A reader posed questions to me on carrier movements at the Optimistic Conservative blog, and I am copying the response here (see below) to provide a general update.
There is no change in the U.S. military posture in the Mediterranean or Black Sea. That’s the basic point to take away. The activities we’re seeing are routine and predictable. Because of the geography of the Ukraine problem, no NATO naval power can realistically be brought to bear on it, and any signals sent with naval power will be political, collateral, and temporary.
As mentioned in a previous post, the carrier USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) and her strike group are in the Mediterranean, having departed the East coast in February to head to the CENTCOM area of responsibility and relieve USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75). The USS Bataan (LHD-5) amphibious ready group (ARG), with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), is also in the Med, having also left the East coast in February to relieve the USS Boxer (LHD-4) ARG in CENTCOM. Neither group deployed in response to the Ukraine crisis; their deployments were scheduled long ago.
Bush arrived in Piraeus, Greece (just outside of Athens) on 4 March for a scheduled port visit. This is very typical for carriers headed through the Med to CENTCOM. The carrier then left Piraeus and moved to Antalya, Turkey for another port visit, which started today (9 March). Antalya is on Turkey’s southern coast, and is a frequent stop for U.S. aircraft carriers. It’s quite common for the carriers to have a couple of port visits in the Med on the way to CENTCOM.
Bataan, as noted earlier, stopped in Portugal for a NATO exercise and a port visit before entering the Med. She is now in the Eastern Med, and on Saturday 8 March was involved in a search-and-rescue operation for a Turkish freighter than ran aground off Mykonos Island (in the southern Aegean Sea).
The reader asks this:
Well if you look on the USS Harry S Truman’s Facebook page in the comments they seem to be told they might be seeing an extension of their already LONG deployment. Its relief hasn’t transited as of yet. …
You think they will be relieved on time? The Bush was noted to be in port in Turkey as of today. Not really sure what to make of all this.
This was my response:
We’ll see what happens in the next week or so. Bush won’t play a direct role in the Ukraine response. But she may be held in the Med longer than planned because of the Ukraine response. Here’s why.
Bush is indeed in Antalya, Turkey for a port visit. For those who don’t know, Antalya is the southern port our carriers frequently stop in (great libs, BTW), and I expected Bush to have at least one and possibly two port visits in the Med, before proceeding to Fifth Fleet. This would be very typical.
Bush can literally play no military role in a response to the Ukraine crisis. The carrier can’t enter the Black Sea, and has nothing useful to do outside of it, in a tactical sense.
But, I’m hearing that the F-16s going to Poland are indeed coming from Aviano (Italy), which was something I suspected early on [see footnote here]. That means, for one thing, that we aren’t actually “beefing up” our Air Force assets in theater. We’re just moving the ones that are already there from one place to another, temporarily.
But it’s 12 of the F-16Cs from Aviano, putting a crimp in the mission capability profile of the 31st Air Expeditionary Wing (which, among other things, supports KFOR in Kosovo). I don’t know if another NATO ally can backfill the F-16Cs with no interruption. But obviously, Bush’s airwing could.
If Bush is held in theater, it will presumably be to fill in for roles that the Aviano F-16Cs would otherwise have been scheduled or on-call for. The NATO higher-ups would also presumably consider it a good idea to hold Bush in theater just to send a signal, and perhaps to spin up some exercise activity with Bush and other NATO assets.
They might or might not want to include the Bataan ARG/22 MEU in that as well, since they’re in the Med. (Looks like Bataan was involved in a SAR yesterday for survivors on a Turkish freighter that ran aground off Mykonos.) All things being equal, Bataan would normally continue on to 5th Fleet as well, but the ARG/MEU along with Bush and her escort(s) may be held for an indefinite, probably brief period until NATO feels less jittery about the Ukraine crisis.
Bush and Bataan and their task groups give the impression of raising our military profile, even though neither asset is suited to a realistic response to the Ukraine crisis. Their presence gives a general, political impression. It’s not a specific indication of operational intent.
At some point, it would make sense to move Bush on to CENTCOM, and bring Truman into the Med, poised to return home to Virginia once any emergent tasking for the Ukraine crisis is concluded. The ARG/MEUs can’t be handled that way in the current case, as the Boxer’s is a West-coast ARG, and with the Camp Pendleton-based 13th MEU will be headed back to California once Bataan ARG and the 22nd MEU are in CENTCOM.