U.S. carrier set to leave war region

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 Photo/Tara Copp)
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 Photo/Tara Copp)

WASHINGTON -- After months of extra duty at sea providing protection for Israel, the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier strike group will be heading home, the Navy announced Monday.

The Ford and its accompanying warships will be replaced by the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan and its accompanying warships, the USS Mesa Verde and the USS Carter Hall. The three vessels had been in the Red Sea and have been transiting toward the Eastern Mediterranean over the past few days.

The Ford group will will head back to its home port of Norfolk, Va., "in the coming days," the U.S. 6th Fleet, the European-based U.S. naval command that's responsible for ships sailing in the Mediterranean, said in a statement. The fleet will take the time to prepare for future deployments once it returns.

The Ford was sent to the Eastern Mediterranean to be within striking distance of Israel since the day after Hamas' Oct. 7 attacks. The carrier stayed in the Eastern Mediterranean while its accompanying warships had sailed into the Red Sea, where they repeatedly intercepted incoming ballistic missiles and attack drones fired from Houthi-controlled Yemen. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the Ford last month.

Since it was extended in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Ford and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier have been part of a two-carrier presence bracketing the Israel-Hamas war, underscoring U.S. concerns that the conflict will widen. The Eisenhower has recently patrolled near the Gulf of Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea waterway, where commercial vessels have come under attack in recent weeks.

On Sunday, helicopters from the Eisenhower and its destroyer the USS Gravely responded to a distress call from the container ship Maersk Hangzhou, which was under attack by four Iranian-backed Houthi small boats. As the helicopters responded, the boats fired at them with crew-served weapons and small arms, and the helicopters returned fire, sinking three of the four boats and killing their crews, the U.S. Central Command said.

The incessant attacks on the commercial ships have led some companies to suspend transits through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Gulf of Aden to the southern Red Sea and then the Suez Canal.

One of the Bataan's accompanying warships, the Mesa Verde, is a transport dock ship carrying approximately 2,000 Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Those Marines provide "forces capable of supporting a wide range of missions," the U.S. 6th Fleet said.

The Carter Hall is a dock landing ship, which carries amphibious landing craft and their crews. Both vessels and the Bataan can support rotary aircraft; the Bataan can also carry and support Marine Corps' F-35 vertical takeoff fighter aircraft.

Information for this article was contributed by Max Zimmerman of Bloomberg News (TNS).

  photo  Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, front left, walks next to the commanding officer of the USS Gerald R. Ford, Navy Capt. Rick Burgess, front, 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 Photo/Tara Copp)
 
 
  photo  Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, talks with the commanding officer of the USS Gerald R. Ford, Navy Capt. Rick Burgess, 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 Photo/Tara Copp)
 
 

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