A U.S. Flattop Bombed Militants, Thwarted Hijackers and Stared Down Russia
USS ‘George H.W. Bush’ has been busy
On Nov. 15, hundreds of people gathered in Norfolk, Virginia to welcome home the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush from a long stint chasing hijackers, bombing insurgents and trying to intimidate Russia.
Lasting nine months and covering more than 73,000 miles, it was an unusually lengthy cruise for a supercarrier. Traditionally, American flattops sail for just six months at a time. But with the Pentagon’s budget tightening and the world still a dangerous place, such long and eventful deployments could become the norm.
At the start of 2014, the sailors of the Bush strike group—which also included dozens of aircraft, two destroyers and a cruiser—probably didn’t imagine their voyage would be anything out of the ordinary.
The armada “worked hard in preparation for this deployment and is ready to go,” Rear Adm. John Aquilino, then the strike group commander, told Navy reporters in February.
“Maritime security operations in international waters around the globe” would be the mission of the day, the Navy reported.
Rear Adm. DeWolfe Miller took over from Aquilino in a routine change of command shortly after Bush left port.
The carrier was scheduled to sail through the Mediterranean before taking up station in the Persian Gulf. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Navy has usually kept at least one flattop in a position to launch air strikes into Afghanistan.
Each displacing more than 100,000 tons, with a crew of thousands, America’s 10 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers are one of the clearest expressions of the country’s military might. Bush is the youngest member of the class—this deployment was only her second international outing.
Early on, the flattop’s sailors probably expected their only action would take place in Afghanistan. Other than that, Bush and the rest of her company might bump into errant pirates or aid fishermen or immigrants in distress. Sailors would probably spend the rest of their time training or enjoying some time ashore during port visits.
“When word of crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is—where is the nearest carrier?” Pres. Bill Clinton famously said while visiting USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1993.
Sure enough, Bush had been in the Mediterranean for only a few days when the first crisis struck.
On Feb. 21, Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych fled into exile after months of political upheaval, popular protests and outright violence. Within a week, Russian special forces and local militias had begun taking control of government offices in the strategic Crimea region.
“Russia today has challenged truths that only a few weeks ago appeared to be self-evident—that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe would not be redrawn with force,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at NATO’s headquarters in Belgium shortly thereafter.
Washington declined to respond to the invasion with any direct military action. But the Pentagon still hoped the Bush’s mere presence in the region might demonstrate America’s position on the matter.
In addition, USS Truxtun—one of the strike group’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers—broke off from the team to briefly sail into the Black Sea. The 9,000-ton-displacement warship could only stay in the area for 21 days under the provisions of the Montreaux Convention.
The 1936 convention bans warships displacing more than 15,000 tons—such as aircraft carriers—from sailing through the Bosporus Straits. But Bush’s full compliment of F/A-18 fighter jets and other support aircraft could easily have rushed in if a skirmish had occurred.
But even while Bush was standing guard, making stops at ports in Greece and Turkey, another emergency was developing to the south. Libyan militants had loaded a tanker full of oil and announced plans to sell it abroad.
Authorities in Tripoli said the fighters were stealing both government and private property. Libyan boats moved in to block the North Korean-flagged Morning Glory from leaving the country.
On March 9, “the tanker’s movements are under complete control and nobody can move it,” Libyan culture minister Habib Al Amin told Reuters. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan echoed those sentiments the next day.
But Morning Glory was actually moving farther into the Med. When the truth came out, Libya’s parliament sacked Zeidan and called on Washington to help catch the “pirates.”
The Pentagon quickly turned to Bush and her accompanying ships. Elite Navy SEALs left their bases in Europe for the USS Roosevelt—the strike group’s other destroyer.
From this impromptu sea base, the naval commandos stormed the tanker and subdued the hijackers on March 16. Afterwards, USS Stout—an Arleigh Burke-class warship not assigned to Bush’s team—escorted the merchant ship back to port so Bush’s armada could continue on its planned missions.
Three days after the raid on the high seas, the carrier finally sailed through the Suez canal on its way to supporting troops in Afghanistan—as expected.
