(Reuters) - U.S. fighter jets on Friday launched the first strikes against Islamic State targets from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea since the start of the two-year campaign against the militant group, the U.S. Navy said.
The jets flew from the USS Harry S. Truman after the ship moved into the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, marking the first air strikes conducted by a carrier group in that region since the Iraq war began in 2003, Navy officials said.
Previous strikes were launched solely by U.S. and allied pilots from carriers in the Gulf or from land bases in Bahrain, Turkey and other countries.
The Navy said the raids targeted Iraq and Syria, but gave no details on how many and what type of targets were hit.
The United States is increasingly concerned about Russia's growing military presence in the region, and the air strikes also send a message to Turkey that the U.S. military has other ways to conduct its air war over Syria than from the Turkish air base at Incirlik.
Navy officials said the actions were also meant to dispel concerns raised by some lawmakers about the Navy's decision in recent months not to maintain a constant carrier presence in the Gulf.
Currently, the U.S. Navy is operating three carriers: the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which will head to the Gulf in late June or early July, the USS John C. Stennis, which is operating in the South China Sea, and the Truman, which just left the Gulf.
The Truman and other ships in its strike group served as the principal asset in the U.S. fight against Islamic State targets while it served in the Navy's 5th Fleet area of operations, which includes the Gulf, and they will continue that support role from the Mediterranean, the Navy said.
“This shows that one carrier strike group can cover two areas of operations,” said one senior U.S. Navy official. “It also adds an element of unpredictability. We’re going to do our best to spread the presence we have and take advantage of the reach that our naval assets give us.”
Similar actions could be taken by other ships in the strike group, for instance with Tomahawk missiles, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The Navy’s decision to launch the strikes from the Mediterranean, or its 6th Fleet area of operations, also positions the carrier group for any potential action in Libya.
“It sends a message to friends and foes alike that we can affect both theaters at the same time because of the reach of the naval assets that we have,” said the official.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Tom Brown and Alistair Bell