The first week of February was perhaps the most difficult of the entire cruise. Back at sea on 3 February, the Nimitz (CVN-68) returned to the northern Arabian Gulf to support Operation Southern Watch and continue contingency planning against Iraq. The officers and sailors on the Nimitz were tired and deeply disturbed by the ever-aggravating uncertainty that seemed to accompany the carrier and her schedule after she left Hong Kong early in October. In a professional sense, the instinct was to remain in the Gulf until the crisis was resolved, one way or another. But in a personal sense, the fatigue of nearly four months on station had worn folks down, and an overwhelming longing to go home dominated most discussions in the first few days back at sea. For most, the tension created by these competing ambitions was agonizing, and compounded the stress.
The Task Force Commander spent 4-5 February in near-constant communication with the Commander Fifth Fleet, discussing ongoing planning against Iraq and the latest information on whether the Nimitz would be held or released on 7 February as scheduled. This decision centered on two issues: First, the Commander-in-Chief, Central Command (CinCCent), needed the appropriate force presence to accomplish the strategic objective of significantly diminishing Saddam Hussein's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction. The Nimitz offered more capability and experience than the Independence (CV-62), and a decision to allow the Nimitz to leave on time would have to take into account any adverse effect on the force presence CinCCent deemed necessary. Second, the Chief of Naval Operations was committed to keeping peacetime deployments to 180 days and felt that returning the Nimitz on schedule was a higher priority than extending her with no guarantee that hostilities would ensue.
On 5 February, the Independence Battle Group transited the Strait of Hormuz and entered the Arabian Gulf. That afternoon, all three battle group commanders met on the George Washington to discuss plans to turn over command of Task Force 50 to the commander of the Independence Battle Group, the senior of the three. On 6 February, the Nimitz continued to work the turnover with the Independence , and later that afternoon the Commander Fifth Fleet phoned the Task Force Commander on the Nimitz and told him that a decision had been made to allow the Nimitz to leave on 8 February, one day later than planned. On 7 February, the Task Force Commander traveled to Bahrain one final time for a meeting with CinCCent, who was visiting from Tampa, and the Commander Fifth Fleet. Here command of Task Force 50 formally was turned over, and upon his return to the Nimitz later that day, the Commander Carrier Group Seven had the Nimitz 's commanding officer formally announce that the ship would depart the Arabian Gulf 8 February and proceed directly to Mayport, Florida, to arrive 26 February.
The Nimitz conducted an outbound transit of the Strait of Hormuz at midday on 8 February, after 120 days in the Arabian Gulf--the longest consecutive period spent in the Gulf by any U.S. Navy ship since the end of Operation Desert Storm early in 1991.
A (Temporary?) Solution
On the world stage, the United States was maintaining a firm line, and continued expounding the theme that time for a diplomatic solution was running out. The French and Russians were growing frustrated with the impasse and seemed to be pinning hopes for a diplomatic settlement on a visit to Baghdad by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Mr. Annan wanted some guarantee of success by the Iraqis before embarking on such a mission. Mr. Annan sent a diplomatic team in the second week of February to survey the eight sites in question to better determine a framework for a diplomatic solution.
From 8-13 February, the Nimitz transited the North Arabian Sea and the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. The Nimitz had been scheduled to visit Rhodes, Greece, and Naples, Italy, en route to her new home port of Norfolk, Virginia. But the requirement for a two-carrier presence in the Arabian Gulf forced the Nimitz to wait to leave until the Independence arrived 5 February. On 17 February, command of Carrier Group Seven changed hands in a ceremony on the Nimitz .
On 23 February, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan struck a deal with Saddam Hussein allowing U.N. inspectors complete, unconditional access to any and all suspected sites--including the eight presidential compounds. While inspecting the presidential compounds, the inspectors were to be accompanied by diplomats from the five permanent countries on the Security Council and other U.N. members. Depending on interpretation, these diplomats either would be observers ensuring integrity on both sides or more active arbiters of the inspectors' determinations.
Some have likened Mr. Annan's last-minute deal with such a detestable despot to Neville Chamberlain's capitulation at Munich in 1938. Historical analogies are often fallacious, however, and this one is particularly unfair. By 1938, Hitler was in complete violation of the terms negotiated at Versailles and already exercising baby steps in his grand scheme of aggression. Saddam is a vanquished aggressor under a strict disarmament program. The difficulty has been ensuring compliance with the terms of the Desert Storm cease fire. For the United States, Mr. Annan's deal was the best of many bad options. And if Saddam should break this deal, the United States has made it clear that force will be used quickly and severely.
The Nimitz entered the Atlantic and Second Fleet waters on 18 February, and on 26 February, the officers and enlisted of Carrier Group Seven debarked upon arrival in Mayport, Florida. The Nimitz would sail to Norfolk the following day, but for Carrier Group Seven, the cruise officially was over, with only a cross-country flight to San Diego to complete. It was time to reunite with families, reflect on the previous six months, and pass on knowledge and experience to other staffs preparing to deploy. Six months is both a long time and a short time, depending upon one's perspective. A great sense of accomplishment was shared by all members of Carrier Group Seven.
We had done our duty. We had made a difference and left our legacy. It was time to move on to other challenges. The deployment was over.
Lieutenant Commander Bray has just completed service as the assistant intelligence officer to Commander Carrier Group Seven, in San Diego. He thanks Captain Dave Heine, Commander Alice Jacobson, Lieutenant (junior grade) Julie Maynard, and ISC (AW) Pamela Eaton for their advice and assistance in preparing this series.