ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN — U.S. President Barack Obama recently said that "all elements of American power" remain on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The USS Abraham Lincoln -- a nearly 100,000-ton supercarrier with a crew of around 4,800 and 50-plus aircraft -- is one of these elements. Steaming just 30 miles off the coast of Iran while launching F/A-18 Hornet strike aircraft, it is one of the most visibly impressive demonstrations of American military might.
If strategic power can be measured in decibels, the flight operations of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier must rank at the top. Even if one wears earplugs as well as ear protectors, the noise on the flight deck is overwhelming. Depending on the aircraft type and the payload it is carrying, each F/A-18 is catapulted off either at full power or with the additional fiery blast of afterburners. Similarly on landing, the throttles are opened in case the aircraft's hook does not catch on one of the four arrestor wires stretched across the deck. An aircraft that misses is labeled a "bolter" and has only yards to once again become airborne and fly round for another attempt. In several hours of watching, there were few "bolters." Most pilots caught their target, the third wire.
The Lincoln has two squadrons of F/A-18C Hornets and two of the more advanced, two-seater F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, known as "Rhinos." Both types can perform ground strike as well as air-to-air roles. In addition, there were several EA-6B Prowlers, electronic warfare aircraft designed to detect and jam enemy radars, and an E-2C Hawkeye, with its giant circular radar, providing early-warning detection.
To the layperson and probably also the expert, it is hard to find the appropriate word to describe the potential of a carrier like the Lincoln. Superlatives like "incredible," "extraordinary," and "impressive" fall short. Put in simpler terms, it is, well, awesome.
The carrier, in a blurb handed out to visitors like myself, defines its mission as "to provide a credible, sustainable, independent forward presence and conventional deterrence in peacetime." (Emphasis in the original.)
With the carrier minutes from Iranian airspace, the term "forward presence" could be summed up, less diplomatically, as being "in your face." I can't speak for "credible" -- the question is perhaps best directed to Tehran -- but "sustainable" seems right, at least in terms of apparent effortlessness. And though "independent," the USS Abraham Lincoln is not alone. Carrier Strike Group 9, of which the Lincoln is the flagship, includes the air-defense cruiser USS Cape St. George and the destroyers USS Momsen and USS Sterett. In the haze, the outline of the British Royal Navy's newest warship, the HMS Daring, was also visible. Somewhere, but not discussed, was at least one U.S. submarine.
Along with another carrier strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson, these ships make up the U.S. 5th Fleet. The size of the fleet is always in flux -- a carrier group departs as another arrives. There is usually a few days or weeks of overlap. At the moment, perhaps because Washington wants to emphasize support for its regional allies and apply pressure on Iran, the overlap seems longer than usual.
There is no U.S. naval dockyard in the region like, say, at Norfolk, Virginia. The home ports of the ships are back in the United States, though the headquarters of the fleet is the troubled island of Bahrain, where Shiite protesters are at odds with the Sunni ruling family. The 5th Fleet's headquarters -- its "Naval Support Activity" moniker deliberately avoids the word "base" -- is not a local issue, as U.S. personnel keep a low profile and any visiting ship moors well out of sight at a distant jetty.
The Lincoln was operating in a narrow "box" of international waters between the Arab Gulf states and Iran, though a casual observer would probably regard the location as being on the Iranian side of the Persian Gulf. The "box" lies north of the small Iranian island of Farsi and parallel to the Iranian coast opposite the city of Bushehr, where Iran's sole civil nuclear power reactor is located.
If I hadn't asked about the position of the carrier, nobody would have told me. When I asked the pilot who was preparing to fly me to the Lincoln in a propeller-driven C-2 Greyhound, known as the "COD" (for "carrier onboard delivery"), his reply was: "That's classified." Sitting trussed up uncomfortably, wearing a life jacket and a cranial helmet, and facing backward in the COD's cargo bay, I calculated from the rays of the sun shining in via two very small windows that we were heading, if anything, northwest from Bahrain. If we had flown east, the carrier would have been near the Strait of Hormuz, the choke point for shipping at the opening of the Gulf through which some 20 percent of the world's traded oil flows daily.