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Thursday, 11 October, 2001, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Plain sailing for US air force
A US pilot prepares to take off from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise
This pilot's mission could take at least five hours
By the BBC's Brian Barron on board the USS Enterprise

The most difficult part of this air war is the distance the Allied planes - mainly American - have to fly.

For political reasons none of the scores of United States aircraft based in Saudi Arabia are involved.

Instead, the cruise missiles and bombs are being sent from two naval battle groups in the Arabian Sea - along with long range flights by heavy bombers from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

The American navy pilots flying from this nuclear powered aircraft carrier spend a minimum of five hours on each mission.

First they cross Pakistan territory following corridors agreed between Islamabad and Washington.

Then they have to find their targets in the mountainous landscape of Afghanistan.

Hidden equipment

Now the senior commanders are confirming there are a dwindling number of targets to be struck.

A US navy pilot speaks to reporters on board the USS Enterprise
The Americans are claiming air supremacy
That is a measure of success in what has been hit - but also it could be an indication the Taleban regime had time to hide military equipment in the weeks before the air war began.

In fact much of the Taleban's air defences dated from the Soviet era when Kabul was the seat of a Communist government and scores of thousands of Moscow's troops were locked in a military stalemate with mujahadin guerillas.

It is an example of failed foreign intervention in Afghanistan which the Pentagon needs to bear in mind.

The apparent ease with which the Americans have attacked military and terrorist-related targets will not be duplicated in any ground encounter should US troops ever be committed in large numbers.

For the Taleban will be fighting in their own homeland in what they see as a holy cause.

Blackout

The spectacle of the Enterprise's attack squadrons helping to lead American retaliation for the New York terrorist atrocities and touching down on the flight deck every few hours, without having suffered any losses, has lifted spirits on this vast warship.

Tomcat fighter aircraft refuels from an S-3B Viking
The air force can act without any need for foreign bases
A few hours before the first air raids were launched a blackout on all non-essential communications was imposed to preserve security.

No private phone calls or emails were allowed but now those restrictions have been lifted.

Still, the aircraft carrier is in a war mode, with virtually no external lights showing after sundown as it sails through the Arabian Sea.

Many returning pilots have to land in the darkness - a hair-raising prospect even in daylight.

Just 100 miles away from the Enterprise is another naval battle group and nuclear aircraft carrier.

Both these powerful forces are part of the Allied cordon around Afghanistan.

One aim is to seal the country off to prevent any attempt by terrorist suspect Osama Bin Laden to quietly slip away and take refuge elsewhere with the help of his al-Qaeda network.

Diplomatic sources say Somalia in East Africa is one of the few places where Bin Laden might be able to find sanctuary.

But it would be extremely hazardous for him to try such a journey given the American surveillance operation around Afghanistan.

See also:

10 Oct 01 | South Asia
US can use Pakistan airbases
10 Oct 01 | South Asia
Summary of targets so far
09 Oct 01 | South Asia
Fears of Afghan food crisis
09 Oct 01 | Americas
Bush's military countdown
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