Mines Damage 2 U.S. Warships in the Gulf : Conflict: Allies press air campaign against Iraqis. F-16 pilot is plucked from Kuwait in a daring rescue.
Mines damaged two American warships in the northern Persian Gulf on Monday, ripping a 16-by-25-foot hole in one and slightly injuring seven sailors.
Allied forces, meanwhile, launched heavy air strikes against Iraqi troop positions on Monday, as well as initiating artillery duels across the Kuwaiti border. The United Arab Emirates joined the air battle, flying four missions with French-built Mirage 2000s against the Iraqis inside Kuwait.
The San Diego-based Tripoli, an amphibious assault carrier, was leading a minesweeping operation about 4:30 a.m. when a blast tore open the hole in its forward starboard hull, about 10 feet below the waterline, flooding several compartments.
About two hours later, the $1-billion guided-missile cruiser Princeton, based in Long Beach, was rocked by another mine as it steamed toward the Tripoli in response to what turned out to be a false alarm that two crewmen had been thrown overboard by the earlier explosion.
Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal said the Tripoli apparently hit a floating contact mine, but early indications were that the Princeton was damaged by a so-called “influence” mine--one that detonates without contact--because “surprisingly, there is no hole.”
In the air action, a U.S. F-16 fighter was downed over Kuwait, but an American helicopter crew, with jet fighters providing cover overhead, made a daring rescue of the pilot, flying 40 miles into the occupied emirate to pluck him to safety.
Along the Kuwaiti border, U.S. and Iraqi reconnaissance units “more or less stumbled into each other” in separate clashes that saw the Americans destroy two armored personnel carriers, a U.S. spokesman said. One Marine was wounded.
In other developments:
* U.S. military sources said a “change in attack methodology” has enabled American pilots to start destroying Iraqi tanks at the rate of up to 200 a day.
* The deputy commander of France’s 12,000-man ground force said allied air attacks have so badly hurt Iraq’s forces that they are nearing the point when they will be unable to take any effective offensive action--the point at which, he said, the allies should strike on land.
* U.S. military officials described Iraq’s missiles as poorly made, inaccurate and carrying small conventional warheads that tend to break away from the fuselage during flight.
* Kuwaitis living in Cairo said allied bombers had mistakenly knocked out water and electricity in much of their homeland and that occupying Iraqi troops continue to arrest and execute their compatriots.
* Baghdad Radio reported that Iraqi forces had killed large numbers of allied troops with a devastating missile attack, a contention that one U.S. official dismissed as “garbage.” The broadcast also said Iraq was ready “at any time to destroy any attempt by the enemy against Iraq.”
After the mine explosions, Navy officials said both the damaged vessels remained “fully mission-capable.”
The assault helicopter carrier Tripoli, flagship of a U.S.-led mine countermeasures group, had ventured into a minefield in the northern Persian Gulf and struck a mine with the explosive force of three-quarters of a ton of TNT.
The ship was dead in the water until crews shored up the hole in the forward starboard section of the hull and pumped out water that had flooded a diesel room, a pump room and a dry storage locker on three different decks. Water also sloshed into an ammunition magazine. Firefighting plumbing aboard the ship was ruptured, adding to the flooding.
“We’re just trying to shore up, trying to get it strong there so we can hold our own and move away from the minefield,” said the Tripoli’s damage control officer, Van Cavin, 30, of San Diego.
The process took several hours, according to shipboard witnesses. Crewmen, who were at battle alert, remained tense, worried about the fate of their vessel, adrift in an area where half a dozen mines were believed to remain. Underwater demolition teams marked three mines with smoke canisters.
Seven hours later, partial power was restored to the 602-foot Tripoli. The ship, which uses its helicopters to tow minesweeping sleds, leads a flotilla of minesweeping vessels from the U.S. and British navies. The commander of the minesweeping flotilla described it as perhaps the largest such group assembled since the Korean War.
It was the first time in the war that an allied ship had been struck by a mine, many of which were sown during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. The missile cruiser Princeton, operating about 10 miles away, responded to a request to help search for two sailors who had been reported--incorrectly--washed overboard in the explosion on the Tripoli.
Gen. Neal said the Princeton, one of the Navy’s Aegis-class cruisers, was damaged by an “influence” mine--a device designed to lie on the bottom and explode when triggered by the sound, water pressure or magnetic field of a ship.
If confirmed, the appearance of influence mines would mark an escalation of the Iraqi mine threat. The devices are not known to have been used in the Gulf before, naval sources said.
The 9,500-ton, 2-year-old Princeton, which has a crew of 360, suffered structural damage to its hull near the stern and to one propeller, forcing the captain to shut down one of the ship’s two turbines, military officials said.
Four Tripoli seamen were treated on board for minor injuries. The Princeton’s three injured crewmen were evacuated to a British vessel for treatment. One was listed in serious condition, and the others were in good condition, officials said.
Although Iraq’s navy has been largely destroyed, U.S. officials said the mine attacks on allied ships--part of a 31-vessel task force preparing for a possible amphibious assault on the shore of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait--underscored the continued danger of navigating in the northern Persian Gulf. More than 80 mines already have been sighted and destroyed in the region in the past month.
Most of the mines laid during the Iran-Iraq War are covered with algae. The new ones planted recently by Iraq, some moored and some free-floating, include “smart” mines that explode only when a ship of substantial size strikes them. Spotting mines is one of the most tedious--and yet important--jobs in the Navy.
