A fascinating development in the campaign against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda terror network has been the decision to turn the USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) into a floating special operations superbase.
It is believed that she provided a launch pad for some of the US Special Forces troops involved in a hit-and-run attack on Taliban nerve centres near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. She continues to launch deep penetration attacks by Allied troops. The veteran carrier, usually based at Yokosuka in Japan, has landed her strike jets and is said to have taken on dozens of helicopters and troops. These reports would explain her absence from the first air strikes, which certainly involved the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). The USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) Carrier Battle Group joined the air offensive in its second week. The Kitty Hawk's conversion and the lightning raids show that radical thinking is being applied to the job at hand. With access to the battleground limited because of the reluctance of friendly nations bordering on Afghanistan to play active host to offensive action, there has been a need to place a suitable floating airfield near the action. As one reliable defence source in the USA told this magazine: "The Kitty Hawk is a significant piece of sovereign US real estate in easy reach of key targets." Following the opening air strikes and cruise missile launches, the US carried out bombardment of key targets within Afghanistan to ensure it had total air superiority for the next phase - the launching of Special Forces attacks. A surprisingly low number of aircraft were used to drop the bombs and launch missiles - for example, the Pentagon revealed that October 9th's strike involved "five to eight land-based bombers and eight to ten naval strike aircraft". This reflected the low number of strategic targets in Afghanistan and the great efforts made to ensure all strikes were conducted with utmost precision.
Joining American carriers and USN destroyers and cruisers in unleashing strikes on targets in Afghanistan have been two Royal Navy nuclear-powered attack submarines, also armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles.
HMS Triumph (S93) was sent through the Suez Canal around ten days before the attacks were initiated on October 7 and HMS Trafalgar (S107) was already in the region as part of the huge UK-Omani joint forces exercise Saif Sareea (or Swift Sword - see below).
Senior officers with the RN task force have refused to talk about submarine deployments at all, although one defence source in the Middle East indicated that Triumph had never been assigned to the exercise. Triumph's contribution to the opening salvo must have been decided upon not long after the attack on New York, during discussions between President Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Trafalgar test-fired her cruise missiles just a few weeks before taking part in the attack on Afghanistan (see the Oct/Nov 2001 edition of WARSHIPS IFR). The British submarines have continued to add their firepower to the offensive.
The Royal Navy has a substantial presence in the waters off Oman, with around 30 naval vessels in the Arabian Sea, including the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious (R06).
She remained fully committed to Saif Sareea, her Sea Harrier FA2s and Harrier GR7 strike jets being held back from air operations against targets in Afghanistan. The carrier is flagship of the UK's Commander UK Maritime Forces (COMUKMARFOR), Rear Admiral James Burnell-Nugent. The commander of all British naval forces involved in Saif Sareea, Rear Admiral James Burnell-Nugent is a veteran of two tense deployments to the Gulf in the late 1990s as a carrier commanding officer.
"This deployment is a superb showcase for the Royal Navy's Maritime
Contribution to Joint Operations," Rear Admiral Burnell-Nugent said
when interviewed aboard HMS Illustrious off Oman. "In this task
force we have, with the exception of the RN's ballistic missile submarines,
the full range of UK naval capabilities. The attacks against America
of September 11 did make everyone in the task force sharpen up. But the
gathering of US Navy power in these waters has impinged on the exercise
only with regard to American aircraft movements through the areas where
we are operating with Omani forces.
"Saif Sareea has gone ahead and will conclude as planned. Certainly in terms of deploying a task force 4,000 miles from home, with all the key strike elements of MCJO in place - airpower, amphibious warfare units and nuclear submarines - it has been a great success."
While impact of the hostilities on Saif Sareea remained limited, even as late as mid-October, the RAF did boost numbers of air-to-air refuelling tankers in theatre. They have been crucial in enabling strike jets from US Navy aircraft carriers to reach their targets.
The land forces involved in Saif Sareea have included the bulk of the RN's 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines. The commando brigade has not deployed in such strength to the Gulf region since 1991, when it saved Kurds from slaughter at the hands of Saddam's troops in northern Iraq, during Operation Safe Haven.
The brigade's 40 Commando infantry unit reached Oman aboard the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean (L12) and was disembarked off the coast of the sultanate around five weeks ago. The Royal Marines of 45 Commando are also in Oman and have been involved in amphibious drills from the assault ship HMS Fearless (L10). The brigade's other combat infantry unit - 42 Commando - has sent some of its units to the USA for training with the US Marine Corps while other elements are training local forces in Sierra Leone. The UK's Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, made a heavy hint that the brigade is one of the formations the Blair government may commit to the battle on the ground. Sir Michael said of 3 Cdo Brig during a press briefing at the MoD in London: "...they are our expert mountain and winter warfare troops, so if we were going to be thinking about doing any operations in Afghanistan on the ground, then clearly they would be one of the units that we'd actually give very close consideration to."
