17 years ago, USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) embarked on the longest deployment for an aircraft carrier in post-Vietnam military history.
On Apr. 1, 2019, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) departed Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia for a scheduled deployment. The following month, in the wake of rapidly escalating tensions with Iran, the carrier and her strike group were tasked to deploy to waters just outside the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the geopolitically vital Persian Gulf.
Then, in late October, the United States Navy officially extended Abe’s deployment indefinitely.
Sister supercarrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), which was Lincoln’s scheduled relief, was unable to set sail due to problems with its electrical distribution system, forcing its escorts to depart Norfolk without it. Over half of the U.S. carrier fleet is undergoing maintenance or training, leaving only two, USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), ready for some level of real-world tasking. Lincoln’s extension also comes on the heels of a significant deployment of reinforcements to Saudi Arabia to deter Iran.
Though CVN-72 is now on pace for an extra-long deployment, it is not without precedent. From the 1970s to the early 1980s, seven-to-eight-month deployments were often the norm. Nor is Abraham Lincoln specifically sailing in uncharted waters with regards to an extension – 17 years ago, the same carrier embarked on the longest deployment for an aircraft carrier in post-Vietnam military history.
On July 20, 2002, CVN-72 departed Naval Station Everett, Washington for a deployment as the centerpiece of a battle group flagged under Cruiser-Destroyer Group Three. In addition to the carrier, the group consisted of Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers Mobile Bay and Shiloh, Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Paul Hamilton (DDG-60), Spruance-class destroyer Fletcher (DD-992), and Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigates Crommelin (FFG-37) Reuben James (FFG-57). The Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarines Honolulu and Cheyenne were also assigned to the battle group. Within days, Carrier Air Wing Fourteen (CVW-14) had flown aboard and the battle group set course due west to commence the deployment.
Abe’s 2002 cruise occurred during a critical juncture in world history. Terrorists, at the direction of Osama bin Laden, had attacked America by striking the World Trade Center less than a year before; U.S. and allied forces had overthrown the Taliban and were well into an extended occupation of Afghanistan, and preparations were now underway for an invasion of Iraq. With the War on Terror being waged at full bore, it was easy to foresee Abraham Lincoln playing a critical role in the campaigns to come.
The first month-plus of CVN-72’s deployment took place in the Western Pacific, featuring port calls in Sasebo, Japan, Hong King, and Singapore. According to the ship’s official command history for 2002, the carrier then transited the Indian Ocean, relieving USS George Washington (CVN-73) on, coincidentally enough, September 11, and commenced air operations into Afghanistan from its station in the North Arabian Sea. Abe’s participation in Operation Enduring Freedom was uneventful and lasted little over a month, however; on Oct. 21, the battle group charted course for the Persian Gulf, where its first stop was Bahrain, headquarters of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Come Oct. 28, Lincoln was patrolling the Gulf and her air wing commenced Southern Watch operations, the no-fly zone covering southern Iraq, which had now been in place for over a decade. Unlike in years past, however, the missions, this time around, constituted anything but uneventful airspace policing.
Three months earlier, in a major policy shift that went unnoticed by the public at the time, the U.S. and its Coalition partners decided to escalate the air war against Saddam Hussein. It was a response to an increasing number of no-fly zone violations and provocations by Iraq, but also a means of softening up Saddam’s defenses in preparation for an eventual ground offensive. Codenamed Southern Focus, this new effort was conducted under the guise of no-fly zone enforcement, even as it became clear the Bush administration was clearly on a path to war.
For the next month-plus, CVW-14 formed the spearhead of Southern Focus, joining forces with Air Force, Marine Corps, and British warplanes to tighten the noose around Baghdad and shape the battlefield. If it was not officially a war yet, it certainly appeared that way to the pilots. CVW-14’s commanding officer, Navy Capt. Kevin Albright, summed it up bluntly when he told the media, “They’re shooting a lot at us. It seems to me they’re really trying hard to shoot one of us down.”
