BY USS EISENHOWER in the Red Sea – For the pilots aboard this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, efforts to protect commercial shipping in the Red Sea require them to adapt their high-tech training to an unpredictable and potentially disturbing new mission. .
“We didn’t train to come to the South Red Sea and do what we’re doing now,” said Navy Lt. Travis Keating, F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot. “When we first came out here, we had a lot of unknowns.”
Keating, who went by the call sign “Sunshine,” struck an optimistic tone when asked about the pilots’ daunting goal: to find and destroy hidden weapons caches in Houthi-held Yemen, known for its rugged mountainous terrain.
“We’re able to adapt and adapt to the tasks we’re assigned,” said Keating, who is the squadron’s training officer. “And it’s probably the coolest thing we’ve seen here.”
On Saturday night, more than two dozen F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets and support aircraft took off from Eisenhower to take part in a joint US-UK mission to target Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles and drones used by Houthi forces to strike 30 From November 19, cargo ships in the Red Sea. In addition to the air attacks, US destroyers accompanying the aircraft carrier hit Houthi targets on the coast with Tomahawk missiles.
NBC News is the only news organization attached to the US Navy in the Red Sea, which is trying to slow down the Houthi strikes.
U.S. officials said that in total, the U.S. and the U.K. hit 36 Houthi targets in 13 locations in Yemen. Despite US-led airstrikes, Yemen’s Houthi rebels issued defiant statements on Saturday and Sunday, vowing to continue their offensive in the Red Sea until Israel halts its military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“We’re constantly planning,” Navy Capt. Marvin Scott, commander of Carrier Air Wing Three, said in an interview.
“We plan for all kinds of contingencies as we develop military targets in Yemen, which is controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthis,” Scott said. “We’re constantly looking at ways we can provide options to our civilian leadership to reduce their capabilities.”
Scott, who has years of experience as a fighter pilot, said Saturday’s airstrikes in Yemen were effective. “Yeah, I’d call yesterday’s mission a success,” he said. “We destroyed all the targets we tried to hit.”
On one level, the mission of Keating, Scott and other American pilots is not new. For more than two decades, U.S. fighter jets operating from aircraft carriers in the Middle East have conducted airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, among other missions.
In this case, fighter jets often worked with American troops or other partners on the ground to help identify targets. Keating and other pilots lack such support in Yemen’s Houthi-controlled areas.
It remains unclear whether the increased airstrikes will quell Houthi attacks on commercial cargo ships. Military analysts of the Houthis It has been fighting the Saudi-led coalition for years, are adept at withstanding air attacks. Last year, the Saudis, who could not completely defeat the Houthis, agreed to peace talks.
Attacks by the Houthis with Iranian-supplied missiles and drones have forced Maersk and other shipping companies to divert ships to longer, more expensive routes. About 12% of global shipping passes through strategic waterways on a daily basis; and strikes pose an increased threat to supply chains and can lead to higher consumer prices.
U.S. pilots also have other duties: protecting the Navy in the Red Sea from incoming Houthi anti-ship missiles or drones, coming to the aid of merchant ships in danger, and flying over the area to demonstrate that the Red Sea is safe. civil navigation.
“We will be in the air and then, if tasked, we will shift position to protect ships in distress when called upon,” he said. Sea.”
Each mission can last from one to six hours, the officers said in interviews. Planning begins about 12 hours before the flight, when the pilots meet to outline their tasks. The pilots then meet with the reconnaissance team to review possible threats and targets. Several hours in advance, the pilots brief the aircrew and then depart for their planes about an hour before the Eisenhower takes off.
The recent Navy strike missions were the first combat experience for some of the junior officers aboard the Eisenhower, but the pilots and aircrew say they believe they accomplished their mission successfully.
Navy Lt. Helicopter pilot and squadron technical officer Alex Morgan flew the MH-60 Sierra helicopter during Saturday night’s mission. His responsibility was to rescue any pilot whose plane was shot down. As a result, helicopters are the first ship to take off from the carrier and the last to return to it.
Helicopters armed with rockets, missiles, cannons and guns mounted next to the door are also sometimes launched to defend the carrier. At other times they deliver supplies to ships.
“We are always ready to provide a rescue regardless of the location or the enemy that may be around,” Morgan said.
When asked if he was afraid of participating in combat flights, Keating replied: “No, I would say there is no fear. It’s just a matter of nervous energy to make sure you don’t let this team down.
According to him, a lot is happening so fast, the main thing is to focus on the task immediately ahead.
“There are so many sights and sounds that will be etched in my mind forever,” he said. all of these. You actually hear the sounds in the jet.”
When pilots return from vacations, they review operations and refine tactics for next time, Keating said. And the planning cycle continues.
“The most important part is that you will come back and report this incident,” Keating said. “You’ll get lessons learned and ways to move forward to make sure you keep improving what you do. here.”
Courtney Kube reported from the USS Eisenhower and Dan De Luce from Washington.