Middle East

On board the aircraft carrier fighting IS

Aircraft on carrier deck
Image caption The aircraft carrier can accommodate up to 90 planes on its flight deck

Over the past four months USS Harry S Truman has been sailing somewhere in the Gulf launching wave after wave of attacks on so-called Islamic State (IS).

There are more than 60 jets on board - three times as many as the RAF are flying from Cyprus. Already they have set a record for the number of bombs dropped - more than 1,200.

The carrier's motto is made up of the words of the 33rd US president himself: "Give 'em Hell".

But the bombs that crowd the deck ready for the next wave of attacks are not the only weapon they are using.

"We do the stuff in the background that people don't talk about," says Lt Drew Schnabel, the pilot.

We watch as he and his colleague, Lt Chris Long, an Electronic Warfare Officer, put on their helmets as they prepare for another mission.

While most of the aircraft on board do carry bombs, their jet does not. They fly an EA-18G Growler designed to jam electronic signals.

Up on deck they are assigned their jet. It is fitted with large, heavy pods which emit high radiated power to block transmitters on the ground.

The Growler was originally designed to disable Air Defence Systems - the kind that might be used, for example, by Russia.

But in the fight against IS it is being used for a very different purpose.

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Media captionLt. Drew Schnabel: "The fighters drop the bombs, we do the stuff in the background"
Image caption Counting the bombs dropped against IS aboard the aircraft carrier

We watch as their jet prepares to be catapulted from rest to 165mph in the space of a few seconds. Lt Schnabel calls the violent launch "the best cup of coffee".

Even from the safety of the deck it is an adrenalin-fuelled, bone-shaking experience. After a salute to the deck crew and then full throttle on the engines, their jet soon disappears into the distance.

Lts Schnabel and Long can't give much detail about the missions they have been flying day in and day out over Iraq and Syria. Much of what they do is still classified.

But Lt Schnabel tries to explain: "Think of it this way. You're sitting in your house and bombs start going off. It's chaotic. Then all of a sudden you start losing your ability to communicate and things start happening in the electronic aspect that you don't understand."

The combined effect, he says, "adds a whole 'nother level of fear". The end effect, he hopes, is they start to "lose their will to fight".

Wider strategy

This is all part of a wider strategy being deployed by the US that includes the use of electronic and cyber-warfare.

The US and British military have already been using spy planes to locate so called "High Value Targets".

They are believed to be able to trace and track individual mobile phones.

Image copyright AP

USS Harry S Truman:

  • US Navy's eighth Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, named after the 33rd president
  • Length: 333m, Width: 78m, Height: 74m
  • Can accommodate approximately 90 aircraft with a 4.5-acre flight deck
  • Can carry more than 6,200 crew members
  • Construction started: 29 November 1993
  • Launched: 7 September 1996
  • Cost: More than $4.5bn (£3bn)

The New York Times recently reported that America's Cyber Command has been directed to disrupt the ability of IS to spread its message, attract new recruits, circulate orders and carry out day to day functions like paying its fighters.

The US deputy defense secretary has called it "dropping cyber bombs".

Back on board the carrier Lt Long admits what they do is "ethereal in nature".

Their success may be harder to measure than the bombing missions their comrades conduct.

Image caption The EA-18G Growler with electronic jamming pod landing on the USS Harry S Truman

But he says they do get feedback. They have been turning on their jammers to support Iraqi and Peshmerga forces on the ground who, he says, tell them "we knew you were there because we stopped getting attacked and shot at".

It suggests the Growlers are able to block IS radio communications on the ground as well as jamming phones and computers.

Lt Long says: "Whoever controls the electronic spectrum will win the next war."

Rear Adm Bret Batchelder, who commands the carrier strike groups, says it's a "long-term process and it's not going to happen overnight".

Even with all this military might and advanced technology the fight against IS is far from over.

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