Part III: Five Fleets: Around the World with the Nimitz

By Lieutenant Commander William R. Bray, U.S. Navy

Thus spoke the detestable French pragmatist Martin Decoud of the English in Joseph Conrad's paragon of pessimism, Nostromo . Until recently, I never thought I'd fully understand Decoud's point.

On the evening of 9 November, the Task Force Commander and a dozen or so of his senior staff officers sat around a small table in a space dubbed the "war room," just forward of the Task Force Command Center, where a 24-hour watch monitors all Task Force operations. The staff had just finished a video teleconference with the Commander of the Fifth Fleet, the Task Force's immediate commander, and others including the Commander of Joint Task Force-Southwest Asia (JTF-SWA) in Riyadh. Faces in the war room were long, pale, and tired, yet an intensity hung in the air as each staff officer offered final thoughts on the day's events and what to expect the following day when a United Nations-sponsored U-2 reconnaissance plane would fly into denied Iraqi air space for the first time since Saddam Hussein explicitly threatened to shoot it down. The Task Force Commander listened carefully to each suggestion, offering advice or redirection where he thought appropriate. After months of training by the staff, the ship, and the embarked air wing, the battle group was potentially less than 24 hours away from the ultimate test—live combat. At the end of the meeting, the commander offered a few of his own thoughts, crossing each one off a white piece of memo stationary as he went. Not one for long-winded speeches, he closed simply by saying, "we're ready," and left the room.

How we had gotten to that point so quickly says volumes about the continued volatility of the region and its principal recidivist, Saddam Hussein. No single pejorative quite captures the essence of Saddam and his regime and, at its most basic level, the standoff between the United Nations and Iraq is about as close as possible to a classic, romanticized battle of good versus evil. But six-and-a-half years after the Gulf War, the United States is ensnared in multilateral confusions, unable to force the critical denouement that would lay bare Saddam's elaborate program of deception in dodging U.N. weapons inspections. The time had come to ask whether the United Nations had bitten off more than it could collectively chew, setting an unachievable standard for sanctions relief that was bound eventually to be abandoned by less enthusiastic members of the U.N. Security Council, such as Russia and France.

There were signs as early as mid-September that Saddam was tiring of the sanctions regime and was preparing his country for another round in "soft" confrontation, or a challenge bold enough to exacerbate the real differences in the Security Council without triggering an immediate and overwhelming response of force. It was a risk, but Saddam is nothing if not an inveterate gambler, albeit with a short history of colossal miscalculations.

On 16 October, Richard Butler, the new chairman of the U.N. Special Commission on Monitoring (UNSCOM) charged with carrying out weapons inspections in Iraq, delivered his six-month review on Iraqi compliance and progress toward sanctions relief to the Security Council in New York.

Although Mr. Butler did acknowledge some progress in the nuclear and chemical warfare areas, his report was deeply critical of Iraq's continued obstruction of UNSCOM's investigation of Iraq's biological warfare program, believed to be one of Saddam's treasured gems. The United States and Britain, which had pushed for additional sanctions after a negative June report, immediately submitted a draft Security Council resolution calling for, among other things, a ban on all foreign travel by Iraqi security and intelligence personnel. Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Nizar Hamdoon, informed Mr. Butler that day that if the United Nations imposed any additional sanctions, Iraq would cease cooperation with UNSCOM.

On 23 October, a compromise in the form of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1134 was passed after the United States and Britain withdrew the original draft resolution to avoid drawing an embarrassing Russian or French veto. The compromise resolution amounted to no more than another warning to Iraq, and it delayed the imposition of any additional sanctions until the next six-month review in April 1998. The vote was 10-0, with Russia, China, France, Egypt, and Kenya abstaining. On 25 October, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz delivered a speech to the Iraqi National Assembly promising a "new mechanism" to deal with U.N. weapons inspectors.

