The US Navy announced on 20 March that aircraft carriers USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and USS Harry S. Truman, and their respective escorts, are operating with a B-52 bomber in the Arabian Sea to demonstrate “combined joint capability and interoperability to plan and conduct multi-task force operations in the US Central Command area of responsibility”. Is this the best use of an aircraft carrier and does it stretch US capability too far?
Yesterday, Defence Connect published the first of this two-part series, discussing the decision to place the two carrier groups in the Arabian Sea in regard to deterring Iran.
In this second part, we will be discussing this decision in the scope of greater US force structure and management as well as its effects on other goals, most importantly, combating competition from Russia and China as part of the now entrenched National Defense Strategy, which highlights great power competition.
What about the shift in the US National Defense Strategy?
As with the questions being raised of the effectiveness of the strategy towards the deterrence of Iran, experts are also questioning the show of force and how it relates to changing priorities under the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy.
One of these experts is Bryan Clark, a former senior aide to the chief of naval operations and now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, who was referenced in part one.
Clark says, “If we’re supposed to be focused on China and Russia, we’re doing nothing for either one of those with a [two-carrier] presence in the Middle East. And arguably, we are giving China a freer hand in the Pacific because that carrier and its associated strike group are not there half the time.”
This is the base for many arguing against the use of a second carrier in the region.
The National Defense Strategy calls for the US military to focus on maintaining stability and not allowing a single power to dominate the Middle East. It also calls for the US to “develop enduring coalitions to consolidate gains we have made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, to support the lasting defeat of terrorists as we sever their sources of strength and counterbalance Iran".
However, ramping up the military presence in the region as a counter to Iran could be seen as US-dominated security rather than coalition building. The level of force also does not seem to match the security situation as discussed in part one of this series.
Such a large projection of force, the assignment of a second carrier to the Arabian Sea is bound to have flow-on effects on the capability and readiness of US forces elsewhere. Most notably in the Pacific as the US attempts to posture towards competition with China.
Stretching the rubber band
When General James Mattis deployed a second carrier at the end of 2010 during part of a power surge aimed at getting Iran to the nuclear negotiating table it had massive flow-on effects to the readiness of crews and equipment. As a result, the program ended in early 2013 when the Navy successfully argued that continuing a two-carrier presence was not affordable with sequestration cuts hitting the force.
During the early 2010s, long deployments up to nine-and-a-half months and regular surge deployments wore out the ships, aircraft and sailors, creating huge readiness gaps that took years to recover from, Clark says, warning that a return to that posture would have significant consequences.
“The carrier schedules are going to be such that they may not be able to make, or take full advantage of, their maintenance periods,” he says.
“And then you’re going to see the kind of cascading effects on carrier readiness that will take years to dig out of."
Former Navy secretary Ray Mabus, who presided over the readiness shortfalls created by Mattis’ two-carrier requirement, also cited the lasting pitfalls of the strategy stating in an interview with Defense News.
"Pushing for two carriers now means that down the line those carriers won’t be there when perhaps the need is urgent," Mabus said.
“When Mattis was CENTCOM commander, he demanded [two-carrier] presence and got it, and it messed up the carrier rotations for years. If you go [with a two-carrier presence] now, you are guaranteeing yourself a gap later on."
In the years following Mattis’ presence surge, the US allowed long gaps in carrier presence in the Middle East and the lowest level of carrier deployment in 25 years in 2018.
The US has 11 carriers in its fleet, however, only eight are ever available for tasking at any one time. The USS Gerald R. Ford is not certified for tasking yet, one carrier is always in its midlife overhaul and refuelling, and one carrier is usually in an extended maintenance period. Under normal circumstance, the fleet must provide a carrier or the Middle East and a carrier for the Asia-Pacific region.
The Asia-Pacific region is covered for six months every year by the forward-deployed carrier Ronald Reagan out of Japan, but US-based ships must make up the other half. And if the Pentagon doesn’t want to leave the Pacific uncovered for large swathes of the year with two carriers in the Middle East, the Navy will need to maintain between two and three US-based carriers deployed year-round, an immense burden on a fleet of eight aircraft carriers.
“You’re going to need at least an extra deployment every year out of the remaining force," Clark said.
“That means that in the sustainment phase, you are going to need to double pump carriers maybe once but probably twice per year, meaning that ships returning from deployment would have to be surged in the months following to maintain the desired presence levels.”
Mabus also highlights the pressure these deployments place on personnel.
“It’s a huge hit on morale for sailors and their families,” Mabus explained, “because sailors are willing to do just about anything. But first, they need to know why, and second they need to know: ‘If we’re going to have to stay out for nine months, let us know we’re going to be out for nine months. We can plan for that. Our families can plan for that.’
“The stress you put on sailors, the stress you put on equipment, the aircraft, the weapons systems: That’s why [former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan] Greenert and I argued that you have a pretty specific timeline — here’s when we’re going to do maintenance, here’s where we do certifications, here’s where we’re going to do workups, here’s where we are going to deploy.”
In this second part, we have looked into the effects of deploying a second carrier in the Middle East on the greater national defence strategy goals as well as the greater effects of fleet readiness and strain. With the first part discussing and highlighting issues a deterrent strategy towards Iran it seems that having a second carrier in the Arabian may have little advantages.