ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH, Persian Gulf -- In the early morning of April 7, a volley of 59 Tomahawk missiles was launched into Shayrat Airfield in Syria under the supervision of Rear Adm. Kenneth Whitesell aboard the carrier George H. W. Bush. Later that afternoon, F/A-18 Super Hornets launched from the carrier to perform previously planned airstrikes on Islamic State targets over Iraq and Syria.
Russia has publicly denounced the Tomahawk strike, which was designed as a deterrent after a reported chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on civilians in a rebel-held town in his own country.
The same day of the strike, Russia also announced it was ending a long-standing deconfliction agreement that allowed its fighters and those of the United States to coordinate travel patterns and avoid dangerous encounters over Syria. But despite the rhetoric and outrage, there have been no unprofessional or unsafe interactions with Syrian or Russian aircraft since April 7, said Capt. James McCall, commander of Carrier Air Wing 8 aboard the Bush.
In an interview, McCall said it was business as usual for squadrons aboard the carrier, though they operate with heightened awareness in light of recent events.
"We're trying not to live in a bubble where we pretend our strategic choices with TLAMS in Syria don't necessarily affect our ability to operate in Syria," McCall said, using the formal acronym for the Tomahawk cruise missile. "... That goes to, 'Roger that. We had a TLAMS strike that occurred in Syria. Do you think the Syrians might be a little upset about that? Oh, absolutely. Have you seen on the news that the Russians have publicly condemned us doing it? Absolutely.' So do we believe there may be some heightened tension there? Absolutely, we believe that."
Nonetheless, he said, no one from any of the squadrons has reported aggressive interactions with either Syrian or Russian aircraft. In place of formal deconfliction agreements, Navy pilots instead rely on a variety of internal assets to monitor air traffic and deconflict airspace, including coalition ground assets providing up-to-date command and control and real-time information, and the carrier strike group's own radar-equipped early detection aircraft.
"My experience is, our [command and control] does a really good job. One could speculate that, with the presence of the Syrian Air Force and especially the Russian Federation Air Force, that naturally it would seem more complicated," McCall said. "That said, I personally have not witnessed that ... I'd say it has been a non-issue for us at this point."
To date, the carrier has dropped more than 750 pieces of ordnance on targets in Iraq and Syria since it deployed in January, with sortie rates sometimes upward of 100 air missions per week.
While operational tempo fluctuates by the day, McCall said, the mission rate has stayed fairly steady since airstrikes began on this deployment. The carrier's fighters are tasked pretty evenly for targets over Iraq and Syria, he said, and there's no sign that the aftermath of the missile strike will affect day-to-day operations.
"I think that's what we communicate to our guys, and we try to prepare them so they can go out and do their job," he said. "Is there heightened awareness? Absolutely. Do they understand what the threat, is? Yeah, absolutely. But in that context, that we allow them to do their job and execute just the way they would [before]."