In the northern Persian Gulf, Navy cruiser is loaded for war

ABOARD THE USS BUNKER HILL-"Authorized Personnel Only," reads the sign posted on the metal hatch leading to the combat information center on this Navy cruiser operating in the northern Persian Gulf. In this dark, windowless inner sanctum, about 20 radar screens blink orange with potential threats from the air and sea.

The room, just below the ship's bridge, contains the systems that control the vessel's defensive missile systems, which protect ships operating in the region. And behind a black curtain is a top-secret area, big enough only for three computers and four people, that serves as the launch control center for one of the Navy's most lethal offensive weapons-the Tomahawk missile.

If the Navy's Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain sends the Bunker Hill a message to launch the Tomahawks, the captain will give an order to ready the missiles for launch to his Tomahawk shooters-three sailors and an officer who work in the top-secret area. Sitting behind the curtain, two of the sailors will punch in the longitude and latitude for the missiles' targets, double-checking each other's work in a process that could take as long as hour.

The data will then be passed to the launch controller, the third sailor, seated at a terminal to the left of the planners. He will electronically assign the coordinates to Tomahawks standing upright in steel canisters several decks below. After checking with the strike officer-who stands behind the three sailors-and receiving a final command of "battery release" from the captain, the controller will tap a touch screen on the lower left-hand corner of his monitor that reads, "Execute."

"It's job I was sent out here to do," says Launch Controller Petty Officer Clayton Bartels, a 23-year old from Colorado Springs, Colo., who'd rather talk about when his favorite snack cakes are coming aboard than about how he'll feel if ordered to unleash the ship's fury on Iraq. But, Bartels concedes, he likes being known to his shipmates "as the man behind the curtain."

If the United States launches an attack on Saddam Hussein, the Bunker Hill, a 567-foot ship positioned along the left flank of an unprecedented armada of about 130 U.S. and allied ships in the Persian Gulf, would likely be among the more than 30 ships called upon to kick off the war with a pounding Tomahawk assault. The ship, built in 1986 and carrying 388 sailors, is part of the aircraft carrier Constellation's battle group.

"We have naval superiority with the force we have assembled here," says Lt. Cmdr. Curtis Goodnight, the ship's executive officer.

The Bunker Hill, which fired some of the initial strikes in Operation Desert Storm, has two automated vertical launch systems onboard that could launch as many 122 missiles in rapid succession. The exact number of Tomahawks carried on the cruiser is classified.

The cruise missile is the ship's best-known weapon, but they are far from its only one. The ship is also outfitted with one of Navy's most powerful anti-ship missiles, the Harpoon, which can take out vessels at a range of more than 65 miles. Large, five-inch cannons are bolted to the ship's front and rear decks that could provide firepower to naval forces moving ashore or deal with nearby threats on the water or in the air. Several machine guns are also mounted across the ship.

Goodnight, the ship's executive officer, says the Bunker Hill's greatest advantage is not the weaponry, but the communication and radar systems that control them and set their targets. For example, the ship has the Navy's advanced Aegis Weapon System, a combination of the radar systems, display screens and communication links that allow ships throughout the Constellation battles group to exchange targeting information in near real-time.

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