Home » News & Analysis » U.S. Evolving Middle East Operations of Carrier Strike Group as ISIS Loses Ground, Iranian Drones Make Daily Appearances


U.S. Evolving Middle East Operations of Carrier Strike Group as ISIS Loses Ground, Iranian Drones Make Daily Appearances

An F-18 lands aboard carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) during flight operations in the Persian Gulf on March 10, 2018. USNI News photo.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 94 as flying F/A-18C Hornets. The post has been updated to state that the squadron flies F/A-18F Super Hornets.

ABOARD CARRIER USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT, IN THE PERSIAN GULF — The rollback of ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria and changes in how Iran operates in the Persian Gulf are prompting the U.S. Navy to evolve how it operates its carrier strike groups in the Middle East.

After more than three years of Navy and Marine aircraft striking ISIS from the sea, there are fewer targets in Iraq and Syria to go after. Now carrier-based pilots of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group/CSG-9 have more time to support U.S. and partner troops on the ground, as well as take on strike missions in Afghanistan to keep pressure on Taliban targets.

In the Gulf, the ships and aircraft that operate close to “The Big Stick” have seen harassment from Iranian fast attack craft cease but the threat from Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles grow to a daily concern.

Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 17 commander Capt. Chris Ford told USNI News during a three-day visit to USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG-52) that the air wing has been flying about 15 to 20 sorties a day, mostly to support the anti-ISIS Operation Inherent Resolve. Though the operation has been supported by a string of carrier strike groups in recent years, one pilot told USNI News that the air operation is night-and-day different than CVW-17’s last deployment to the region three years ago.

Lt. Joe Anderson, an F/A-18F pilot with the “Mighty Shrikes” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 94, said three years ago CVW-17 – then deployed on carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) – was the second air wing to show up to the anti-ISIS fight.

A Bahrain coast guard vessel assists sailors assigned to Commander, Task Group (TG) 56.7, in high value asset protection of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) as it transits to Khalifa Bin Salman port, Bahrain on Jan. 26, 2018. US Navy Photo

“This is when it first started, ISIS was just steamrolling across Iraq and Syria and there wasn’t really much resistance going on. There was a lot of activity, so most of the time I think [air crew] would drop their bombs – but not because there was any less restrictive rules of engagement or we were just targeting things willy-nilly; it was more so just that there were that many ISIS fighters out there. … There weren’t a whole lot of places you could go where there was no ISIS presence about three years ago,” he said.
“Now each air wing has done their thing, and it was pretty kinetic at some points, but now where we’re at, there’s not as much going on. … Mostly they’ve been whittled down to just isolated pockets within Iraq and Syria.”

As a result, the pilots are still flying the same number of sorties off the carrier each day, but once in country, “it’s less of going out and doing preplanned strikes; it’s doing on-call [close-air support] and doing more defending the U.S. and coalition forces on the ground in the area, and specifically Syrian Defense Forces who are in the mix doing their thing.”

An F/A-18F with the “Mighty Shrikes” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 94 prepares to launch from USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71) on March 10, 2018. USNI News photo.

Anderson said the pilots have been doing a lot of studying when not flying missions, trying to stay current on which forces are operating where within Syria – Carrier Strike Group 9 commander Rear Adm. Steve Koehler told USNI News that “the threat picture in Syria is just crazy: how many different countries can you cram in one different place, where they all have a different little bit of an agenda? And you put a tactical pilot up there and he or she has to employ ordnance or make defensive counter-air decisions with multiple people – Russians, Syrians, Turks, ISIS, United States.”

The Afghanistan mission is new for the TR CSG compared to recent carrier strike group deployments to the Persian Gulf. In December the air wing was tasked with providing air strikes for the Operation Freedom’s Sentinel campaign “focused on Helmand province and has specifically identified targets that aim to disrupt Taliban revenue generation at opium-processing facilities, as well as training camps and command and control (C2) nodes,” according to a Navy news release.

