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ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE — The pungent smell of jet fuel fills the air as the fighter jet’s engines reach a deafening, teeth-rattling roar.

Seconds later, the F/A-18 Hornet catapults off the flight deck, its tail dipping slightly over the eastern Atlantic Ocean before the afterburners shoot the jet into the sky.

It’s another successful takeoff on Monday for a carrier crew that hurried out to sea to show that it can and will go, if needed.

The USS Enterprise is one of seven U.S. carrier strike groups cruising across the globe as part of Summer Pulse ’04 exercise, a trial run of the Navy’s new, ambitious plan to rapidly deploy a large chunk of its fleet on a moment’s notice. The exercise, which began in June and lasts until August, is one of the largest since the Cold War and includes smaller training events with allies from all over the world.

While the drill gives U.S. warships a chance to flex their maritime muscles and break out a new strategy, sailors are learning that the plan is a work in progress.

“These are where the lessons learned are the most valuable and deep-rooted,” Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas Keith, 34, said. “We’re finding all of the weakest links in all of the plans everywhere on this exercise.”

For decades, the Navy used to deploy two or three carrier strike groups every six months. When one group came home, another group replaced it. But commanders say that rigid schedule is too predictable and plays into the hands of terrorists.

The new approach, dubbed the Fleet Response Plan last year, aims to project naval forces faster and would deploy as many as six carrier strike groups anywhere in the world in 30 days. Also, a couple of more carriers would be ready to go in 90 days to provide additional support.

The Enterprise and Harry S. Truman strike groups are in the eastern Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Morocco this week along with ships from 10 other nations as part of an exercise called Medshark/Majestic Eagle ’04. The U.S.-led event includes 20,000 personnel aboard more than 20 ships. The Enterprise crew found out that it would be heading out to sea this summer just 30 days prior to leaving its home port of Norfolk, Va.

“I think our families understand the importance of being ready to go,” said Capt. Rick Neidlinger, commanding officer of the USS Enterprise. “If you’ve got this much combat power, you want to be able to use it, or at least use it to deter any aggression around the world.”

Initially, many sailors feared that the new plan would mean more time at sea. But Rear Adm. Barry McCullough, the Enterprise strike group commander, told reporters Sunday that wouldn’t necessarily be the case. While the new strategy doesn’t mark the end of six-month deployments, some tours could be shorter.

“Maybe we’ll get under way for two months or maybe we’ll get under way for four months,” McCullough said. “But there will be a great benefit reaped during the underway period.”

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class William Brockett, 29, of Norfolk, said sailors are not accustomed to deploying so quickly on such short notice. He said sailors are trying to find a “new groove.” The exercise includes almost daily flight operations with various aircraft, including F/A-18 Hornets, S-3 Vikings and C-2 Greyhound transport propeller planes.


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