ABOARD THE USS JOHN F. KENNEDY -- Lt. Cmdr. Te Wirginis didn't flinch when the sudden roar of afterburners and the blast of a steam-driven catapult thundered through the decks of this aircraft carrier. He was too busy examining one of his squadron's F-14A Tomcats.
As jets shrieked off the flight deck above, the 33-year-old fighter pilot from Duchesne, Pa., stepped carefully on the black, greasy hangar deck and crouched low to view the underside of the fuselage.
There, in place of the usual complement of air-to-air missiles, was a symbol of the Navy's new emphasis on "flexibility" in the face of Third World threats: a rack capable of holding up to four 2,000-pound MK-80 bombs.
"Somebody made the decision we're not going to do only air-to-air, we're going to be dropping bombs," Commander Wirginis said. "This gives us a challenging new mission."
On Wednesday, when the USS John F. Kennedy leaves its home port of Norfolk, Va., for the Mediterranean, it will be the first Navy carrier to deploy with F-14 bomb racks designed for heavy munitions and Tomcat pilots who have completed full training with live bombs, Navy officials say.
For months, the Navy has been converting Tomcats into "Bombcats" and skilled air-to-air combat specialists like Commander Wirginis into bomber pilots. The Navy also has been using S-3B Viking submarine hunting planes more often to refuel aircraft in midflight and coordinate air combat missions.
These changes are part of the Navy's readjustment to what the top brass calls a "new world" full of uncertain regional threats and conflicts. "It's a different kind of problem, [so] we need to adjust our tactics and equipment to some extent," Adm. Henry H. Mauz Jr., commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, said in an interview here.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has forced the Navy to seek relevance in a world where future adversaries are more likely to be attack ships with mines, surface-to-surface missiles and diesel submarines that lurk near coastlines, rather than with overwhelming numbers of planes and nuclear-powered submarines in the open seas.
Strikes against an enemy's land-based targets are expected to become more demanding as surface-to-air missiles and other defenses become more sophisticated.
Future missions will require more joint operations with the Air Force.
"It really came to a head with Desert Storm," said a senior aviator who helped wage last year's war against Iraq from the carrier, which was stationed in the Red Sea.
"The skies were swept [of Iraqi aircraft]. The ones that weren't shot down were afraid to fly, were broken up on the ground or were flown to Iran. We switched to an air-to-ground campaign: Kuwait. Kill boxes. Vehicles in the open.
"We needed lots of interdiction sorties and on our precious real estate we had two squadrons of great big, supersonic, long-range -- not applicable -- guys."
During its six-month deployment, the Kennedy air wing may be among the first to use "Bombcats" under fire. At the request of NATO commanders, the carrier is leaving two weeks ahead of schedule to relieve the USS Saratoga, which since July has operated in and out of the Adriatic Sea near the besieged republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Navy says the Saratoga was not equipped with removable F-14A bomb racks until June, when its tour in the Mediterranean was well under way. Racks were also delivered ** this summer to two other carriers: the USS Independence and USS Ranger, which recently replaced the Independence in the Persian Gulf and assumed its enforcement of the "no-fly zone" in southern Iraq.
To prepare for possible action in the Balkans, Iraq and Libya, the Kennedy traveled about 200 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., for a war game with 17 other U.S. ships, a Marine Corps amphibious unit, Air Force B-52G bombers and K-135R tankers and five vessels of the British Royal Navy.
Throughout the exercise, F-14As flew simulated bombing missions and several nuclear submarines posed as hostile diesel subs in shallow coastal waters.
"We're changing emphasis in our training," said a Navy intelligence officer who helped design the game, the first fleetwide exercise to focus on "a realistic Third World scenario."
"A Third World country's goal is to cause you to take a loss, no matter how small, to embarrass you, and then declare victory," the officer said. "They'll do sneaky, dastardly things like sneaking behind merchant ships for cover and then attacking. ++ Our job now is to train across a wider spectrum of threats."
The Navy designated part of Virginia and North Carolina a "no-fly" zone for combat air patrols, carving out a large piece of a hostile "country" called Korona.