“The missions to Afghanistan are sort of right at the limits of what we want our aircrew flying at from a fatigue standpoint, but it’s still within reach, and with the Air Force tanking support that gets us there it’s totally possible,” Deputy Air Wing Commander Capt. Robert Loughran told USNI News.

“Typically, it’s about another hour on each end – when we fly those missions from where we’re at right now, it’s about 1,300 miles just one way,” Ford added.
“So with tanking, with getting on their routes, it’s about three hours just to get there, and about three hours to get back, and then however long they’re in the mission. … The biggest thing is just making sure the pilots are rested and ready to go.”

As of the USNI News embark, the strike group had flown 1,027 sorties in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria and 12 sorties in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan. Though USNI News did not get a final tally of bombs dropped, the Afghanistan missions have been more focused on dropping munitions compared to the CAS-driven OIR missions. In one case involving VFA-94, which Anderson did not participate in, the squadron sent three planes and dropped 28 bombs on Taliban targets.

An F/A-18C Hornet, assigned to the Checkerboards of Marine Strike Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 312, readies for launch on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) on March 11, 2018. US Navy Photo

During the air wing’s time in 5th Fleet specifically, CVW-17 aircrews flew 17,561 flight hours – about 7,200 of which were in support of OIR, the rest of which were defense of the carrier, training, tanking and other missions.

Aside from the evolving offensive nature of the mission, the defensive side has changed too. Koehler said the carrier strike group encounters large Iranian drones nearly every day. While there is nothing the Navy can do about the presence of these drones – while operating in the maritime common, anyone is free to be there – the current discussion is how much effort to expend on monitoring the activities and location of these drones, and how the Navy might respond if Iran were to begin arming them.

“Even if they’re unarmed, it’s a safety of flight problem. So no matter what altitude they’re at, we have airplanes operating too. So can we communicate with them in the ground station and will they respond? And we see that they do sometimes and they don’t sometimes,” Koehler said in a sit-down interview in his cabin.

But Iran arming them would be a “whole new game,” the admiral said.

“Is flying over hostile? I certainly don’t want it here if it’s in a position to drop any sort of weapons. Trying to determine that is very difficult, a very hard problem.”

USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71) operates in the Persian Gulf on March 10, 2018. USNI News photo.

Asked how his strike group has dealt with the potential threat of the drones, and how he would recommend future strike group commanders approach the situation, Koehler said, “I’d like to have the ability to have sound rules – like, stay away from our airplane stacks; we’re not trying to hit you, you don’t try (to hit us). The fact that, if it’s cruising around at 10,000 feet and we’re at 10,000 feet, it’s hard to see it, let’s not hit each other. I will say that it seems they’re fairly predictable, and they’re flying fairly predictable. Once they get here, they loiter forever, but they sort of stay at the same altitude and we can sort of keep track. And the fact that they’re unarmed that we’ve seen is good. They’re obviously looking at us, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), and they have the ability to track us and all those things, but unarmed.”

Koehler said Bunker Hill had done an excellent job tuning its radars to see the drones as clearly and as early as possible, and for future carriers having to accept these drones as part of their new reality while in the Persian Gulf, Koehler said “I think a lot of it comes with vigilance. We have a pretty good idea where they come from, and so having radars and those things trained on that particular area, (the next CSG should) vigilantly ensure that your radars are set and looking for that level of slow, small vehicle. … Realizing that they’re going to come nearly every day, and you’ve got to really continue to search for them all the time. … You’ve really got to just put the time in and dedicate the assets and the team to look for them and find them. And then really ascertain, at least for me, I want to know that they’re not armed.”

In addition to the Iranian drone threat, the TR CSG has also been challenged by ongoing anti-ship missile and potential mine threats off the coast of Yemen, forcing a destroyer to split off from the strike group and work to ensure continued freedom of navigation in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.

Koehler said he’s sent a DDG from his own Task Force 50 operations to the Task Force 55 out of Bahrain, for use as “an escort ship through that strait, and again protecting it from other nefarious ships, anti-ship missiles. There isn’t a big air threat down there, nor is there a lot of UAVs that are flying, but the anti-ship cruise missiles, there has been reports of mining down there, all that kind of stuff.”

