The USS George Washington (CVN 73) is currently making history as it sails in the 5th Fleet Area of Operations with two squadrons of F-14 Tomcats on board as part of the embarked Carrier Air Wing 7 (CVW-7). This is the last deployment of an Air Wing with two squadrons of the mighty F-14 assigned before all Tomcat squadrons are disbanded or converted to the different variants of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The carrier started the work-up period for this, its sixth deployment to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf following a six-month Planned Incremental Availability (PIA) at the US Naval shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, between February 25 and August 15, 2003. The final training phase started on November 10 that year and the COMPosite Training Unit EXercise (COMPTUEX) was successfully completed on December 19 after the carrier had been at sea for 40 days, qualifying it to go to war anywhere in the world.
On January 13 this year, the US Navy announced that the George Washington Carrier Strike Group (GWCSG) would embark on January 20 for a routine deployment in support of the global war on terrorism. After sailing through the Mediterranean and transiting the Suez Canal, the Group joined forces with the US 5th Fleet on February 16. Its mission will focus on winning the war on terrorism by maintaining a credible, sustainable, independent forward presence throughout the 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility (AOR), which covers an unbelievable 25 countries and 7.5 million square miles (12.07 million km2) in Europe, Africa and Asia.
In common with all US aircraft carriers, the George Washington is a cornerstone of US national defence strategy, providing the forward deployed flexibility required to maintain American influence overseas. Able to move swiftly from one spot on the map to another (a distance of around 800 miles a day) with some 80 aircraft on board, it has played a critical role in almost every world crisis of recent years. Since it was commissioned in July 1992, the George Washington has made five cruises in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf — in fact, every cruise it has so far made has brought the George Washington to the Persian Gulf. During its five previous deployments, the carrier was involved in the 50th anniversary commemoration of D-Day and played vital roles in Operation decisive endeavour in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Operation southern watch over Iraq, and Operation enduring freedom over Afghanistan.
Putting Ordnance On Target
Captain Martin J Erdossy, the ship’s Commanding Officer, who has logged more than 5,500 flight hours and made over 500 arrested landings, said the carrier and its air wing were a powerful and effective tool for putting ordnance on target. The strike group has been involved in coalition operations to protect the United States’ interests — including maritime interception operations, which have proved a successful means of thwarting terrorists. In the six months following August 2003, coalition maritime forces confiscated over 10,000 tons of fuel and more than $800 million-worth of narcotics, whose sale funds terrorist activities.
The Nimitz-dass nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, which include the I George Washington, are the largest warships ever built, with a flight deck ‘ 1,092ft (333m) long and a Combat f Load Displacement of 97,000 tons.
Twelve aircraft carriers represent the core of US Naval global forward presence, deterrence, crisis response, and warfighting. In addition to their power projection role, they serve as joint command platforms in the worldwide command-and-control network. The carrier’s two nuclear reactors give virtually unlimited range and endurance and a top speed in excess of 30 knots. Today’s carriers have an estimated useful operating life of 50 years.
The aircraft of the embarked Carrier Air Wing are a visible reminder of American power: the George Washington can launch as many as four a minute. The ship’s four powerful steam catapults (nicknamed ‘Fat Cats’) and four arresting gear engines enable aircraft to be launched and recovered rapidly and simultaneously. A typical day in the Arabian Gulf consists of over 12 hours of flight deck activity, with ‘cycles’ of aircraft taking off and landing roughly every l.5 hours. During any such ‘cycle’, it is not uncommon for 20 aircraft to be launched and 16 recovered.
When the George Washington started its sixth cruise, its personnel knew there was a chance they could be called upon to support the war in Iraq, though most of them were anticipating an uneventful deployment as the major fighting there had been declared over for months. However, the deployment has turned out to be rather less than tranquil, with more combat flights than the air wing commander, Captain Kenneth E Floyd, an experienced pilot with over 2,800 flight hours and 725 carrier arrested landings, could have imagined. When US ground troops were engaged in fierce fighting around Fallujah in April, the air wing was flying missions into Iraq almost daily, mostly in support of friendly troops on the ground. Captain Floyd said that besides dropping bombs on Fallujah, the air wing flew combat missions in support of coalition forces aimed at stopping the terrorists’ eventual funding, these being flights to stop illegal oil and drug trafficking.
The first time live ordnance was dropped by CVW-7 aircraft was on April 8, 2004, when one F/A-18C from Strike Fighter Squadron 131 (VFA-131) ’Wildcats’ made a strafing run against an enemy position using the M61A1/A2 20mm cannon. On April 9, another VFA-131 Hornet dropped two GBU-12 500lb (227kg) laser-guided bombs on an enemy position in Fallujah. Continued air support from CVW-7 in Operation vigilant resolve was vital to the success of the US Marines and other ground forces, who worked hard to bring Fallujah security and stability. More than 30 laser-guided bombs have been dropped on enemy positions by F/A-18 and F-14 Squadrons.
