On board the USS Nimitz at sea, July 1: America has sent its biggest war machine to India. It is captained by a man named “Nasty”.
Once in a blue moon, an American warship sails up the Bay of Bengal and look what happens.
First, it is a blue moon — the rare celestial occurrence of a second full moon in a month — as the USS Nimitz steams off Batticaloa in the east coast of Sri Lanka. Second, it’s grossly unfair — the name “Nasty” — for India, to the man and to his mission.
Captain Michael C. Manazir doesn’t like it now, standing here as he is, his ship doing 20 knots, the silver froth of the waves in its wake barely visible above the 4.5-acre flight deck. It is crammed with fighter aircraft and other birds that fight much farther than human hand, see and hear much farther than human eye or ear.
Military pilots answer to call signs. Captain Manazir’s is “Nasty”. He won’t say why. He narrates this story instead.
When he was young, too young to know that he was one day going to captain the USS Nimitz, there came two fresh pilots to his squadron. One wanted to be called “Shark”, the other “Cobra”, names they thought had the character they sought. They had no way of knowing what they were going to get.
By the time they were fully ops — operational — “Shark” was called “Minnow” and “Cobra”, “Worm”.
Moral of the story: “Nasty” is “Nice”.
“Nice” sounds goody-goody. Like the Nimitz’s mission to India. An SH-60/Seaking helicopter is readied for takeoff as Manazir is finishing his story. The rotors chop the sea wind. A yellow shirt – one of the flight deck handlers – crosses arms overhead. The Seaking takes off.
It will be the watch during the flight ops due to start in an hour from now. It will hover and wait. If there is a mishap and a pilot goes into the water, it will rescue.
Tomorrow morning, the Nimitz will anchor close to Chennai. Through the night of the blue moon, Superhornets have thumped on its deck, their tailhooks picking up a cable that arrests the aircraft to a stop.
They had shot off from here on the flight deck minutes earlier, catapulted into the sky off the deck over the water. In the dark of the night, the afterburners glow more brightly. The Nimitz is deployed for war but is now on a peace mission to India.
The last time an aircraft carrier sailed up the Bay of Bengal, as we are doing now, it was the USS Enterprise in 1971. That was Henry Kissinger’s gunboat diplomacy. President Richard Nixon was flexing a muscle at Indira Gandhi. India was engaged in the Bangladesh war.
Thirty-six years on, there is less of a political furore. The opposition of the Left this time is barely more than tokenism. And the nuclear-powered Nimitz is making one of Washington’s biggest friendship gestures in a way the Pentagon can understand better than anyone else.
It has broken off from its wartime deployment to do so. The aircraft that fly off the deck of the Nimitz — “shoot off” is the more technically correct phrase — bomb Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the “Ready Room” of the Fighting Fourteen, one of the Hornet squadrons on board, Lt Commander Tim Tippet will say that typically they can do 15 to 20 sorties a day. What they achieve is unsaid. He wants to know what to do in Chennai, a city they have been surfing on the Net.
The Nimitz’s deployment with the Bahrain-headquartered US 5th Fleet is also meant to intimidate Iran.
It has now taken a break from all that.
This means that Marlena Sanchez will not be “arming” the Hornets and the Superhornets for four days. It takes an hour to fully arm a fighter aircraft, she says.
First, the nitrogen bottles have to be clamped to the wingtips to keep the rockets cool, for instance. Then there come the bombs and the flares that are clamped underwing.
In Chennai, however, AO2 Sanchez — Aviation Ordnanceman (that’s the rank, irrespective of gender) — will be doing other things. She is usually to be found in the Nimitz’s “bomb farm” — and there are no nukes visible here.
She poses happily with a 25-pounder. Click, wink. Bombshell and bomb.
Somewhere below the bombfarm, under the flight deck, is “flight deck control (FDC)”. Last afternoon, Lt Regina Roger, V-1 Division Officer, was the handler at FDC.
The “Ouigy Board” (pronounced “weejee”) board on her desk is the layout of the flight deck. She puts little cardboard models of the aircraft to show where they really are.
Despite its 4.5-acre spread, the Nimitz flight deck is still cramped with aircraft. An aircraft ready for take-off — or to be shot off — has a green pin on its head. A fighter being refuelled has a purple.
Nothing happens on the flight deck without Regina knowing.
“What’s the temple town on the sea near Chennai'” she manages between phone calls and nods at her staff.
“Mahabalipuram.” “That’s a mouthful. Can you write it down for me' Our last port-call was a month ago (in Dubai)”.
Rear Admiral Terry Blake, the commander of the Nimitz strike group says 20 per cent of the crew on board are women.
When the Nimitz anchors off Chennai on Monday morning, India’s navy chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, and his colleagues will want to take a close look at it.
They will find that there is much to learn in its nuclear-powered technology and its firepower. There is as much to learn beyond all of that.
The biggest of those lessons will not be in the tomes of diplomacy and the platitudes of military-to-military relations. It will be in how men and women can get along on board, in wars, just or unjust.