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Monday, February 16, 1998 Published at 09:05 GMT

Special Report

Military cities on the sea
image: [ The flight deck of the USS George Washington covers 4.5 acres. ]
The flight deck of the USS George Washington covers 4.5 acres.

It was President Gerald Ford who said aircraft carriers were "a solid symbol of United States strength". Wherever they went, he added, they would "command awe and admiration from some, caution and circumspection from others, and respect from all."

And that is the point about aircraft carriers, especially the massive floating military cities now deployed in the Gulf: when you go to sea, everyone knows you mean business.

Iraq faces the formidable sight of one nuclear-class carrier, the George Washington, and the slightly smaller USS Independence.

Giants in the water

These mobile airfields - the deck on Washington covers 4.5 acres - are sailing as little as a 100 miles south of the Iraqi coast.

With more than 140 aircraft between them, they are an indispensable part of the military effort, especially since most Arab states refuse to let American jets take off from their soil.

[ image: The carriers have more than 140 aircraft between them.]
The carriers have more than 140 aircraft between them.
The planes are kept in hangers beneath the flight deck and are brought to the surface using what must be some of the biggest lifts in the world.

The Washington has four, measuring almost 4,000 square feet. The jets can perform a number of roles. Some are used to bomb targets. Others are used to provide air support such as the early warning and electronic interference aircraft.

Life at sea

The ships clearly have a lethal presence in the Gulf, but it is also their sheer size which makes them so awesome. The 95,000-ton Washington has about 5,500 crewmen and women. They all need to be fed and cared for.

The ship will spend in the region of $1.3 million a month of food. On Thanksgiving Day last year it got through 2,800lbs of turkey and 160 gallons of gravy in a single day.

A nuclear-class carrier has over 2,500 compartments requiring 2,520 tons of air conditioning capacity. That would be enough to cool over 2,000 homes.

[ image: Captain Lindell Rutherford is prepared for a long campaign.]
Captain Lindell Rutherford is prepared for a long campaign.
The Washington has eight machines from which sailors can withdraw cash.

Its dental clinics will see 500 patients a month and do about 50 tooth extractions. Everything is designed so that the carrier can stay at sea for long periods.

"We can sustain a significant military effort," Washington's commanding officer, Captain Lindell Rutherford said. "We can sustain a campaign up to six months if necessary."

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