Aircraft carriers have served as the backbone of the US Navy since the Second World War and the pinnacle of global power projection, however recent advances in A2/AD capabilities by nations like China and even Iran have led many to believe the end of the carrier-era. For Josh Cheatham from the US Department of the Army, there is more than meets the eye.
In March, CENTCOM Commander Marine General Kenneth McKenzie jnr announced his intent to retain two aircraft carriers in the Middle East to provide the US with greater flexibility and maintain what he termed “a profound deterring effect principally upon Iran”.
In response, a number of recent articles have challenged the notion that a second aircraft carrier — or any at all — actually deters Iranian aggression. The articles coalesce on two central themes. First, carriers are inadequate to the task of deterring Iran because Iran avoids direct conventional conflict with the US by fighting in the so-called “grey zone”, using proxies to project power in the region.
And second, the carriers themselves have become easy targets for Iran, whose anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities are sufficient to strike and perhaps even destroy a carrier transiting the Strait of Hormuz.
While these arguments have some credence, further scrutiny reveals that critics of Gen McKenzie’s strategy are not asking the right questions. The grey zone argument fails to account for the effect that US military force in the region has on Iranian doctrine. Similarly, the deterrent value of the carrier, itself, needs to be considered alongside Iran’s capacity to damage it.
The grey zone argument
The grey zone criticism of Gen McKenzie’s strategy betrays a lack of understanding of Iranian military doctrine. Critics suggest that aircraft carriers are unfit to challenge Iran’s use of proxies across the Middle East.
There is some logic to this argument. Challenging proxy networks requires building and sustaining competent partner forces as counterweights to the proxies, and sea-based aerial firepower is, obviously, not an ideal tool for building capable allies.
This argument, however, seems to suggest that Iran has chosen a doctrine of proxy warfare in a vacuum, irrespective of adversarial capabilities. Critics of the carrier strategy would be wise to ask themselves why Iran fights via proxy. The answer, in part, is tied to the conventional superiority of Iranian rivals — chiefly, the US and Israel.
In reality, Iran has little choice but to fight in the grey zone. For the Islamic Republic, deploying conventional forces against the US or other superior adversaries has laid bare a remarkable military ineptitude.
In 1988, in the waning months of the so-called Tanker War, the USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian naval mine in the Arabian Gulf, injuring 10 sailors. In response, the US launched Operation Praying Mantis, with the limited objectives of destroying two Iranian oil platforms in the Gulf and sinking an Iranian warship. Over the course of the battle, however, Iran unwisely chose to throw additional naval and air forces into the fray.
The result was one of the most lopsided engagements in naval history, with the US sinking or severely damaging “half of Iran’s operational fleet”.
It’s precisely because of such engagements that Iran, prudently, prefers to project power and wield influence via proxies like Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shia Militia Groups (SMGs), and Yemen’s Huthi movement.
Proxy warfare has allowed Iran to cultivate allies — many of whom have developed into the leading powers in their respective states — while not exposing its own forces to conventionally superior adversaries.
Even so, Iran’s adversaries have recently begun to directly challenge Iran’s expansionist agenda, putting the Islamic Republic in the uncomfortable position of having to fight for itself.
In January, the US killed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani in response to malign anti-US activities conducted by Iraqi SMGs under IRGC-QF direction.
Iran’s response to the killing of its best known and arguably most capable general was a ballistic missile barrage aimed at US forces at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq. The retaliation was reminiscent of a May 2018 Iranian response to Israeli airstrikes on Iranian infrastructure in Syria that left several Iranian military personnel KIA.
In turn, Iranian forces launched at least 20 rockets into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
In both the Al Asad Airbase and Golan attacks, the threshold for direct Iranian use of force was high: the killing of a popular general and symbol of Iranian power projection, and the very public loss of multiple personnel.
In each case, Iran found itself in an unfamiliar position in which direct action was the only thing that would allow it to save face. In each case, Iran’s application of conventional military force failed (miserably so in the Golan attack).
At Al Asad, Iran failed to kill a single US service member in retaliation for Soleimani’s killing. On the Golan, not only did Iran fail to kill a single Israeli soldier, but also the vast majority of Iranian projectiles landed harmlessly in Syrian territory.
The four rockets that would have possibly hit Israeli personnel or infrastructure were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system. Worse still for Iran, its attack on the Golan elicited Israeli retaliation (in the form of Operation House of Cards), which saw the further destruction of Iranian military infrastructure in south-west Syria, including “IRGC intelligence centres, weapons depots, storage facilities, observation posts, and logistics centers in Syria, as well as the rocket launcher that carried out the initial attack”.
The lesson here is that for Iran, fighting in the grey zone is less a choice than a necessity born out of a begrudging (but savvy) understanding of its adversaries’ conventional power. Iran will employ conventional force only when backed into a corner, and when Iran wields conventional force against a superior adversary, events tend not to go well for them.
For the US, aircraft carriers represent an impressive element of conventional power that will continue to check the frequency and scale of direct Iranian military action.
The “Iran can sink a carrier” argument
There is no denying either the quantitative or qualitative growth of Iran’s A2/AD platforms over the last two decades. The Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 study of Iran military power indicates “the full range of Iran’s A2/AD capabilities include ship- and shore-launched antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs), fast attack craft (FAC) and fast inshore attack craft (FIAC), naval mines, submarines, UAVs, antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), and air defence systems”.
Clearly, as critics of Gen McKenzie’s strategy have noted, aircraft carriers are vulnerable to Iranian firepower while transiting the Arabian Gulf. Again, however, critics of the strategy are asking the wrong question. It’s not a matter of can Iran hit an American aircraft carrier, but would they dare?
Students of deterrence theory may recall a hypothetical question and answer proffered by Thomas Schelling in Arms and Influence. Schelling described a US Army “Berlin Garrison” vastly outnumbered by Soviet and Soviet-bloc personnel and mused, “What can 7,000 American troops do?” Answering his own question, Schelling wrote:
"Bluntly, they can die. They can die heroically, dramatically, and in a manner that guarantees that the action cannot stop there. They represent the pride, the honour, and the reputation of the United States government and its armed forces; and they can apparently hold the entire Red Army at bay.
"Precisely because there is no graceful way out if we wished our troops to yield ground, and because West Berlin is too small an area in which to ignore small encroachments, West Berlin and its military forces constitute one of the most impregnable military outposts of modern times. The Soviets have not dared to cross that frontier."
Like the Berlin Garrison, US aircraft carriers represent the pride, honour, and reputation of the US government and its armed forces. As Gen McKenzie himself put it, “[the carrier] is a floating piece of American sovereignty”.
Carriers are tremendous capital investments, costing billions of dollars and housing thousands of American service men and women, broadly respected and admired by the American populace. Losing such valuable blood and treasure would likely give any US administration the public support for a dramatic military response.
In the debate over the deterrent value of US aircraft carriers in the Arabian Gulf, the vulnerability of the carrier(s) demands attention but should not be weighted as heavily as critics of Gen McKenzie’s strategy suggest it should.
The carrier itself is such a valuable symbol of American military power that Iran probably recognises that while training to attack a dummy carrier makes for good propaganda, sinking one in reality would not mean the end of conflict with the US, but only the beginning.
Josh Cheatham is an expert on military theory and armed conflict with the Department of the Army. He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Virginia and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the US Army, or any of its subordinate commands.