ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH, Persian Gulf — The hiss and scream of F/A-18 Super Hornets launching from the flight deck is business as usual on this city at sea, where sorties on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria have been launched a dozen or more times a day since early February.
When aircraft loaded with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and 1,000-pound bombs aren’t being catapulted into flight, training and qualification flights commence.
Constant through the action is a sort of deck ballet of positioning, as the 74 aircraft based on the ship are guided onto elevators for maintenance and storage, or moved to make room for the daily C-2 Greyhound delivery of people and Amazon packages.
The routine of life aboard the carrier is perhaps the most conventional element of the unconventional war against ISIS.
American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria, mostly special operations and advisory elements, operate in relative secrecy, with few opportunities for journalists to observe them up close.
On the carrier, by contrast, public affairs officers host three or four media visits per month, boarding them in comparatively luxurious “distinguished visitor” berthing, complete with monogrammed bathrobes, and offering them interviews with pilots and unit commanding officers.
Aboard the carrier, multiple sailors said they are on their second deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve — the coalition anti-ISIS fight — and compared the consistency of operations today favorably to the frenetic nature of the campaign when it first began in 2014.
With OIR about to enter its third year next month, the commander of the Bush carrier strike group said he is seeing progress in the fight.
While many strikes continue to target enemy positions in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, where assaults on ISIS’s urban strongholds continue, the carrier’s fighter pilots are seeing more missions to the south, along the Euphrates River Valley. The strikes follow the path of retreating ISIS leaders, Rear Adm. Ken Whitesell said.
“Their vision of a geographic caliphate is coming to an end,” Whitesell told Military.com. “As they move and that unblinking eye stays on top of them, they will be targeted as they move down the valley.”
The number of fighter sorties launched from the carrier daily ranges from 12 to more than 20, plus several EA-18G Growler electronic warfare sorties, said Capt. Will Pennington, commanding officer of the Bush.
Pilots fly punishing eight-hour missions one to three times a week, in addition to daily training and currency flights. But the mission tempo has stayed largely steady since the carrier deployed, and the air wing has yet to be pushed to its limits, he said.
“We’re not surging to make this happen; this is a comfortable pace. We could up it and still get comfortable,” Pennington said.
The fight is proceeding carefully and deliberately from the air in large part because of the complexity of the urban ground battle. In Iraq, where a little more than half of the air wing’s sorties are tasked, the strike mission was simpler before coalition forces arrived in Mosul, he said.
“There were more targets and less complicated aerials,” Pennington said. “Now that the effort is moving forward and being successful … that operation, both from the ground and the air, needs to be carried out with much more prudence, given civilian entanglement.”
In both Mosul and Raqqa, the ground fights have been slow-moving. Coalition troops began their first assault on Mosul in October, and began a campaign to retake Raqqa the following month. Whitesell pointed optimistically to the words of Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Othman Al-Ghanmi, who predicted earlier this month that the fall of ISIS in Mosul would be complete in just three weeks.
It’s not the first time a top official has predicted victory close at hand. But the changing nature of strike targets also gives Whitesell reason to believe the end is near.
In addition to targets including enemy personnel, vehicles and improvised explosive devices, Whitesell said pilots are being tasked with destroying a key source of the militant group’s economic survival: oil wells.
While previously aircraft would target vehicles used to transport the oil, most of those are gone, thanks to the air mission, he said. “Now we get it before it comes out of the ground.”
Whitesell contrasts today’s operational picture to that of 2014, when the Bush became the first aircraft carrier to launch airstrikes on ISIS.
“ISIS had made the push out of Syria and Raqqa, way down, so they had incredible geography. So this carrier was the first striking on the Iraqi assets to stop ISIS at the gates of Baghdad and start moving them back,” he said. “Fast-forward three years to where we are. We’ve got, essentially, a noose tied around the neck of ISIS.”
On a given day, a pilot might be tasked with engaging a specific target over Iraq or Syria, or with flying to a region and remaining “on call,” to be assigned a future target, sometimes with scant notice, by a controller on the ground.
While pilots’ assignments can change at any time during the mission, they generally know the day’s mission set by the time they’re walking to their aircraft on the flight deck, said Lt. Cmdr. “Butters” Welles, a pilot with Strike Fighter Squadron 37, the “Ragin’ Bulls.” The squadron flies the F/A-18C Hornet.
Multiple pilots who spoke with Military.com asked that their full first and last names not be used, a subtle acknowledgment of online threats ISIS militants have made on various occasions against U.S. troops and their families.
Welles, who is on his fourth combat deployment, said he still feels the power of the moment when dropping ordnance on a ground target.
It’s a sense similar to other high-stress moments, whether it’s landing on the ship at night or doing something that requires intense attention,” he said. “There’s a sense of time compression, where everything sort of slows down, but you feel like it’s still moving very quickly … it’s definitely a very intense moment.”
At that point, a pilot’s day is far from done. Still ahead are a series of tanker refueling operations, a flight back to the ship, and hours of debriefs. The workday of a pilot with a strike mission can easily stretch to 12 hours or more, the work continuing long after exiting the cockpit.
But after a day in the fight, they return to the ship, where four meals are served daily, gyms and movie channels are available for free time, and routine keeps chaos at bay.
And pilots are well aware of the contrast between the reality of the island-like carrier and that of coalition troops in the gritty, drawn-out ground battles.
“It’s a very different perspective and involvement for us to be up and somewhat detached from what’s going on down on the ground,” Welles said. “So I would say it’s a sense of pride, knowing that we contributed in some way to a very difficult effort on the ground. Because once we’re complete, and we either leave to airborne refuel, or need to go home, then the people we’re talking with are still there in the fight.”