An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 81 maneuvers during an air power demonstration over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). (MC3 Travis K. Mendoza/US Navy)
The U.S. has a massive force of ships and aircraft in the Persian Gulf for the air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq.
The first airstrikes against the Islamic State were carried out by two aircraft from the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, which is in the Persian Gulf along with the amphibious assault ship Bataan; the amphibious dock landing ship Gunston Hall; the cruiser Philippine Sea; and the destroyers Arleigh Burke, O’Kane and Roosevelt, according to the Defense Department.
The amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde is elsewhere in the region, according to 5th Fleet.
The Bush is in the midst of a scheduled nine- to 10-month deployment. The carrier Carl Vinson is preparing to deploy to 5th Fleet at the end of August, but is on ready standby as the surge carrier, according to Naval Air Forces spokeswoman Cmdr. Jeannie Groeneveld.
The George H.W. Bush could be extended if U.S. Central Command requires it. Carriers have been deployed as long as 10 months in recent years despite efforts by fleet leaders to reduce the strain on the Navy’s capital assets.
The aircraft taking part in the air campaign come from Carrier Wing 8, embarked aboard the carrier Bush, said Navy Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a 5th Fleet spokesman. The wing has 24 F/A-18E and F Super Hornets; 20 F/A-18C Hornets; five EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft; four E2-C Hawkeye all-weather airborne early-warning aircraft; two C-2A Greyhound logistics aircraft, which operate from shore and go to and from the ship; and eight MH-60S and four MH-60R Seahawk helicopters. A total of six other MH-60R Seahawk helicopters are on three other ships.
Marines from the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group are prepared to recover aircraft and personnel on short notice in a hostile environment should that become necessary, Stephens said in an email.
More than 2,000 Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit are aboard the ships in the Bataan’s group along with 12 MV-22B Ospreys; eight AV-8B Harriers; four CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters; three UH-1Y Venom helicopters and four AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters.
The Air Force has a variety of assets in the region, Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), said in a statement provided by the Air Force Press Desk. That statement reflects standing information about AFCENT forces and was not newly drafted.
AFCENT has a wide area of responsibility, and can draw on any of its fighters (A-10, F-15E, F-16, F-22), bombers (B-1), surveillance craft (E-3, E-8, RC-135), support vehicles (C-17, C-130, KC-10, KC-135) and unmanned systems (MQ-1, MQ-9, RQ-4).
While President Obama has vowed that U.S. troops are not returning to Iraq, about 10,000 U.S. troops — mostly Army — are in Kuwait, a defense official said.
Airstrikes alone probably cannot weaken the Islamic State to the point where it no longer poses a threat to the Iraqi government, but the U.S. air campaign can help Iraqi and Kurdish forces regain lost ground, said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, who led allied air efforts during Operation Desert Storm.
“Air power can enable weaker ground forces to prevail,” Horner told Military Times on Friday. “In the late stages of Vietnam, we saw what happened when we refused to put our air power in support of South Vietnam.”
The biggest challenge of any air campaign is having enough intelligence to pick the right targets, Horner said. Targets such as tanks and artillery are easily identifiable, while enemy leaders are harder to target because “they look like everyone else from the air,” he said.
Staff writers David Larter, Aaron Mehta and Michelle Tan contributed to this report.