Aboard the Battleship Leading the War on ISIS

Navigating the Persian Gulf is nothing compared to navigating the hostile warships that patrol it.

ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH—As the sun rises over the Arabian Gulf, teams of sailors in red turtlenecks and vests load bombs onto dozens of F/A-18 fighter jets parked on the 4.5-acre flight deck of this floating city.

Flight operations will begin soon, with waves of planes leaving the aircraft carrier every few hours for missions over Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS.

The aircraft carrier left Norfolk, Va., the day after the presidential inauguration. Its primary mission is to support Operation Inherent Resolve, the war against ISIS; since starting combat flights in February in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, its aircraft have employed more than 915 weapons in more than 387 air strikes.

Pilots typically fly six days straight, with one day off, though that can vary based on the needs of the mission. And while the flight deck and the squadrons stay busy throughout the day and into the night, individual pilots generally fly just one or two missions per day.

Down in ready rooms decorated with knick knacks matching each squadron’s nickname—such as a bull head wearing a sombrero for the Ragin’ Bulls—pilots are briefed on the day’s missions.

The Bush launched the first American strikes against ISIS in 2014, but the fight has progressed since then, said Rear Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, commander of Carrier Strike Group Two.

“It has progressed to where… ISIS has been essentially bottlenecked in three areas: Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul,” he said.

It also differs somewhat from previous conflicts, Whitesell said: “In Afghanistan, it was a wide-open fight throughout the country, based on where U.S. forces were, where the forward line of troops is. When (the USS Bush) was here in 2014… it was a wide geography. Essentially everything that was on the ground that was a military force, that was ISIS, kill it.”

Now, he said, the fight is all in an urban environment, and ISIS has “been surrounded on all sides.”

“It’s a patient, deliberative fight now, vice a ‘We’ve got to make some fast gains, we’ve got to stem the tide of ISIS,’” kind of fight, Whitesell said.

Lt. Cmdr. Ashley Pelzek, a weapons officer who flies in the backseat of an F/A-18F Super Hornet, said this fight is a bit of a mindset shift from other recent conflicts.

“Our main focus in (Afghanistan) was protecting our own troops on the ground, so it was a much more defensive posture. It was much more ‘we’re there for protection, in case that need would arise.’ Now here, it’s a little bit more of a ‘protecting the people who actually live here’ mission set,” she said.

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Additionally, she said, Iraq is a “very different place” now than when she was there six years ago.

“It was pretty desolate at the time, it had been kind of ransacked, and now… there are major populated cities that are built back up, and it’s good to see that.”

Another difference the ship has had to contend with: harassment from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, which has become increasingly common in recent years.

Whitesell said preparing for those interactions is a large part of the sailors’ training before deploying, practicing scenarios from “most likely to most dangerous.”

That training is especially critical when transiting the Bab-al-Mandeb, a strait that connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and the Strait of Hormuz.

The Iranians are using Houthi forces “as a proxy for them right now, so their test and evaluation of all their up and coming capabilities is happening in the Bab-al-Mandeb,” Whitesell said.

And when the Bush sailed through the Strait of Hormuz, they experienced what Whitesell called “unprofessional” behavior from Iranian forces.

An international traffic separation scheme has designated two transit lanes for ships going through the strait, but the IRGCN put vessels “right in the scheme,” uncovered and loaded their weapons, and then came over the radios to say, “You’re in Iranian waters, you’re not welcome here, turn around and go back home,” Whitesell said.

But on the other side of the waterway, the Omanis were having none of it.

Whitesell said Oman sent out a warship, and “as soon as the Iranians queried about, ‘Hey, you’re in Iranian waters,’ the Omanis said, ‘No, we show your position in the traffic separation scheme, you’re in international waters. Welcome to the Arabian Gulf, continue.”

Now that the Bush is in the Gulf, Iranians send periodic patrols to “take a look at us,” Whitesell said, “but up to now it’s been professional and normal behavior.”

Still, he said, if an Iranian threat comes in—be it a drone, a manned aircraft, or a surface vessel—his first thought is “what is its intent?”

His first assumption is that it is at the “most dangerous” level, Whitesell said, so they position the ship and the forces around it accordingly, then de-escalate as necessary.

