Mattis is making prudent preparations for a possible contingency. But conflict remains hypothetical, which leaves Iran as an open-ended problem that Mattis and his successors at Central Command will have to manage for some undefined period. In that case, instituting what are essentially wartime deployment practices, such as Panetta's early deployment order to the Stennis group, for the management of an open-ended problem is convincing evidence that the Navy is too small for the responsibilities policymakers are heaping on it.
Maintaining a continuous deployment of two aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, in a manner that won't ruin the ships or drive sailors out of the Navy, requires committing six to seven carriers to the task. Such an allocation is required in order to establish a sustainable rotation schedule. With Enterprise's retirement, the Navy will have only 10 carriers until the new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford arrives in service in 2015. Under the current shipbuilding plan, the carrier fleet will then stay at 11 ships thereafter.
This will leave four to five carriers for all other responsibilities, including the Pacific Command area, which is universally considered to be the theater most suited for air and naval power -- and the region where the demand for U.S. forces is certainly headed higher.
Mattis's requirements reveal some surprising observations. The first surprise is the enduring utility of the aircraft carrier, at least in the eyes of commanders such as Mattis. Carrier critics point to their extravagant cost and the fact that adversary navies possess no similar capability and won't for the foreseeable future. But the flattops remain critical to field commanders because of the risks and limitations associated with positioning comparable land-based air power at forward bases. Such deployments are often politically untenable and forward air bases are increasingly vulnerable to missile attack, problems U.S. commanders face in both the Middle East and in the Pacific. In addition to being a strong diplomatic signal, aircraft carrier deployments are frequently the only way to position reliable striking power in unstable regions.
Second, a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has conditioned observers to view the Central Command area as a region for ground forces. According to the Pentagon, 6,524 U.S. service members have been killed in the wars since 2001, almost all of them Army and Marines. Central Command was and is a ground force theater but won't be much longer. Although infantrymen shouldered the burden in Iraq and Afghanistan, deterring and containing Iran is a job for the Navy, Air Force, and the Army's air and missile defense units. Like the Pacific, the Central Command area is quickly turning into an air and sea power theater.
Third, Central Command's demand for air and naval power is causing the pivot to Asia to stumble out of the starting blocks. The Obama administration's strategic vision foresaw the Asia-Pacific as the "center of action." For military planners, the Pacific would eventually become the main effort, with all other areas relegated to a secondary "economy of force" status. Indeed, only last month, Panetta boasted in Singapore that the Pacific would get 60 percent of the Navy's ships. But for now, it is Iran that seems to be absorbing 60 percent of the Navy's aircraft carriers and causing Panetta to issue unsustainable deployment orders. Far from being the main effort, it is the Pacific that is the economy-of-force region. It will remain so as long as deterring Iran remains an open-ended commitment.
If we can assume a fleet of 14-15 aircraft carriers is out of the question, the Pentagon will have to find ways to get the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army to share the burden of deterring Iran. Beyond that, the Sunni Arab countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council will have to become a more effective military alliance in order to balance Iranian power across the Persian Gulf. Until U.S. planners and diplomats get those tasks accomplished, the Pentagon will find itself propping up an overstretched and unsustainable military strategy in the Middle East and Pacific.