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Sunday, 14 October, 2001, 07:00 GMT 08:00 UK
Warriors on land and sea
F/A-18 Hornet returns from mission
Pilots described a "flight into uncertainty"
By the BBC's Brian Barron on board the USS Enterprise

It was one of those moments when the pulse quickens. In the steel labyrinth of the USS Enterprise the voice of the captain echoed through the public address system.

"Tomahawk missiles have been fired from one of the ships in our battle group at targets in Afghanistan."

I reckon you had more chance of making it in Iraq - over Afghanistan the risks seem greater if something goes wrong so I'm glad to be back and alive

US pilot
A few minutes later came a sombre prayer from the Enterprise's Muslim chaplain - one of only a handful in the US Navy - voicing the hope the ship's company would emerge safely from harm's way now that hostilities had started.

On the flight deck we watched, wrapped in float jackets, helmets and goggles, as the steam catapults blasting the fighter bombers towards the Pakistan coast. From zero to 180 miles per hour in two seconds.

This was the Top Gun team at their most cool. Many of the pilots were by no means young. Laconic veterans of the Gulf War, Kosovo, the patrols over Iraq and now a new kind of conflict stemming from the attacks on America itself.


They'd been chosen for their experience. "We're sending the grown-ups tonight," said the admiral in command.

C-2A Greyhound transport plane
Sense of duty is paramount among the 5,400 crew
Five hours later, hurtling out of the darkness onto the arrester wires on deck, they were back from dropping bombs on opponents whom, in the 1980s, America had armed and hailed as heroes for resisting the Soviet troops occupying their land.

The consequences of such short-termism are what we're stuck with today. Later on board the Enterprise, relaxing in what's called the Ready Room, the leaders of a squadron which bears the words "War Party" painted on the sides of their planes, talked about their pre-bombing raid nerves.

"This was a flight into uncertainty," said one. "I survived the Gulf War though several of my friends were shot down. But I reckon you had more chance of making it in Iraq. Over Afghanistan the risks seem greater if something goes wrong. So I'm glad to be back and alive."

The pilots were well aware of Afghanistan's grim reputation as a graveyard for Soviet planes and helicopters, shot down by American-made missiles given to the mujahideen by the CIA in the war before this one.

Appetite for war

Yesterday's mujahedin are, very often, today's Taleban. The warrior culture remains unchanged; stoicism in the face of hardship, a history of resisting outside intervention; and when necessary an appetite for war without end.

We shouldn't underestimate the fortitude and courage of the Afghan fighters

The tribal jealousies, the poverty and squalor, the frequent organisational chaos might seem the antithesis of everything about the USS Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

But we shouldn't underestimate the fortitude and courage of the Afghan fighters. I remember visiting one fly-blown outpost on the outskirts of Kandahar during a siege about 12 years ago.

A group of guerrillas were sporadically firing a Stalin organ grinder, one of those multiple rocket launchers designed in World War II.

"Bring up the prisoners" said the mujahedin leader. Escorted by two Arab guards who'd volunteered for this holy war as they believed it to be - came two young Soviet conscripts captured in a recent battle.

Whether, eventually, they were freed or ransomed by the mujahideen is by no means certain because the departing Soviets were bankrupt. Their Arab captors had a reputation for utter severity even among the mujahedin.

As I talked to the prisoners of war, other mujahedin were preparing a convoy, using a bucket on the end of a chain to draw petrol from an underground tank, like water from a medieval well.

Sense of duty

Theirs was and is a sinewy culture which survives on not very much. But guns and God are the staples. The unkind might say there are some parallels on the USS Enterprise. After all it's one vast floating weapons system.

Catapult technician
Aircraft have been flying around 70 sorties a day
There's nothing quite as self-contained and self-absorbed as a mega-size aircraft carrier like this one.

But a sense of duty is paramount among its 5,400 crew along with a healthy belief in democracy - the magic factor totally absent in Afghanistan in modern times. Revenge is on the American agenda. Revenge for last month's horrors in New York.

Though the R-word is not bandied about, it's an undercurrent in the TV talk shows live from the US that are played on the Enterprise.

As ever the US is placing much of its faith in the hi-tech - from the laser-guided bombs stacked on the carrier's decks to the spy satellites peering down at Kabul.

But the next phase of the conflict, on the ground in Afghanistan, is full of risk. Ambiguity shrouds American objectives. The candour of the Enterprise bomber pilots admitting their anxieties about being shot down over Afghanistan is a dollop of reality.

They were flying about 70 sorties a day. I know because - to borrow a memorable phrase from another war - I counted them all out as the steam catapult was directly above my bunk.

See also:

08 Oct 01 | South Asia
Eyewitness: USS Enterprise in action
08 Oct 01 | Americas
US balancing act
08 Oct 01 | South Asia
Cruise missiles spearhead attack
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