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'The tip of the spear
Does any challenger stand a chance against the firepower
of the United States? MIRO CERNETIG sails the Sea of Japan
aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, the centrepiece
of the Seventh Fleet, and concludes that not only
would the other side lose, it wouldn't even be a fair fight

Research by Rick Cash; Sources: U.S. Navy, The Military Balance,; Center For Defense Information, Associated Press, Reuters
Friday, October 20, 2000

First, a vague rumble permeates from somewhere above, powerful enough to penetrate five steel bulkheads, each 2.5 centimetres thick.

A split second later, the metal cocoon into which 5,300 people are crammed is literally vibrating. Then, a heavy thud booms overhead as another F-18 fighter jet thunders to rest on the black deck of the USS Kitty Hawk.

It is the last flight of the night on a typical tour of duty aboard the massive aircraft carrier patrolling the Sea of Japan.

But even when the jets turn off their afterburners and the public-address-system announcer concludes a prayer, the pride of the U.S. Seventh Fleet is never silent as it sails under a full moon that turns the water into quicksilver.

From a bunk in a window-less stateroom whose walls are painted institutional white, the noise of the foremost war machine in the Pacific is inescapable: The hiss of air being pumped through air ducts; the thrum of the four engines that can move the massive vessel through the ocean at an astonishing speed approaching 65 kilometres an hour.

All around, metal parts pushed to the limit creak and sigh as the flattop relentlessly splits the sea before it.

The Seventh Fleet, comprising the Kitty Hawk, 50 to 60 other ships and a half-dozen attack submarines, represents the most powerful naval force ever assembled by any empire.

It includes 38,000 sailors and airmen and 22,000 Japan-based Marines, all with access to more than 400 fighter jets, helicopters, bombers and supply aircraft.

On any given day, at least half of this armada is deployed in the Pacific, overseeing 130 million square kilometres of the world's surface.

If trouble breaks out in Asia, home to some of the world's potential flash points, the Seventh Fleet is expected to be the first on the scene.

Its mission is to give the U.S. government a chance to respond quickly and decisively anywhere in the region, to limit damage to its national interests and above all, in an all-out war, to give its main battle forces time to mobilize.

"They call us the tip of the spear," says Bob Yeager, the senior chief of the workshop aboard the Kitty Hawk.

He oversees maintenance of avionics, the eyes and ears of the more than 75 fighter jets and helicopters that give the carrier its immense striking power. "We are always on 48 hours notice, ready to go any time."

How dominant is the Seventh Fleet in this hemisphere? The U.S. military will not say exactly, preferring to cast itself as a force for stability to "keep the peace."

But Robert Karniol, the Asia Pacific editor for Jane's Defense Weekly, a leading expert on the military, says that even in the very unlikely event that all the Asian powers -- from China to Japan, India to Taiwan -- joined up against the Seventh Fleet, they would not mount much of a challenge.

"If such an unlikely scenario took place in a computer war game, the Seventh Fleet would win," Mr. Karniol says. "There is nobody, nobody, even close to it."

Even with the spectre of China's attempt to modernize its military now being raised by hawks in Washington, the fact is that the Communist regime is a long way off from matching the United States in the Pacific.

"In a 25-year time frame, nobody can develop a navy that would be in the same league as the Seventh Fleet," Mr. Karniol says. "It would take a lot longer than that."

He adds that the United States, whose strength on the oceans is a major reason for its military dominance in the world, is continually upgrading its 225-year-old navy. That will make catching up all the more difficult and expensive for potential competitors in the region.

One thing a landlubber quickly notices aboard the USS Kitty Hawk is that up close it seems awfully old. Which it is, having been commissioned 39 years ago at a cost of $400-million (in 1961 dollars). It will be replaced in 2008 with a carrier worth $5-billion.

In one of its galleys, the pressure to the soda fountain serving bubble-less Coca-Cola keeps going off. In the VIP bathrooms, the washbasins offer only a trickle of water.

