If the United States launches a military campaign against Iraq, U.S. Navy warplanes are expected to play a bigger role than they did during the 1991 Gulf War. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu went aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and spoke to fighter pilots about the American military's increased reliance on navy firepower and support.
Preparing to blast off from the Lincoln's sprawling flight deck, the Navy's newest combat jet, the F/A-18E "Super Hornet", does not look much different from the earlier model, F/A-18C "Hornet", but it's more than 30 percent bigger and about a third more powerful. The upgrades allow pilots to carry more bombs and land with a much heavier load.
Jeff Penfield is the commander of VFA 115, the first Super Hornet squadron to be deployed in the U.S. Navy. He says the new jets greatly boost the Navy's ability to do more with a lot less.
"You can send fewer airplanes to more targets with this jet than you could with the older machines, just because we can carry the additional weapons," he said. "And that has been, out of everything, one of the biggest improvements over the other airplane: more offensive firepower airborne per sortie than the other jet."
The "Super Hornet" is not the only improvement the U.S. Navy has made to its warplane inventory since the 1991 Gulf War. The Cold War-era F-14 "Tomcat" fighter jets can now launch laser-guided weapons and strike ground targets. In the past, they were mainly used for air-to-air combat.
In addition, the Navy now has an arsenal of precision-guided weapons that it did not have 12 years ago during Operation Desert Storm.
Commander Penfield predicts about 80 percent of the bombs that might be dropped in Iraq this time will be guided either by laser beam or satellite. He believes precision-guided bombs could help significantly limit casualties on the ground if there is a second Gulf war. He says these bombs are much better and more accurate than those used in the 1991 Gulf war.
"We were just getting into laser-guided bombs back then," he said. "I'm not even sure that Hornets dropped any laser-guided bombs. We are leaps and bounds better."
Analysts say the improvements are prompting U.S. military planners to give the Navy a greater role in future conflicts.
They say that if military action is ordered against Iraq, one of the first things that could happen is that Navy fighter jets from the five aircraft carriers deployed in the region could be called upon to strike Iraqi air defenses and command and control centers. They may also be used to give extensive air support to allied ground troops, who may face Iraqi forces armed with chemical and biological weapons.
Fighter pilots on the USS Abraham Lincoln say they are confident they can successfully meet the increased expectations. The carrier has about 70 aircraft, including Hornets, Super Hornets, F-14 Tomcats, surveillance aircraft, radar-jamming electronic warfare jets, as well as helicopters and anti-submarine planes.
Many of the pilots, like Lieutenant Steve Dean, have already flown plenty of missions over Iraq to enforce the no-fly zone in the southern part of the country. The southern no-fly zone was created after the Gulf War to protect Shiite minorities from Saddam Hussein.
But Lieutenant Dean says that no matter how good the pilots, the planes and the weapons are, few on board the ship believe defeating Saddam Hussein will be a simple task.
"We do plan for the worst. If you go in with the attitude that we are going to clean their clocks, then you are really preparing to have your rear end handed to you. And that's just not the way we do business. We very much respect the threat and we think about it a lot," he said.
Military experts say that if there is a war in Iraq, the Navy's high-tech upgrades will undoubtedly get their first big test.