Weighing in at a cool 95,000 tonnes, the Nimitz class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN 69) is the second of ten such vessels that form the cornerstone of United States Naval Aviation. The Nimitz-class carriers are the largest and most powerful warships in the world, and are constantly in demand across a wide spectrum of conflicts, in theatres around the globe. Typical of these demands is the recent coalition effort to defeat the threat of so-called ‘Islamic State’ in Syria and Iraq.
Deployed in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE since June 2016, ‘The Mighty Ike’ has been conducting daily strike missions against so-called Islamic State, from both the Arabian Gulf with US Navy 5th Fleet and more recently from the Mediterranean Sea with US Navy 6th Fleet. Flying from the Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay in Crete, AeroResource joined the crew of the Ike shortly after the ship entered the Mediterranean.
This article focuses on the role of the USS Dwight D Eisenhower in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, and is accompanied by a companion piece describing Aircraft Carrier Operations.
Operation Inherent Resolve Strikes
When the USS Dwight D Eisenhower and Carrier Strike Group 10 (CSG-10) arrived in the Mediterranean at the start of its deployment in June 2016 to take over from the USS Harry S Truman (CVN 75), the event marked the largest number of US carriers on active operations since 2012 – with the USS John C Stennis (CVN 74) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) also on deployment in the Asian theatre.
Combat strikes from the Eisenhower took place from the Eastern Mediterranean between June 28th and July 7th, with 116 sorties and 104 weapons deployed – before the Ike transited the Suez Canal to take up station in the Arabian Gulf, where it would remain for the following five months.
The USS Dwight D Eisenhower departed the Arabian Gulf area of operations on November 25th, handing command of U.S. Central Command Task Force (CTF) 50 to Commodore Andrew Burns of the Royal Navy Amphibious Task Group, embarked on HMS Ocean (L 12). During their period of deployment in the Arabian Gulf, the crew of the Ike generated 1,685 combat sorties in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE – involving 995 ordnance expenditures. Note that tanker sorties supporting strike aircraft do not count towards the total number of combat sorties.
Having transited the Suez Canal and arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean in early December, the Eisenhower immediately restarted strike operations – with 12 combat sorties and 19 ordnance drops on December 6th (the first day of operations) alone. Strike operations would typically see F/A-18C Hornets together F/A-18E and F Super Hornets flying from the Eisenhower in the Arabian Gulf up to Iraq, coupling with a tanker-equipped Super Hornet before being directed to conduct strikes in their area of operation. A single sortie could last up to 8 hours, and see multiple trips into the combat zone, refuelling at the tanker between strikes before an eventual return to the Eisenhower.
Rear Admiral James J. Malloy, Commander of Carrier Strike Group 10 was rightly adamant that the Eisenhower brought a unique and valuable capability to bear against Islamic State. The Eisenhower‘s carrier power is so critical to the fight that it makes up approximately 20-30% of all combat strikes in Iraq and Syria. Most strikes are performed by guided weapons employing the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kit, enabling precision targeting to reduce collateral damage – and it is this precision strike capability that Rear Admiral Malloy considers one of the greatest assets of the Eisenhower:
In the current fight we’re in, in Mosul for instance, that flexible timely precision strike capability is incredibly valuable to support the Iraqi forces on the ground to retake that city. It’s a moving fight, it’s a constantly changing house to house, block to block fight and so when we take off from the Eisenhower and travel there, the missions would evolve and change whilst the pilots are still in the air, so they check in with the ground controller – in what’s called “Dynamic Targeting” – and are given the targets once they get into the area – so it allows us to respond almost instantaneously to whatever change is happening on the ground.
The ability the carrier brings is that precision capability, which is necessary because of the urban terrain, because of our fervent desire to minimise or eliminate civilian casualties – combined with an enemy that not only doesn’t care about civilian casualties, but actually promotes them. When you’re fighting an enemy like that, you have to be better than good, and in this case that’s why the carrier brings that precise strike capability to this fight.
Whilst Operation INHERENT RESOLVE was the primary aim of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group during the deployment to the US Navy 5th Fleet area of operations, CSG-10 was also required to act in self-defence on one occasion to ensure continued freedom of navigation in international waters.
