ABOARD THE USS BATAAN (AP) — When missile and drone attacks escalated in the Red Sea late last year, crew members on the USS Bataan worked around the clock to make sure they were shot down before they reached passing merchant ships.
Weeks later, they are still perfecting this process in training and simulation, along with dozens of other scenarios, despite moving north to the Mediterranean where commercial maritime traffic is at little risk.
The US Navy is adjusting the deployment of its warships in the Middle East in order to maintain its dominance in the region – and is now looking to the longer term as fears grow that Israel's war on Hamas in Gaza could ignite a regional conflict.
Bataan is an amphibious warship, a multi-deck assault ship filled with armored vehicles and military equipment with a low bay that can take on water to launch landing craft directly into the sea.
The ship now leads the US task force in the Eastern Mediterranean, after the Navy's newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, was brought home in the new year.
Bataan and its two support ships, USS Mesa Verde and USS Carter Hall, have a combined force of about 2,500 Marines and sailors.
Marine Lt. Col. Jeremy Hawkins, a senior planner with the task force, says the formation of a multi-role maritime force is ideal for the complex nature of the conflict and related regional sources of tension.
“We are able to operate truly independently in international waters and airspace. It gives us a lot of freedom of operations,” he said. “We are floating on a piece of America, wherever we are.”
As he spoke, an AV-8B Harrier soared from the deck overhead, launching a night flight designed to keep pilots and support personnel ready.
Now in its 15th week, the war in Gaza continues to add tension to multiple flashpoints in the broader region, many of which involve Iranian-backed armed groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi movement in Yemen.
“The deployment of the USS Bataan to the eastern Mediterranean is intended to do two things,” said Gregory Avtandilian, a senior lecturer at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C.
“It aims to deter Hezbollah from increasing its missile attacks against Israel, which could lead to a broader war, and to strengthen the US naval presence in the Red Sea in hopes of deterring the Houthis from launching further attacks on shipping in that area of the sea.” water.”
In October, the United States amassed significant naval forces and sent two aircraft carriers to the Middle East after Hamas attacks in Israel led to an ongoing assault on Gaza.
Bataan was sailing towards the eastern Mediterranean on Friday after participating in live-fire exercises with NATO member Greece on the country's mainland.
At sea for six months, the crew's deployment was extended by the crisis, with the US Army relying on the rapid deployment skills of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in North Carolina, along with the Navy.
This means that snipers and demolition experts spend their days in close quarters with ICU doctors and intelligence officers.
They all live connected via a maze of windowless hallways, and many use out-of-the-way corners to create exercise space or use the deck ramps for working out.
Fourteen decks of living quarters and administrative areas wrap around a helicopter hangar and hospital centered amidst the 257-meter (843-foot) ship.
Attack helicopter pilot Navy Capt. Sam Peters says he hopes to return home soon to Valdosta, Georgia, but realizes his stay on board could be extended again.
“To be completely honest, we are constantly training and always ready to respond to crises, and I don't think our mission has really changed,” he said. “I would say the difference (after coming to Greece) is that the food is a little better.”
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