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Navy May Reduce Gulf Carrier Presence As Iraqi Freedom Winds Down

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 12, 2003 – The U.S. Navy may reduce the number of aircraft carriers deployed in the Gulf region if Operation Iraqi Freedom air strike requirements draw down, the commander of coalition naval forces said today.

"The prosecution of air-to-ground targets is decreasing somewhat as the campaign reaches a certain phase of completion," Navy Vice Adm. Timothy Keating told Pentagon reporters during a satellite news teleconference from Bahrain.

"If the sortie requirement goes down, then we'll be able to pull [some] carriers off the line and send them home," Keating pointed out.

He noted the Navy launched nearly 200 air sorties yesterday. Any reduction of carrier forces, he pointed out, would be dependent on mission requirements.

Keating emphasized that Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the overall commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom, would have to approve any carrier redeployments.

Currently, the five carriers deployed in the Persian Gulf or eastern Mediterranean Sea are USS Nimitz, Roosevelt, Truman, Constellation and Kitty Hawk, Keating remarked.

The Nimitz relieved the Abraham Lincoln yesterday, he added. Each carrier is crewed by about 5,000 service members.

U.S. and coalition naval forces have played key roles in toppling Saddam Hussein's regime, Keating said, noting there are now 60,000 maritime service men and women deployed in the region, to include the five carrier battle groups. This support adds up to more than 140 surface ships, of which just under half are coalition vessels, he noted.

Carrier-based aircraft have flown more than 7,000 sorties in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom since March 20, the admiral remarked. Navy reconnaissance planes, he continued, "have provided valuable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of the battlefield in support of ground and sea assets."

In fact, "our [Navy] jets are providing close-air support for the Marines and the soldiers who are all throughout Baghdad this morning," the admiral declared.

Sealift ships brought in military equipment to support ground and air missions, Keating pointed out. Other Navy ships used their advanced radar systems to augment the shore-based Patriot missile batteries, providing advanced warning of incoming Iraqi missiles, he added.

Keating said U.S. and United Kingdom ships have fired more than 800 Tomahawk missiles toward Saddam-regime targets.

"Sailors and ships from coalition countries around the world are part of the successful operation in the liberation of Iraq," Keating emphasized, noting such partners are also playing key roles in the ongoing war against global terrorism.

The U.S. Coast Guard, too, Keating said, is making valuable contributions in Operation Iraqi Freedom by providing coastal security patrols, escorting shipments of humanitarian aid and conducting navigational surveys of critical waterways leading into Iraqi seaports.

He also saluted the USNS Comfort hospital ship in the Arabian Sea that's providing medical care "not only to our wounded," but also to Iraqi civilians and enemy prisoners of war.

U.S. and British naval forces have conducted a significant, comprehensive mine-clearing effort, the admiral noted, to ensure that waterways to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr stay open for the delivery of humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq.

Keating emphasized that the men and women of the U.S. Navy and coalition maritime forces have performed "remarkable work" in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

And with the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and the liberation of more and more Iraqi cities and towns, Keating predicted that the U.S. and coalition air strike "requirement is going to decrease relatively soon."

Consequently, the three-star admiral noted, "it is very likely that we'll be able to pull some assets -- and not just naval assets, [but also] Air Force, Marine and Army assets -- out of the theater and send them on to other things."

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