And with most of its space taken up by 15,140,000 litres of diesel fuel, weapons and machinery, the Kitty Hawk is not for the claustrophobic. There are often more than 100 sailors to a sleeping compartment, offering as much space and privacy as life in a sardine tin.

"Yeah, it gets pretty hard to live on here after a few weeks at sea," says James, a first-year sailor who asked that his last name not be used, fearing a "write-up" by a superior.

"Eventually, you get used to the close quarters, but you never learn to love it."

On the flight deck, however, it is all cutting-edge technology. The Kitty Hawk holds more than 75 aircraft, themselves worth billions of dollars.

At sea, an aircraft carrier, a floating arsenal able to move as much as 1,500 kilometres every 24 hours, uses every centimetre of the 323.8-metre-long flight deck to keep "the birds" in the air.

The military does not like civilians up there for good reason. Virtually a floating airport, where the planes land within 10 metres of those that are parked, an aircraft carrier's 83-metre-wide deck is considered one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

To be allowed there, which happens only after security clearances from the Pentagon that take months to arrange, you are ordered to wear a "floater" jacket, in case you get the back end of a jet engine's thrust and are blown off the ship like a leaf. (Nobody seems to notice that a floater is what lifeguards call someone who is dead in the water.)

You are ordered to wear goggles at all times, in the event that a small object becomes airborne and puts a hole in your eye. Your head must be covered with a plastic helmet, which the sailors call a cranial, for the same reason.

And as for the noise, well, you are first told to stuff in a set of yellow earplugs and then put on headphones to try to block it out.

It seems like overkill -- until you step onto the flight deck. It is choked with aircraft, their wingtips often a metre from each other, around which dozens of men and women are scurrying.

The noise of jet engines firing up makes conversation impossible.

Dusk is falling, and the Kitty Hawk's bow is turned in to the wind about 240 kilometres off the coast of Japan, sailing toward the port of Otaru, on the southern tip of the country's northern island of Hokkaido.

Ten metres away, an F-18 is being hooked up to the steam-powered catapult built into the deck. Suddenly, the fighter's afterburners flash on, illuminating everything in the twilight with the cool, blue light you usually see on an acetylene torch. Even from a distance, you can feel the heat on your cheeks as the jet fuel burns.

The deck shudders as the catapult releases. In the blink of an eye, the plane is hurled from zero to 290 kilometres an hour within two seconds, taking flight just as it leaves the Kitty Hawk's edge.

When the carrier is in combat mode, a fighter jet weighing as much as 22,700 kilograms can be launched every 30 seconds, day or night, in almost any weather.

Moreover, the F-18 and F-14 fighters, along with the carrier's other combat aircraft, can be kept in the air for long periods. That is because the ship has its own flying fuel tankers that can top them up.

Essentially, wherever the Kitty Hawk is, the United States can dominate thousands of square kilometres of air space above it.

"Let's face it," says Lieutenant-Commander Ed Zeigler, sitting in the carrier's war room. "We have the most powerful navy in the world. Nobody else can do this."

Others have tried -- or are trying -- to do so in the Pacific.

India is expected to purchase an aircraft carrier from the Soviet Union, although the ship will probably not have the capabilities of the Kitty Hawk. Thailand already has its own carrier, but it has not put to sea in years, Mr. Karniol of Jane's Defense Weekly says, because the country cannot afford the fuel bills.

Buying a carrier is the easy part, he adds. The real challenge is keeping it operational, a tremendous cost since other backup vessels, such as destroyers, must accompany it to ensure that it is not the proverbial sitting duck.

And the payroll is not to be sneezed at either: It costs the U.S. government $65-million (U.S.) a year to pay the sailors on the Kitty Hawk, one of just 12 carriers in the U.S. Navy.

