Truman finds a familiar mission in a new, Mediterranean setting
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 5, 2016
Note: This article has been corrected.
ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN — The enemy is the same, as are the bombs being dropped against them. Only the setting has changed.
The airstrikes begun by this aircraft carrier on Friday opened a new avenue of attack against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq. But for the roughly 5,000 sailors aboard the Truman, which entered European waters on Thursday, it was the same torrid pace they’ve come to know from more than five months of airstrikes in the Middle East.
“The missions here in the Mediterranean are just like the ones we flew from the [Persian] Gulf,” Adm. Bret Batchelder, the carrier strike group commander, said in an interview Friday. “The thing that’s significant about it is that the aircraft carrier can operate from anywhere.”
Pilots were scheduled to fly 14 sorties into Syria and Iraq on Friday, a typical number for a day of operations, Batchelder said. They catapulted from the deck of the Truman to fly over the Eastern Mediterranean into Turkey before crossing the Syrian border.
The missions are more familiar from there. Pilots remain on station to provide close-air support for ground forces and target Islamic State fighters, vehicles or fortifications, much as they did when flying from the Perisan Gulf. They rely on the same American observers to set the targets from the ground, and they use the same weapons — precision-guided bombs ranging from 500 to 2,000 pounds.
Aircraft from the Truman’s Carrier Air Wing 7 had dropped more than 1,400 pieces of ordnance on Islamic State targets by the time they left the Persian Gulf, the result of an expanded target list and a new urgency after terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Calif., and Brussels, all committed by Islamic State group members or sympathizers.
“The president came out and said Operation Inherent Resolve — the destruction of ISIL — was his No. 1 priority, and there have been some accelerants applied to that,” said Batchelder, using an acronym for the terrorist group. “We’re part of those accelerants.”
The carrier has the same reach in the Mediterranean as it did in the Persian Gulf, Batchelder said, its pilots as capable of covering the far corners of the conflict area as they were for the past five months.
But by striking from the Mediterranean, the Truman accomplishes two things — it maintains the same level of coverage while nearing its home in Norfolk, Va., and it provides a symbol of American power to be touted by U.S. commanders amid Russia’s growing presence in the region.
The Truman is slated to end its deployment in July, 30 days later than originally planned. The Defense Department extended its tour to minimize the gap between it and its replacement, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is now on its way to the Mediterranean.
In the meantime, the Truman provides a presence that hasn’t been seen in European waters since 2003, the last time an American carrier conducted flight operations in the Mediterranean. Its strike group, which counts four destroyers and a carrier, gives commanders new options for nearby operations. One possibility is a destroyer visit to the Black Sea.
There were more immediate concerns on the Truman flight deck on Friday. Inbound pilots circled the ship to land as deck crews cleared the flattop of each new arrival. Ordnance handlers wheeled out carts stacked with bombs, and pilots made their final checks from their cockpits.
Flight deck temperatures were a manageable 85 to 90 degrees on Friday; they were approaching 110 degrees as the carrier left the Middle East.
“It’s cooler, which is nice,” said Cmdr. Marvin “Starvin” Scott, an F/A-18 pilot with the embarked squadron VFA-83, when asked to compare working in the two theaters. “I don’t think it’s going to be too much different other than the logistics of getting into the country.”
There are a few other differences for the ship. The Mediterranean offers more space to operate and fewer hostile neighbors, a constant concern in the Persian Gulf, where Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats are never far away and often eager to provoke U.S. ships. The sea is also deeper than the Gulf and surrounded by countries equipped with submarine fleets, including Russia, Turkey and Israel.
“It’s always that wonder of who is out there or are they out there,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian Kiar, a sonar technician with the USS Gravely, one of four destroyer escorts for the carrier. “And that’s what we always have to keep an eye out for, an ear out for.”
The strike group saw little of the Russians that first day, aside from an oil tanker. That could change in the days ahead, and it may not make much difference to the majority of sailors on this ship. They’ll have plenty to do, regardless.
“The pace has not let up one bit,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Ronald Canady, an ordnance handler. “Not one bit.”
Two F/A-18 jets are prepared for launch on the USS Harry S. Truman on Friday, June 3, 2016. The Truman launched airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq from the Mediterranean, a first in the nearly two-year long U.S.-led effort to defeat the militant group.
STEVEN BEARDSLEY/STARS AND STRIPES