VF-143 ‘Pukin’ Dogs’, one of the two Tomcat squadrons aboard the George Washington, flies the F-14B, which has grown from a pure air defence fighter into an all-weather, air superiority, precision guided munitions and reconnaissance platform. On April 1, 1975, the squadron made the transition to the F-14A from the F-4J, moving from NAS Miramar, California, to its current home base at NAS Oceana, Virginia. Soon afterwards, it began flying missions with the Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS), carrying optical and infra-red cameras. The unit provided the first images of the Kiev-class Soviet carrier Novorossiysk and the cruiser Slava, and in the autumn of 1983, flew the first TARPS combat missions in a war-time scenario, collecting images from 45 missions over Lebanon. In 1989 it transferred to the more powerful and modern F-14B, and in March 1990 was the first when the TARPS imagery it collected over Bosnia-squadron to deploy with the F-14A+ (now better Herzegovina, and later the Arab region, proved of known as F-14B) on the USS Dwight D Eisenhower vital importance. Equipped with TARPS, the F-14 can (CVN 69). As such, the unit saw action in Operation deliver real-time photos to theatre commanders, on desert shield, and on its next cruise on the same film or digitally, giving them the information needed vessel it was involved in Operation desert storm. to make crucial battlefield decisions.
During the George Washington’s maiden cruise in In December 1995, the ‘Pukin’ Dogs’ left for their 1992, VF-143 participated in Operation deny flight, second cruise, flying over Bosnia in support of Operation decisive endeavour. Later, when the strike group entered the 5th Fleet AOR, the unit supported Operation southern watch. On this cruise, VF-143’s main missions were TARPS, FAC(A), air superiority and air-to-ground missions. On its next cruise in 1998, it once again flew missions in support of Operation southern watch, this time using digital TARPS, Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infra Red for Night (LANTIRN) and night vision goggles (NVG). Following this, a cruise on the USS John F Kennedy once again took it to the Gulf region, and during this period the second Gulf War broke out.
For their current cruise, the ’Pukin’ Dogs’ left NAS Oceana on January 20 to join the GWCSG. The unit’s Commanding Officer, Chris Murray, said personnel had worked hard for the deployment, which is supporting Operation iraoi freedom and enduring freedom. Work-ups began in June last year when the unit deployed to NAS Fallon, Nevada, for three weeks, to hone its fighting skills in multiple tactical sorties, returning the following month for Air Wing training. In August and September, live missile firing took place, during which the ’Dogs’ launched nine AIM-54C Phoenix and four AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. When it returns from its current cruise, VF-143 is due to convert to the F/A-18F Super Hornet.
Red Rippers The Tomcat unit primarily tasked to operate the LANTIRN pod on the current cruise is VF-11 ‘Red Rippers’. Formed in 1927, it saw action in North Africa, Europe and the Pacific in World War Two, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and converted from the F-4 Phantom to the F-14A Tomcat in 1980. In 1992, the unit began conversion training for the F-14D Super Tomcat, deploying in February 1994 aboard the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) for a WEStern PACific (WESTPAC) cruise in support of Operation southern watch, supporting the same operation in 1996, along with Operation desert strike. The ‘Red Rippers’ were first to use NVGs in the F-14 — going against the usual procedure of specialised squadrons testing and evaluating new devices and tactics, VF-11 developed NVG use itself. NVGs allow pilots to see in the dark, replacing instrument flying with a view of the world coloured in green. As they multiply the available light hundreds of times over, the cockpit instruments and lighting must be modified by having movable filters and lenses fitted over them, allowing the flight crew to change quickly from normal to NVG lighting and back again. US Navy plans allowed all Tomcats to be fitted with this system, which complements the LANTIRN system used by the Tomcat squadrons.
On their return from the USS Carl Vinson deployment in 1996, VF-11 transferred to NAS Oceana, now the home base of all remaining Tomcat squadrons, and immediately began to convert to the F-14B. This conversion was brought about by the limited number of F-14Ds available to the other dedicated F-14D squadrons.
The ‘Red Rippers’ current deployment on the George Washington in support of Operations enduring freedom and iraoi freedom is an historic one for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is the last occasion on which two squadrons of F-14 Tomcats will be assigned to an Air Wing operating from an aircraft carrier, and secondly, it represents the last time the AIM-54 Phoenix missile will be carried by a carrier-based F-14 Tomcat. When it returns, VF-11 will convert to the F/A-18E Super Hornet. Conversion from the dual-seat F-14 В to the single-seat F/A-18E means that some of the squadrons’ front and back-seaters will transfer to other F-14 and F/A-18F units. The end of the George Washington’s current cruise will mark the end of an era in embarked Tomcat operations.