Of late, even China appears to be balking at the cost of a carrier fleet. In recent years, Chinese companies -- some with military connections -- have bought old Soviet carriers. It was assumed by some military analysts that the Chinese were going to try to commission a flattop to give them the vaunted open ocean reach that experts call a "blue-water navy."

So far, however, the Chinese have turned those carriers into amusement parks or have just left them rusting in port.

The People's Liberation Army, already strapped for cash as it tries to upgrade a military in which uniforms are in short supply, seems to have realized that it is an enormous challenge and very costly to run a carrier. That epiphany may have been the result of a tour of the Kitty Hawk.

One U.S. officer says Chinese military officials had been brought aboard to see the carrier in action. No doubt the U.S. government's hope was that after that experience, they would not underestimate the striking power of the Seventh Fleet or the technological challenges of making an aircraft carrier work at sea.

"It was a way of telling the Chinese they can't just do this overnight," the officer says. "These carriers are the result of more than 50 years of knowledge. It's not an easy thing to start doing."

It is, however, potentially deadly.

One of the technological marvels on an aircraft carrier is obvious when you stand atop the massive floating runway, watching fighter jets land. The ground beneath you rolls back and forth, heaves up and down, even though there may be only a moderate Pacific swell on this fair-weather day.

Then, an F-18 drops down from the clouds, aiming straight for you at an astounding speed.

Suddenly, it touches the deck and a hook under its grey underbelly snares a steel cable 4.5 centimetres in diameter, one of four that are stretched across the runway. The F-18 hurtles by in a heartbeat, a blur of metal. The sound of the cable scrapes across the deck as it pulls back on the plane, which is stopped within 90 metres.

In less than 10 seconds, the jet is taken off the runway and 20 seconds after that, another plane is dropping out of the sky to hit the same cable, which is suspended only 12.5 centimetres above the deck. There is little room for error.

"We call that a controlled crash," says Lieutenant Jerry Cornett, a helicopter pilot who goes by the name of Jughead. "The flight deck is the most dangerous place you could ever be."

The arresting cable is changed every 100 landings, he says. This is because there is always a danger that it will break from the force of catching a plane, an event that would cause it to snap wildly around with enough force to kill.

Sometimes -- thankfully, not often -- a plane will also simply miss its mark and skid off the runway, hitting other aircraft and sailors on the deck. Such a catastrophe happened a while ago, Lt. Cornett says, although he grows silent when pressed for details. "I think there were a few people killed in that one."

Perhaps the best way to view the USS Kitty Hawk, though, is not as a war machine, but rather as a floating island of Americana, ready for export: precisely 1.7 hectares and 86,000 tonnes of U.S. territory, populated by 5,300 men and women, most of whom are 20 years old and have little experience in the world in which their country is now so dominant.

Down in one of the ship's kitchens, where he oversees the serving of a whopping 6,000 hamburgers, 10,000 eggs and 2,270 litres of milk a day, Nolly Dizon clearly is not thinking geopolitics while on duty.

But after being asked whether he thinks that the United States might just be too powerful in the Pacific, he smiles and shakes his head in disagreement.

He was born in the Philippines, he says, but is now a U.S. citizen. And he has no qualms about the country's prowess in the region.

"It's for security, right?" the section chief says. "The Seventh Fleet is like the policeman, to make sure nobody picks on that guy or that guy. A lot of these Asian countries are poor, they can't protect themselves. The navy is like their mother being around, to protect them."

Trainan Vine, the chief of the workshop that repairs the engines of the carrier's fighter jets, simply says he is at sea to work "for the greatest country in the world." He fled Romania in 1984 to the United States, and joined the U.S. Navy to protect what he never had in Romania. "I came to the U.S. for freedom."

In truth, though, those are the motherhood responses. The most clear-eyed description of why the United States is a player in the Pacific comes from the U.S. Congressional Record, when the admirals told the Senate a few months ago that their massive firepower on the high seas is needed to protect the global trading system, upon which the future of the United States relies.

