TWO United States Navy warships in the northern Gulf sustained minor damages early yesterday after striking what appeared to be mines. Military officials say it was the first time ships have been damaged by Iraqi mines since coalition vessels began interdicting ships suspected of violating the United Nations-imposed embargo against Iraq last summer.
The USS Tripoli, one of the ships, is a major amphibious assault vessel that will play a key role in any landing, which may come as part of a ground war against Iraqi troops in Kuwait.
``We don't expect this to affect our ability to mount a landing,'' said a US official in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. ``Both the Tripoli and the Princeton are sailing under their own steam.''
The USS Princeton is an Aegis cruiser, armed with sophisticated radar and missile systems.
Apart from the ship interdiction operation, sweeping the Gulf for Iraqi mines has been an important mission for the scores of ships of the multinational Armada, which from the start has played a key role in the war effort.
The vast armada of ships in the Gulf war is certainly one of the greatest multinational fleets in history, representing at least 12 nations, ranging from France to Argentina, from Spain to Australia. The US has more than half of the estimated 180 ships in the Gulf, followed by Britain.
Until now, the primary mission of most of the vessels has been ship interdiction, defensive patrolling, and sweeping the Gulf for the floating mines that Iraq has long set out.
``There's a lot of coordination going on in these operations, and it's all gone extremely well, considering,'' said British Royal Navy spokesman Stu Reed. ``It's not just in the minesweeping, but the assistance in resupply between the navies. When we meet on the seas or in port, there's a lot of interchange.''
He said some British vessels are also involved in surveying the Gulf to update charts for after the war.
The various navies also provide support for the hundreds of aerial bombing sorties flown daily from the carriers. Day and night, A-6 Intruder bombers join with F-15 and F-18 fighter jets roaring off the ships' short flight decks. Dozens of other ships provide defense from both air and sea attack.
However, Iraq has not been very aggressive in either area, leading military officials to declare Iraq's small Navy ``neutralized'' just two weeks into the war.
``We were able to counter the naval threat pretty effectively, and then concentrate on ground targets,'' said Rear Admiral R.J. Zlatoper, head of Carrier Group 7 based on the USS Ranger. ``And we've long had virtual control of the skies.''
In one of the war's best-publicized actions, a Saudi pilot shot down two Iraqi planes suspected of carrying French-made Exocet missiles like the one Iraq fired at the frigate USS Stark in 1987, killing 37 men.
Naval officials say the Exocets pose the greatest danger to coalition ships, although so far there has been only one apparent near-hit.
Saying they experienced plenty of fear during their early missions, the pilots have grown increasingly confident after Iraqi planes posed little challenge to the coalition forces.
``Naturally, I was scared on the first few raids, particularly because of the Triple-A anti-aircraft fire,'' said Dirk Stanley, a pilot based on the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt who flies an EA-6B plane that jams Iraqi radar. ``You gradually get used to it, but there's still a point sometimes when you just go in and put your life in the hands of God.''
The fliers say they often join up with coalition forces based on land, including Saudi and Kuwaiti pilots, meeting in the skies high over Kuwait or over Iraq itself. Most missions concentrate on the southern part of Iraq and Kuwait, the areas closest to the Gulf.
After opening the war with the Tomahawk missiles, the battleships USS Missouri and Wisconsin were back in action on Feb. 4 in a new role, but using old weapons: pounding Iraqi targets with their huge 16-inch guns.
With a blinding flash and ear-shattering roar, the guns fire armor-piercing projectiles of up to 2,700 pounds. While the guns employ World War II-era technology, they now get an important assist from remote-controlled mini-airplanes called Remotely Piloted Vehicles, which fly over a target area transmitting detailed video pictures.
So far, the ships' targets have included Iraqi troop bunkers and a Kuwaiti marina being used by Iraqi naval vessels.
``Apart from hitting bunkers along the beach, we've been able to gather important information on their troop positions in southern Kuwait,'' said Wisconsin Capt. David Bill. ``Their troops are well dug in there, but we can help take them out when ordered to.''
The firing by the two battleships has already occurred in close coordination with ground artillery and air power along the Saudi-Kuwait border, given that anything within the huge guns' 20-mile range is highly vulnerable. And if a ground offensive begins, the battleships will provide a key role in combined operations, particularly in support of an amphibious landing.
With speculation over a land war reaching a high point, officials say the amphibious task force now assembled is the largest since the Inchon battle in Korea in September 1950. If a landing does come, the war may bring another high-technology weapon into view: the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC).
Like a Hovercraft, the LCAC can speed toward (and onto) shore floating on a cushion of air, quickly delivering supplies to Marines who would land in scores of helicopters and Landing Craft Utilities boats. Several M-60 A-1 tanks would also go ashore to counter Iraq's T-72 tanks.
``In a beach assault, you have to start from zero assets [supplies] and so speed is essential to quickly establish a presence,'' a Navy official in Saudi Arabia said.