Early in the morning on Tuesday, April 4, bombs filled with sarin gas began falling from Syrian military aircraft on the town of Khan Shaykhun, and soon thereafter images of dying men, women and children gasping their final breaths flooded the global media.
By the end of the day, two Navy destroyers – the Porter and the Ross – were racing across the Mediterranean, scrambling to get into position to launch. The ships were ordered to prepare to strike at the Syrian regime as punishment for violating an international convention banning the use of chemical weapons -- if President Trump gave the order.
"It was late on Tuesday evening that I received the call that there were requirements for a pending mission," said Capt. Tate Westbrook, who commands the four-ship squadron based in Rota, Spain, including Porter and Ross. "Porter was just coming off her patrol and was heading west, Ross had just departed for her patrol and was heading east."
There was a problem: Both ships were hundreds of miles away from where they needed to be to launch the strike. Destroyers usually putt along at lower speeds to conserve fuel, but to get in position at those speeds might take four or five days. Porter was near the coast of Sicily, hundreds of miles from the launch point off the coast of Syria; Ross was even further, off the coast of Spain, Navy officials who spoke to Navy Times said.
If the ships were going to get in position to fire in a timely manner, both of them were going to have to hit the gas. Both ships were ordered to max out their engine plants and make best possible speed – more than 30 knots over water in decent conditions. Both ships are nearly two decades old, and operating their plants at full power for two days was going to test the ship's engineers and reveal just how well had they done their jobs maintaining the beating heart of the ship.
The ships both got on station after the furious sprint, and by 8:30 that Thursday evening, the President ordered 59 Tomahawks to rain down on the Syrian airfield from which U.S. officials believe the chemical attack originated.
The success of the Ross and Porter's mad dash to the launch point is a testament to the sailors who run the engines and power plants on both ships and to the shore-based support that maintains the ships in Europe, Westbrook said.
"There are few navies in the world – and I'd argue only one – that could have pulled that off," Westbrook said. "It was the ultimate engineering full-power run," he added, referring to a sometimes troublesome certification exercise where the ship maxes out the propulsion system for period of time to ensure reliability.
The destroyer squadron in Spain was stood up in the second Obama term as part of the administration's missile defense strategy, designed to shoot down missiles targeting European allies and Israel. But since being deployed, the ships have crisscrossed Europe and done virtually every mission the ship is capable of from anti-submarine warfare and surveillance to even obscure missions such as naval surface fire support, where the ship fires its big five-inch gun in support of ground operations ashore.
The destroyer Carney shot nearly 200 illumination rounds into Libya during the U.S. operation against the Islamic State group there last year, Westbrook said.
As the threat of Russian aggression grows in Europe, commanders have used them as the utility infielders, repeatedly calling on Porter, Ross, Carney and Donald Cook to operate from the Baltic and Black Seas to the Mediterranean and even down into the Red Sea.
"When I first got orders to come here, people described the job they said, "You are going to go to Naples and run the [ballistic missile defense] destroyers," Westbrook said. "Instantly upon arrival, looking at the operations that they do every patrol, it's like they do all that with the BMD mission running in the background."
The strain on the sailors and their families, who are allowed to move to Spain with them, is real, Westbrook said.
"These four ships have the highest op-tempo in the whole Navy," Westbrook said, adding that instead of the normal seven or eight-month deployments that ships work up to when stationed in the United States, the ships in Rota work with four months on patrol, four months back in Rota working up for the next patrol.
"This is a grinder on the sailors, and it's a real challenge for the families," Westbrook said, but added that the Navy support facilities and offices in Rota were outstanding.
But despite the crushing op-tempo, sailors who come to Rota know what they're getting into and the ships continue to be popular in the fleet among the young Naval Academy, ROTC and Officer Candidate School grads when they are picking orders. The ships are always some of the first to go, meaning that they tend to get the best and brightest into their wardrooms.
The success of the Rota squadron has Navy leaders talking about sending two additional ships to the Spain as forward deployers, but those talks are still in the early phases, according to two Navy officials who spoke to Navy Times on background.
To analysts, the strikes Thursday night and the constant demand for the Navy's Mediterranean-based squadron shows the urgent need for more Navy presence in the region.
"The primary reason they are in Europe is not what they were used for last night — it's ballistic missile defense," said Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer skipper and analyst with the FerryBridge Group. "It's only that decision — which was a compromise by the Obama administration that traded a land-based BMD system for a sea-based system — that caused this happy coincidence that they were there, loaded with Tomahawks ready to do what they do.
"Their presence there is to me a sign of the continuing need for credible naval combat power in the Mediterranean," McGrath said.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.