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As expected, the USS Kitty Hawk returned after a quick sea trial — only to turn around and head back out.

And, as expected, Navy officials still are tight-lipped about the carrier’s next move.

The 41-year-old carrier is at sea conducting carrier qualifications, said Lt. Marc Boyd, a 7th Fleet spokesman. Carrier qualifications are the next phase of certifying pilots to land on the carrier’s deck. Pilots must achieve a certain number of successful landings before being certified to take part in operations.

Boyd said the ship would hold qualifications, “in designated operating areas near the coast of Japan.”

He said he expected the ship to complete the qualifications in “a couple days,” depending on the weather and skill levels the pilots show during qualifications.

Any word about what the Kitty Hawk battle group will do next, or where it is headed, “we can’t discuss. We don’t talk about future operations,” Boyd said.

Ensign Mike Morley, a Pacific Fleet spokesman in Hawaii, said he also couldn’t comment on the Kitty Hawk’s next move.

“We can only confirm when they’ve received deployment orders,” he said, “and so far, they have not.”

Crewmembers have speculated the ship will head for the Persian Gulf. Several sailors, interviewed prior to Monday’s departure, said they believed, and some actually hoped, they would join other carriers in the region.

At least four carrier groups may be in the region within weeks. USS Constellation already is operating in the northern Persian Gulf; the USS Harry S. Truman is in the Mediterranean. The USS Abraham Lincoln is expected to leave the Australian operating area to go to the Gulf. A fourth carrier is expected to go to the Gulf from the Atlantic Fleet.

The Associated Press reported this week that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was considering sending up to two more carrier groups to the Gulf.

Also, according to the AP, Kyodo News reported Friday that the Kitty Hawk set out to monitor North Korea after the communist nation’s withdrawal from an international nuclear treaty. Seventh Fleet officials denied the report.

The USS Carl Vinson, based in Bremerton, Wash., has been mentioned in news reports as being a possible replacement should the Kitty Hawk leave the western Pacific. The ship’s Web site said the Vinson left San Diego on Jan. 17 with Carrier Air Wing NINE for “training designed to maintain war-fighting proficiency.”

USS Carl Vinson has completed required pre-deployment training and is fully qualified to respond to any mission, according to the Web site.

But Morley at Pacific Fleet said the Vinson also hasn’t received deployment orders.

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