ASSOCIATED PRESS — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ordered the Navy to double the number of aircraft carrier battle groups positioned within striking distance of Iraq, defense officials said yesterday.
The additional naval air power is part of a broader buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region. More than 60,000 armed forces members already are stationed there. They are to be joined during the next few weeks by about 120,000 others. When the buildup is complete, before the end of next month, President Bush will have the option of attacking Iraq from multiple directions.
The carrier battle group led by the USS Constellation is operating in the northern Persian Gulf, the USS Harry S. Truman battle group is in the Mediterranean Sea, and Mr. Rumsfeld has ordered two groups to join them. They are the USS Abraham Lincoln, operating near Australia, and a carrier from Norfolk-based Atlantic Fleet.
Lt. Cmdr. Dave Werner, an Atlantic Fleet spokesman, said fleet commander Adm. Robert J. Natter was ordered to deploy a carrier battle group but has not decided which one will go. It probably will be the USS Theodore Roosevelt, other officials said, although another option would be the USS George Washington, which has been kept at the ready since arriving at Norfolk from a six-month deployment shortly before Christmas.
Each carrier has an air wing made up of 70 to 80 aircraft, including F/A-18 Hornet and F-14 Tomcat fighters, as well as surveillance, electronic warfare, search-and-rescue and command-and-control aircraft. A battle group includes at least one submarine and surface ships capable of firing Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Officials said Mr. Rumsfeld was considering sending one or two additional carriers to the Gulf region, for a potential total of six.
The Army, meanwhile, continued its movement of equipment and soldiers to the Gulf area.
The 4th Infantry Division, equipped with tanks, attack helicopters and artillery to defeat armored forces, is heading a group of 37,000 soldiers ordered to reposition in that region.
Their equipment will be shipped first, and the soldiers will go when final basing arrangements are worked out, officials said.
The 4th Infantry, based at Fort Hood, Texas, is considered the Army’s most lethal, modern, and deployable heavy division.
In addition to 12,500 soldiers from this division, nearly 4,000 soldiers from the division’s 3rd Brigade at Fort Carson, Colo., and more than 20,000 troops from 10 other installations will make up the task force, according to Fort Hood spokesman Cecil Green.
Mr. Green said he could not provide details, such as the country where the soldiers will be deployed or when they will ship out.
Officials in Washington said it was possible that parts or all of the task force would go to Turkey.
The Pentagon wants to base ground forces there to facilitate any invasion of Iraq from the north. Thousands of U.S. forces already are in Kuwait, training for a possible attack on Iraq from the south.
The Turkish government had resisted the U.S. request for base access for ground forces, but U.S. officials said yesterday that an agreement was in the works to permit basing of roughly 20,000 troops there. The European Command already flies interdiction missions over northern Iraq from Turkey.