The planes never seem to stop coming and going. After six months in the Persian Gulf, the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier has moved to the Mediterranean Sea, from where its bombers are jetting off faster and more frequently to strike ISIS targets in war-ravaged Syria and Iraq.
An F/A-18 Hornet comes in to land on the deck of the Truman after a mission against ISIS. Its empty wings indicate bombs have been dropped.
The Truman has been instrumental to the United States’ military campaign against ISIS, known as Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria. Aside from a land base in Turkey, it is the main launching point for bombing runs against ISIS.
It has now dropped more bombs on ISIS than any other vessel in America’s fleet. It is ratcheting up its attacks as U.S.-allied forces gain ground, with the support of the United States, in the conflict that has raged for five years, causing devastating civilian deaths and destruction. Iraqi Security Forces seem close to winning back the Iraqi stronghold of Falluja. In northern Syria, a pro-U.S. coalition of Kurdish and Arab troops is pushing ISIS out of the Syrian-Turkish border area and closing in on the extremists’ self-declared capital of Raqqa.
From their initial position in the Persian Gulf and now from the Mediterranean, the carrier’s crew has flown more than 1,800 sorties and dropped around 1,500 pieces of ordnance weighing some 1.5 million pounds on ISIS targets.
Crew members haul fully assembled guided bombs across the Truman’s deck.
“It’s a graphic illustration of the flexibility that’s inherent with the naval forces,” the carrier strike group’s commander, Rear Adm. Bret Batchelder, said in an interview with CNN.
“We can operate anywhere we want to in the world. As it happens on this deployment our priority has been the support of Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria,” he said.
A cycle usually starts with several tanker aircraft taking off, followed by the F/A-18 Hornet strike aircraft, which are loaded with guided bombs to hit ISIS targets as precisely as possible. The missions are long, often around seven hours, and intensive. Each can require three refueling rendezvous with the tankers.
An F18 Hornet locked into the steam catapult shortly before being launched off the USS Harry Truman carrier
CNN spoke to one of the first F/A-18 crews to return from a bombing mission in Syria after taking off from the new location in the Mediterranean.
The crew would only let us use their call signs — pilot Lt. “Fanus” and weapons systems officer Lt. “Slips” of the “Fighting 103” out of Virginia.
“It was a close-air support mission, so that means we don’t know the targets prior to taking off. But this time there did happen to be a few targets so we struck those targets,” Lt. “Fanus” told us, unable to say exactly what the targets were.
The sailors responsible for making sure bombs are always available are working extra hours to keep up with the new pace.
We met aviation ordnance man Ronald Canady, who is on his third carrier deployment. He and the other ordnance men and women not only have to get bombs on the carrier from supply ships and then get them to the planes, they also have to assemble them.
“We get the call that we have to build the bombs. It is just the bomb body at the beginning. Then we have to assemble the tail piece. After that we configure the nose piece of the bomb,” he told us.
The most common ordnance used is a 500-pound guided bomb called the GBU-38.
“We drop these very regularly,” Canady said, standing on front of a rack of them in the carrier’s so-called “bomb farm.”
“We also load some air-to-air missiles, but the air-to-ground munitions are most used right now.”
Humanitarian groups have voiced concern over the increased tempo of American air operations, fearing that more bombs dropped will lead to more civilian casualties in ISIS-controlled areas. The Truman’s crew is aware of those concerns, and pilots told us they use smaller, 500-pound bombs rather than larger, 1,000-pound munitions to limit the impact area as best they can. But of course civilians in war zones are always at risk.
The USS Harry Truman will remain in the Mediterranean Sea for several more weeks — a decisive time as ISIS’ grip on its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds appears to be weakening.
The carrier’s crew is already under strain because their deployment has been extended by a full month. The ship’s commander, Capt. Ryan R. Scholl, acknowledges the long stay at sea is tough on many crew members, so senior officers try to boost morale.
“We try to explain to each sailor so they know, okay, the initial number was 25% and (now) ISIS is losing 45% of its territory. Those numbers are tangible to them,” he said.
The F/A-18 pilots have seen those gains evolve from the skies during their missions in recent months.
“We have definitely degraded them and we have destroyed them in many different places in Iraq and Syria,” Lt. “Fanus” said after his bombing mission over Syria. “So I feel like we have had a large impact.”