ABOARD USS HARRY S. TRUMAN -- With Middle Eastern countries reluctant to host U.S. warplanes, a new front could be taking shape: the biggest concentration of American aircraft carriers since the Gulf War.
Carriers - the flagships of battle groups that include attack submarines and destroyers - may be handed a greater role in a possible military strike on Iraq if ground forces are limited by political and diplomatic concerns from Saddam Hussein's neighbors, naval officers said Tuesday.
"I think all of the aircraft carriers will serve as a floating air base," said Capt. Mark A. Vance, commander of the air wing aboard the USS Harry S. Truman.
"We are a sovereign platform that operates at international sea and airspace, and that gives us a degree of flexibility that is not shared when someone relies on a host nation to support," Vance said.
The USS Truman, one of the U.S. Navy's newest carriers, is in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and could head to the Gulf, where the carrier USS Constellation arrived last month. Military planners are considering placing up to six carriers - half the Navy's carrier fleet - within striking distance of Iraq.
During the 1991 Gulf War, six carriers were also in the region.
In NATO ally Turkey, which shares a key border with northern Iraq, opposition to a possible U.S.-led military campaign has reportedly forced reductions in troop planning.
U.S. officials had hoped to station up to 80,000 soldiers in Turkey for a possible cross-border campaign to coincide with a southern thrust from the Gulf. But Turkish media have reported that Washington is now considering a northern force of between 15,000 and 20,000 soldiers.
Another important regional ally, Saudi Arabia, is also reluctant to host a large number of U.S. ground forces. Saudi Arabia was the main staging area for ground forces during the Gulf War.
The Truman's commander, Capt. Michael R. Groothousen of Houston, called carriers "a huge tool" in military strategy.
"No matter where we go on the global war on terror I think carriers as always will play a role in the warfront," he said.
The Norfolk, Va.-based Truman travels in a 12-ship battle group that also includes five destroyers.
Aboard the USS Truman, sailors closely follow the fast-moving diplomatic activities and the work of U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq.
"If Iraq decides to play the bad guy, we are right here," said Petty Officer Scott Coombe from St. Clair Shores, Mich.