NORTH IONIAN SEA – The flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman was blanketed in jet engine gas vapor as F-18 Super Hornets successively rocketed into the sky. Watching takeoffs and landings up close “is one of the most dangerous things you will ever do,” claimed my minder, an officer with 28 years of Navy experience.
In the noise and fury of the flight deck, that didn’t feel like an exaggeration: the experience was harrowing. The growl of the throttle on an airplane flying at 1.8 times the speed of sound makes your chest rattle and your heart race despite hearing protection. More than once we were shouted at with drill sergeant intensity, “GET BEHIND THE LINE!” while planes constantly taxied, took off and landed around us. Welcome to the danger zone.
While the high pace was business as usual for the crew of the USS Truman, the backdrop, both geographically and politically, was not: Accustomed to the Pacific Ocean and Middle Eastern seas, the USS Truman strike force is now in the North Ionian Meer, its fighter jets and radar planes patrolling NATO’s eastern borders, looking east at a Ukraine now under attack by Russian forces.
Since the invasion nearly a month ago, these Truman-based jets have flown more than 75 patrol missions across NATO’s eastern flank to the Ukrainian border. The so-called “Enhanced Air Policing” mission is part of NATO’s Assurance Measures, introduced in 2014 after Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and aims to defend NATO airspace and prevent Russian incursions.
The 20-story nuclear-powered Truman is the flagship of a battle group, a mobile combat force of up to 10 destroyers and submarines, 8 aircraft squadrons and a missile cruiser that can move anywhere on the world’s seas to launch missile or air strikes or just a visible proof of American determination.
As a mobile US air force base, the Truman will be on the front lines if NATO decides to enforce a no-fly zone or if the worst happens and NATO forces are drawn into direct conflict. “The role of Truman and other allies is to deter the Russians from further aggression and to be constantly ready for orders that might be given by our President or other leaders around the world to protect Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told POLITICO during a visit to the airline.
Since the War on Terror began 20 years ago, US Navy carriers have spent the majority of their deployments in the Middle East. More recently, as tensions with China mounted, there has been a “pivot” in US alignment with the Pacific to counter the perceived security threat of Chinese ambitions in the region. But with the invasion of Ukraine, the center of gravity has shifted to Eastern Europe, at least for the time being, and the strike force is now stationed in the Mediterranean.
Because of Russian pressure, more US warships are in the Mediterranean than ever before, Del Toro said. “There are numerous Russian ships and submarines in the Mediterranean today, and that’s why it’s important for NATO to have an equal presence to deter them,” he said, adding, “The only thing Putin understands is strength.”
The mission is about demonstrating not only to Russia, but also to the US’s NATO allies that, despite the unwillingness to engage militarily in Ukraine, things are different when it comes to states within NATO. After Donald Trump’s years when NATO faced an existential crisis, Truman’s presence in the Mediterranean as part of a NATO mission is also a physical manifestation of President Joe Biden’s message to NATO allies that America is back.
For Lieutenant Adam Wawro, one of the F-18 pilots, the mission is technically similar to hundreds he has participated in during his five-year training. But it has symbolic value – it sends the message to both Russians and allies that NATO is real.
“We are here to show NATO’s determination to show that we are there for them, not just in words but in deeds. That we will be there.” They show that NATO “really exists, that it is more than just a set of ideas on paper,” he added.
This return to multilateralism after the years of wilderness is reflected in the US forces’ approach to the Ukraine conflict, which has forced NATO forces to work together more than they have in the past 25 years. “We’re working at a level with NATO allies that most people on board have never seen,” said Lt. Commander Shawn Ekland, a spokesman for the carrier group. “Normally we would zach [sic] then zorch through the Mediterranean to the Middle East [sic] back, it’s very unusual to hang around here.”
Last week, the airline converged with French airline FS Charles de Gaulle and Italian airline Cavour. “They operated as a combined entity. It’s a big deal,” Ekland said.
After training with the Romanians in March, pilots involved in the Enhanced Air Policing mission will be able to refuel in the air from NATO partners, doubling the time they can remain on the field and freeing up capacity in the event that they work seamlessly together.
Captain Patrick Hourigan, commander of the battle group air squadron, said: “We meet in the sky, we know where to meet, how to talk to them, how much fuel to expect. We do this often enough, it’s becoming standard practice.”
What remains unsaid is that much as this is a show of force in favor of Russia, and perhaps China, this signals that the US is ready to back sanctions with military positions and reassure European allies of post-Trump American resolve, the show is also a salutary reminder for Europeans to increase spending in their own backyard. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has urged Europe to do more to patrol its own neighborhood. And to be fair, European resolve has stiffened. With the U.S. botched withdrawal from Afghanistan last year and the risk of a Trump 2.0 presidency at risk, European leaders are realizing they can no longer lean as heavily on Washington to defend democracy.
Those on board deflected questions about the mission’s broader political nuances that were more concerned with the immediate urgency of the conflict. In her daily operations, the Ukraine conflict “created more motivation, a greater sense of purpose that we are actually out here for a very serious reason,” said Wawro.
The bird’s-eye view of the war made the reality of the Russian threat clear, he said: “We are right on the border, where everything happens. We see the fronts. We can see a lot.” He added, “It’s quite humbling.”
https://www.politico.eu/article/the-only-thing-putin-understands-is-strength-us-aircraft-carrier-flexes-muscle-in-the-med/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication US aircraft carrier shows muscles in the Mediterranean – POLITICO