Numerous strikes took place during Lincoln’s time on-station, with one of the more significant ones occurring on Nov. 6. That day, an air defense facility and surface-to-air missile sites near Al Kut were struck, almost 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. It was also the combat debut of the Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet, which had then been in active service for only a few years. Lts. Eric Doyle and John Turner, both assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 115 (VFA-115) “Eagles,” each flew a single-seat Super Hornet on the strike, employing satellite-guided JDAM bombs against a command bunker, achieving direct hits. Despite being fired upon by Iraqi air defenses in response, both pilots returned safely to Lincoln.
Additional strikes followed. The dates vary depending on the source, but CVW-14 warplanes also struck an air defense command and control bunker at Tallil Air Base in the city of Nasiriyah in southeast Iraq. Later in the month, more strikes took place, including an exceptionally large one on either the 23rd or 24th (again, depending on the source). The following morning, a voice on the carrier’s main announcing circuit proclaimed that more bombs were dropped the night prior than ever before.
Operation Iraqi Freedom was still months away from commencement, but, for the pilots of CVW-14, they were already at war.
After a change-of-command at sea and another Bahrain port call, Lincoln was relieved by USS Constellation (CV-64). On Dec. 10, CVN-72 and her escorts set course due east for the journey home that would involve two more stops and take at least another month to complete. By the time it arrived in Perth, Australia on Dec. 22, the carrier had been deployed for five months. While crewmembers were undoubtedly excited to spend Christmas in the Land Down Under and return home, a sense of unease filled the air; tensions with Iraq were not de-escalating and Southern Focus operations continued uninterrupted.
By the first day of the new year, it was clear plans were going to change. Abraham Lincoln was ordered to “be available as required to meet national security requirements,” mil-speak for “you’re going to war.” The carrier returned to Australia, dropping anchor off the port city of Fremantle, and spent two weeks resurfacing the flight deck, which had been worn out by weeks of intense flight operations during Southern Focus. Meanwhile, fighters from CVW-14 trained ashore at an Australian military air base to stay sharp. By Jan. 20, with all aircraft aboard, the battle group began the journey back to the Persian Gulf.
How did the crew react to the news of the extension? Even a Lincoln spokesman admitted to the press that the change was difficult for the crew to take. But the battle group leadership made it clear on the day the extension was announced all were expected to embrace the misery or suffer in silence.
“We don’t need to be home holding our loved ones, we need to be here holding the line,” admonished battle group commander RADM John Kelly in his address to the crew on New Year’s Day, concluding with what could only be interpreted as an order – “Get over it!” The crew later had some fun with this, creating a deployment patch featuring a sailor being kicked in the groin with the phrase “Get Over It!” employed as an unofficial cruise slogan.
Upon its return to the Gulf in early February, Lincoln picked up where it had left off, conducting missions and strikes to further whittle down Iraq’s defenses. It’s F-14D Super Tomcats of Fighter Squadron 31 (VF-31) “Tomcatters” also flew reconnaissance missions using the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS), gathering imagery for targeting intelligence.
The order-of-battle had changed dramatically since the carrier was last in-theater – more aircraft and ships had arrived, with Lincoln set to operate alongside Constellation and Kitty Hawk, the forward-deployed carrier based out of Japan. Two more carriers, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, would operate from the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Land-based Air Force warplanes, along with those of the United Kingdom and Australia, occupied airbases throughout the Gulf theater.
By this point, it was clear the U.S. was going to invade Iraq.
The main thrust of Operation Iraqi Freedom began on Mar. 20, but Southern Focus and special operations on the ground meant the fighting had been ongoing for some time. On the evening of Mar. 19, a long-range strike on Iraqi airfields in the far west of Iraq took place, involving warplanes from all three carriers in the Gulf, the Air Force, and the British Royal Air Force, along with special operations forces on the ground.
