Civilian Leaders Wowed by USS Ronald Reagan's Capabilities
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
CENTRAL PERSIAN GULF, April 28, 2006 Civilian opinion leaders who visited the USS Ronald Reagan today got a taste of what it's like to be the biggest, toughest guy on the block - one whose presence brings comfort to his friends but fear in his enemies.
Participants in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference watch stand on the USS Ronald Reagan's flight deck and watch F-18 Hornets take off for missions supporting ground troops in Iraq. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The business, civic, organizational and academic leaders, all participants in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, visited the world's largest aircraft carrier on its maiden deployment to the Persian Gulf.
They met the crew, toured the flight and navigation bridges, flight-control deck and flight deck and watched F-18 Hornet and Super Hornet aircraft take off for some of the 30 sorties they fly over Iraq every day.
"We believe this is a very worthwhile effort," Rear Adm. Mike Miller, commander of the Ronald Reagan Strike Group, told the group after it flew in from Bahrain. "We believe we are helping preserve the peace and stability of the Arabian Peninsula."
Speaking to group members in the "in-port cabin" that's fashioned to look like the Reagan Administration's White House "Red Room," thanks to donations by the Hampton Roads Navy League, Miller said he's convinced the Reagan is making an impact in the region.
"We are firmly convinced that we are making life better for the people here," he said. "People here don't say, 'When are you going away?' They say, 'Please don't leave.'"
The Reagan, the ninth Nimitz-class carrier, is the Navy's Mighty Hulk, the largest weapon in the entire U.S. arsenal. It's as long as the Empire State Building is tall and boasts 47,000 tons of steel, a 4.5-acre flight deck and the two nuclear reactors that propel it in excess of 30 knots, Miller explained.
That size, speed and capability make a powerful statement, said Command Master Chief Yoshimi Core of the carrier's air wing. "It's a wonderful feeling to (look) at that a mass of steel and mass of power and be able to influence people by our mere presence," he said. "We're able to reassure people that we're out here having a presence," or in other cases, to send a warning.
Capt. Terry Kraft, the Reagan's commander, described himself as the mayor of a city of 5,000 people with a nuclear power plant beneath it and an airfield above. But with all its size and power and state-of-the art technology, the $5 billion dollar vessel's greatest attribute, he said, is its sailors.
"This is a modern marvel," Kraft said of the carrier, which began its first-ever deployment since its 2003 commissioning. "But the most impressive thing on board are the 5,000 great Americans. We give these sailors incredible responsibility, and I couldn't be more proud of them."
About 80 percent of the Reagan's sorties are in direct support of troops "over the beach" - serving in Iraq, Kraft told the group. Sorties launched from the carrier's flight deck monitor convoy routes to detect IED sites and gather valuable intelligence they pass on to ground troops, he explained. In addition, two shore-based EA-6B Prowlers jam radio frequencies to prevent insurgents from using cell phones and similar devices to activate improvised explosive devices.
At the same time, the Reagan crew conducts broader maritime security operations in the Gulf, both with its ships and aircrews. "Our goal is for terrorists not to be able to operate anywhere in the Persian Gulf or off the coast of the Horn of Africa," Kraft said.
By making it more difficult for terrorists to operate, the Reagan crew is "changing the battlefield," he said, "and creating a sanctuary for our forces."
"Our number one mission is the service we provide for the guys on the ground," said Lt. Cmdr. John Clary, an F-18C pilot aboard Reagan. "We're their eyes and ears, circling overhead and burning holes in the sky."
The gratification of the job comes from knowing that he's "one more 18- or 19-year-old kid got there safely," thanks to support from the sky, he said.
Earlier in the war, success was measured in bombs drops and targets taken out, Kraft told the group. Now, it's measured more in terms seconds of disrupted road identified as potential IED sites and actionable intelligence forwarded to the ground. "The bottom line is that we save lives over the beach, not that we drop bombs," he said.
While helping save U.S. lives, members of the Reagan crew said they believe they're making a contribution to Iraq and the entire region. "We're supporting the Iraqi people and helping to keep the world safe," said Lt. Cmdr. Paul Crawford, assistant navigator on the carrier's bridge, which he called "the nerve center of the ship."
"What we're doing is providing a presence to make sure that things are fair for everyone," he said.
With less than a year in the Navy under her belt, Seaman Ashley Kolbinskie said she's proud of her role supporting U.S. ground troops in harm's way. "We're giving air protection for troops on the ground. Anything they can't handle, we're here for them," she said.
But like her fellow crewmates, Kolbinskie said she recognizes the regional implications of her efforts. "It makes me feel happy that we have freedom, and to be able to help other people get it, too," she said.
As the JCOC participants watched the F-18 Hornets and Super Hornets roar off the flight deck, even Operations Specialist Marion Cox took pause. "When you see this every day, you sometimes lose sight of how cool it is," she said.
But no one within the JCOC group failed to notice just "how cool it is."
Ted Sarandis, a freelance sportscaster based in Boston, described watching the planes shoot of the deck as "a complete adrenaline rush."
Sarandis turned almost poetic when he described how the Reagan's crews operate on the flight deck. "It's a thing of synchronized beauty, a bit like watching a mechanized ballet," he said.
"Awesome!" was how Robert McDonald, senior vice president for 3M Marketing and Sales, described the experience. An engineer, McDonald resisted the urge to peek into every nook and cranny to check out the electronics as he passed through the carrier's departments.
"I'm fascinated by all this," he said. "It's absolutely amazing."
Larry Oney, chief executive officer for Hammerman & Gainer International, relished the chance to see an aircraft carrier at sea conducting real-life missions.
"Not many people get to see it up close like this," he said. "This has got to be the highlight of the trip."
For James Schenck, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, gave his first exposure to real-life Navy operations two thumbs up.
Schenck called the Reagan "a testament to America" that "really gets your attention" for its power-projection capabilities. "I have to say, this makes me a proud American taxpayer," he said.
Participants in the JCOC program are business, civic, community and academic leaders from around the country who are spending the week observing U.S. Central Command at work. This JCOC trip is the first to the Middle East since the Defense Department started the program in 1948 to help educate civilian "movers and shakers" about the military.