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Wednesday, March 31, 1999 Published at 05:22 GMT 06:22 UK

The deadly firework show

A Tomahawk cruise missile is launched from the USS Gonzalez

By Kate Adie on board the USS Gonzalez

In days of old, warships used to have finely-carved figure heads. These days, they have finely-honed mission statements, well, American ones do anyway.

I arrived on board the USS Gonzalez earlier this week to be handed the statement. Gonzalez exists to win the next war at sea! Designed, to fight anywhere, any time, against all threats.

One might have thought that the very sight of a vessel bristling with threatening hardware, grey and purposeful as she cuts through the waters of the southern Adriatic would be enough to announce her raison d'etre.

However, this is modern warfare. Computer-driven, computer-guided and full of computer-speak, adding to that sense of remoteness from the smell and sound of real war. Over the horizon, death and destruction. War fought indirectly and with the safety of the American personnel, a priority. A priority at least equal if not greater than the will to fight.

I mention this sense of remoteness from battle to the Captain, Joseph Murphy. "I like it that way," he said warmly. "The days of John Paul Jones have gone, mind you, he had canon balls. We have Tomahawk missiles. Same sort of idea, keep your distance."

Plan of action

[ image: Sights are set in preparation for launch]
Sights are set in preparation for launch
Within minutes of getting out of a bone-dancing Sea Horse helicopter, we were into a briefing on the night's action. Real action. It always comes as something of a shock moving so swiftly from days of speculation about possible attack, probable targets, to find oneself listening to a quick cool set of real orders. The ship is tasked to attack in just over an hour.

"This will be the plan of events. This will be the firing sequence." We journalists go a little quiet.

Delivering this information is a confident Lieutenant Commander Yvette Braunweiler. The executive officer, who has a string of degrees, yes, computer information systems. She rattles through the technology and then rattles us when we politely inquire where we can take pictures of the missiles being launched.

"There are missile cells fore and aft," she says. "Ninety in all. You can either be on the bridge wing, but there's not much room there, so I recommend you put cameras up on the aft deck."

The ship is not that big we've noticed. It's destroyer-sized not a carrier. "What's it like when you're on deck and the missiles BANG?" inquires a nervous Italian. "No idea," says Yvette. "We've never had anyone stand there before, during launch."

We all join the Italian in his mood. Then we scamper through passageways and airlocks, scurrying as the count-down approached.

Preparing for launch

[ image: A long silence prior to the explosion]
A long silence prior to the explosion
We emerged onto the aft deck to a ravishing sunset. A perfect combination of dark blue sea, flaming sky and the purplish hills of the Yugoslav coast in the East. Everyone is struck by the juxtaposition of romantic setting and the intention to loose off rockets that kill.

Darkness falls and the crew dish out float coats, jackets with luminous strips and, incongruously, plastic builders' helmets. As one who's had to wear a real army helmet when faced with small arms fire, I'm a bit puzzled as to what use a plastic job is in the face of a cruise missile 20 yards away carrying a 1,000 pound warhead.

A great big firework

[ image: Heat, noise, searing white light]
Heat, noise, searing white light
"What warning would we get?" The young sailor next to me hadn't a clue.

Diana, 19 years old from Los Angeles is in the Navy to earn money to go to college. She is on the catering side of things and isn't au fait with guided missiles. A lieutenant, one of the numerous computer experts on board, was equally fazed.

"There's some sort of alarm, I guess," he said. There was. A brief klaxon. Then long silence.

The missile burst out of the hatch. Heat, noise, searing white light. It barrelled above us and curved with powerful elegance eastward. I stood with my jaw dropped. "Just a great big firework," said the lieutenant evenly. And we watched the firework from hell streak lethally into the dark.

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