The Face of Modern Warfare
It’s a gloomy winter day in the Northern Arabian Gulf, with choppy seas below, as our Navy H-3 helicopter swoops in toward the USS Milius, a gray destroyer that from a distance looks like a flint arrowhead in the water. When war comes — as nearly everyone in the Gulf expects it to soon — the Milius will likely be among the ships firing the opening shots. It is loaded with Tomahawk cruise missiles, America’s first-strike weapon of choice. Our helicopter thunks onto the aft deck of the Milius with a jarring, sideways lurch.
There are about a dozen of us onboard the chopper, mostly sailors returning from leave for training or medical emergencies. (During my time on the Milius, the only medevac case occurs when a young sailor cracks two molars on some Corn Nuts.) By Navy standards, the Milius is not huge. It’s a little more than 500 feet long, a windowless steel box that right now holds a crew of 280. Since leaving its home port of San Diego in November, the ship has been zigzagging off the coast of Iraq, ready at a moment’s notice to unleash a devastating missile barrage upon Baghdad.
The Navy has invited Rolling Stone onto the Milius as part of a policy of putting reporters as far forward with U.S. forces as possible. The military wasn’t as forthcoming in the early days of the war in Afghanistan. As a result, some in the Pentagon believe, the media focused too much on the downside of that conflict — friendlyfire incidents, accidental bombings of villages. “This time,” a Navy public-affairs officer tells me, “we want you telling the American side of the story.” The Pentagon calls sending reporters into frontline positions “embedding.” It’s sort of like the ultimate backstage pass to war.
I am determined to use my pass on the Milius to search out isolated pockets of bitterness, fear and discontent. It would only make sense: No conflict since the Vietnam War has provoked such division at home and abroad — and this war hasn’t started yet. Even among reporters, questions of war provoke bitter dissent. A couple of nights earlier, there was a full-on fistfight between an American photographer and a Canadian reporter in the lobby of Bahrain’s mediahangout hotel, the Diplomat Radisson. While stunned Arab security guards looked on, the Canadian, who had been arguing for peace, knocked down the American and put him in an LAPD-style chokehold. As I figure it, there have to be undercurrents of tension on the ship, as well.
The Milius is one of an unspecified number of Aegis-class destroyers currently patrolling the Arabian Gulf. Each one costs more than $1 billion. Commissioned in 1996, the Milius is about the most technically advanced vessel in the Navy. What makes the Milius so expensive is the automated Aegis weapons system. A surface-waffare officer on the ship describes Aegis as offiering “the most secure environment ever created” by the Navy. Under the Aegis system, all of the ship’s missiles, guns, sonars and radars are networked into a massive “command and decision” computer system. Aegis keeps constant vigil over the skies and seas for hundreds of miles in all directions, continually hunting for threats, telling the ship’s weapons which targets to track and, if necessary, when to shoot. Under Aegis, the ship functions like a single electronic organism. Humans serve more as overseers who sign off on decisions that Aegis has already made. Everyone believes in the system. Lt. Cmdr. Chris Barnes, the ship’s executive officer, assures me that Aegis is “just about perfect.”
The Milius is also one of the cleanest ships you have ever seen. There’s hardly a drop of oil on the decks, which are themselves almost barren. The ship’s radars are hidden behind flat panels, and most of its firepower — the Tomahawks and other missiles — is concealed below decks. Among the few visible weapons onboard are two odd-looking machine guns mounted at either end of the ship. Each has a barrel sticking out from under a white dome that looks like an igloo. The Close-In Weapons System, called Sea Whiz after its acronym, is the ship’s last-ditch defense against high-speed missiles. These guns are essentially robots. Like the ship’s other primary weapons, they are not directly operated by humans.
To enter the ship, you pass through steel compression chambers. The air inside is pressurized above normal levels — a feature of the ship’s Citadel nuclear, biological and chemical defense system, designed to prevent external toxins from entering. Inside the ship’s hospital-white passages, all you hear is the rush of clean filtered air and the faint, soothing whine of the Milius‘ jetturbine propulsion system. You can walk for several minutes without encountering a soul. The absence of humans is a striking feature of the Milius. Older destroyers typically had crews that were significantly larger. Now there’s little for humans to do but monitor Aegis, as well as service the ship’s motors, clean the toilets and swab the decks — jobs that are, frankly, beneath the level of a state-of-the-art, multimilliondollar computer system. When you do meet sailors, all of them seem to have the same air of blissed-out cheerfulness. Everyone smiles and greets you with a friendly nod. It’s almost creepy.
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