"A key part of the global economy's growth has been the proliferation of multinational corporations, many U.S.-owned or partnered," said Admiral J. P. Reason, Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic fleet. "They have improved the profitability and efficiency through the free exchange of goods and services around the entire world.

"And this was made possible by freedom of the seas, guaranteed by your United States Navy. In short, the navy has been and continues to be a sine qua non, a necessary precondition, of global economic prosperity and U.S. national security."

For the moment, most of Asia's countries seems to agree with that sentiment, although some with reluctance. "With the exception of the Chinese and North Korea, the other countries of the region pretty well universally are happy with a strong U.S. presence in the region -- they are worried about the uncertainty a power vacuum would yield," says Mr. Karniol of Jane's Defense Weekly.

But the seeds of a potential backlash over the U.S. reach are certainly there.

As the USS Kitty Hawk pulled into Otaru last week, cries of "America go home" rose above the brass band that played on the dock below. "Please, we don't want you," screamed a handful of student pacifists, who want the U.S. presence in Japan removed.

But the sailors who stood at attention on the edge of the Kitty Hawk, in front of a flag declaring "Don't Tread on Me," did not seem to care.

They were preparing for 300,000 Japanese who were going to be lining up in the next three days to tour the carrier, like tourists taking a day to check out a new ride at Tokyo Disneyland.

"Some people don't like us being here," mumbled one of the sailors, gazing out at the anti-war banners.

"But I tell you one thing, bud. When you get 300,000 civilians coming aboard, it tells you that's a small minority. The old U.S. of A. is going to be in these parts for a long time to come, whether they like it or not."

By the numbers

No one wants to mess with the United States. Its military is the most powerful in the world, mainly because it spends so much more on defence than any other country:
- The estimated U.S. military budget for the 2001 fiscal year is $305-billion.
- The second largest budget is Russia's, at $56-billion.
- The United States spends 22 times more than Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria combined.
- The United States, NATO countries, Japan and South Korea account for 63 per cent of global military budgets.
(All figures in U.S. dollars)
34% - $266-billion
The United States spent $266-billion on defence in 1998, accounting for 34 per cent of total world defence expenditure, up from 30% in 1985.

17,700 kilometres west of the U.S. coast, covering the western Pacific, Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf
1 aircraft carrier
3 or 4 Aegis guided missile cruisers
18 to 20 destroyers and frigates
5 or 6 fast attack submarines
1 amphibious command and control ship
5 to 8 amphibious transport and landing ships
18 mobile logistics and support ships
16 maritime prepositioned force ships
200 aboard carrier and other ships
22 shore-based maritime patrol aircraft
10 shore-based patrol aircraft
150 to 160 Marine Corps aircraft

Oct. 13, 2000: The destroyer USS Cole, refuelling in Yemen, is crippled by a massive explosion, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39.
June 25, 1996: A truck bomb explodes outside the Khobar Towers housing complex near Dharan, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. Air Force personnel and injuring more than 500 Americans and Saudis.
Nov. 13, 1995: A bomb attack on a U.S.-run military centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, kills seven people.
May 17, 1987: An Iraqi F-1 Mirage fighter fires two Exocet missiles at the USS Stark, on patrol in the Persian Gulf, killing 37 sailors and wounding 62 others. At the time, it was considered accidental.
April 5, 1986: A bomb blast in a West Berlin disco frequented by Americans kills two U.S. soldiers and a German woman and injures 150 people, many of them military personnel off duty.
Aug. 8, 1985: A large car bomb kills two and injures 20 at a U.S. base in Frankfurt.
Oct. 23, 1983: A Shia suicide bomber blows up U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen.

Saturday, Oct. 14: Overview
Monday, Oct. 16: Diplomacy
Tuesday, Oct. 17: Culture
Wednesday, Oct. 18: Science
Thursday, Oct. 19: Business
Friday, Oct. 20: Military

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