Well below him, down in the bowels of the ship in Combat, the operations specialist third class races his trackball’s cursor across the radar display to a glowing slice of target video. He checks IFF modes, airspeed and altitude. Nodding slightly, he updates the HAFU (hostile – assumed hostile – friendly – unknown) symbology covering what appears to be the scheduled Tehran-to-Dubai shuttle, and looks once more through sad eyes at his wristwatch: Two hours, forty minutes to go. He is so very tired.
0800 – The bosun’s mate of the watch keys the mic to the 1MC, rings eight bells, signaling that it’s time to shift watches (down in Combat, the third class operations specialist on port and starboard watch rotation grinds his teeth – two more hours). Immediately afterwards, he sounds “All hands” on his pipe, and then speaks into the mic: “Sweepers, sweepers, man your brooms. Give the ship a good sweep down fore and aft. Sweep down all lower decks, ladder backs, and passageways. Sweepers.”
No sudden boil of activity follows this announcement – all hands not actually on watch are already on station at their cleaning quarters. Some have fox tail brooms, some have sponges and warm, soapy water, some have dust rags, some have sandpaper to clean the “knee knockers.” Each and every one has somewhere else he’d rather be – cleaning the ship is no one’s favorite task, but the Navy has an almost Old Testament resentment of anything at all which smacks of filth or disarray. Order. Order and cleanliness. These are the things that soothe the naval mind.
In Tactical Flag Command Center, or TFCC, the strike group commander, a one-star admiral, finishes receiving his brief from the battle watch captain: The carrier is coming along side the oiler to take on fuel for the air wing. The assigned Ticonderoga-class cruiser is close aboard in “shotgun” position, protecting the carrier like a vigilant guard dog on a short leash. The two destroyers are up north, one patrolling in vicinity of the offshore Iraqi oil terminals, so vital to the country’s reconstruction, while the other is shadowing a “suspect” merchantman, itself hugging the seam between international waters and Iranian territorial seas. The self-defense alert 7 fighter package is cocked on deck. Flight operations start at 1200 – the first launch includes overland close air support missions in support of coalition operations. If any of the soldiers or Marines ashore get pressured, naval aviation will be there to lend a hand. After 1200 – up until that point, the burden lies on the Air Force, and USMC fixed and rotary wing assets ashore. No significant materiel casualties impact the strike group’s capabilities.
The admiral nods, appreciatively. Things are as they should be. He checks his watch, and notes that he has 50 minutes until the Warfare Commander Meeting, his first formal meeting of the day. There will be many more. He turns aside to hide from his watch the irrepressible sigh he feels forming in his chest. Once, he recollects, he was a warrior. Now he goes to meetings. Ah, well.
On the bridge, the squadron commanding officer has already shifted the conn from the pilot house to Auxiliary Conn, on the starboard bridge wing. He is nearly stabilized alongside the oiler – the approach wasn’t awful, he made no serious errors. The ship’s operations officer, standing directly behind him, in an almost physical intimacy, coached him through the process. Behind him is the ship’s navigator, moving back and forth in restless concern. Behind the navigator is the Captain, in his own chair. Behind him is the ship’s executive officer, standing alert, like a bird dog on point. Behind him is the ship’s command master chief, watching with detached amusement the self-imposed strain of the officers. Apart from the Reactor Officer and Chief Engineer, both riding herd down in Reactor Control and in Damage Control Central, these are the most powerful and important men in the ship’s company. Apart from the Master Chief, all of them are career aviators.
The squadron commanding officer orders the lee helmsman “All engines ahead two-thirds. Set the alongside maneuvering combination as 63 RPM.” The lee helmsman reads the orders back verbatim, in a hieratic, almost stylized voice. Down in the main engine room, the throttlemen for shafts one and four set their engines to exactly 63 RPM, sit back and smile over the heads of their engaged friends on Main Engines Two and Three. Their work is done, until the carrier is complete with refueling. The throttlemen for number Two and three main engines will make all further speed corrections, at the conning officer’s command.
In after steering, another watch stands, awaiting a casualty or loss of control. Should the helmsman lose control of the ship’s massive rudders, they are prepared to step in. This never happens. They are prepared anyway.