“Sitting here in front of the ship 10 hours a day, in two five-hour shifts, can be a tiring job,” Brett Caramagne, a spotter on the dock landing ship Portland, told pool correspondents. The most important tools of his trade, he said, are binoculars and night-vision goggles.
By changing tactics and using weapons that penetrate sand-protected defenses, American planes have been able to destroy up to 200 tanks a day, a senior U.S. military officer said Monday.
Pentagon officials have steadfastly refused to disclose their new tank-killing tactics in order to prevent Iraq from developing defenses against the measures.
“We have been very, very successful,” the officer said. “We’re not experiencing too many misses. We’re really having a field day taking out their tanks and some of their artillery.”
Allied forces have destroyed 1,300 of the 4,200 Iraqi tanks in Kuwait and southern Iraq, a rate occasionally as high as 200 a day.
“Identification of targets has become better, the experience of the pilots has grown as they get their feet wet in combat and the threat from antiaircraft fire is diminishing,” the senior military source said. “All these things taken together have helped make us much more effective against (Iraqi) ground troops.”
In the past 24 hours, planes from the multinational force arrayed against Iraq have flown 970 sorties against targets in Kuwait--100 against battle-hardened Republican Guard divisions.
Successes against Iraqi armor could hasten the start of a land offensive to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. While the military source would not say what rate of attrition among Iraqi forces could signal the right time to begin the ground war, European politicians and officers have said 50% would be enough to launch the offensive.
By their calculation, allied casualties can be kept low if half of Iraq’s tanks and field guns are knocked out. Most of the Iraqi tanks are dug into the sand, with only their turrets visible, and have hardly moved since the air campaign began.
Another indication that a land war could be imminent came from French Gen. Daniel Gazeau, who told reporters that the monthlong pounding from allied bombers has left Iraqi forces nearly unable to withstand a ground offensive.
“We are approaching fast the time when it is impossible for them to take real action, forceful action,” the general said.
While saying he knows of no date for launching a land campaign, he said his troops are ready.
“We know we could have to attack in a few days,” he said. "(The Iraqis) are in defensive positions. And when forces are unable to engage in an aggressive action, we could say that they are annihilated.”
Results of the air campaign, he said, will signal the right moment for the multinational force to send in tanks and infantry against the Iraqis occupying Kuwait.
Gazeau said French troops were closely watching political developments, such as the visit to Moscow of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz, that might end the conflict before the allies begin their offensive.
“But we are more interested in preparing the attack,” the general said. “Of course, if necessary we could also cancel our attack, and that would be easier still. Maybe we could have an agreement but, because we are here to prepare, we continue to prepare to attack.”
Debris from Iraqi missiles fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia indicates that Iraq is incapable of fitting a chemical warhead on either of its two versions of the Soviet Scud-B missile, U.S. military sources told the Associated Press on Monday, adding that Saddam Hussein’s forces have no other operational ballistic missiles, such as the Soviet SS-12.
“They rushed a lot of these things into modification real quick, right before the war,” one senior official said. “The welds on them are poorly constructed.”
As a result, Iraq’s Abbas and Hussein missiles tend to break up in flight because of poorly done modifications, the sources said. Stress on the fuselage may be up to four times that planned by the original Soviet designers.
To adjust the range of its missiles, Iraq must change the weight of its warhead--a variance of 220 to 660 pounds on the Abbas. And changing targets may mean changing launch sites, analysts said.
The farthest a modified Scud is known to have traveled is about 450 miles. The maximum range in the war so far has been about 370 miles, from southern Iraq to the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
U.S. planes have been flying more than 100 sorties a day against Scud sites, stopping the Iraqis from firing large salvos, military officials said.
Chaos in Kuwait
Expatriate Kuwaitis who are in regular contact with their homeland by satellite telephone describe grim conditions resulting from the Iraqi occupation.
“There is almost total disorder,” one Kuwaiti said. “They say police stations are full of Kuwaitis and that many are being tortured.”
The Kuwaitis said allied planes recently bombed a transformer station that supplied power to Kuwait city and to a desalination plant in the Doha district west of the capital. Electricity and water were cut and have only been partially restored, they said.
The allied raid on the station seemed to have been unintentional, the Kuwaitis said. Despite four weeks of bombing, water and electricity in Kuwait had been operating normally.
“The people inside are appealing to the allies to be a bit more choosy,” one expatriate Kuwaiti said. “It is causing a lot of suffering.”
Iraqis were continuing to search houses and loot food, the Kuwaitis said, adding that they were unsure how long supplies would last. They said Iraqi troops had moved antiaircraft guns close to mosques, apparently to protect them from allied bombing.
A Kuwaiti officer in Riyadh said Sunday that in the past few days Iraqi soldiers had killed eight Kuwaitis, including two women, in an effort to tighten their grip on the occupied emirate.
Times staff writer John Balzar in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this article.
U.S. WARSHIPS STRIKE MINES
The U.S. assault ship Tripoli and the cruiser Princeton were both damaged by floating mines in the northern Gulf in what are believed to be the first such incidents involving allied warships. The mines were sown by Iraqis after their invasion of Kuwait, and there are many left over from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
Type: Aegis guided missile cruiser
Displacement: 9,460 tons, full load
Length: 566 feet
Comissioned: Feb. 11, 1989
Type: Amphibious assault helicopter carrier
Displacement: 18,000 tons, full load
Length: 600 feet
Comissioned: Aug. 6, 1966
Source: Jane’s Fighting Ships