Ambassador Hamdoon, on instruction from Baghdad, delivered a letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on 29 October, detailing conditions for future Iraqi cooperation with UNSCOM. Foremost on the list was a demand for U.S. weapons inspectors to leave Iraq by 6 November and for the United Nations to immediately cease using the U.S. U-2 for monitoring missions over Iraq. On the very same day, Iraq began barring U.S. inspectors from inspection sites. Baghdad clearly was trying to isolate the United States from the other members of the Security Council. It seemed incredible to most in the United Nations that a vanquished aggressor state such as Iraq would so boldly dictate the terms of its own chastisement and assume such an affront would hasten its reentry into the family of nations after seven years of isolation. The United States and Britain immediately condemned the action and ruled out any form of negotiation with Baghdad. France and Russia seemed stunned and betrayed by Iraq's insolence, but called for all sides to remain calm in hopes of reaching some sort of diplomatic solution. The world's major powers spent the following weeks exhausting precious diplomatic energy to avoid an escalation to armed conflict, an exercise that would aggravate their differences and surely affect short-term relations in other areas.

As Mr. Annan's delegation set off for Baghdad in the first week of November, U.S. and British diplomats in New York worked feverishly to author a new draft Security Council resolution condemning Iraq and calling the expulsion order a "material breach" of the original Desert Storm cease fire, a move that would unambiguously clear the way for the use of force against Iraq. The French and the Russians adamantly were opposed to the use of force and probably would have vetoed any resolution containing such language. Mr. Annan's delegation was unable to convince Baghdad to reverse course, and the expulsion of the Americans, graciously delayed by Baghdad until after the delegation had completed "its work," seemed certain.

Militarily, the crisis was centering around Iraq's aversion to the UNSCOM-chartered U-2 flight, which had evolved from an implicit to an explicit threat to shoot down the plane if it flew into Iraqi territory. The UNSCOM U-2 flew approximately four missions per month, and the first flight scheduled for November had slid to the 10th, thus allowing the seriousness of the Iraqi threat to be properly ascertained and a response to any aggression thoroughly planned and agreed upon. The Nimitz (CVN-68), at sea for more than a month now, had her 8-13 November port call to the United Arab Emirates canceled and continued to operate in the Northern Arabian Gulf. Operations appeared normal as the carrier flew approximately 80 to 100 sorties a day, many of them over Iraq in support of Operation Southern Watch. Inside the skin of the ship, however, intelligence personnel and the aviators they support were working furiously, planning detailed missions against Iraqi targets tasked to be struck if the 10 November U-2 was fired upon. It was uncertain at that point whether Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or Kuwait would permit the U.S. Air Force to fly strike missions from their soil, creating a potential scenario where the entire response would be executed by the U.S. Navy: aircraft from the Nimitz in concert with Tomahawk cruise missiles from other ships and submarines in the Gulf.

Weather was good on the morning of 10 November, and the U-2 crossed 33° North latitude in eastern Iraq at 0930 and remained in denied Iraqi airspace for approximately 30 minutes before retrograding without incident. It was not clear if Iraq ever intended on attacking the U-2 if it ventured into range of one of Iraq's air-defense batteries, but an enormous array of U.S. fighter aircraft remained airborne just below 33°, ready to pounce on any Iraqi aircraft that threatened the U-2. Normally, UNSCOM U-2 missions remain north of 33° for several hours and fly over even the most heavily fortified areas near Baghdad in search of any evidence of Iraqi noncompliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions. The 10 November flight was designed to show that UNSCOM could not be bullied into grounding the flights, yet it was not necessary to place the pilot in undue peril or recklessly force a confrontation before all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted.

Iraq responded to the compromise resolution, 1137, by lashing out at the United States as the peddler of international blackmail in coercing other Security Council members to vote for the measure. On 13 November, Baghdad followed through on its threat to expel U.S. inspectors. UNSCOM Chairman Richard Butler, unwilling to allow Baghdad to dictate the nationalities of inspectors, decided to withdraw all inspectors from Iraq. Only a skeleton crew would be left behind to maintain UNSCOM offices, equipment, and helicopters. By the morning of 14 November the crisis had reached its most precipitous moment and the chance of avoiding armed conflict seemed remote.