The flattop launched the first sorties on March 25. In the end, Bush’s air arm would fly more than 1,000 individual missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Pentagon’s nickname for its worldwide counterterrorism effort.
But another regional conflict would soon demand Bush’s attention. In 2013, Sunni extremists led by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi had formed a new insurgent group—Islamic State.
Al Baghdadi’s organization started out as part of Al Qaeda’s regional franchise in Iraq, but reorganized itself in the chaos of Syria’s brutal civil war. The new group finally cut ties with its original benefactors in 2014.
While Bush’s Hornet fighters scoured Afghanistan for the Taliban, Islamic State militants were busy infiltrating Iraq. In a violent blitz over the summer, the insurgents quickly captured much of northwest Iraq—and promptly began raping and enslaving women and murdering religious minorities and military prisoners.
As Baghdad’s army collapsed, Washington initially resisted returning its forces to Iraq.
“As we speak right now, there is no aircraft carrier zorching into the Persian Gulf,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby insisted on June 14, borrowing an uncommon computer term for rapid movement.
But the very next day, the Pentagon announced that Bush, along with Truxtun and the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Philippine Sea, were heading for the Persian Gulf.
American military advisers sped to the embattled nation as spy planes flew overhead. Just three years after withdrawing its occupation forces, the U.S. was back in Iraq.
Then on Aug. 8, the Pentagon launched its first air strikes against Islamic State. F/A-18s dropped laser-guided bombs and fired missiles at militant forces.
At the same time, Bush’s elderly EA-6B jamming planes—on their last front-line deployment with the Navy—flew electronic-warfare missions. The EA-6Bs might have scrambled enemy radio transmissions, blocked hand-held surface-to-air missiles from locking on or even prevented roadside bombs from detonating.
In total, planes from Bush’s Carrier Air Wing Eight completed almost 2,000 individual flights over Iraq and Syria as part of the operation, which the military eventually gave the codename Inherent Resolve. On top of that, Truxtun and Philippine Sea lobbed nearly 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles at militant positions.
“The George H.W. Bush Strike Group[’s] … ability to remain flexible and committed to their craft, was a factor in the success from the beginning against ISIL,” media relations officers at the Navy’s Middle East command in Bahrain told War Is Boring, using a common acronym for Islamic State.
On Oct. 20, Bush and her strike group swapped with the carrier Carl Vinson and her own entourage. After nearly eight months of continuous operations and combat in three different war zones, the hardworking sailors were now heading home.
Eight months in combat—and another month in transit—amount to “quite a hardship,” said Eric Wertheim, a naval expert and the author of the U.S. Naval Institute’s authoritative Combat Fleets of the World.
In that time, the group’s pilots flew more than 18,000 hours in combat. Logistics ships delivered more than 2,000 tons of ordnance and 16 million gallons of jet fuel to keep Bush’s planes going. Bush rendezvoused with supply ships at sea 26 separate times.
With the crisis in Ukraine still simmering, the flattop also “hosted senior delegations from Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Georgia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Spain” as she traveled westward through the Mediterranean, the Navy’s headquarters in Europe revealed.
“These engagements were critical to reassuring our NATO allies and partners and to ensuring stability throughout Europe,” the HQ’s public affairs officer explained.
“The flexibility and striking power inherent in a carrier strike group made a difference on this deployment,” strike group commander Miller said after Bush returned to base.
“This ship and air wing team possesses tremendous capabilities,” Bush’s skipper Capt. Andrew Loiselle added.
And the epic cruise might become a more regular occurrence in the near future. In January, the Navy outlined a plans to cut the number of carriers it keeps in a ready state. The readiness reduction is an inevitable consequence of Congress’ automatic “sequestration” budget cuts.
On average, a carrier strike group costs $3 million dollars every day to operate, U.S. Fleet Forces Command told War Is Boring.
Under the so-called “Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” each of the Nimitz-class ships can expect to be out on patrol for eight months every three years. Two flattops will be roaming the seas at any one time, down from the three or four usually sailing today.
The plan is meant to save money, but it amounts to fewer flattops at sea in the event of a crisis—and any one carrier having to work harder than normal in order to take up the slack from sister ships staying home.
Soon, epic could become routine for America’s flattops.