Fighter pilots and crew on board the aircraft carrier Independence, on station near the mouth of the tense Persian Gulf, on Monday declared themselves ready for combat if the confrontation with Iraq explodes.
But the battle group's commander said he has received no orders to interdict Iraqi shipping, although Secretary of State James A. Baker III said Sunday that U.S. forces "now have the legal basis for interdicting" shipping.
For several hours a night, the carrier's F-14 Tomcat fighters are already providing air cover for the nine U.S. warships in the gulf, Navy officers told a group of reporters flown out to the carrier.
"We'll be here absolutely as long as we're needed and as long as the President wants us here," said Rear Adm. Jerry L. Unruh, commander of Battle Group Delta, which is made up of the Independence, its escort of cruisers, frigates and destroyers, plus support vessels.
Asked whether the Navy had stopped any oil tankers leaving Iraq or occupied Kuwait, Unruh replied: "We have been given no directive to stop any shipping. We are not on a blockade mission."
In any case, Unruh said, it is his impression that Iraqi oil shipments have "pretty much dried up."
Capt. Jay B. Yakeley III, commander of Air Wing 14, said his pilots have seen no Iraqi aircraft since the Independence arrived on station a week ago. He expressed confidence in his crew in the event of a clash with the Iraqis.
"Many (Iraqi pilots) are combat-tested against Iran (in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War)," Yakeley said. "We know that. We know the type of training they have. They probably have some real good pilots and some that are not so good."
Some Independence pilots told interviewers that they are more concerned about the threat of surface-to-air missiles than aerial combat with the Iraqis.
Nevertheless, the young men who fly the carrier's Tomcats, F-18 Hornets and A-6E Intruders said they feel they have an edge.
"Any fighter pilot here feels that he can carry out his mission better than any Third World nation pilot," one said. "We're not warmongers, but we're ready for action, and we want to put our training to good use."
Another, reflecting the confidence he has in his plane, said, "If you don't strap on the jet that can do the baddest mission in the air, then you're a casualty waiting to happen."
On board the command ship La Salle, the reporters were briefed by Rear Adm. William M. Fogarty, commander of Joint Task Force Middle East, the standing American force in the Persian Gulf.
The primary mission, Fogarty said, is "to defend against an Iraqi attack against Saudi Arabia and to be prepared to conduct other operations as needed."
U.S. officials in Washington say Saudi Arabia is threatened by an estimated 120,000 Iraqi troops in Kuwait and larger forces in Iraq.
Fogarty, who described the gulf undertaking as a "joint U.S. and multinational effort," said no decision has yet been made on the overall command structure for the multinational force, which already includes British and French warships. Vessels from Australia, Canada and several West European nations are on the way.
About 50 Western warships are reported to be in the region or steaming there, along with two Soviet vessels that reportedly will not be included in the combined command.
The command structure "is being put into force right now," Fogarty said, adding: "It is being worked on. It is a matter of coordinating communications."
The naval air power in the gulf will be supplied by the 31-year-old Independence, which carries more than 60 aircraft of seven types. The attack aircraft include two squadrons each of F-14s and F-18s and a squadron of A-6Es. Support aircraft include a squadron of EA-6E Prowlers, electronics countermeasures craft; E-2C Hawkeyes, airborne warning and control (AWACS) planes; S-3A Viking anti-submarine patrol craft, and SH-3 Sea King helicopters.
Adm. Fogarty would not rate the Iraqi air force but said, "I'll tell you, we're better, that I know."
In response to a reporter's question, Fogarty said the crews of the American warships are outfitted with protective clothing, masks and antidotes for use in the event of a chemical weapons attack, even though ships at sea are not considered likely targets for chemical attacks.
"The fact that (the Iraqis) have chemical weapons is disturbing to everybody throughout the world," Fogarty said. "But we are a trained force. If they happen to employ them, I feel confident we are prepared to defend ourselves."
On the Independence, which was steaming about 30 miles off the coast of Oman, outside the gulf's bottleneck Strait of Hormuz, Adm. Unruh observed that "this is a routine mission for us to come up here."
Battle Group Delta was conducting weapons drills off the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean when the Iraqi armor smashed into Kuwait before dawn Aug. 2. On orders from Washington, the group steamed directly for the waters outside the gulf, 2,500 miles northwest, the area termed "Yankee Station" in the 1980s, when tankers were being attacked regularly.
Cmdr. Robert Ellis, commanding officer of the Independence, told the pool reporters: "For a lot of young people, this is their first time away from home, and they are facing these unknowns for the first time." He said most of them are 18 to 22 years old.
In the long war with Iran, Hussein's 510 planes quickly established air superiority in the gulf region. But in less than a week, analysts say, the multinational force of American F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons, and British Tornadoes and Jaguars, has seized the advantage.
The Iraqis' primary attack fighter is the French Mirage I, but they also have Soviet Sukhoi and MIG jets, including late models.