NORTHERN IONIAN SEA — The flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman was covered with jet engine gas vapor as F-18 Super Hornets rocketed into the sky one after the other. Watching takeoffs and landings at close quarters “is one of the most dangerous things you will ever do,” claimed my minder, an officer with 28 years of experience in the Navy.
In the sound and fury of the flight deck, this didn’t feel like hyperbole: The experience was jarring. Despite ear-defenders, the growl of the throttle from an aircraft that travels at 1.8 times the speed of sound makes your chest cage rattle and your heart race. More than once we were yelled at with drill-sergeant intensity to “GET BEHIND THE LINE!” as aircraft constantly taxied, took off and landed around us. Welcome to the danger zone.
While the high tempo was business as usual for the crew of the USS Truman, the backdrop, both geographically and politically, was not: Accustomed to the Pacific Ocean and the seas of the Middle East, the USS Truman’s strike group are now in the northern Ionian Sea, its fighter jets and radar planes patrolling NATO’s eastern borders and looking east, to a Ukraine now under invasion from Russian armed forces.
Since the invasion almost a month ago, these jets have flown more than 75 patrol missions across NATO’s eastern flank up to the Ukraine border, from the Truman. The so-called Enhanced Air Policing mission is part of NATO’s Assurance Measures introduced in 2014, after Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and is aimed at defending NATO airspace, preventing incursions by Russians.
The 20-story nuclear-powered Truman is the flagship of a strike group, a mobile fighting force of up to 10 destroyers and submarines, 8 aircraft squadrons and a missile cruiser that can move anywhere in the world’s seas, launching missile or air strikes or merely providing visible proof of American resolve.
As a mobile U.S. airbase, the Truman will be on the front line if NATO decides to enforce a no-fly zone, or should the worst happen and NATO forces be drawn into a direct conflict. “The role of Truman, with other allies, is to deter Russians from further aggression and to be on constant standby for orders that might be given from our president or from other leaders around the world for the protection of Ukraine and the people of Ukraine,” Secretary of the U.S. Navy Carlos Del Toro told POLITICO during a visit to the carrier.
Since the war on terror began 20 years ago, U.S. Navy carriers have spent most of their deployments in the Middle East. More recently, as tensions with China have increased, there has been a “pivot” in the U.S.’s focus toward the Pacific, to counter the perceived security threat presented by Chinese ambitions in the region. But with the invasion of Ukraine, the center of gravity has, for now at least, shifted to Eastern Europe, and the strike group is now stationed in the Mediterranean.
Because of Russian pressure, there are more U.S. warships in the Mediterranean than ever before, said Del Toro. “There are numerous Russian ships and subs in the Mediterranean today and that’s why it’s important for NATO to have an equal presence, to deter them,” he said, adding: “The only thing Putin understands is strength.”
The mission is about demonstrating not just to Russia but to the U.S.’s NATO allies that, despite the lack of willingness to engage militarily on behalf of Ukraine, it is a different matter when it comes to countries inside NATO. After the Donald Trump years, when NATO faced an existential crisis, Truman’s presence in the Mediterranean, on a NATO mission, is also a physical manifestation of President Joe Biden’s message to NATO allies that America is back.
For Lieutenant Adam Wawro, one of the F-18 pilots, the mission is technically similar to hundreds he has been on during his five years of training. But it has a symbolic value — sending a message to both the Russians and allies that NATO is real.
“We are there to show NATO’s resolve, show we are there for them with more than just words, with actions. That we are going to be there.” They are showing that NATO “actually exists, that it’s more than just a number of ideas on paper,” he added.
This return to multilateralism after the wilderness years is reflected in the approach taken by U.S. forces to the Ukrainian conflict, which has obliged NATO forces to cooperate more significantly than in the last 25 years. “We are working at a level with NATO allies that most of the folks on board have never seen,” said Lt. Commander Shawn Ekland, a spokesman for the carrier group. “Usually we would zorch [sic] through the Med to the Middle East then zorch [sic] back, It’s very unusual to hang around here.”
Last week the carrier converged with French carrier FS Charles de Gaulle and Italian carrier Cavour. “They were operating as a combined unit. That’s a big deal,” said Ekland.
Following training with the Romanians in March, pilots involved in the Enhanced Air Policing mission are able to refuel in the air from NATO partners, which doubles the time they are able to stay on mission and builds capacity for the eventuality of fighting together seamlessly.
Captain Patrick Hourigan, commander of the battle group’s airwing, said: “We meet in the sky, we know where to meet, how to talk to them, how much gas to expect. We do this often enough it becomes standard practice.”
What goes unsaid is that as much as this is a show of force for the benefit of Russia, and perhaps China, signaling that the U.S. is willing to back up sanctions with military positions and reassure European allies of American resolve post-Trump, the show is also a salutary reminder to the Europeans to ramp up their spending in their own backyard. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has pressed Europe to do more to police its own neighborhood. And to be fair, European resolve has stiffened. Mindful of the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year and conscious of the risk of a Trump presidency 2.0, European leaders realize that they can no longer lean so heavily on Washington to defend democracy.
Those on board deflected questions about the wider political nuances of the mission, more concerned with the immediate urgency of the conflict. In their day-to-day missions, the Ukraine conflict has created “more motivation, a greater sense of purpose, that we are actually out here for a very serious reason,” said Wawro.
Having a birdseye view of the war has brought home the reality of the Russian threat, he said: “We are right there on the border, where it’s all happening. We can see the fronts. We can see a lot.” He added: “It’s pretty humbling.”