During the exercise, a breakaway region called Kartuna in the northeast sector declared its independence, while Korona's dictator defied United Nations resolutions and vowed to kill all ethnic "Kartunans."
A priority on intelligence
Inside the Kennedy's combat decision center, the dark, air-conditioned nerve center for waging naval warfare, Lt. Steve Henderson said the focus on coastal operations and overland bombing missions created new demands for timely, accurate surveillance and intelligence data.
There is a greater danger of mistaking allied or civilian ships, submarines and aircraft for an enemy's because of heavier "traffic" close to shore, he said.
"You've got to create a whole spider web of links to track every ship, every plane and identify every piece of steel," he said.
The 35-year-old lieutenant, a 1975 graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute who received his college degree at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, becomes the carrier's tactical action officer (TAO) this month.
He has had about 11 months to master the high-stress demands of the combat center, where the disposition of every ship, submarine, aircraft and electronic signal over a several-hundred-mile radius must be monitored around the clock.
From his vantage point in a large armchair, elevated to oversee massive video tracking screens and "status" boards listing every carrier aircraft's location and the supply of fuel and munitions, he will be authorized by the ship's captain to decide when to fire defensive weapons, launch attacks or dispatch surveillance planes to check out mysterious shapes or radar signals picked up by satellites and other sensors.
At first, Lieutenant Henderson likened his job to a quarterback who calls plays in a football game. "But it's really like Star Trek," he said. "The TAO has to talk to Scotty in engineering, talk to people in radar, know every plane that takes off so there's no mistake what's happening. Like Captain Kirk, you have to be able to make snap decisions."
Some pilots upset
He and other experts on the carrier said tactics for anti-submarine warfare are changing because the proliferation of diesel subs now poses a greater threat than Soviet-made nuclear submarines.
In the Adriatic, for example, they expect to rely more heavily on active sonars that bounce signals off objects and less on passive listening devices because diesel submarines can be extremely quiet while stationary and running on batteries.
Some hardware changes actually began in 1988, when the Navy began to field S-3B Viking submarine hunters with improved electronic gear and extra fuel tanks.
Without an Iraqi submarine threat in the gulf war, the planes were able to provide aerial command and control links with strike aircraft, attack Iraqi patrol boats and fly 1,044 refueling sorties.
"You're seeing the S-3 going more to a tanking role, especially in open water," said an anti-submarine specialist on the carrier. "It's something
I don't think they're happy with because it's not tactical," he said of S-3B crews.
The new "multirole" nature of the F-14A Tomcat has upset some fighter pilots as well.
"A lot of it is [like] a quarterback who doesn't want to be a defensive back," said a senior aviator, who did not want to be named.
"Within the pilot community . . . if you're a fighter aviator, you're afraid you'll become too much of a generalist, so when we really need you to sweep the skies, you won't be able to do it."
Commander Wirginis, who said he welcomed becoming a bomber pilot, conceded that the F-14A was not the best aircraft for bombing missions, mainly because it lacked high-tech radar and lasers to find the targets and the electronics to help counter attacks from the ground.
But it burns fuel slower than an F/A-18 Hornet, so it can "loiter" longer to search for such targets as mobile Scud missiles, he said.
"We had to learn new tactics," said the commander, a 1981 U.S. Naval Academy graduate who got his nickname "Ballgame" playing football in Annapolis.
"The guys in A-6s and Hornets do the same thing, so we sat down with them and said, 'What do you guys do?' "
The F-14A can drop only "dumb" gravity bombs, meaning the pilot in the front seat, not the crewman in the rear, must be the bombardier and get close enough to see the target to ensure an accurate hit. That means daylight missions only, assuming good weather, and a greater risk of getting shot down if the target is well-defended.
"You can't just go out and sling bombs. It's harder," he said. "But in some ways its simpler. We know our limitations."
The senior aviator who asked to remain anonymous said Navy officials were convinced by the Gulf war that carrier air wings needed greater "flexibility" to remain a force in the post-Cold War world.
"If you want to play football, you're going to switch positions," he said.
Tomorrow: The Navy learns how to do more with less.