A May 21 article in the Daily Beast claimed that, in January, Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, requested that the Pentagon send a third aircraft carrier strike group (comprising an aircraft carrier and about five escort ships) to the Persian Gulf region. According to the article, Mattis's request was denied, citing President Barack Obama's desire to focus military resources elsewhere, especially in the Pacific.
Mattis's appeal for a third carrier came at a time of heightening tensions -- when Iran was threatening to attack U.S. warships near the Strait of Hormuz. According to the article, Mattis wanted to make a show of force to deter Iran from further escalation.
The January flare-up in the Strait of Hormuz subsided without conflict -- and without the arrival of a third carrier strike group. In spite of that outcome, regional commanders like Mattis will certainly retain their affection for aircraft carriers, both as signals of U.S. power and as flexible and mobile bases for projecting power.
Mattis's request for another carrier -- a long-standing and seemingly reflexive response by commanders during crises -- and Washington's denial of this request, raises issues for policymakers and planners. If Mattis needed to make a strong show of force to Tehran, he should have had other options as effective, as responsive, and certainly more reasonably priced than a carrier strike group. Commanders like Mattis have long believed that when it comes to signaling resolve, there is nothing like parking an aircraft carrier and its attendant ships off an adversary's coast. The high demand among U.S. regional commanders for aircraft carriers shows that these pricey ships are not yet obsolete. The Navy is currently building USS Gerald Ford, the first of a new class of carriers, showing its commitment to the very expensive platform. But this reliance on the carrier also exposes weaknesses in the Pentagon's portfolio of capabilities, which its procurements plans, alas, are only just beginning to address.
With the aircraft carrier remaining the power projection tool-of-choice, the Navy is straining to keep up with demands made by regional commanders. According to the Navy, the Lincoln and Enterprise carrier strike groups are currently operating in the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which supports Mattis's Central Command, near Iran. Central Command has regularly had two carriers assigned to it. But maintaining such an assignment indefinitely requires at least six carriers; keeping one on station at all times requires a second preparing to deploy, with a third recently returned from deployment and laid up for repairs. Having two carriers continuously in the Middle East theater requires the Navy to assign six to the mission. With 11 carriers in the Navy (soon to be 10 after the 50-year old Enterprise retires next year), Mattis's Fifth Fleet requirements are absorbing more than half of the Navy's carrier strength. It is little wonder that Mattis's request for a third carrier was denied (the rest of the Navy's carriers are currently either in their home ports receiving maintenance or are training for an upcoming deployment). And the unshakeable demands of the Middle East are leaving the Obama administration's intended "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific theater sounding hollow.
Why do commanders typically first turn to aircraft carriers to either send signals to adversaries or reinforce their striking power? If Mattis needed to send a signal of resolve to Iran, he should have had more options that just a carrier strike group. One alternative would be a deployment of U.S. Air Force fighter-bomber aircraft. Indeed, on April 30, U.S. officials revealed the arrival of an unspecified number of F-22 fighter jets to the Al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, across the Persian Gulf from Iran. The highly-advanced, but troubled, F-22 would play many important roles in a possible conflict with Iran. Perhaps this deployment provided the signal Mattis hoped to deliver with another aircraft carrier?
But as capable as the F-22s are, in a war against Iran they could have trouble getting into the fight, especially from vulnerable front-line bases like Al-Dhafra. In the future, Iranian ballistic and cruise missiles might be able to close down such fixed bases (an easier task than targeting an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Arabian Sea) leaving the aircraft stationed there either destroyed or trapped in their shelters. (In a previous column, I discussed how the short range of its aircraft and the lack of useful bases in the Western Pacific prevent the Air Force from being relevant in a hypothetical conflict over Taiwan.)