Operating near the straight of Bab el-Mandeb, the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS Mason was engaged by cruise missiles launched from within Houthi rebel held territory in Yemen – once on October 9th and again on October 12th. Authorised by President Barack Obama, the destroyer USS Nitze (also part of CSG-10) fired five Tomahawk Land Attack Missile at surface surveillance radar targets within Yemen, which had been seen to be active during the attempted strikes on the USS Mason, as well as other previous attempted attacks. Intelligence suggested that all three radars were destroyed, and there were no further confirmed attacks against CSG-10, although the USS Mason did deploy countermeasures against two suspected cruise missiles on October 18th, but these were not confirmed to be actual threats due to a lack of intelligence on the two targets detected.
Rear Admiral Malloy noted that defending against these types of threats was exactly why the Carrier Strike Group train continuously, even whilst supporting active air strikes as part of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE:
We conduct training with all the ships, in order to maintain the readiness that we have, we are at a constant training refresh. The ships have a role of defence of the aircraft carrier, providing a layered defence, but they also have strike mission capability with Tomahawk missile systems. They have anti-submarine capability to defend the carrier, and they are also able to operate independently of the carrier – so I can dial up a full layered defence around the carrier if necessary with aircraft and ships operating in their multi-mission roles.
I can dis-aggregate if I need to and have ships do other missions – a security mission in the Red Sea, a security mission in the western Mediterranean – staying connected with them electronically, but [physically] distributed so they can be doing other missions, can be providing sensor activity back on the ship. They are also, as a microcosm of the force, doing training readiness for exercises that the ships have to do in order to sustain our capability, to be able to go and do what we do.
E-2 Hawkeye Operations
Not all of the operations from the Ike are combat ground strikes – the E-2 Hawkeyes on the carrier have played one of the most critical roles in the air war against ISIS. As part of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, carrier-borne E-2s were one of the first airborne control units involved over Iraq and Syria. The E-2 is able to control and provide direction to any air asset – whether that be those originating from the Eisenhower or other allied aircraft – within its assigned area of operation. When operating in support of INHERENT RESOLVE, the E-2s typically were assigned half of Iraq to cover, with another asset (for example, US Air Force E-3 Sentrys) covering the other portion of the operating area.
One of the hardest tasks for the E-2 crews was to set up the operating procedures for airborne command and control during the first sixth months of OIR sorties. During this time, there were no defined Rules of Engagement for any of the air assets involved. For the first few months, the E-2s were often on station and unable to direct air power to conduct strikes against IS – even when faced with evidence of atrocities on the ground.Fast forward to 2016, and the procedures are more clearly defined – when operating from the Arabian Gulf prior to transiting to the Mediterranean, Eisenhower’s Hawkeyes of VAW-123 would typically control half (normally the southern half) of Iraq, routing the Super Hornets in for strikes in the north of the country.
USS Dwight D Eisenhower operates with FS Charles de Gaulle
Now that the Eisenhower is operating with 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, VAW-123 have reduced their combat operations and are instead conducting more local training sorties. In order to ensure that airborne control coverage is maintained, the French Navy have taken up the task with their E-2C Hawkeyes – operating from on board the FS Charles de Gaulle (R 91) aircraft carrier, which is also deployed in the Mediterranean.
Although the air wings of the USS Dwight D Eisenhower and the FS Charles de Gaulle had been operating together in support of INHERENT RESOLVE whilst the Eisenhower was with 5th Fleet, bringing the ship into the Mediterranean offered additional training opportunities not previously available (due to the physical distance between the ships). However, operating two large vessels in relative proximity whilst conducting air operations does raise additional safety considerations, but Captain Spedero was confident in the ability of the United States and France to cooperatively complete their mission:
We are coordinating, and have cooperative efforts with the Charles de Gaulle – France is our ally and we are completely cooperative in all that we do. There is built in separation [between our ships] so that we are mindful of how much room each of us require to conduct our operations, and we are maintaining that. We also have officers from our group on their ship and from theirs on ours, so we are liaising with them throughout the day. We can share a great deal of information with them, so it’s much easier.
