Do we even have enough carriers?
The recent oil tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman reinforce the need to reestablish a highly visible U.S. naval deterrent in the Middle East. For eight months last year, no aircraft carrier strike group plied the region, the longest such interruption this millennium. With the United States needing a more robust posture against Iran and confronting renewed challenges in Asia and Europe, several immediate measures and concerted longer-term efforts are critical to ensure America has the carriers it needs.
The requirement to maintain carrier presence in the Middle East is a critical part of a broader national security strategy, in which U.S. global security interests necessitate a worldwide force presence. Indeed, the Navy's mission demands remain as high as those of the Cold War, calling on ships to be everywhere seemingly at once, but today's fleet is less than half the size it was 30 years ago.
During the Obama administration, a “rebalance” supposedly allowed the Pentagon to focus on Asia and Europe while washing its hands of the Middle East. In reality, we never effectively rebalanced forces in the Indo-Pacific, and the situation on the ground forced us to remain deeply involved in the Middle East. Now with a growing Iranian threat, it would be imprudent to suddenly abandon the region, even as we face renewed challenges in the Pacific, Atlantic and Mediterranean.
Indeed, Iran’s threat to the region continues growing as its recent attacks against oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman demonstrate. Its reliance on violent sectarianism helps fuel Sunni extremist groups like ISIS. This also places Tehran’s proxies on the borders of key U.S. allies. Beginning next year, Tehran can start upgrading its conventional and missile arsenals as U.N. arms embargoes expire. It is also threatening to resume progress toward nuclear weapons.
The Trump Administration is pursuing robust sanctions, but these alone are likely insufficient to prevent Tehran’s aggression and reassure our regional allies.
Credible forward deployed military capability – like a carrier strike group – provides real options for American policymakers. Last month’s intelligence suggesting Iran was ready to move against U.S. interests in the Middle East demonstrates how the absence of such forces could embolden Iran. Responding to this intelligence, the prompt movement of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group into the region has dramatically increased the U.S. force posture. Effective deterrence of Iran will require persistent, visible, and credible military capability.
A combination of far-reaching and short-term policy changes can address this challenge.