COMPUTEX, possibly as a precursor to a Gulf deployment

FRANCE & RUSSIA

France, which has been lukewarm about military action without a further UN resolution, reportedly delayed an imminent overhaul for its only aircraft carrier, the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle (R91), so she could lead a battle group to the Middle East. As February began the Charles de Gaulle set sail for the eastern Mediterranean to await developments.

The Russian destroyer Admiral Panteleyev, which has been ordered to the Gulf. Photo: Mrityunjoy Mazumdar.

The Russian destroyer Admiral Panteleyev, which has been ordered to the Gulf. Photo: Mrityunjoy Mazumdar.

The Russians, who have in the past spoken up for Saddam at the UN, are allegedly preparing to send two of their Pacific Fleet warships into the Gulf this month (Feb).

Two Udaloy class destroyers, Admiral Panteleyev and Marshal Shaposhnikov, accompanied by a tanker, were scheduled to leave for the region in the second half of February, for a possible six month deployment. Ships from elsewhere, most probably Russia's Northern Fleet, might also be ordered into the area. The Russians are said to be tasked with keeping an eye on “national interests”.

AUSTRALIA COMMITS

When it comes to additional front line support for US-UK naval forces, only Australia seems likely to make a significant contribution. Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warships already work alongside USN and RN vessels in the northern Gulf enforcing UN sanctions on Iraq. In late January Australian support for the UK-US stance on Iraq solidified with deployment of the assult ship HMAS Kanimbla (L51) to the Middle East, carrying Special Forces troops.