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US defence secretary makes visits USS Gerald R Ford aircraft carrier defending Israel

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US defence secretary makes visits USS Gerald R Ford aircraft carrier defending Israel

The nuclear-powered Ford, a small, floating city of over 4,000 people with eight squadrons of aircraft, became a powerful symbol of American resolve by rushing closer to Israel after it was attacked by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas on Oct. 7.

FP Staff December 20, 2023 22:06:17 IST US defence secretary makes visits USS Gerald R Ford aircraft carrier defending Israel

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, second right, talks with the commanding officer of the USS Gerald R. Ford, Navy Capt. Rick Burgess, right, during an unannounced visit to the ship on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. The USS Gerald R. Ford has been sailing just a few hundred miles off the coast of Israel to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from expanding into a regional conflict.- AP

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin travelled to the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier on Wednesday to meet with crew tasked with maintaining a presence aimed at preventing the Israel-Hamas conflict from escalating into a more widespread regional crisis.

The nuclear-powered Ford, a small, floating city of over 4,000 people with eight squadrons of aircraft, became a powerful symbol of American resolve by rushing closer to Israel after it was attacked by the Palestinian militant group Hamas on Oct. 7.

Austin’s visit coincides with efforts to encourage Israel to modify its Gaza bombardment strategy, emphasizing the swift addressing of humanitarian needs for Palestinian civilians. Simultaneously, the US is vigilant about the potential for Israel to initiate a military operation along its northern border with Lebanon to remove Hezbollah terrorists, potentially creating a second front and expanding the scope of the conflict.

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Austin has extended the Ford’s deployment three times, hoping its presence would make Iran and Iran-aligned groups — particularly Lebanon’s Hezbollah — think twice before joining the fight against Israel.

“This carrier and crew are making history. Sometimes our greatest achievements are the bad things that we stop from happening,” Austin said in an all-hands call broadcast over the ship’s intercom.

“And at a moment of huge tensions in the region, you all have been the lynchpin to preventing a wider regional conflict.”

He later told reporters travelling with him: “One of our goals is to make sure that the crisis in Gaza does not expand into a regional conflict. And I think we’ve done a good job of managing that.”

Austin discussed planning for the transition with Israeli leaders on Monday in Tel Aviv, with an international outcry mounting over the high civilian death toll in Gaza.

Asked whether the risk of regional war would be reduced when and if Israel shifts to a lower-intensity campaign in Gaza, Austin said on Wednesday: “If that happens… it’s hard to speculate but I think it’s logical that…we would see some reduction in activity.”

When Israel might start the transition is unclear, and Austin told reporters while in Israel that he was not there to dictate timelines to the close American ally.

At a news conference in Tel Aviv on Monday, Austin didn’t say whether U.S. troops might be further extended to defend Israel if its campaign expands into Lebanon, and Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant seemed to tone down recent rhetoric that a northern front was imminent, deferring to diplomatic efforts first.

Still, that leaves incredible uncertainty for the Ford and its crew, which Austin ordered to the Eastern Mediterranean to be closer to Israel the day after Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7. The aircraft carrier’s more than 4,000 sailors and the accompanying warships were supposed to be home in early November.

Using the public address system of the Ford, which is sailing a few hundred miles off the coast of Israel, Austin thanked the sailors and their families for giving up spending the holidays together because of the mission.

“Sometimes our greatest achievements are the bad things we stop from happening,” Austin told the crew. “In a moment of huge tension in the region, you all have been the linchpin of preventing a wider regional conflict.”

The defence secretary met with a group of sailors in Ford’s hangar bay to talk about the various dangers in the region that the carrier, the destroyers and the cruisers deployed along with it have been watching.

He thanked them for keeping attention on cross-border fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, and later told reporters travelling with him that if Israel transitions away from major combat operations in Gaza, it could ease some of the regional tension that has kept the Ford in place.

The Ford’s commanding officer, Navy Capt. Rick Burgess, said one of Ford’s main contributions has been to stay close enough to Israel that it can send its aircraft in to provide support if needed. While Ford’s fighter and surveillance aircraft are not contributing to the surveillance needs of Israel’s operations in Gaza, other ships in its strike group are, Burgess said.

The Ford is one of two U.S. carrier strike groups bracketing the conflict. The other, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, has recently patrolled near the Gulf of Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea waterway where so many commercial vessels have come under attack in recent weeks.

Iranian-backed Houthis in nearby Yemen have vowed to continue striking commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea with ballistic missiles and drones until Israel ceases its devastating bombardment of Gaza, which has now killed more than 19,000 Palestinians.

To counter the ship attacks, Austin announced a new international maritime mission Tuesday to get countries to send their warships and other assets to the southern Red Sea, to protect the roughly 400 commercial vessels that transit the waterway daily.

Since it left Norfolk in the first week of May, the Ford’s fighter aircraft and surveillance planes have conducted more than 8,000 missions. The crew, Austin noted, has been moving at full speed — consuming more than 100,000 Monster energy drinks and 155,000 Red Bulls along the way.

With inputs from agencies.

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