US aircraft carrier flexes its muscles in the Mediterranean – POLITICO
NORTH IONIAN SEA — The flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier was covered in jet engine gas fumes as one F-18 Super Hornet after another soared into the sky. Watching takeoffs and landings up close “is one of the most dangerous things you’ll ever do,” said my caretaker, an officer with 28 years of naval experience.
In the sound and fury of the cockpit, it didn’t sound like hyperbole: the experience was shocking. Despite hearing protection, the roar of an airplane’s throttle stick traveling at 1.8 times the speed of sound makes your rib cage vibrate and your heart race. More than once we were shouted with drill sergeant intensity of “GO BEHIND THE LINE!” as planes taxied, took off and landed constantly 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 geographical and political, was not: accustomed to the Pacific Ocean and the seas of the Middle East, the USS Truman Strike Group is now in the northern Ionian Sea, its fighter jets and radar planes patrolling NATO’s eastern borders and looking east towards a Ukraine currently overrun by the Russian armed forces.
Since the invasion nearly a month ago, these jets have carried out more than 75 patrol missions across NATO’s eastern flank to the Ukrainian border from the Truman. The so-called Enhanced Air Policing mission is part of the NATO assurance measures introduced in 2014, after the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia, and aims to defend NATO airspace, in preventing Russian incursions.
The 20-story nuclear-powered Truman is the flagship of a Strike Group, a mobile combat force of up to 10 destroyers and submarines, 8 aircraft squadrons and a missile cruiser that can move n anywhere in the seas of the world, launching missiles or airstrikes or simply providing visible proof of American resolve.
As a mobile American air base, the Truman will be on the front line if NATO decides to impose a no-fly zone, or if the worst should happen and NATO forces are drawn into a direct conflict. “Truman’s role, along with other allies, is to deter the Russians from further aggression and to be constantly on standby for any orders that may be given by our President or other leaders around the world for the protection of the ‘Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,’ US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told POLITICO during a visit to the aircraft carrier.
Since the start of the War on Terror 20 years ago, US Navy aircraft carriers have spent most of their deployments in the Middle East. More recently, as tensions with China have risen, there has been a “pivot” in US attention to the Pacific, to counter the perceived security threat presented by Chinese ambitions in the region. But with the invasion of Ukraine, the center of gravity has, for now at least, shifted to Eastern Europe, and the strike group is now stationed in the Mediterranean.
Due to Russian pressure, there are more US warships in the Mediterranean than ever before, Del Toro said. “There are many Russian ships and submarines in the Mediterranean today and that is why it is important that NATO has an equal presence, to deter them,” he said, adding: “The only thing Putin understands is strength.”
The mission is to demonstrate not only to Russia but also to the NATO allies of the United States that, despite the unwillingness to engage militarily on behalf of Ukraine, it is another matter when these are countries within NATO. After the Donald Trump 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 the allies of NATO that America is back.
For Lt. Adam Wawro, one of the F-18 pilots, the mission is technically similar to the hundreds he flew in during his five years of training. But it has symbolic value – sending a message to Russians and allies that NATO is real.
“We are here to show NATO’s determination, to show that we are there for them with more than words, with actions. That we will be there. They show that NATO “really exists, that it is more than a number of ideas on paper”, he added.
This return to multilateralism after the savage years is reflected in the approach taken by US forces to the Ukraine conflict, which has required NATO forces to cooperate more meaningfully than in the past 25 years. “We are working on a level with NATO allies that most people on board have never seen,” said Lt. Commander Shawn Ekland, spokesman for the carrier group. “Usually we zorch [sic] across the Mediterranean to the Middle East then zorch [sic] It’s very unusual to hang out here.
Last week, the carrier converged with French carrier FS Charles de Gaulle and Italian carrier Cavour. “They operated as a combined unit. It’s a big deal,” Ekland said.
After training with the Romanians in March, pilots involved in the Enhanced Air Policing mission are able to refuel in the air from NATO partners, doubling the time they can remain on mission and strengthening the ability for contingency to fight together seamlessly.
Battle Group Air Wing Commander Captain Patrick Hourigan said: ‘We meet in the sky, we know where to meet, how to talk to them, how much gas to expect. We do it quite often, it’s becoming common practice.
What is left unsaid is that while this is a show of force for the benefit of Russia, and possibly China, signaling that the United States is ready to buttress the sanctions through military stances and to reassure European allies of America’s post-Trump resolve, the spectacle is also a salutary reminder to Europeans to increase spending in their own backyards. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has pressed Europe to do more to police its own neighborhood. And to be fair, the European will has grown stronger. Aware of the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year and aware of the risk of a Trump 2.0 presidency, European leaders are realizing that they can no longer rely so heavily on Washington to defend democracy.
Those on board deflected questions about the broader political nuances of the mission, more concerned with the immediate urgency of the conflict. In their day-to-day missions, the conflict in Ukraine has created “more motivation, a greater sense of purpose, that we are actually here for a very serious reason,” Wawro said.
Seeing the big picture of the war brought home the reality of the Russian threat, he said: “We are right there, on the border, where everything is happening. You can see the facades. We can see many things. He added: “It’s quite humiliating.”