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Enterprise Drills In Virtual War; Strike Group Begins Deployment After East Coast Exercises


October 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 


The Gulf of Sabani can be a dangerous place, as the Enterprise found recently.

No, the Gulf of Sabani doesn't exist. But it did serve as the virtual theater of war for the aircraft carrier Enterprise during its monthlong training, which ended Wednesday.

The Enterprise strike group officially began its deployment at the completion of the workups and will head to the Mediterranean Sea. These exercises were much different from what carrier strike groups - previously called battle groups - have experienced in the past.

Ships in this group used a virtual war field as well as a number of existing bombing ranges along the East Coast because they are no longer able to use the island of Vieques off the coast of Puerto Rico.

The Enterprise group employed a new technology that allows them to design a battleground anywhere on the sea. For these exercises, the fictitious Gulf of Sabani was superimposed on computer screens over a map of waters off the East Coast, from Virginia to Florida.

On the sea, the Navy could simulate mountains or cities, depending on the scenario. The technology, called Virtual At Sea Training, uses buoys equipped with Global Positioning System sensors that can detect where a bomb lands and whether it is close to the intended target.

The technology was developed in part to allow pilots to train with live ammunition away from shore and fishing areas, a bone of contention for environmental groups and a key reason why many Puerto Ricans opposed bombing on Vieques.

Among the ranges used for on-shore bombing practice during the exercise were Cherry Point, N.C.; Townsend in McIntosh, Ga.; and three ranges in Florida - Eglin Air Force Base, Pine Castle and Avon Park.

Cmdr. Jeff Cathey, commander of Air Group One aboard the Enterprise, has run bombing exercises over Vieques 10 times and said initially he was opposed to the Navy abandoning it. But now, he says the East Coast ranges offer pilots more of a challenge.

"Vieques was just a rock off Puerto Rico," said Cathey, who lives in Virginia Beach.

Cmdr. Michael White, who directs strike operations for the Enterprise, said there are pros and cons to both. He said the East Coast is busier than the remote island of Vieques, and the Navy had to coordinate these exercises with the Federal Aviation Administration to make sure his jets didn't interfere with commercial flights. On the other hand, he said the East Coast ranges offered a slew of targets that pilots who were used to training over Vieques hadn't seen before.

"It's more realistic," said White, also from Virginia Beach.

Lt. Russell N. Crawford, an S-3B Viking pilot from Jacksonville, Fla., said he noticed many differences between his last run over Vieques a year ago and this training along the East Coast. Flying closer to commercial 737s was one of them.

"We have a lot of great ranges in the U.S., but you have to deal with traffic," he said. However, Crawford said Vieques was so small and isolated that pilots knew what to expect.

For Cmdr. Devon Jones, executive officer of the Marauders, an F/ A-18 squadron based in Beaufort, S.C., this training made more sense than Vieques because the group didn't have to travel so far.

"It's closer to home base, so it's easier logistically," he said.

In addition to Air Wing One, the Enterprise strike group includes the destroyers Cole, McFaul, Stout, Gonzalez and Thorn; the cruisers Philippine Sea and Gettysburg; the frigate Nicholas; the auxiliary ship Detroit; the Argentinean destroyer Sarandi; and two submarines, the Miami and the Hartford.

Some of the ships were not with the Enterprise during the exercise, including several that already had deployed to the Med.

The 42-year-old Enterprise is in the homestretch of its life span; carriers are typically built to last 50 years. The ship recently was in dry dock for maintenance for more than a year.

While a majority of the ship's more than 5,000 sailors remained onboard while it was in the yard, hundreds were shipped to other carriers to work, said the ship's training officer, Cmdr. Karan Schriver.

The Enterprise was late coming out of the yard, which is one reason it is forgoing its usual break between training and deployment and is sailing already for the Med. It is expected to be the first carrier to transit the Suez Canal since the war in Iraq started in March.

Eventually, it will relieve the Nimitz, which is in its seventh month of deployment.

Reach Allison Connolly at allison.connolly(AT) or 446-2318.

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