“If they come out… with a hostile intent, and they demonstrate and follow through with a hostile intent, we’re ready to react to that right from the start,” he said.

Capt. William Pennington, commander of the ship, said they must always be prepared, in case an interaction does rise to a hostile and dangerous level.

“We protect our ship through a very robust defense-in-depth kind of framework that starts with the intelligence that we are able to gather, and patterns of life that we observe, and would ultimately culminate in us defending ourselves if we needed to,” he said.

The manner in which the sailors protect their ship speaks to the advantage of an aircraft carrier: everything necessary for the mission, from intelligence to aircraft maintenance to food preparation, is housed on board.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Raylene Rodriguez and Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Lichtsinn are two of the roughly 4,800 people on board who do critically important jobs that are largely unknown by the public.

Rodriguez repairs and maintains all of the specialized equipment in the intelligence department, while Lichtsinn works in the nuclear reactor department and is one of ten people in charge of all electricity generated on the ship.

“My job is pretty much behind the scenes,” said Rodriguez, whose shift starts at midnight. “You don’t really see me a lot, I mean, because I’m always working on maintenance, or doing something someone asked me to do… I put in a lot of trouble-shooting hours, a lot of man-hours, doing maintenance, cleaning, making sure everything is running how it’s supposed to.”

Lichtsinn works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., along with occasional overnight watch shifts.

It’s a demanding job, he said, but “at the end of the day, the ship needs electricity, it needs propulsion, and we’re a very big step in providing that. It’s a large piece of the greater picture that everyone else contributes to.”

Pennington said everyone aboard the ship is part of a “very big machine,” and the leadership tries to make sure everyone understands the importance of their contributions, while also providing some measure of work-life balance.

More than 18,000 meals are served each day in the four cafeteria-style chow halls and the officers’ dining room, though sailors can also hit up a Starbucks on board—the drink of the week is a peach iced tea and strawberries—or buy an impressive array of pre-packaged snacks from the ship’s store.

To work off those snacks, the sailors can lift weights or run on a treadmill at one of the gyms on board, or take classes ranging from yoga to spinning, all arranged by a long-haired young man dubbed the “fit boss.”

Around lunchtime, as maintainers work on planes and helicopters around them, sailors in workout clothes place mats and kettlebells on the rough floor of the hangar deck and begin doing sets of pushups, squats, and jump rope, facing the gray-blue water and hazy sky.

Above them, on the flight deck, another wave of bomb-laden jets is taking off.

As the missions have evolved, so has the targeting process and the understanding of the threat, Pennington said.

“We’re able to be more precise, and I don’t necessarily mean precise in the way the ordnance hits the target—we’ve been pretty good at that for a while—but more, where is the proper place to strike at the target,” he said.

In April, the ship served as the coordinator for the Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian air base, though the missiles were launched from two warships in the Mediterranean. The strike, a response to a chemical weapons attack, prompted Russia to suspend a deconfliction agreement with the United States.

Any resulting change in operations was, however, very slight, said Cmdr. James McCall, commander of Carrier Air Wing Eight.

Pilots were briefed on the “heightened tension” to avoid any potential miscalculations, McCall said, but to the average aviator, “if you asked them what changed, they’d say, ‘Nothing. I just went out and did my job.’”

Part of that job is flying hundreds of miles from leadership and having to keep strategic national considerations in mind while executing their mission, he said.

“Our aviators are doing a phenomenal job in combat, their decision making is outstanding. We’ve had some really phenomenal decision making with regards to preventing civilian casualties, which has been awesome to watch, some folks making some great calls in airplanes in very difficult situations,” he said.

The deployment has been successful so far, Whitesell said, but the ship hasn’t quite reached the midpoint of its scheduled seven months away from home, so there is still a long way to go.

“Now, the biggest enemy that we have is complacency, everybody feeling an unwarranted confidence in doing what they’re doing,” he said. “This is a very dangerous environment, and we’ve got to keep everybody on their toes.”

Inside the ship, an announcement comes over the loudspeakers: “Tattoo, tattoo, lights out in five minutes. Stand by for the evening prayer.”

But even as white lights turn to red in the passageways, the roar of the jet engines and rattle of tailhooks catching tether cables continues overhead, and hundreds more sailors get ready to begin their work day.