The Complex Synchronized Ballet At Sea: The Strike Carrier in the Arabian Sea


2014-08-15  The decision by President Obama to conduct, in official parlance, “military operations in support of humanitarian aid deliveries and targeted airstrikes in Iraq to protect U.S. personnel and interests, in response to activities conducted by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorists” has brought the significance of the sea base into focus once again.

US carriers operate frequently in the Mediterranean and Middle East, in the famous waters of what was once the “Roman Lake.”

Now it is a crucial transition or choke point for trade and strategic assets such as oil, and the home of significant friendly and adversarial operations.

The Arabian sea has seen US carriers frequently over the years as US strategic interests are significant in the region, and the need to support allies and deal with adversaries a recurring demand.


As one analyst has put it:

To the north of Indian Ocean is the Arabian Sea which serves as the main conduit for the shipping of oil and other goods to both the Gulf Region and rest of the world.

Acting as a gateway to the largest oil supplying region of the world, the importance of Arabian Sea is crucial to both the regional states and the International World.

The Gulf region in itself is one of the most important geo-strategic regions in the world with 17-19 million barrels/day of oil passing through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf.

The world is dependent on energy supplies from the Gulf region which is also a vital transit zone for commercial activities linking Asia, Africa and Europe.

The Gulf region has for decades been faced with unrest and instability. 


It has seen many wars, and provocative actions by some Gulf States have only added to the instability governing the region.

Hence, the security of the narrow waterway is a matter of high priority through which much of the world’s oil supply and other goods transits.

Security in the Gulf and subsequently the Arabian Sea is not only a regional concern but an International one too.

The presence of a military superpower to safeguard the production and shipping of the region’s oil supplies is a natural given especially in an age where terrorism has emerged as a real threat even to economic interests.

In the current crisis, the arrival of the USS Bush CBG and the associated ARG-MEU provided “ready options” for the President as he deliberated over US action in Iraq.

As Ed Timperlake put it on 6/22/14:

The USS George H.W. Bush with escort ships the Destroyer USS Truxton, fresh from showing presence in the Black Sea, and the guided missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea are now on station.

Now the question is on station to do what?

In a relatively short period thereafter, the initial answer has been provided.

And as Timperlake added:

If the “to do what” turns to combat an opportunity will not have been squandered.

In preparing for combat strikes, one of the most important opportunities, if possible, is to make combat ready but non-kinetic “fam” for familiarization flights in the air over any potential ground targets.

Air dominance over Iraq allows Navy combat pilots the luxury of becoming very familiar in their view from the cockpit with the terrain, the movement of the enemy, the location of “friendlies” and potential targets that they might be asked to attack.

Ed Timplerlake as a Carrier Qualified Naval Aviator understands how complex operations aboard a carrier are in carrying out its strike and defense functions.

But this core capability is not assumed, but practiced and executed in real world combat situations.

U.S. Marine Corps F-35 Lightning II aircraft and F-18 Hornets assigned to Naval Air Station Pensacola fly over the northwest coast of Florida May 15, 2013.  Credit: USAF
The future of USN aviation is on its way. U.S. Marine Corps F-35 Lightning II aircraft and F-18 Hornets assigned to Naval Air Station Pensacola fly over the northwest coast of Florida May 15, 2013. Credit: USAF

In a comprehensive piece by Steve George, former Cdr. RN, provides an overview on the nature of this capability at sea and its complexity of operations.

The carrier provides a “highly effective combat capability. And this capability is potent, flexible and, importantly in today’s society, safe.

Not a single aircraft carrier has been damaged by enemy action since WW2 despite their being used in a vast range of operations.

It is not generally appreciated that aircraft carriers are a main source of US close air support in Afghanistan.

There are important issues around the appreciation of air power that have always influenced the arguments about carrier aviation. Pure ‘air power’ proponents see combat aircraft as an independent and uniquely potent way of applying military coercive force through the medium of the air, rather than by land or sea.

However, naval aviators see maritime air power as another (albeit hugely important) capability available to a naval task force commander.

To them, an aircraft is a means of finding targets and delivering weapons at longer range than their shipboard sensors, missile systems or guns. 

Maritime air power is integrated with the other weapon systems in the task force, such as anti aircraft missiles on destroyers, and the torpedoes and cruise missiles that can be delivered by submarines.

At the command level, it is employed at sea in much the same way as other ship-borne weapons, its use influenced by weather, sea-state and depth of water….

Delivering combat air power from a ship confers advantages of flexibility and the ability to position aircraft closer to the desired targets, thus increasing ‘combat mass’.

But doing so requires a complete integration of the air group and the ship. 

To operate any ship-borne weapon satisfactorily requires the command to have a thorough knowledge of its and his ship’s requirements and limitations. 

It is, therefore, part and parcel of that ship’s capability and it is the Captain’s responsibility to train his crew and achieve the highest possible standard of operational efficiency. And that includes his Air Group.

And based on experience, this RN Commander underscores the complexity of an operation, which naval aviators and the carrier operating team make look routine:

Carrier landings are, by some margin, the most demanding flying tasks required of any military pilots. Hard by day, they are tougher by night.

They take place at the end of demanding sorties, and rely not only on the highest pilot skill level, but also a synchronized ballet of mechanical violence from a highly trained crew on board the carrier, operating an array of incredibly complex machinery and systems. 


If any part of the system fails or is not set correctly, the consequences can be dramatic and immediate – aircraft can fall over the side, run off the end of the ship, strike other aircraft, or hurtle into the ship itself. Deck crews can be maimed or killed.

But training, practice and teamwork means that this rarely happens, and USN safety levels have steadily improved year on year with better aircraft and ever more effective landing aids.

The result is a highly efficient capability that allows the carrier and its air group to get back on board in a short time and begin refueling and re-arming for the next strike.


But it is never treated as routine. Bringing 20 plus tons of metal, fuel and explosives to a moving steel box at 160 mph and then catching a one-inch wire with a hook is a simply unique exercise.

Deck landings are nothing at all like an airfield landing, and are likely to stay that way.

They are, quite simply, a compelling demonstration of the fundamental difference between land and sea based aviation.

For those ISIS terrorists who asked the President not to send Drones to kill them, the USN is providing an initial response to this request. 

The flexibility of the sea base has allowed the Presdient to act and to add capability to the operation from other combat assets as makes sense to the mission.  But once again, the flexibility of the seabase has provided options.

The USN has released the videos in this article during the current operation off of Iraq. 

They are credited to the Navy Media Content Service.