Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, characterized Russia’s intervention in Ukraine to be “as dangerous as it is destabilizing.” But Washington has so far stopped short of direct action beyond pulling out of June’s G8 summit in Sochi.
It’s a terribly unpredictable situation—and there are indications Ukraine and Russia are on the verge of open war. As the situation escalates, it’s important to take note of U.S. military forces in the region, just in case.
This summary is not to suggest these forces will actually deploy. There are lots of good reasons why the U.S. will not do anything militarily. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, for one. Second, American action could risk a disastrous war with a nuclear-armed state.
“We are strong enough to defend ourselves,” Yuriy Sergeyev, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., said on Feb. 28. As if to hammer home the point, Sen. John McCain stressed to The Daily Beast on March 1 that there is no military option the U.S. or NATO can use against to deter Russia from withdrawing its forces from Crimea or moving farther into Ukraine.
But it’s worth keeping tabs on what nearby U.S. forces are up to. This is not a complete list, as we’ve focused on the forces most capable of projecting power: Navy ships, aircraft and ground units capable of rapid deployment.
By far the greatest U.S. firepower in the region belongs to the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier and her accompanying strike group. Together, they boast dozens of aircraft and hundreds of cruise missiles. A carrier strike group might be the symbol of American military power.
The thousand-foot carrier left her base in Norfolk, Virginia on Feb. 15 and entered the Mediterranean on Feb. 27. She is replacing the carrier USS Harry S. Truman, which is in the final days of a nine-month deployment patrolling the waters near the Middle East.
There are nine squadrons aboard Bush. Four are fighter squadrons—two flying the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and two with older F/A-18C Hornets. The exact number of fighters in a squadron varies, but typically ranges between 12 and 14 for the Super Hornet units and 10 and 12 for the Hornets. Bush could carry as many as 52 fighters, in all.
Bush also has a squadron of four EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare planes, another squadron with four E-2C Hawkeye early-warning aircraft, two squadrons of Seahawk helicopters—with 10 to 11 birds each—and two C-2 transport planes.
Aside from Bush, the carrier group includes the destroyers USS Truxtun and USS Roosevelt and the cruiser USS Philippine Sea. Combined, the three warships pack some 300 long-range air-defense missiles and land-attack cruise missiles.
U.S. carrier groups always have at least one nuclear-powered attack submarine nearby, although the subs’ identities and dispositions are usually secret.
Two other American destroyers are in the Med operating independently from the carrier group. These are the USS Arleigh Burke and USS Donald Cook, both based in Spain for ballistic missile defense.
In the Black Sea, the Navy has at least one ship—possibly two—initially tasked with helping provide security during the Sochi Winter Olympics.
One is the frigate USS Taylor. But on Feb. 12, Taylor ran aground during a stop in the Turkish port of Samsun, scraping its propeller. The Navy fired the ship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Dennis Volpe. Taylor’s last known position was Samsun.
The other ship in the area is very, very interesting.
Accompanying the Taylor was the USS Mount Whitney, a high-tech command ship capable of hoovering up vast amounts of electronic communications. Mount Whitney was last seen on Feb. 27 leaving Istanbul, heading toward the Med.
It should come as no surprise if the ship turned around.
Marines, jets and paratroopers
Then there are the Marines. In late February, the USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group arrived off the coast of Spain for an eight-month deployment.
Bataan is a helicopter carrier transporting 2,400 Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. Bataan’s group includes the assault ships USS Gunston Hall and USS Mesa Verde.
The 3,300 soldiers of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, are available on short notice. America’s rapidly-deployable ground response force for Europe, the lightly-equipped 173rd can parachute into a war zone from C-17 and C-130 airlifters.
And there’s always the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The famed 82nd keeps a battalion on standby, ready to deploy anywhere in the world on short notice.
The Air Force also has a significant presence in Europe, with its largest forces based in Italy, Germany and Britain.
The flying branch has three F-15 squadrons at RAF Lakenheath near Suffolk, England. Two F-16 squadrons are at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy. Another F-16 squadron flies from Spangdahlem in Germany.
The Air Force has transport planes at Ramstein Air Force Base, Spangdahlem and Stuttgart Army Airfield in Germany.
Lastly, the Air Force recently sent four F-15s to Lithuania as part of a rotating NATO air patrol for the Baltic. These fighters scrambled on Feb. 24 to intercept an unknown Russian plane.
Again, this isn’t a comprehensive list. But these are the American ships, planes and soldiers that are close enough and sufficiently agile to go to Ukraine quickly, in the unlikely event the U.S. decides to meet Russian force with force of its own.
Russian forces in Crimea alone number at least 15,000 soldiers. In the event of a wider war in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin could send tens of thousands more. A U.S. carrier group in the Med and some Marines won’t stop them. And Putin knows that.