With Friends Like These . . .

Whether French unwillingness to support a continued firm stance against Iraq derives purely from financial incentive, a genuine concern for the plight of the Iraqi people, a cynical desire to upstage and weaken U.S. influence in the Middle East, or a combination thereof is not known and, quite frankly, is immaterial. The end result is the same: France has become a hindrance to UNSCOM in its effort to complete its mission in Iraq satisfactorily—a mission authorized by the very same Security Council resolutions France ostensibly still supports. France's irritating obstructionism in the Security Council was widely reported in open press as the crisis unfolded in early November. But what is not well known is how a quasi-friendly French foreign policy translated into a tangible nuisance to the Nimitz and her escorts.

France joins Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Britain as the four remaining coalition partners still enforcing the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone in southern Iraq under Security Council Resolution 688 and the no-drive zone under Security Council Resolution 949 (the no-drive zone prohibits Iraq from enhancing its military capabilities below 32° North). The French version of Operation Southern Watch is Operation Alysse, and its presence comprises a small staff element at JTF-SWA headquarters in Riyadh, a handful of fighter and support aircraft at Al Kharj air base in Saudi Arabia, and usually one or two ships patrolling the Northern Arabian Gulf.

On 3 November, one of the Nimitz 's escorts reported being overflown by a plane bearing similar characteristics to the French built Atlantique, a twin-propeller engine aircraft used for maritime surveillance and antisubmarine warfare. Task Force 50 assets were unable to positively identify the aircraft, although it appeared the plane tracked back to the west, either to Saudi Arabia or Qatar, following its mission. No Gulf country has the Atlantique. On 9 November, an Atlantique-type aircraft again flew a maritime patrol profile in the northern and central Arabian Gulf, even dropping a passive acoustic listening device near a U.S. submarine operating on the surface. This time the aircraft was tracked back to Doha, Qatar. It was later learned that two French Atlantiques, deployed to Djibouti on the Red Sea, had flown to Qatar on 29 October for a bilateral training mission. The French made no excuses for their activity, but it seemed strange that they should use a bilateral training exercise to fly maritime surveillance patrol against U.S. ships during a period of heightened tension.

Likewise, in early November, the French frigate Jean de Vienne mysteriously deviated from her published schedule, which called for port visits outside the Gulf, and instead loitered close to U.S. ships in the northern Arabian Gulf until the crisis abated. The Jean de Vienne never actually obstructed U.S. operations, but her presence and odd behavior were highly suspect and a public statement from the French mission in Kuwait that the Jean de Vienne was operating in close coordination with her coalition partners had a disingenuous ring to it.

It would be naive to assume that the French, with their close and sympathetic ties to Iraq, are not collecting intelligence against their coalition partners. What is not known is how much of this information finds its way to Baghdad. One thing is certain, however. The French are not trusted members of the coalition and their presence must serve some grand political objective in Paris that involves having it both ways—appearing the concerned contributor to a collective-security arrangement while at the same time working to undermine that arrangement's very raison d'être. That, as I'm sure Joseph Conrad's Martin Decoud would agree, is the practical approach.

Russia to the Rescue

As the Nimitz operated in the northern Arabian Gulf on the morning of 19 November, Russia's Foreign Minister, the crafty former KGB spymaster and accomplished Arabist Yevgeny Primakov, was on his way from Moscow to Geneva to discuss with his U.S., British, and French counterparts a yet-to-be revealed eleventh-hour way out of the crisis. Primakov had just hosted and cut a deal with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, still Baghdad's lead man on all foreign policy concerns. Aziz, who swaggers into the hallowed corridors of the United Nations with so much panache one wonders if he doesn't realize he's the head statesman of a first-rate thugocracy, had just finished stops in New York and Paris and was in North Africa when beckoned to the Kremlin. There the Russians promised Aziz they would work harder in the Security Council to get sanctions lifted, as long as Iraq immediately allowed all UNSCOM inspectors to return to work and complied with all existing resolutions. Baghdad accepted, and on 21 November the inspectors returned to Iraq, temporarily defusing the crisis.

