The French Navy Eurocopter AS532 Cougar hovering above the stern of the destroyer USS Laboon, lowering cargo to its deck, is what the Norfolk-based Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group has been all about for the past few days.
Miles from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower as the carrier patrols the Arabian Sea, Laboon had passed through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Arabian Gulf to drill alongside the French Navy’s flagship, the carrier FS Charles de Gaulle.
“That’s what interoperability means,” said Rear Adm. Scott Robertson, speaking by phone from the Eisenhower.
The Eisenhower group is operating with a French group, taking advantage of the rare opportunity to work with the only non-American nuclear carrier and the only allied carrier equipped with the catapults that can launch US Navy F/A-18 SuperHornet fighters and E-2 Hawkeye early warning aircraft as well as its own Dassault Rafale fighters.
It’s an exercise that involves more than the challenges of coordinating operations of one carrier, the Eisenhower, operating in the open expanse of the Arabian Sea, and another, the de Gaulle, in the narrow waters of the Gulf, Robertson said.
Just as Laboon is operating with the French carrier, French naval vessels from the de Gaulle’s group have working with the Eisenhower.
And while multiple-carrier operations may seem like exercises from eight decades ago and the World War II battles of Midway and the Coral Sea, they still serve a vital strategic need, Robertson said.
“It means operating 24/7. We can do that for a couple of days without burning out, but this means we can go 24/7 for as long as it takes … One carrier can do daytime operations, the other, the nighttime,” he said.
Both carriers, too, can handle the other’s jets should they run into trouble — that’s also what interoperability means, Robertson said.
“Those who might want to make trouble in an unsettled part of the world will think again when there’s a carrier strike group in the neighborhood, or in this case when there’s two,” Robertson said.
The de Gaulle’s sailors are far from the only allies the Eisenhower has operated with since leaving Norfolk nearly eight weeks ago.
The Eisenhower group drilled with a Moroccan frigate in the approaches to the critical maritime chokepoint of Gibraltar, practicing operations against submarines and other surface ships. Its air wing flew with Moroccan pilots on live-fire exercises onshore, operations that included American personnel on shore working with their Moroccan counterparts as on-the-ground operation controllers.
The group exercised with an ltalian frigate on its way to Gibraltar and with Greek naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea.
Last month, the cruiser USS Monterey and destroyer USS Thomas Hudner from the group joined with ships from Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine for an exercise in the Black Sea.
Earlier this month, the group’s Carrier Air Wing 3, based at Naval Air Station Oceana, flew missions in support of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the continuing campaign against Islamic State remnants in Syria and Iraq.
The Eisenhower just completed a port call at Duqm, Oman, a small port and refinery town on that nation’s southern coast, confirming the Navy’s ability to supply ships there.
Operating with allies to learn one anothers’ ways and to build trust when operating in close confines on an at-times dangerous sea is at the heart of the Eisenhower group’s current deployment, Robertson said.
“It showcases the real strength of our Navy and our allies … to be able to work together,” he said.
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