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Carrier heads to SW Asia without all its fighters

Kitty Hawk
The USS Kitty Hawk usually carries about 70 aircraft of all types.  

By Jamie McIntyre
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A U.S. aircraft carrier left most of its attack aircraft behind when it sailed from Japan on Monday, allowing the ship to be used as a "lily pad" off southwest Asia for possible U.S. anti-terrorist strikes.

The USS Kitty Hawk sailed from the U.S. Navy base at Yokosuka, on Japan's east coast, at 10 a.m. Monday, local time.

A Navy spokesman did not detail the carrier's mission, but said the ship and crew were moving out as part of the anti-terrorist campaign dubbed "Operation Enduring Freedom."

The Kitty Hawk may be used for a floating base for special operations helicopters and troops, Pentagon sources told CNN Monday.

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A Pentagon source said the carrier was headed to the general area of Southwest Asia, but would not be more specific.

Pentagon sources said some of the ship's strike aircraft, including F-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats, were staying in Japan. The ship usually carries around 75 aircraft of all types.

"It does have some strike aircraft on board," one official with the Pacific Fleet said. "It has a representative mix of aircraft."

One Pentagon official said the Kitty Hawk would be home to "an unconventional mix of aircraft." Another said the carrier would be used as a "lily pad" in the Indian Ocean.

"It gives us four-and-a-half acres of sovereign U.S. territory to use as we like," the official said.

The Kitty Hawk is part of the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet and is the only American aircraft carrier based in the western Pacific.

It is the latest ship to deploy since the September 11 attacks in a movement of forces to the region surrounding Afghanistan, including the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. British forces are known to be in the Gulf and could be made available for military action, too.

The Bush administration has named suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden as the prime suspect in the attacks. He has been living in Afghanistan as a "guest" of the ruling Taliban.

President Bush has demanded the Taliban turn over all terrorists in Afghanistan, close all terrorist training camps and release all international citizens jailed unjustly.

Although Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has given the United States permission to use Pakistani airspace, he has not agreed to allow U.S. forces to mount offensive strikes from Pakistani territory.

In a CNN interview Sunday, Musharraf declined to say whether he would allow that "as a last resort."

In 1994, the United States used aircraft carriers as troop transports and floating helicopter launching pads when it sent troops to Haiti to restore the government of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

CNN is sensitive about reporting information that could jeopardize lives or ongoing military operations.


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