- In early February, aircraft carriers from three NATO navies trained in the Mediterranean Sea.
- The rare exercise was meant to demonstrate NATO's ability to integrate its high-end maritime strike capabilities.
- The drill took place amid a Russian military buildup around Ukraine that has raised tensions in Europe.
The first week of February saw the Harry S. Truman carrier strike group train with the French carrier Charles de Gaulle's Task Force 473 and the Italian carrier Cavour's strike group in the Mediterranean.
The US and Italian carrier groups were in the Mediterranean as part of NATO's Neptune Strike exercise, which saw command of the Truman strike group pass from the US Navy's Sixth Fleet to NATO, a significant command-and-control event.
Charles de Gaulle's Task Force 473 was participating in Clemenceau 22 a French exercise aimed at increasing interoperability among France's allies and partners.
Although the NATO allies frequently conduct joint naval training, this was a rare occasion for the three aircraft carriers to sail alongside each other.
The American powerhouse
Commissioned in 1998, the USS Harry S. Truman has conducted combat missions in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and in the US-led campaign against ISIS.
The massive Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is nearly 1,100 feet long and displaces 104,000 tons fully loaded. Its usual complement is 3,200 sailors with another 1,800 in its air wing.
It is powered by two A4W nuclear reactors — the most powerful reactors used by the US Navy. The reactors can push Truman to speeds of more than 30 knots and give it an operational range limited only by its crew's endurance.
The reactors have a life-span of 23 years. Like other carriers, Truman's reactors will need to undergo mid-life refueling to keep operating, though the Navy has considered skipping that and cutting the carrier's service life short.
Truman can carry roughly 70 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. It is currently sailing with Carrier Wing One, which has nine squadrons composed of F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet fighters, EA-18G Growler electronic-warfare aircraft, and E-2D Hawkeye early-warning aircraft, as well as MH-60S Seahawk and MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, which can conduct anti-submarine, anti-surface, and rescue missions. Carrier Wing One also has C-2A Greyhound cargo aircraft.
The carrier has a Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system for those fixed-wing aircraft. CATOBAR allows for simultaneous launch and recovery of aircraft, giving Truman significant operational flexibility.
Truman's defenses include two RIM-7 Sea Sparrow anti-missile systems, two RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles anti-missile systems, three 20 mm multi-barrel Phalanx CIWS Mark 15 guns, as well as electronic and anti-torpedo countermeasures.
The French flagship
Charles de Gaulle is the flagship of the French navy and the country's only aircraft carrier. Commissioned in 2001, it has seen combat in the Afghanistan and Libyan wars and in Opération Chammal, France's operation against ISIS.
It is powered by two K15 pressurized-water nuclear reactors, making it the only non-American nuclear-powered carrier in the world. The K15 reactors give it a speed of up to 27 knots and need to be replaced every seven years.
Charles de Gaulle is much smaller than its Nimitz-class counterpart, measuring 861 feet and displacing 42,500 tons. It carries a crew of 1,200 with a 600-strong air wing.
It can carry 40 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft — most of them Rafale fighters. In addition to a small compliment of multipurpose helicopters, it carries two E-2C Hawkeye early-warning aircraft. Charles de Gaulle is also the only non-American aircraft carrier with CATOBAR system.
Its defensive measures include two six-cell SADRAL missile launchers that fire Mistral anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles. It also has four Sylver launchers, each with eight cells, that fire Aster 15 surface-to-air-missiles. In addition, it has eight 20 mm modèle F2 mounted guns.
Although it faced numerous technical problems during its first years in service, the Charles de Gaulle allows France to project power worldwide.
In 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans for a next-generation nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to operate alongside de Gaulle. Construction is set to begin in 2025.
The modern and multifaceted Italian
Cavour is the flagship of the Italian navy and one of Italy's two aircraft carriers. It is conventionally powered, which limits its range to 7,000 nautical miles at 16 knots, though it can reach speeds of 29 knots.
With a length of 800 feet and a displacement of 30,000 tons fully loaded, it is the smallest of the three allied carriers.
However, it is not a traditional aircraft carrier, as its hangar space can be converted to store vehicles, holding 24 main battle tanks or up to 100 lighter infantry vehicles, allowing it to act as a transport ship.
Commissioned in 2008, the young flattop has a crew of 450 and can accommodate a 211-person air wing. It has not yet seen combat.
It can carry 16 fixed-wing aircraft or about 20 helicopters or a mixture of platforms, but because of its size, its flight deck can only support vertical-take off and landing aircraft.
The Italian navy is replacing its 16 Harriers with 15 F-35Bs. Cavour has already been modernized to operate F-35Bs, and in February 2021, it sailed to Norfolk, Virginia, for initial F-35 certification trials.
Cavour's defenses include four eight-cell Sylver launchers firing Aster 15 surface-to-air missiles, two Oto Melara 76 mm Super Rapid guns, three 25 mm anti-aircraft guns, and an electronic-warfare defense system.
A show of unity
Clemenceau 22 will see the French Carrier Task Force sail to Romania's Black Sea port of Constanta to show support for France's NATO ally.
However, NATO's Neptune Strike 2022 was not conducted in response to Russia's recent military buildup around Ukraine, as planning for the exercise started in 2020.
Neptune Strike was "designed to demonstrate NATO's ability to integrate the high-end maritime strike capabilities of an aircraft carrier strike group to support the deterrence and defense of the alliance," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in January.
Nevertheless, the simultaneous deployment of three aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean sends a powerful message about NATO's capabilities.
"There are few nations that are able to operate carrier strike groups, and this was a great opportunity to confirm the high level of integration," Rear Adm. Vincenzo Montanaro, commander of the Italian strike group, said this month.
Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master's degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
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