Before the USS Dwight D Eisenhower was on station in the Arabian Gulf, the FS Charles de Gaulle had operated in the area and taken command of CTF-50. This was the first time a non-US vessel had done so, and was required due to a gap in continued capability from the US carrier fleet. The efforts of the Charles de Gaulle in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE earned the ship the Meritorious Unit Commendation from the US Navy, and such is the importance of it’s role that its deployment has already been twice extended, prior to a major 18 month overhaul at the end of combat operations in the Mediterranean.
Shortly ahead of AeroResource’s visit the FS Charles de Gaulle and USS Dwight D Eisenhower had briefly sailed together as the Ike transited towards it’s operating area in the Mediterranean. Two days later, four Dassault Rafale Ms and a single Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye from the Charles de Gaulle performed touch and go’s aboard the Ike – demonstrating the cross-deck capability of these allied forces. Whilst the aircraft did not actually trap and land aboard, their presence on the US ship was an indication of the ongoing cooperative efforts between both nations under Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. Indeed, whilst the Rafales were busy practising on the Eisenhower, a pair of VFA-131 “Wildcats” F/A-18C Hornets, and a VAW-123 “Screwtops” E-2C Hawkeye were conducting the same activity onboard the Charles de Gaulle. Judging by the number of US sailors who came out to see the Rafales (the first visit of the type to the ship during this deployment), the French also had a great effect in boosting morale.
However, the USS Dwight D Eisenhower and FS Charles de Gaulle are not the only aircraft carriers in the region. The Russian ship Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov (or simply the ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’) has also been operating off the Syrian coast since early November 2016. The Kuznetsov is Russia’s last remaining operational carrier, and its deployment to Syria marks its operational debut – a debut which by early December had been marred by the loss of both a MiG-29K Fulcrum and Su-33 Flanker from the 100th and 287th Shipborne Fighter Aviation Regiments respectively. Unlike the cooperative relationship between the Charles de Gaulle and the Eisenhower, there are no allied efforts between the Russian and US forces in this conflict, as Captain Spedero explained:
We don’t have any standing cooperative deal or arrangement with [the Kuznetsov]. We have some standing overarching agreements with regards to lessening the likelihood of miscalculation or escalation when military units from Russia and from the United States interact with each other, so we will fall back on those – primarily how we communicate with each other. The Incidents at Sea agreement is very specific about how we communicate with them to make sure we don’t misunderstand intentions and to make sure we stay clear of them. We’re not in any kind of cooperative agreement with the Russians right now.
The USS Dwight D Eisenhower is slowly coming towards the culmination of its deployment in the Mediterranean, where it will be replaced by the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), which is currently conducting Composite Unit Training Exercises in preparation for its deployment. However, even at the back end of the deployment, the continuing tempo of sorties and strikes have not decreased, with near round-the-clock flying taking place to support forces in contact on the ground. Captain Spedero made note that the pace of the sorties generated over the previous five months were his achievement most worthy of note:
I think in totality the amount of effort that we’ve put in supporting Operation INHERENT RESOLVE [is the most impressive thing], and I can’t say a single day because that really wasn’t the challenging part about it. The challenging part was sustaining the amount of combat power that we projected ashore for a very long period of time, in some very difficult and challenging conditions so it’s really the whole piece – there isn’t a single day [that stood out]. Most days looked very similar to each other, but being able to do this safely and effectively day after day after day has been our biggest success.
AeroResource would like to offer our sincere thanks to Rear Admiral James Malloy, Capt. Paul Spedero, Lt. Cmdr Rebecca Rebarich, Lt.Cmdr Rob “Shooter” Stochel, Lt.Cmdr TJ “Ring” Browning, Lt. Aaron “Shetland” Trodahl, Lt. Kristina Fontenot, Lt.J.G Katie Diener, CPO(SW/AW) John Osborne, PO1 Nathan Babauta, PO2 Tucker Moore, PO2 Ganesh Arjun, PO3(SW/AW) Robert Baldock, PO3(SW/AW) Nathan Beard, Seaman Takory Hardy and Seaman Breanna O’Kelly, as well as Jacky Fisher and Lt Amy Hession. Without the combined assistance of all parties, this article would not have been possible.
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