The carrier Harry S. Truman is on its way to wage war with the Islamic State group, and may launch airstrikes from the Mediterranean, joining the French carrier in a show of force and solidarity.
Officials are discussing whether the five-ship armada should linger in the Eastern Mediterranean to pound IS targets in Syria rather than continue immediately to the Middle East.
European Command, Naval Forces Europe, Central Command and the Office of the Secretary of Defense have discussed the possibility of keeping the carrier in Europe for several days or longer, three Pentagon officials said.
The decision hinges on a shifting security situation as responses ramp up in the wake of Friday's Paris attacks that left 129 civilians dead and hundreds more wounded in a brazen attack.
The French carrier Charles de Gaulle is preparing to depart on a scheduled deployment Thursday for the Middle East ahead of Truman, but reports from French media have indicated that the carrier might stay in the Eastern Mediterranean.
"They were scheduled for two-carrier ops with Truman in the Persian Gulf," said one defense official, who like others asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. "But if I was a betting man, I'd say the Charles de Gaulle stays in the Eastern Med."
The French military is launching strikes into Syria from aircraft in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, according to media reports.
The deliberations come against the backdrop of a fast-changing security environment in Europe. On Tuesday, France invoked the European Union's mutual-defense clause, which received unanimous support from the member nations. It is unclear if France intends to invoke NATO's collective defense agreement, as the United States did after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.
On Monday, Russia said a homemade bomb brought down a Russian airliner, killing 224 people, and vowed retribution. IS has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Tuesday that he has ordered his military to make contact with the Charles de Gaulle carrier group and to treat them as allies in the fight against IS, which adds a new wrinkle for U.S. planners that could impact Truman.
A request for comment from the French Embassy in Washington on whether Charles de Gaulle would proceed as planned to the Persian Gulf for strikes was not returned by press time.
The Truman is currently conducting carrier qualifications on its way to Central Command, and is scheduled to arrive in the Persian Gulf by mid-December, barring any changes. CENTCOM has been waging war against ISIS for the past month without the benefit of a flattop; the fleet has been stretched trying to fulfill missions in CENTCOM and in the Asia-Pacific region, where tensions have flared between China and its neighbors.
A Defense Department spokesperson said the Truman was scheduled to support operations in Europe and in CENTCOM.
A European Command spokesman declined to discuss future operations and planning.
"We are [in] constant contact with our NATO allies and are prepared to conduct military operations when and where our National Command Authorities deem necessary," Air Force Lt. Col. David Westover said. "However, due to operational security, we do not discuss future military operations or future ship movements."
'No paucity of targets'
Air Force assets based in Aviano and Turkey, as well as other partner states and allies, are averaging about 25 strikes per day in Iraq and Syria, according to statistics released by Operational Inherent Resolve. OIR has been without a carrier since mid-October, when Theodore Roosevelt departed after months of strikes in Iraq.
A show of solidarity between the U.S. and French carriers could be a public relations windfall, but some experts say it could be a distraction from maximizing airstrikes against IS targets.
It is unclear how much would be gained from having the Truman launch airstrikes from the Mediterranean.
On Monday, the U.S. struck at 100 IS oil tankers, which officials had been avoiding because of concerns over killing the civilian truck drivers, according to a Tuesday report in The Wall Street Journal.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, some analysts have said it's time to pursue an unshackled and fearsome air war to defeat IS, in a criticism of the U.S. administration's limited strikes intended to take out terrorist leaders and infrastructure.
"There is no paucity of targets, there is a paucity of strategy," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula (ret.), who helped plan the air campaign ahead of operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. Deptula has been calling for a sharply increased, focused air campaign that he believes will destroy IS' combat effectiveness within weeks.
Deptula said he questioned the logic behind concern for the possibility of increased civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes, "when balanced against the certainty of ISIS's continued crimes against humanity." ISIS is an alternative acronym used for the Islamic State group.
Other analysts have countered that the unintended killing of civilians threatens to harden feelings of marginalization and hatred against the coalition, a sentiment that has fueled the rise of the IS militancy.