ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN — U.S. President Barack Obama recently
that "all elements of American power" remain on the table to prevent Iran from
obtaining nuclear weapons. The USS Abraham
-- a nearly 100,000-ton supercarrier with a crew of around 4,800 and 50-plus
aircraft -- is one of these elements. Steaming just 30 miles off the coast of
Iran while launching F/A-18 Hornet strike aircraft, it is one of the most
visibly impressive demonstrations of American military might.
If strategic power can be measured in decibels, the
flight operations of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier must rank at the top. Even
if one wears earplugs as well as ear protectors, the noise on the flight deck is
overwhelming. Depending on the aircraft type and the payload it is carrying, each F/A-18 is catapulted off either at full
power or with the additional fiery blast of afterburners. Similarly on
landing, the throttles are opened in case the aircraft's hook does not catch on
one of the four arrestor wires stretched across the deck. An aircraft that
misses is labeled a "bolter" and has only yards to once again become airborne
and fly round for another attempt. In several hours of watching, there were few
"bolters." Most pilots caught their target, the third wire.
The Lincoln has two squadrons of F/A-18C Hornets and
two of the more advanced, two-seater F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, known as
"Rhinos." Both types can perform ground strike as well as air-to-air roles. In
addition, there were several EA-6B Prowlers, electronic warfare aircraft
designed to detect and jam enemy radars, and an E-2C Hawkeye, with its giant
circular radar, providing early-warning detection.
To the layperson and probably also the expert, it is
hard to find the appropriate word to describe the potential of a carrier like
the Lincoln. Superlatives like "incredible," "extraordinary," and "impressive"
fall short. Put in simpler terms, it is, well, awesome.
The carrier, in a blurb handed out to visitors like
myself, defines its mission as "to provide a credible, sustainable, independent
forward presence and conventional
deterrence in peacetime." (Emphasis in the original.)
With the carrier minutes from Iranian airspace, the term
"forward presence" could be summed up, less diplomatically, as being "in your
face." I can't speak for "credible" -- the question is perhaps best directed to
Tehran -- but "sustainable" seems right, at least in terms of apparent
effortlessness. And though "independent," the USS Abraham Lincoln is not
alone. Carrier Strike Group 9, of which the Lincoln is the flagship,
includes the air-defense cruiser USS
Cape St. George and the destroyers USS
and USS Sterett.
In the haze, the outline of the British Royal Navy's newest warship, the HMS Daring, was also visible. Somewhere,
but not discussed, was at least one U.S. submarine.
Along with another carrier strike group, led by the
USS Carl Vinson, these ships make up the U.S. 5th Fleet. The size of the
fleet is always in flux -- a carrier group departs as another arrives. There is
usually a few days or weeks of overlap. At the moment, perhaps because
Washington wants to emphasize support for its regional allies and apply
pressure on Iran, the overlap seems longer than usual.
There is no U.S. naval dockyard in the region like,
say, at Norfolk, Virginia. The home ports of the ships are back in the United States,
though the headquarters of the fleet is the troubled island of Bahrain, where
Shiite protesters are at odds with the Sunni ruling family. The 5th Fleet's
headquarters -- its "Naval
Support Activity" moniker deliberately avoids the word
"base" -- is not a local issue, as U.S. personnel keep a low profile and any
visiting ship moors well out of sight at a distant jetty.
The Lincoln was operating in a narrow "box" of
international waters between the Arab Gulf states and Iran, though a casual
observer would probably regard the location as being on the Iranian side of the
Persian Gulf. The "box" lies north of the small Iranian island of Farsi and
parallel to the Iranian coast opposite the city of Bushehr, where Iran's sole
civil nuclear power reactor is located.
If I hadn't asked about the position of the carrier,
nobody would have told me. When I asked the pilot who was preparing to
fly me to the Lincoln
in a propeller-driven C-2 Greyhound, known as the "COD" (for "carrier onboard delivery"), his reply was: "That's classified." Sitting trussed up uncomfortably,
wearing a life jacket and a cranial helmet, and facing backward in the COD's
cargo bay, I calculated from the rays of the sun shining in via two very small
windows that we were heading, if anything, northwest from Bahrain. If we had
flown east, the carrier would have been near the Strait of Hormuz, the
choke point for shipping at the opening of the Gulf through which some 20
percent of the world's traded oil flows daily.
The U.S. Navy welcomes "distinguished visitors" to
its carriers and handles such guests with accomplished ease. Along with a
colleague, we made the pitch that such a trip would aid our understanding of
issues like regional security and the export of energy from the region, which
has more than half the world's oil reserves and a third of its natural gas. The
narrative we heard from Rear Adm. Troy Shoemaker, the commander of the strike
group, and U.S. 5th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Mark Fox was not different
from the recent public remarks of U.S. officials.
There is almost daily communication, in one form or
another, with the Iranian Navy, whether it's about the return of rescued fishermen
from sinking vessels or the announcement of upcoming exercises. Still, there is
considerable caution: A motorized dhow, adapted from the local style of sailing
boat once used for fishing and pearl diving, steered a parallel course for some
of the time during flight operations, probably monitoring (a more polite term
for "spying on") the Lincoln. Helicopters from the carrier maintain an outer
perimeter so that boats do not come close -- a cautionary measure to deter the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps, which employs small boats and has practiced "swarm"
Another potential threat to the U.S. Navy is Iran's
use of mines, which it employed to disrupt shipping during its 1980-1988 war
with Iraq. A March 15 Wall Street Journal
reported that the United States was doubling its minesweeping ships in the
Persian Gulf to eight, implying that present capabilities were inadequate. Journalists
who were recently embedded on a U.S. destroyer were briefed on the positions of
Iranian land-based cruise missiles, which, like mines, theoretically, can
threaten much of the Gulf, especially the well-defined inward and outward
shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz. The United States and its allies can
probably counter such threats within days, but the Lincoln's purpose is to
deter the Iranians from even attempting any aggressive move.
Of course, an acid test is whether Supreme Leader
Ali Khamenei finds the destructive powers of Carrier Strike Group 9
as impressive as those aboard its warships. We don't know what he is being told
about the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Carl Vinson, currently operating
outside the Strait of Hormuz in a "box" off Pakistan, in support of the
international war effort in Afghanistan.
It is doubtful that anyone in Tehran will have told
Khamenei about the motto of the USS Abraham Lincoln: "Shall not perish." The
theme of President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address imbues the ship: "Government
of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth."
Representative democracy in this part of the Middle East is more than a bit
elusive, though, with exceptions, most governments rule with the will of the
people. And both the peoples and the conservative Arab states on the southern
side of the Gulf are fearful of Iran's influence and apparent desire for
Such arguments probably mean little to Khamenei, a
lifelong hater of the United States who seems determined to make the permanent
establishment of Islamic rule his legacy. So in the absence of an appeal to his
sense of decency, the Lincoln represents an appeal to his instinct for survival.
One is tempted to suggest that he should put on a pair of earphones, turn up
the volume, and search "top
gun intro" on YouTube.
The quietness of those first two minutes of Top Gun had previously struck me as
strange, but I now realize it captures absolutely the muffled preparations for
the next "cycle" of a carrier's air operations. Of course, in real life, there
is no sudden rock music as the takeoffs begin, but otherwise, in terms of
youthful enthusiasm of Tom Cruise-types, Top
Gun's introductory four minutes captures exactly this element of
American power. The mullahs in Iran should sit up and take notice.
Simon Henderson/copyright 2012 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy