Five NATO Aircraft Carriers Are Currently Operating In European Waters

Five aircraft carriers from four different NATO member countries, including the U.S. Navy’s newest supercarrier the USS Gerald R. Ford, which is on its first operational deployment, together with a multitude of escorts, are currently sailing in bodies of water around Europe. The alliance says that these simultaneous deployments have provided a valuable opportunity to demonstrate its procedures for coordinating disparate activities of a large number of major naval assets, just as it might do in a future high-end conflict.

This all of course comes as NATO continues to maintain a heightened force posture in light of Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine. Now long-standing fears of the potential for that conflict to spill over into neighboring countries were highlighted just this week after an errant missile crossed the border between Ukraine and Poland and killed two individuals on a farm in the latter country, which is a NATO member.

When it comes to NATO’s current carrier operations, at least as of earlier today, the U.S. Navy’s Ford remains anchored in the Solent, a strait that lies between Great Britain and the Isle of Wight and that is connected to the English Channel at both ends, where it first arrived on November 14. Embarked on the carrier is Carrier Air Wing 8 (CVW 8), which includes squadrons with F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters, EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jets, E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning and control planes, C-2 Greyhound Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft and MH-60R and S Seahawk helicopters.

At least some of the other elements of Ford‘s strike group, which includes the Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Normandy, three Arleigh Burke class destroyers, and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Legend class National Security Cutter USCGC Hamilton, appear to be elsewhere in the region at present based on various Navy news stories.

Ford, which was beset by technical issues and other problems for years, even after its formal delivery to the Navy, is on its first formal operational deployment, which the service has described as more of an operational evaluation, as you can read more about here. The carrier left its homeport at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia in October.

The U.S. Navy’s Nimitz class carrier USS George H.W. Bush is operating separately in the Adriatic Sea as part of its scheduled deployment, with a stated mission to help “defend U.S., allied and partner interests.” Bush‘s strike group consists of CVW 7 – which is organized in largely the same way as Ford‘s CVW 8 – as well as a number of escorts, the Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Leyte Gulf and four Arleigh Burke class destroyers.

Bush arrived in the region in August, where it relieved USS Harry S. Truman and its associated strike group. The Truman Carrier Strike Group’s deployment in European waters had been extended in light of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine in February.

In October 2022, the Bush Carrier Strike Group was placed under NATO control as part of Exercise Neptune Strike 22.2. Truman and its strike group had operated under the control of NATO during a previous iteration of Neptune Strike earlier in January, which was the first time the alliance had direct command and control of an American carrier since the end of the Cold War.

It’s also worth noting that U.S. Navy carrier strike groups typically include submarines, though those assignments are not typically announced. Whether or not this is the case with regard to either Ford or Bush, there has been a notable amount of American submarine activity around Europe in recent months.

Separately, earlier this month, the United Kingdom sent the Royal Navy’s carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth into the North Sea ostensibly for exercises. However, this deployment is also part of a broader British military operation, Op Achillean, which is focused at least in part on ensuring security in Europe in light of current events, including the war in Ukraine.

It’s not immediately clear what escorts may be currently operating with Queen Elizabeth. However, the Royal Navy has said that stealthy F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, as well as Merlin and Wildcat helicopters, are embarked on the ship for this deployment.

The Italian aircraft carrier ITS Cavour appears to still be operating in the Mediterranean. The carrier, which can carry F-35Bs, as well as AV-8 Harrier jump jets and AW101 helicopters, had left its homeport in Taranto at the beginning of October to take part in Exercise Mare Aperto 22-2, which also included forces from other NATO and European Union (EU) members. At that time, the Italian Navy released pictures, seen in the Tweet below, that indicated at least the Orizzonte class destroyer ITS Caio Duilio and the Bergamini class destroyer Luigi Rizzo were accompanying the carrier, along with various allied warships from Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2). However, it’s unclear what warships may be sailing together with the Cavour now.

Just earlier this week, the French Navy announced that the country’s sole carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, had left its homeport in Toulon. The carrier and its associated carrier strike group are now set to take part in Mission Antares, which French officials have described as being focused on “maintaining a visible and assumed presence of France in maritime areas.”

From what we know now, Charles de Gaulle‘s Antares deployment will see the carrier and other French and allied forces operate at least in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as potentially in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The carrier’s air wing includes Rafale M fighter jets, NH90 Caiman and AS365 Dauphin helicopters, and E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft. Land-based Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft will support portions of the deployment, as well. The carrier will be escorted by at least one Horizon class destroyer and one Aquitaine class frigate, among other French Navy and allied vessels, including submarines.

Though NATO has stressed that none of the carrier deployments are part of any larger coordinated effort, it’s hard not to see five strike groups operating simultaneously as a significant show of maritime force. Furthermore, the alliance has made clear that it views having all of these assets operating around Europe at once as a prime opportunity to test how it would at least coordinate large-scale, but disparate naval operations in actual conflict or other major contingency in the future.

“Although each nation’s forces are operating in support of their own mission objectives, the advanced cooperation shows unity towards the collective defense of the Alliance,” a NATO press release said today regarding the five carriers and their associated strike groups operating around Europe. “This occurrence presents an opportunity for Allied nations to coordinate credible combat power throughout the Euro-Atlantic Area and showcases NATO cohesion and interoperability.”

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

“Five carriers within our operating area presents a further opportunity to consolidate our approach to air defense, cross-domain cooperation, and maritime-land integration,” he added.

If nothing else, the substantial aircraft carrier capabilities contained within the NATO alliance are currently on full display around Europe at a time when geopolitical friction in the region is at a particular high point around the conflict in Ukraine.

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