Gathering Storm of Carriers: 5 Flattops Patrolling NATO Waters

gathering storm

An F/A-18E Super Hornet from the “Tomcatters” of Strike Fighter Squadron 31 is chocked and chained on the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford’s flight deck, Nov. 7, 2022, while the flattop sails the Atlantic Ocean. The Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group is one of five NATO carriers patrolling European waters in November. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Daniel Perez.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Daniel Perez.

Like a gathering storm across European waters, carrier strike groups from five NATO nations will patrol the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean this month.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials in Belgium called the arrival of the French flattop Charles de Gaulle, Italy’s Cavour, the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth, and the US Navy’s George H.W. Bush and Gerald R. Ford a demonstration of “credible combat power” that showcases “cohesion and interoperability.”

“NATO routinely demonstrates its cohesion, coordinating with multiple international maritime assets at once,” said NATO Allied Maritime Command Vice Adm. Keith Blount, in a prepared statement. “This opportunity demonstrates our ironclad commitment to the stability and security of the Euro-Atlantic Area and the strength of our collective capability.”

A British flag officer and career helicopter pilot, Blount said the quintet of carriers will allow NATO navies to consolidate how they conduct air defense operations, marine landings, and cooperation across all other domains, such as space and cyberwarfare.

gathering storm

Cmdr. Michael “Bocod” Codington, the commanding officer of the “Tomcatters” of Strike Fighter Squadron 31, exits an F/A-18E Super Hornet on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. Silent Wolverine was a US-led exercise with NATO allies in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Grant Gorzocoski.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Grant Gorzocoski.

But US officials told Coffee or Die Magazine that doesn’t mean all five flattops will operate together at the same time in a massive show of naval air power.

“They’ll be working together in various capacities, but not all five at once,” said US 6th Fleet spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Tyler Barker in Naples, Italy.

And surface warships will join in the mix, with foreign frigates and guided-missile destroyers sailing with the carrier strike groups.

“Nothing under a named exercise, but they’ll be working with each other,” Barker said.

gathering storm

In the foreground, US Navy Cmdr. Anthony Bryant, the executive officer of the guided-missile cruiser Normandy, monitors the bridge as the Ticonderoga-class warship arrives in the French port of Cherbourg on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. Normandy is underway as escort assigned to the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Malachi Lakey.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Malachi Lakey.

The US Navy’s George H.W. Bush is under 6th Fleet command now in the Mediterranean, Barker said, following its recent role as the flagship of NATO’s Neptune Strike exercise in the Adriatic Sea.

US Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michelle Tucker, a spokesperson for NATO Maritime Command, told Coffee or Die the carrier strike groups for all the nations will remain under the control of their countries, but will operate “in close coordination in the NATO area of responsibility.”

They won’t be assigned to any standing NATO flotilla, such as Standing NATO Maritime Groups 1 and 2, but they’ll work together to support the alliance’s “Deter and Defend” collective security strategy, Tucker added.

Launched publicly in July, five months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine — a former Soviet republic that borders NATO members Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania — strategists see “Deter and Defend” as akin to an orchestral score, with all the NATO nations playing from the same sheet of music on behalf of the same audience.

gathering storm

The United Kingdom’s aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth transits the Atlantic Ocean on Sept. 23, 2019. Photo courtesy of the Royal Netherlands Navy.

Photo courtesy of the Royal Netherlands Navy.

The score calls for NATO to maintain a “deliberate rhythm” of military activity across all regions in the alliance in the commons of the sea, air, land, space, cyber, and special operations.

Key to making it all come together is “enablement,” the plans and infrastructure already put in place so military forces can quickly respond to crises.

NATO also continues to build up a forward presence in the eastern reaches of the alliance, adding troops to four multinational battle groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.

NATO members also beefed up their forces in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, units that have been facing Russia since 2017.

Although NATO contemplates many potential threats to the alliance’s security, Russia’s attack on Ukraine eight months ago marked “the gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security in decades,” a move that shattered peace on the continent, and reinforced the need to make sure the “deterrence and defence posture remains credible and effective,” according to NATO leaders.

Editor’s Note: This story was modified to put the correct rank in for the 6th Fleet spokesperson and his location in Italy. He’s a lieutenant commander.

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Carl came to Coffee or Die Magazine after stints at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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