Due to operational needs throughout the 5th Fleet area of operations, Koehler has only had two of his four surface combatants – one cruiser and one destroyer – with the carrier during operations. Those combatants sometimes have to depart for maintenance, port calls or other engagements, though, so the strike group has developed a close partnership with the French and Australian navies operating in the area.

Australian HMAS Anzac-class frigate Warramunga (FFH-152) conducts a replenishment-at-sea exercise with the French navy Mistral-class amphibious assault ship LHD Tonnerre (L9014. Tonnerre in December 2017. US Marine Corps Photo

A Royal Australian Navy frigate, HMAS Warramunga (FFH 152), was assigned to the strike group for a couple weeks. After some cross-deck work and training, Koehler said he was able to use that ship for defense in depth, which allowed his destroyer to head into port.

“The French ship (destroyer Jean De Vienne (D 643)) was a next step up. It ultimately was with us for about a month. What we trained together to have her ultimately do was take over the air defense-specific responsibility for the strike group, which she did. And to the point of, the cruiser … went into port. And she then, as a coalition French partner, was responsible to me for our air defense,” Koehler said.
“They did a great job. … We had to work through some [rules of engagement] to make sure the French ROE would be commensurate with what I needed it to do, and we worked through that and we got that piece.”

Ultimately, Bunker Hill was away from the carrier for a full week before resuming its role as the air warfare commander.

  • Ctrot

    The FFH-152 picture caption is very clumsily worded.

  • @USS_Fallujah

    I recall the USAF chief made mention of drones re the F-35A keeping it’s internal gun, shooting down a $500 drone with a $600k AIM-9X is a bad way to wage war. I recall DARPA was working on a pod based air-to-air missile for just this kind of scenario, but I think it died off years ago as the idea of putting lasers on aircraft first became fashionable. Another great roll for the Light Air Support (LAS) program as something like an A-29 would be ideal for cheaply knocking out cheap enemy drones in an environment like Syria.

    • Marauder 2048

      The Army is developing a proximity fuzed LW30 round with C-UAS capability.
      If the LAS aircraft could mount the M230…

    • RDF

      Target practice and the ir supplies the banners.

    • PolicyWonk

      Good post w/r/t using an AIM to shoot down a drone. Using an expensive weapon to knock something out that costs only a tiny fraction of what the weapon costs puts you on the express lane to going broke.

      This is why I think lasers have a lot of promise, in that shooting down these cheap drones becomes cheap – or cheaper than the drone itself.

      Your point w/r/t A-29’s also makes sense – but the Chair Force doesn’t like dealing with practical matters very much. They want to fight the kinds of battles they’ve been having wet dreams over for decades, as opposed to the ones we’re *likely* to fight.

      OTOH – I think maybe to some extent that’s been a problem all the service branches share…

    • Duane

      Targeting cheap drones with supersonic state of the art AAMs is a silly straw man. For one thing, capable attack or sophisticated ISR drones cost millions if not tens of millions. For another, yes, the F35 has a very capable 25 mm gun that is fully operational, and while virtually any gun is useless for dogfighting, because nobody dogfights any more, it could be useful for taking out ISR drones. If dealing with an attack drone that is potentially equipped with AAMs, you wouldn’t ever let it get close enough to shoot with a gun … you kill it with an AAM.

      Ship based and airborne solid state lasers are well suited for taking out cheap drones. And attack helicopters with guns and lightweight rockets are also well suited to that mission.

      • @USS_Fallujah

        First, the drones discussed in the article are not sophisticated ISR platforms costing millions, the at COTS platforms repurposed by Syrian and ISIS forces, so shooting one down with a Sidewinder is a poor choice.
        2nd, the F-35A does have an internal gun, but the F-35B & C do not, so you’d need to have that installed before a mission in which the F-35 might need to destroy a drone. I only made mention of this because the previous AF CoS or Sec mentioned it as a reason to keep the gun system, since most assume the F-35 will never participate in a traditional dogfight, but the gun has other uses such as this that make it worth installing permanently.
        Shipboard lasers and attack helicopters can (or will) be able to down most cheap drones, but their issue is range, having a mechanism in place to sweep a forward battle space clear of enemy ISR assets is a very important part of power projection.

