Dual carrier exercise, diplomacy underscore US effort to prevent broader Middle East war
Stars and Stripes November 4, 2023
NAPLES, Italy — Two Navy aircraft carriers and about 11,000 U.S. personnel launched aircraft and practiced missile defense during a three-day exercise in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, a show of strength that coincides with high-level diplomacy aimed at preventing a wider war in the Middle East.
The Gerald R. Ford and Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike groups coordinated flights between the two decks and trained on several sea operations, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet said in a statement Friday.
The amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney and the Italian navy frigates ITS Virginio Fasan and ITS Carlo Margottini joined the drills, the Navy said. Mount Whitney is the flagship of the Italy-based U.S. 6th Fleet.
Although two-carrier exercises with an included ally aren’t unprecedented, few other nations have the capabilities to execute such drills effectively.
The show of force won’t go unnoticed by Iran, said Sebastian Bruns, a naval and maritime security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. Iran backs both Hamas and proxy forces that are launching missile and drone attacks on U.S. bases in the region.
“The naval forces offer a wide set of tools, from reassuring allies to deterrence and coercion of antagonists,” Bruns said.
The exercise also sends a message to Russia and China, Bruns said.
Since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas that tortured and killed 1,400 people in Israel, Moscow and Beijing have flooded state and social media with messages portraying the war as a U.S. failure, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center said.
Eisenhower, along with the destroyers USS Gravely and USS Mason, entered the Mediterranean Oct. 28. The cruiser USS Philippine Sea followed soon after.
The group already was scheduled for a routine deployment, presumably to relieve Ford.
But in the days after Hamas attacked Israel, Ford and Eisenhower were ordered to the eastern Mediterranean.
Ford’s deployment was extended, and Eisenhower was redirected to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. The Navy did not say when Eisenhower would depart for the Middle East.
It also wasn’t clear if Fasan would deploy with the group when it leaves the Mediterranean. Fasan participated in a training exercise with the Eisenhower group earlier this year in anticipation of a planned deployment.
The Pentagon acknowledged but did not answer questions Friday about the status of Fasan’s deployment.
In recent days, open-source intelligence analysts have noted about 48 U.S. and allied ships, including those from Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, operating in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.
The Ford group includes Carrier Air Wing 8, the destroyers USS Ramage, USS Bulkeley and USS Paul Ignatius, as well as the cruiser USS Normandy.
Carrier Air Wing 3 with its nine squadrons is deployed with Eisenhower, the statement said.
The naval activity came during U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Middle East leaders.
On Saturday, Blinken met in Jordan with Arab foreign ministers to find ways to ease Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, The Associated Press reported.
Israel maintains that there can be no temporary cease-fire until all of the roughly 240 hostages held by Hamas are released.