US power in the Gulf

The USS Stennis represents the ultimate expression of US power in the region.

    US Aircraft Carrier John C Stennis

    It is able to react and respond almost immediately in areas ranging from Somalia to Afghanistan, Iraq and, of course, Iran.

    The aircraft carrier currently
    supports troops in Afghanistan

    The US has dismissed speculation that the deployment of a second aircraft carrier strike force was prompted only by concerns over Iran and it is currently directed at supporting the more than 30,000 US-led coalition forces on the ground in Afghanistan.

    Captain Brad Johansen says: "We have a separate need for air support for our ground forces in Iraq. We have political missions in Somalia and maritime security operations and we have these exercises to honour the commitment we made to our regional partners. That's more than one carrier can really do."

    'Ultimate force'

    There are more than 5,000
    people on the ship

    All of those on the ship insist that they are here to carry out policy, not to make it, and that they are in the region to promote peace and stability.

    But enemies of the US would disagree. They insist that the very presence of the carrier and the rest of the Fifth Fleet is a provocation, a modern expression of old style gunboat diplomacy.

    It is all a matter of perception. There are about 5,000 people aboard the ship and all believe they are part of a solution rather than a cause of a problem.

    Missiles on the USS Stennis

    It is all too easy out here to see the missiles and bombs as merely streamlined objects rather than instruments of destruction and death. The pilots who carry them maintain their actions are constantly reviewed with the aim of avoiding what they call "collateral damage".

    Commander Dan Cheever says: "[The reviews are] done by everybody along the chain to make sure that we're not doing something incorrect and we spend a lot of time in that because we realise it's important to protect our troops on the ground, but it's also important not to damage structures and people that are not involved in the conflict."

    Lieutenant Steve Neeb says: "When you use ultimate force, you want to get it right." 

    Potential disaster

    Dozens of flights are launched from the flight deck throughout the day.

    Dozens of flights are
    launched every day

    It is a manoeuvre repeated time after time, day after day, to ensure that the carrier remains in the same area while still allowing the aircraft to take off, and land, into the prevailing wind.

    It is an extraordinary process fraught with potential disaster, which repetition makes ordinary.

    Life aboard the carrier is all about repetition and getting it right each time. The margins for error are miniscule.

    Captain Stirling Gilliam says: "It keeps us sharp. We try to improve every time. Because the tolerances are so small with a carrier landing we want to stay at the top of our game."

    Artificial home

    The ship has its own corner shop

    The average age of the over 5,000 aboard the carrier is around 22. It is an abnormal life which somehow appears normal.

    There is a shop that could be on any American street corner, a university campus with four civilian professors, a library, chapel, dentists, doctors and, of course, an internet cafe.

    For many people the internet cafe is the primary point of connection with home.

    The whole boat is made to feel like part of the US. But this remote connection emphasises the point that home is thousands of miles away.

    The internet cafe provides the
    main link to home

    And yet it appears that those who walk these seemingly endless corridors day after day are indeed at home, as artificial as it may be.

    CPO Phillip Winston says: "I grew up on a farm in Virginia and there's a lot of country folk out here and a lot of city folk. So are you really away from home when you're talking about 5,000 people? I think not."

    The most dangerous things become familiar here. The handling of weapons designed to maim and kill are just a part of daily routine. Aboard an aircraft carrier nothing is really what it seems.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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