An aircraft carrier – one of the most expensive pieces of military hardware in the world – is actually a floating city, with some 5,000 crew members, that can carry more than 80 aircraft. Dozens of F-18s, helicopters, command and control aircraft and more are on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush these days, as it stands anchored off the Haifa coast.
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On Monday, Israeli helicopters also landed there, bringing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, and other senior navy and air force officers for a tour. The aircraft carrier has been in the region for the past few months to serve as a base for air strikes against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and docked here over the weekend to give the crew a few days of rest and relaxation, including on America’s Independence Day, which is Tuesday.
Speaking to the press, Netanyahu described the aircraft carrier as a floating American island. "Israel and America share the same values and the same vision," he said. "We are both peace-lovers, but we recognize that sometimes we need to fight those enemies." U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who was also present, added that the warship has been all over the world, and it’s the first time it is hosting a prime minister. Netanyahu’s entourage included his wife, Sara, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav.
The George H.W. Bush has been operational for almost nine years. Most of its recent missions have been in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf regions. It came to Israel via the Suez Canal after a stint in the Persian Gulf.
The aircraft it is carrying have been operating mainly in Mosul and Raqqa; one of its most recent missions was shooting down a Syrian aircraft that threatened the coalition forces in the Raqqa area. According to Capt. James McCall, one of the carrier’s air wing commanders, the Syrian plane ignored several warnings and so it was decided to deploy fighter jets to take it down. McCall said they were working to eradicate ISIS, not to take part in the civil war, but to neutralize terrorists like ISIS.
One of the fighter pilots on the aircraft carrier, 1st Lt. Richard, explained that the operations are being conducted in cooperation with the coalition forces, and to provide them what they need. Richard, who is from San Francisco, flies between three and four times a week, and sometimes flying more than eight hours straight. He refused to give any details about his operational missions or sites that he had bombed, but said that nowadays Syria is more intense than Iraq.
Between 20 and 25 planes set out from the aircraft carrier daily to conduct air strikes and provide cover for the coalition forces on the ground. Capt. William Pennington one of the ships commanding officers explained that sometimes aircraft are sent out with a defined mission, but sometimes they are also ‘summoned’ in cases when they are needed in the battle zones. When asked about the strategic significance of bring the aircraft carrier to Israel, Pennington said that it demonstrates America’s commitment to the Middle East. He added that it’s not that the United States is absent from here, but it has a symbolic message.
Miguel Sandoval, a technician on the aircraft carrier, said this was his first operational mission in the region. The ship had previously stopped in Bahrain and Greece, but so far he is enjoying Israel the most because of the food and the weather. He said it feels special to be part of something big, referring to the crew’s being part of the coalition battling ISIS.
There are currently 4,800 crew members on board. Their average age is 25.5, and 27 percent are women, who fill various positions on the aircraft carrier, which has more than a dozen female pilots and navigators. During their free time, crew members can go to yoga or crossfit classes, or take college courses. The carrier has several gyms, a library, a small souvenir shop, and a museum that catalogues the ship’s history. The ship gets 12 new movies every month that can be viewed on encrypted DVD devices. The ship’s movie library has 800 films. New ones and old ones, and not just war movies, one of the officers said.