        • Duane

          Long range drones are not cheap drones. Any drone capable of shadowing CSGs and is still beyond the reach of an attack helicopter is one of those sophisticated ISR aircraft that cost millions to tens of millions and is in fact a proper target for a Hornet, SH, or F-35 to shoot down with a gun or an AAM.

          btw – what difference does it make if the F-35 B and C models use an external pod mounted gun vs. an internal gun as on the A model? Same gun, same round, same targeting fire control system.

          • @USS_Fallujah

            Long range drones tracking the CBG are not going to be small or cheap and taking one out with an AMRAAM, Sidewinder or even an SM-2/6 makes perfect sense, but the article is talking about the CVW interacting with drones over Syrian airspace which is a whole different issue.
            As for why it matters on a B & C is that those won’t always have the gun attachment, if it doesn’t then the pilot might not be able to destroy the drone if needed as it’s likely not worth expending an AIM-9X and might not be trackable by that weapon anyway.

      • Jonathan Weygandt

        Explain to me why you think ACM is a thing of the past?

    • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

      Someone should just design a Winchester 12 gauge variant that mounts on the weapons pylons.

  • Hugh

    I wish the ANZAC Class frigates would fit the 2nd 8-quad ESSM VLS and the CIWS, fitted for but not with. If/when things heat up……..

  • Bryan

    Why would that be so funny? If the article talked about the Bahrain destroyer or carrier we might disparage them. But Bahrain’s coast guard has lived, “small boat terrorism” and “smuggling/piracy” for decades. They are good at what they do. They do a great job adding to the defense of our large ships. They could be the difference between a good cruise or a, “Cole” incident with our carrier. Don’t laugh. Just say thanks.

    The days of the Ugly American telling and bullying the world are over. We don’t have the money. We need partners and allies that work along side us. Not under our feet. While this is a story that is more feel good mixed with the changing environment it does show a small snapshot of how things are working to add depth to our Battle Groups during peace time. That will be more important than ever when the new cold war starts getting and staying warm.

  • publius_maximus_III

    All it would take is a swarm of Iranian drones carrying plastic explosives to land on each of the catapults to disable that carrier completely. I hope our USN’s men and women are maintaining a healthy perimeter against such threats during their operations in the FREEDOM GULF…

  • incredulous1

    So who is mining the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait? Are the Chicoms of the PLAN going to finally make themselves useful there? Or is that just a chokepoint for their grand dream?

  • incredulous1

    drone to drone combat anyone? Or perhaps just directed energy weapons since the carrier has no shortage of electrical power…

  • USNVO

    Well, considering that the rest of the caption talks about the carrier entering port in Bahrain, it only seems reasonable that the host nation would provide assistance in law enforcement actions. It is not like the US ship or patrol boats can direct boats away from the carrier.

  • DaSaint

    Wait a minute! Are you telling me that the French destroyer, Jean De Vienne (D 643), 37 years old, and armed with a CROTALE 8-cell launcher, was tasked with being the Air-Defense Destroyer replacing a TICO?? Frankly, I’d rather have the Australian ANZAC with ESSMs.

  • Avi

    Drones can be very nicely burned by solid state laser at very low cost. Armed or unarmed. They shouldn’t be over US ships to begin with.

  • Eagle115

    In my opinion the daily appearance of the “drones” is an attempt to make them normal, routine and not anything to worry about. When the Iranians are satisfied that we are lulled into complacency, one of those “drones” will attack, either the carrier bridge wing or an aircraft in the pattern to land. We should be proactive in pushing those drones away; we have the right to conduct safe flight operations.

    • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

      Ingesting one as FOD would be a horrible thought to?

  • USNVO

    My experience with the Bahraini Coast Guard (and Harbor Pilots for that matter) was always extremely positive. They were inevitably professional. Now if the caption had talked about that Bahraini Navy, that would have been hilarious.