Navy Super Hornets hit targets hard as Mosul offensive heats up

120408-N-ZZ999-004 RED SEA (April 8, 2012) Two F/A-18F Super Hornets assigned to the Red Rippers of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 11 fly in formation. VFA-11 is embarked aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65), which is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Josh Hammond/Released)

(U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Josh Hammond/Released)

As Iraqi troops enter the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul this week, they have help from the sky in the form of F/A-18 Super Hornets based on the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Arabian Gulf.

The aircraft, which have been launching strikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria since July, are now conducting high-intensity, seven-day-a-week operations to protect the ground forces moving into Mosul.

Also read: The Air Force is running out of bombs to drop on ISIS

Rear Adm. James Malloy, the commander of the Eisenhower carrier strike group, told Military.com in an exclusive interview this week that the crew of the carrier has been tireless as conditions on the ground intensify.

“The sailors are motivated and focused and understand the sense of urgency with this enemy,” he said. “And the ground [conditions are] a direct result of naval power projected ashore. So it’s pretty easy to explain to them both what they’re doing and the effect that they’re having on the enemy.”

The carrier, which deployed in June, launched about 116 airstrikes on Islamic State targets during its transit through the Eastern Mediterranean sea, and more than 1,330 since its arrival in the Arabian Gulf as of Sunday, Malloy said. But these numbers, he noted, did not take into account the aircraft that were at that moment in the air over Mosul.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Fighting Swordsmen of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 32 makes an arrested landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (Ike). Ike and its Carrier Strike Group are deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. | U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew J. Sneeringer

An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Fighting Swordsmen of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 32 makes an arrested landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike). Ike and its Carrier Strike Group are deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. | U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew J. Sneeringer

While strikes have been ongoing in and around Mosul for months in anticipation of the last major offensive into the city, operations have changed in recent weeks as the assault began.

Navy pilots are destroying fewer deliberate targets — fixed objectives they’re assigned to hit before they launch from the carrier deck — and more dynamic targets, often moving objectives that they are assigned after they arrive in the region and check in with the air controller.

Nearly 90 percent of strikes launched from the Eisenhower are now assaulting dynamic targets, Malloy said.

“The reason why [dynamic] targeting is much more critical now is because that is in direct support of troops on the ground moving against the enemy,” he said. “So by the time the pilots get to their targets from the carrier, the forward line of troops may have moved and the surgical precision of Navy air is critical to be able to impact the battle as it is occurring.”

Typical dynamic targets are command and control nodes and key areas where Islamic State militants will attempt to conduct resupply and ground maneuver in response to being attacked.

“They are being targeted as they try to do that, so we are accelerating the ground campaign with the airstrikes,” Malloy said.

The Eisenhower will likely remain in the region for several more months until its deployment concludes. On Thursday, multiple media outlets reported that Iraqi and Peshmerga troops, shored up with a small contingent of U.S. advisers, had finally breached the limits of Mosul.

For the Super Hornets, known for speed, precision and maneuverability, it’s an opportunity to show off what they can do.

“As a major offensive is occurring, the dynamic targeting capability of the aircraft come to fore,” Malloy said. “And that is where they shine for the most part: their responsive capability from the air.”

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