When President Trump decided to strike at the Assad regime, two names that have become familiar to commanders in Washington, to Russia and the rest of the region were mentioned: the destroyers Ross and Porter.
The two destroyers involved in last night's 59-Tomahawk strike on a Syrian airfield are part of a four-ship squadron forward deployed to Rota, Spain. The ships were on a presence operation in the Eastern Mediterranean when the call came to spin up their Tomahawks and prepare to strike.
The ships were originally sent to Spain as part of the Navy’s ballistic missile defense system in 2014, but have since been used as the Navy’s utility infielders in Europe — conducting missions that run the gamut from presence inside Russia’s increasing anti-access envelopes in the Baltic and Black seas to surveillance and now strike.
Sailors who might have imagined plenty of sunbathing on Spanish beaches when they picked orders have instead found themselves in the middle a geopolitical showdown between Russia and the United States and her allies.
The ships have been continually shadowed and monitored by the Russian fleet as tensions have steadily increased in the skies over Syria, where run-ins between Navy and Air Force pilots and Russian aircraft have threatened to shatter the fragile peace in the region.
Of the four ships, three — the Ross, Donald Cook and Porter — have all had close encounters with Russian aircraft, prompting condemnations from the Pentagon. In February 2016, Russian fighters harassed Porter for two days and at one point came within 30 feet of the ship.
In a message Friday, the head of all Navy forces in Europe congratulated the ships for their work in Thursday’s mission
"I just want to say that the commanding officers of both those ships, Russ Caldwell and Andria Slough, performed magnificently, along with their crews," said Adm. Michelle Howard. "What is also important is that this was a cross-combatant commander mission, and that the integration of the operations cells and all of the teams supporting from the planning to the execution was just flawless. It's an example of the strength of the United States Navy and our ability to project power around the globe."
The sailors who man the Porter, Ross, Donald Cook and Carney have been busy executing demanding operations that keep them at sea for at least half of every year: three months at sea, three months in Rota to refit, modernize and head back to sea.
To analysts, the strikes Thursday night and the constant demand for the Navy’s Mediterranean-based squadron shows the urgent need for more Navy presence in the region.
"The primary reason they are in Europe is not what they were used for last night — it's ballistic missile defense," said Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer skipper and analyst with the FerryBridge Group. "It's only that decision — which was a compromise by the Obama administration that traded a land-based BMD system for a sea-based system — that caused this happy coincidence that they were there, loaded with Tomahawks ready to do what they do.
"Their presence there is to me a sign of the continuing need for credible naval combat power in the Mediterranean," McGrath said.
McGrath and others have advocated for a more robust presence in the Mediterranean as Russia has increasingly made its presence felt in the region.
Jerry Hendrix, a retired naval flight officer and an analyst with the Center for a New American Security, said that gets to the need for a bigger fleet and the 12th carrier that President Trump is seeking. To be a credible deterrent in the region to Russia and to malign actors such as the Assad regime in Syria, the Navy needs to expand and include a more consistent carrier presence there.
Until then, the Navy should consider increasing the size of its fleet in the Mediterranean.
"You probably need a larger, forward-based force and a return to a real Sixth Fleet force structure," Hendrix said, "and that is really also going to have to include the allies there as well."