Abraham Lincoln’s F-14Ds, F/A-18Es, and the “legacy” F/A-18C(N) Hornets of VFA-25 “Fist of the Fleet” and VFA-113 “Stingers” launched strikes into Iraq on the first night, exhibiting far greater precision-strike capability than the Navy had back in the 1991 Gulf War. The Tomcats had recently received the D04 software update to deploy JDAMs and geared with the LANTIRN targeting pod for dropping laser-guided bombs (LGBs). The Super Hornets possessed the brand-new ATFLIR, which were fewer in quantity and proved somewhat problematic during the war, making the Tomcat-LANTIRN combination indispensable. As a side note, the Lincoln’s 2002- ’03 deployment was the only time F-14s and F/A-18E/Fs both deployed aboard the same carrier, making it a unique “super air wing” of sorts.
As Benjamin Lambeth assessed, the Super Hornet displayed its operational prowess in resounding fashion. The new, sophisticated strike fighter averaged only 15 maintenance man-hours per flying hour, compared with 20 for the “legacy” Hornet and a whopping 60 for the legendary Tomcat. Across the board, the Super Hornets also achieved an impressive Fully-Mission Capable status of 90 percent, compared with 87 percent for the F/A-18C, and 78 for the Super Tomcats. It was obvious the “Super Bug” was the future of U.S. Naval Aviation and the real deal.
For 17 days, CVN-72/CVW-14 continued to pound targets throughout central and southern Iraq, as Coalition ground forces advanced towards Baghdad. They comprised the “day shift” alongside Kitty Hawk, while Constellation was tasked as the “night shift.” On Mar. 31, the already-formidable air wing became even more so, as two F/A-18Es and two of the newer two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornets embarked aboard Abe from USS Nimitz (CVN-68) which was just days away from arriving and relieving Lincoln in the Gulf. Meanwhile, the battle group’s surface combatants and submarines unleashed Tomahawk cruise missiles upon Iraq.
Finally, the end came. On Apr. 7, with Nimitz on-station, Abe and her battle group were relieved, and they set course for home. There was one more surprise left – on May 1, off the coast of San Diego, President George W. Bush landed aboard Lincoln on an S-3B Viking, which had been used as an aerial refueling tanker, surface attack and surveillance platform by the air wing. It was quite a moment – one that would ultimately prove controversial, with Abe unfortunately serving as the stage.
That same day, Bush delivered a speech announcing the “end of major combat operations.” Behind the president on the ship’s island, however, was a large banner displaying the words “Mission Accomplished.” The invasion had already generated controversy; as the war persisted, failed to deliver a decisive outcome and the insurgency intensified, Bush’s speech was seized upon by his political opponents as a dramatic publicity stunt and, derisively, came to be known as the “Mission Accomplished speech.”
Bush, however, never said “Mission Accomplished.” While critics parroted the narrative the Bush administration had effectively staged a stunt, the “Mission Accomplished” banner was actually requested by Abraham Lincoln. The long, eventful deployment they had just completed had apparently instilled, in the crew, a sense something extraordinary had indeed been accomplished and they wanted to commemorate the occasion, especially with the president visiting. Nevertheless, there was no doubt the banner created a perception problem Bush never recovered from nor could explain away.
None of it detracted from the accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln, CVW-14, and her battle group. By the time it arrived home to Everett, CVN-72 had completed a 290-day deployment, traveling a total distance of 102,816 nautical miles. The air wing spent 29,837 hours in the air and delivered a jaw-dropping 1.865 million pounds of ordnance. Though it didn’t break USS Coral Sea’s 329-day extravaganza from 1965, this is one accomplishment the crew was probably happy to fail to achieve.
Back in the present day, Abraham Lincoln will be eventually relieved and end its deployment, which will likely reach or exceed eight months. Grueling as it may be, the carrier, her air wing, and strike group are living up to an example it set over 17 years ago, when Abraham Lincoln and her team proved they were more than great – they were ultimate.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy