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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, June 28, 2004

Navy super carrier takes center stage in war games

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

AT SEA ON THE USS JOHN C. STENNIS — Jet fighters roaring off the deck of this super carrier 100 miles west of O'ahu are part of daily flight operations.

A flight-deck crewman watches the approach of an E-6 Prowler during aircraft recovery operations aboard the USS John C. Stennis.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Oscar Usman, of Pahala, Hawai'i, strums a tune on his 'ukulele during a break on the hangar deck of the USS John C. Stennis. The super carrier is the command ship for RIMPAC '04.

Flight directors watch the recovery of aircraft aboard the USS John C. Stennis.*A flight-deck crewman is shrouded in smoke during aircraft launch operations aboard the super carrier.

Photos by Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

It's a ballet of airplanes and people. Yellow-shirted plane directors send them off and guide them out of the way once they return, so another jet can land less than 60 seconds later.

The Stennis is the centerpiece of Rim of the Pacific 2004 war games beginning tomorrow and involving 15 nations, more than 40 ships, seven submarines, 100 aircraft and almost 18,000 military personnel.

But for sailors such as aviation boatswain's mate Sean Dougherty, a launch and recovery specialist who works under F/A-18 aircraft about to go from zero to 180 mph in two seconds, practice is pretty much the same thing he'd see if the Stennis were called to war.

"It's scary (being under a launching aircraft), but at the same time, you're concentrating on the proper hookup so nothing bad happens," the 21-year-old from Wailuku, Maui, said yesterday. "You get real nervous, but you've just got to concentrate on what you are doing to keep everybody safe."

Over the next month, the San Diego-based Stennis and its strike group of about a half-dozen ships and a submarine will be stressing interoperability with other nations during the biggest naval exercise in the Pacific.

Participating nations include Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Peru, South Korea, Britain and the United States. Observer nations include Ecuador, Malaysia, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore and Thailand.

The 1,092-foot Stennis is the multinational force command ship for the exercise, which will include the sinking of decommissioned ships, cat-and-mouse games between submarines and ships and planes and Marines storming the beach at Bellows.

But the Stennis strike group deployment also incorporates a new flexibility the Navy is trying to build into its fleet.

Instead of rigid six-month deployments, battle groups will head out for tours shorter or longer if needed under the new "Fleet Response Plan."

"Summer Pulse '04," meanwhile, is testing the Navy's goal of providing six carrier strike groups in less than 30 days to support contingency operations around the world.

Seven of the nation's 12 flattops will be at sea simultaneously this summer as part of the readiness test.

"At one point in time, simply having a flagpole or the brick and mortar associated with a shore installation, or a routine, predictable deployment pattern, would be deterrent enough," said Rear Adm. Patrick Walsh, the commander of the Stennis strike group. "And what we learned after 9/11 is that predictability now becomes our very vulnerability."

A flight deck crewman is shrouded in steam during aircraft launch operations aboard the super carrier.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

The Stennis is headed to Southeast Asia following RIMPAC, and is supposed to be out for four months, but may remain deployed for six months or longer as part of the new readiness construct.

Walsh admitted "there's always a little bit of uncertainty in terms of when we get back and where we go and what exactly are we going to do. It is the tension that I described before which is the world that we live in today. In order to be relevant, we have to be responsive."

Jason Snedicor, 20, an aviation boatswain's mate third class who's also from Wailuku, Maui, said he's ready for whatever lies ahead, whether there is a need in Iraq or anywhere else.

"I'm down to go. I'm ready any time," he said. "That's what we're here for. Any time they need us, I'm ready to roll."

For RIMPAC, anyway, some sailors know they will have some leave in Hawai'i when the carrier pulls into Pearl Harbor tomorrow, and some down time with return port calls over the next month.

"It's more or less kind of a cruise," said Emanuel Tu'uga, 24, a petty officer third class from 'Aiea who has been on the Stennis a little more than three years.

Tu'uga was onboard after the 9/11 attacks, when the aircraft carrier was sent to the North Arabian Sea and its warplanes flew more than 3,200 combat sorties into Afghanistan.

"It was a lot of work hours, just staying up late at night," he said.

Tu'uga said he plans to visit family, get some plate lunches and "enjoy the Fourth of July fireworks."

Dougherty is going to "visit my family, surf." That may be, "surf, then visit my family," he jokingly added.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.

Correction: One of the photos shows a flight deck crewman shrouded in steam during aircraft launch operations. The caption in a previous version of this story contained incorrect information.