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Wednesday, April 7, 1999 Published at 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK

A curious lack of interest, out at sea

The Nicholson: A bit of America afloat

The BBC's chief news correspondent Kate Adie reports from the USS Nicholson.

Out at sea, out of sight, the ships of the American Sixth Fleet have kept up a barrage of cruise missiles every night since the start of the Nato attack.

Kosovo: Special Report
It's a curious war on board a guided missile destroyer - remote from the Kosovo Albanian refugees and removed from the missiles' targets. The heart of the operation is the Combat Information Centre - a dim warren in the bowels of the USS Nicholson.

The crew sit glued to screens which twitch and blink, glowing orange and green. Lists of ships are scrawled on clear plastic boards: American, British, French, Belgian, Italian and German - all part of the massive multi-national effort.

Then there's a board on which are scrawled several Russian names - possible visitors sliding through the Dardanelles, and certainly not part of the Nato effort.

[ image: HMS Splendid has been restocked]
HMS Splendid has been restocked
There are submarines too, including the HMS Splendid which has been so active, she has been off to replenish her stocks of Tomahawk missiles.

A map of the Balkans dominates the Centre, with a series of dots along the coast of Montenegro. These represent the "midpoints" in the flight of the missiles. The ship gets the order to fire after a lengthy period in which the missiles have been "spinning", that's being programmed individually for their targets.

Then the ship is "tasked" and after what is an indeterminate amount of time for the precise moment of launch - merely awaiting an order from the Nato commanders ashore - the missile is fired and traced by the ship to the midpoint and no further.

"I get it to the front door of the house," says the Nicholson's captain Alex Urrutia. "Then it finds its own way to the right room."

[ image: The Nicholson in action]
The Nicholson in action
It's an impersonal, mechanical business, reliant on high technology. Indeed the American crew show little or no interest in the missile's destination - or the damage done. And what's more surprising, there's complete incuriosity about the situation on the ground in Kosovo. No-one discusses what's happening. Evenings before missile launches are spent watching videos, bowls of popcorn and slices of pizza pass round.

It's a bit of America afloat.

Kosovo seems a long way away. But up on deck two hours before dawn, we stood only yards from the missile cells. The launch is frighteningly sudden: a blast of heat, light and smoke as the Tomahawk bursts from its cell.

Then a roar as the rocket ignites just feet above us, bits of cell casing showering down on us. It arcs sharply to port and starts eastward. It looks like a huge firework. In reality it's a thousand pound warhead and it tears away into a starlit sky with deadly intent.

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