In many ways, it was clearly unnerving to the United States that Russia, Iraq's strongest ally in the Security Council, was able to take the world stage and broker an ostensible face-saving compromise. But with sentiment running high in the Arab world and elsewhere against the use of force, the United States had to accept the Russian mediation as a temporary measure. If the United States rejected Russian intervention and pushed the crisis closer to a military conflict, the failure of diplomacy would be blamed on U.S. intransigence and significantly harm U.S. credibility in the region. Nevertheless, there was something half-baked about Primakov's plan. If it was worth anything, it was the temporary reprieve it bought with the possibility that Iraqi behavior might actually change to UNSCOM's satisfaction in the interim. The core issues in dispute between Iraq and UNSCOM were not addressed in Primakov's plan, and it was far fetched indeed to assume that a little extra effort by Russia on the diplomatic front could deliver sanctions relief to such a duplicitous and unscrupulous regime.

On the military front, two major developments had taken place in November. First, Iraq had used the crisis to significantly enhance its air-defense capability below 33° North, in direct violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 949 of 1994 and the U.S./British demarche of 1996. Now, coalition pilots had to fly daily over several additional long-range strategic surface-to-air missile batteries and highly mobile tactical surface-to-air missile batteries. The tactical batteries can engage an enemy aircraft with little or no warning and are the best Iraq can throw at the coalition air forces. This very type of missile system was used by the Serbs to shoot down U.S. Air Force pilot Scott O'Grady over Bosnia. The Task Force Commander convinced higher authority that any military strike against Iraq must include a serious attempt at eliminating the air defense threat below 33° North, otherwise coalition commanders would be breaking faith with the pilots who risk their lives flying sorties over Iraq in support of Operation Southern Watch. In addition, because missile batteries can and were being moved frequently to avoid being targeted, they were not good targets for cruise missiles. This meant the effort against air-defense forces must be led by tactical aircraft flying off the Nimitz and elsewhere, an additional point the Task Force Commander emphasized.

Second, the U.S. Secretary of Defense announced on 13 November to move the USS George Washington (CVN-73) Battle Group into the Arabian Gulf from the Mediterranean, where it was operating on a routine deployment. The George Washington Battle Group's commander was junior to the Task Force 50 Commander on the Nimitz , thus the Washington group was absorbed as part of Task Force 50 and given the specific duty of Sea Combat Commander under the Navy's warfighting doctrine. This put the commander on George Washington in charge of defending the Task Force from the surface and subsurface threat, to include potential Iraqi mining. The George Washington 's main purpose for being sent to the Gulf, though, was to beef up the sea-based striking force and make clear to Iraq that the United States meant business and could go it alone from the sea if necessary.

But the military option wasn't to be. It was clear from the November flare-up that relations between the United Nations and Iraq had reached a critical impasse. Perhaps UNSCOM inspectors were getting too close to Saddam's precious biological weapons program, and vocal Iraqi frustration with the seemingly endless sanctions and inspections regime was meant just as a diversion. Whatever the reason, any use of force now could not be a simple "punishment" strike for noncompliance. On the contrary, it had to be a much larger effort than previous post-Desert Storm strikes, something tied directly to the overall strategic objective of forcing total Iraqi compliance with all Security Council resolutions. This would be no pin prick, and cultivating support among skeptical Arab allies would take time.

With the inspectors back in Iraq and the crisis defused for the moment, the Nimitz Battle Group looked forward to its first port visit since leaving Hong Kong on 2 October. On Monday, 24 November, the Task Force Commander learned that the Nimitz 's Thanksgiving port visit to Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates had been approved. Many of the officers and sailors on the Nimitz assumed this might be the only port visit to Jebel the whole deployment, with future visits to Bahrain or even an early transit to the Mediterranean. They would be very disappointed.

Lieutenant Commander Bray serves as the assistant intelligence officer to Commander Carrier Group Seven in San Diego.



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