The smell of jet fuel fills the air as an F/A-18 Super Hornet prepares for take-off. Its engines are idle and it’s already unbearably loud on the flight deck of the USS Harry S Truman.
A flight director on the United States Navy carrier gestures towards the jet, giving the go ahead for a catapult like-system to sling the aircraft towards the edge of a seemingly impossibly short runway.
Within seconds, it’s in the air and nearly out of sight.
This intricate process is one that pilots and crew on this Nimitz-class carrier – an emblem of US military might – repeat over and over again, with uncanny precision. And they’re doing so unfazed by the circumstances of their presence in the Adriatic Sea as tensions between the US and Russia reach fever pitch.
This is the first time since the end of the Cold War that a carrier strike group, which includes the Truman and five other ships escorting it (plus at least one or two submarines whose presence is never publicly acknowledged) has been under NATO command.
“This is the first time I’ve worked with NATO out on a carrier,” F/A-18 fighter jet pilot Lt. Cmdr. Alex Tidei told CNN.
“It’s the first time for a lot of our pilots – so that’s been a great experience,” he added, seemingly unaffected by the tensions around him.
The Truman – which carries 90 aircraft on board, including a fleet of F/A-18s – was on its way to the Middle East in mid-December, but the Pentagon decided to keep it in Europe as tensions began to escalate.
Rear Adm. Curt Renshaw, commander of Strike Group Eight, of which Truman is a part, told CNN: “I think it sends the message to allies that they can count on us. We’re committed to our alliances or partnerships – we’re able to operate, plug and play anywhere in the world.”
With the Truman near European shores, its jets can get to most of Eastern Europe in less than an hour, and its presence in the region gives NATO members like Bulgaria, Romania and Poland additional security guarantees.
While US President Joe Biden has said that the US will not intervene militarily but rather impose economic sanctions if Russia further invades Ukraine, he has decided to reinforce its deterrence capabilities in Europe.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon approved the deployment of additional troops to NATO’s Eastern flank.
“It’s totally consistent with what I told (Russian President Vladimir) Putin in the beginning,” Biden told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins Wednesday.
“As long as he’s acting aggressively, we’re going to make sure we reassure our NATO allies and Eastern Europe (that) we’re there and Article V is a sacred obligation,” Biden said, referencing the cornerstone of the NATO alliance: An attack against one ally is considered an attack against all.
And that’s what the Truman’s exercises are preparing for.
“What we bring to strategic decision makers is that we are able to execute absolutely to perfection, we’re able to integrate with partners,” Renshaw said, adding: “If at the tactical level, we’re on our game, then that that allows the options that I think the senior decision makers need to do.”
The Truman just wrapped a two-week-long exercise with NATO allies in the Adriatic Sea, alongside Norwegian and Turkish warships, additional vessels and aircraft from other NATO member states.
According to the alliance, thousands of NATO forces were involved in the exercise.
Lt. Cmdr. Jeannette Lazzaro, who flies the US Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye – an early warning aircraft that plays a key role in coordinating with NATO allies – told CNN she’s not concerned about rising tensions between the US and Russia.
Still, she believes the exercises are important to ensure that the US and NATO “are all working together.”
“If we ever do have to do anything, we are all on the same page,” she said.