ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN—This 20-story-tall aircraft carrier with a crew of 5,000 made an unplanned diversion from the Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean last week—a quick pivot intended to send a clear message to Russia.
The massive ship serves as a launching point for a near-constant barrage of airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. Since November, it has accounted for a little more than half of the total sorties flown over those two countries by the U.S. military.
Rear Adm. Bret Batchelder, the highest-ranking officer on the carrier, told visiting reporters this week that moving the “capital ship” of the U.S. Navy from the Gulf through the Suez Canal is a flexing of muscle meant to reassure North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies of the American commitment to maintaining the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean.
“It is a demonstration of capability. That’s for sure,” he said. “There are undoubtedly folks who are watching that and this is just a graphic representation of what we’re capable of.”
The repositioning of the USS Harry S. Truman provides a window into American military strategy at a time when Russia has asserted itself aggressively in the region, using its navy and air force to turn the tide of the five-year Syria conflict in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.
The U.S. has shown a willingness to use powerful Navy vessels to make provocative political statements, as it did in 2015 when it sailed a destroyer through the South China Sea at the height of tensions with Beijing over China’s territorial claims there.
A military official in Washington said the Truman’s shift was a signal to Moscow and a demonstration of the Navy’s operational flexibility and reach.
The ship is operating in the U.S. European Command’s area of responsibility while conducting airstrikes inside Iraq and Syria—which fall under another combatant command, U.S. Central Command. This demonstrates the U.S. Navy can be agile and adaptive, the official said.
“It provides some needed presence in the Med to check…the Russians,” the official said. “The unpredictability of what we did with Truman kind of makes them think twice.”
Russia has maintained a contingent of about 10 to 15 ships in the Mediterranean for three years because of the conflict in Syria. In March, state media said the country’s sole aircraft carrier would be sent to join those ships by summer.
Russian and U.S. aims in the Syrian war aren’t entirely at odds.
Moscow and its Syrian regime allies, like the U.S.-led coalition, are all battling Islamic State.
The official and Adm. Batchelder said the ship’s position in the Mediterranean could make it a vital asset if the U.S. and its allies were to begin operations against Islamic State in Libya. The U.S. is contemplating operations in the oil-rich North African country.
On the ship’s 4.5-acre flight deck, sailors and airmen busied themselves with launching and landing F-18 class jet fighters. The carrier, one of 10 in the Navy’s fleet, is capable of catapulting an aircraft off the deck every 40 seconds.
The vessel has been a workhorse in operations against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq since it joined the effort in November, launching seven-hour close-air-support missions several times a day.
Planes from the carrier conducted 52 strikes in Iraq and Syria from Friday through Tuesday.
The 75-plane fleet assigned to the ship responds to calls from allies on the ground for airstrikes.
Starting in the early morning and lasting well into the night, F/A-18 jet fighters and E-2C Hawkeye surveillance planes take off using a steam-powered catapult to slingshot them off the short runway.
Capt. David Little, commander of the air squadrons, said his fleet has been active recently over Fallujah, where Iraq’s military and allied militia forces have been engaged in an intense battle to uproot Islamic State from one of the first cities it occupied.
Capt. Little declined to identify specific targets, but said the Truman’s airborne fleet has focused its firepower on Islamic State’s ability to wage war and he rattled off a list of the types of facilities the jet fighters have struck based on intelligence provided by partners on the ground.
“Where they store money, the oil refineries they steal the money from, the banks where they store and hide money, the factories where they produce vehicle-borne [improvised explosive devices],” he said.
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