Wednesday, July 06, 2005

TCS: Tech Central Station - 'Terror Target No. 1'

TCS: Tech Central Station - 'Terror Target No. 1'

'Terror Target No. 1'
By Austin Bay Published 07/06/2005


NORTHERN PERSIAN GULF, AL BASRAH OIL TERMINAL -- Desert and ocean, sand and salt, literally collide in the brown-white haze above the blue water of the Persian Gulf.



It's noon, 109 degrees, and I'm standing next to a U.S. Navy petty officer who mans a machine gun on the Al Basrah Oil Terminal's (ABOT) shade-less upper deck, 16 miles off the Iraqi mainland. ABOT's the tight spot where oil and water meet, if not quite mix.



The petty officer adjusts his camouflage boonie hat and points toward the horizon. "Alfa sector," he says. Two kilometers west of ABOT, the cruiser USS Normandy shimmers in the haze as it slowly patrols the maritime exclusion zone around "Iraq's terror target No. 1."



"Terror target No. 1" is a big-time claim, but then ABOT and its decrepit cousin, KAAOT -- Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal -- are huge oil spigots. In the last six months, ABOT has pumped 270 million barrels of crude into oil tankers -- and put roughly $14 billion into Iraq's desperate treasury.



"We feel like we're guarding Iraq's economy," the Normandy's commander, Capt. Stephen Hampton, told me before I took the boat ride from his cruiser to ABOT.



Originally designed to protect the fleet from Soviet aircraft, and now capable of firing anti-ballistic missiles, super-cruisers like the Normandy have become high-tech and low-tech counter-terror warriors. Stroll the Normandy's deck, and you'll find twin-50-caliber machine guns reminiscent of World War II PT boats. The cruiser also sports 25 mm chain guns like those found on Army Bradley armored vehicles. "The machine guns may be lower-tech than our other systems," Hampton observed, "but they are the right tech for stopping small boats."



He meant small boats manned by terrorists -- speedboats or dhows that could target coalition naval vessels or the oil terminals. "If it's a choice between my ship and ABOT," Hampton said tersely, "I'll put my ship between the terrorist boat and the oil terminal. This mission's that important."

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