To reach the war zone, it is likely that 3 Commando Brigade would have to base itself on the USS Kitty Hawk and the RN helicopter carrier HMS Ocean. US Special Operations helicopters with in-flight re-fuelling capability, and stealth features, would have to be used to convey the UK commandos to Afghanistan, as UK Commando Forces helicopters are unlikely to have the required range. If the Royal Marines are not deployed then the UK might opt for 16 Air Assault Brigade, which has at its heart three battalions of paratroopers. But they have no particular expertise in waging war in mountainous terrain. Their helicopters might also lack the necessary range for the sort of hit-and-run raid most likely in the war on terrorism. At the end of the day, a mix-and-match policy may be applied with regard to UK troops contributed to battle. The SAS and the Navy's Special Boat Service may find themselves in action alongside 3 Commando Brigade's Brigade Patrol Troop, the Army's Pathfinders. Other Para and Commando units will be contributed as, and when, necessary.
The Falklands veteran assault ship HMS Fearless is part of the Royal Navy task force in the Middle East. As flagship of the UK's Amphibious Ready Group she is, despite being 40-years-old, packed with latest command and control systems. Fearless and the ARG will be available if the situation in Pakistan spirals out of control with violent riots against the US and UK. Contingency plans for Fearless and other ships in the ARG, to evacuate thousands of UK and US nationals from the region ,have been drawn up.
Meanwhile NATO'S Standing Naval Force Mediterranean had by mid-October moved to the eastern Med to await possible orders to transit the Suez Canal to join the naval forces in waters off the Arabian Peninsula. The squadron consists of nine warships from eight NATO countries and is currently headed by the British Type 22 (Batch 3) warship HMS Chatham (F87), carrying the squadron commander, Commodore Angus Sommerville.
Canadian naval forces were committed to the Allied effort to destroy the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan as soon as hostilities were joined.
Rear-Admiral Jamie Fraser, Commander Maritime Forces Pacific, announced that his flotilla was sending the Halifax Class frigate HMCS Vancouver (331), along with an air detachment from 443 Squadron to join a USN Carrier Battle Group. Her sister ship, HMCS Halifax (330) was also withdrawn from NATO's Standing Naval Force Atlantic and sent to the Arabian Sea. Rear Admiral Fraser said: "Canada will also send other warships. This will be an East Coast Task Group consisting of one frigate, one destroyer and one replenishment ship including air detachments."
The destroyer HMCS Iroquois (280) and the frigate HMCS Charlottetown (339) are believed to be spearheading the Eastern Task Group.
The Japanese government has been asked to send naval replenishment ships to the Arabian Sea to provide on-call refuelling for the assembled Allied battle groups.
President Jacques Chirac has vowed that France will take part in military operations in Afghanistan. However as October neared its end it was still unclear what kind of support French armed forces would contribute. France had allowed military airplanes to fly through her air space, and opened her naval bases to US ships on their way to the Arabian Sea. But as hostilities commenced, the French Navy had committed just two ships at the Pentagon's request, namely the light La Fayette Class frigate Courbet (F712) and the re-supply tanker Var. The Charles de Gaulle Carrier Battle Group would not have been available even if the Americans had requested it. The Charles de Gaulle (R91) is presently undergoing maintenance work and will be alongside until at least mid-November.
Rumours have circulated that commandos from the French special operations command may participate, but it is unlikely that this will ever be publicly confirmed.
Australia's naval contribution to on-going operations in the Middle East is being led by the guided-missile frigate HMAS Sydney (03), which started work-up for deployment in mid-October. She will relieve the frigate HMAS Anzac in the Gulf in early November. Sydney is expected to play a full role in enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq, alongside US and UK warships, as part of the International Maritime Interception Force. In maintaining a commitment to the MIF, Australia is helping to relieve pressure on the US 5th Fleet, which has diverted some of its Gulf patrol vessels into the Arabian Sea for operations against Afghanistan.
The widening of the war from Afghanistan to other countries that harbour terrorists looks highly likely. President Bush has unveiled a '22 Most Wanted Terrorists List' and Osama bin Laden heads it. The list also includes the names and photos of suspected terrorists based in places such as the Lebanon and the Philippines.
The efforts to track down and bring to justice the terrorist suspects may not necessarily be military - other means will be used (including diplomatic and economic) to persuade host countries to yield them. The governments of some countries are already in hot pursuit of the same suspects and so the USA may seek to bolster their national anti-terror campaigns. Iraq is likely to be a different matter. It still poses a huge threat to world peace via its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Saddam's regime is also suspected of providing support to the September 11 assault on America. Many in the US administration feel it is time to finish the job left undone at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 - the destruction of Saddam and his evil regime. The British government has showed signs of being against widening the war in the short term. The head of the Royal Navy has joined those urging caution. In an interview with YouGov.com, First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Nigel Essenhigh, who was the CO of HMS Manchester during the 1991 Gulf War, said: "I think that the aims here are to deal with the terrorism of the sort that we witnessed on September 11. I think you need to be wary about translating that into a war against everything you just don't like." But, there are still many in the UK military and political establishment who recognise that the only way to bring lasting peace to the world is to destroy the Iraqi regime.