Everybody Relax About the U.S. Navy’s Persian Gulf ‘Carrier Gap’
Flattops are not that important
The U.S. Navy has confirmed that the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, currently in the Persian Gulf, will pull out in the fall without an immediate replacement. This means there will be no American flattop in the economically and strategically critical body of water — a first since 2007 — for at least two months.
Some people are very very worried.
“Without that carrier, there will be a decrement in our capability there,” Adm. John Richardson, slated to become the next chief of naval operations, said during a U.S. Senate session late July.
Everybody should relax. The big advantages of aircraft carriers — flexibility and territorial independence — are not as important in the Middle East as carrier proponents claim.
The most important attribute of the carrier is arguably its territorial independence that allows it to conduct operations unconstrained by political limitations. U.S. Carrier Strike Groups, or CSGs, with their own logistical infrastructure and force-projection capabilities, make for an ideal tool for intervention in a crisis or conflict.
This is especially so in cases where American interests are not aligned with that of allies, as this could result in Washington not having access to air bases. The carrier’s territorial independence would thus come in useful if local issues were to make it difficult for land-based air power to be deployed.
Bryan McGrath, a former American naval officer who now runs a consulting firm, alluded to this attribute of territorial independence while criticizing the carrier gap. “It reduces the president’s options. Aircraft carriers are so powerful because we can… quickly move (them) … and use … (them) without anyone’s permission,” McGrath wrote.
McGrath, who is well known as a carrier aficionado, is certainly correct about the carrier’s territorial independence in a general sense. However, his statement does not hold water when considering the current geopolitical milieu of the Persian Gulf region, which is dominated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the U.S.-led intervention against it.
Those who have spoken of the carrier gap often state that it was naval aviation that borne the sole brunt of Operation Inherent Resolve — the American portion of the fight against Islamic State — during the campaign’s first 54 days. During these eight weeks, only the carrier USS George H.W. Bush could carry out the fight while Washington sought diplomatic clearances to use bases in Gulf nations.
Here, the carrier has shown that it can act as a useful “first responder” during the initial “hold the fort” phase of a crisis or conflict. However, this phase in the war is now clearly over.
With the United States now being able to deploy aircraft from the Gulf states, especially from Kuwait, the value of carrier aviation has diminished significantly. In fact, an American carrier, operating in the northern Persian Gulf, offers no significant advantages over a Kuwaiti land base.
In other words, the flattop essentially acts like another air base, albeit an expensive one that is afloat. Furthermore, the absence of a sea-control threat in the area means the CSG need not exploit its mobility — an advantage it has over land bases — making it even more akin to just a floating airfield.
That said, there’s a counter-argument — wouldn’t an additional “air base” in the northern Persian Gulf be more conducive to the war effort? Not really, as the air campaign against Islamic State has been relatively limited, thus making numbers irrelevant.
Indeed, Middle East security expert Anthony Cordesman, in an October 2014 report on the aerial component of Operation Inherent Resolve, revealed that daily airstrikes up to that point averaged from 10 to 30. Little has changed since then, and the status quo is likely to prevail.
To illustrate, the Pentagon reported that on Sept. 10, 2015, a total of 28 airstrikes were conducted in Iraq and Syria. The corresponding figures for Aug. 10 and July 10 were 29 and 31, respectively. In this light, the “tokenism,” as Cordesman put it, of the Inherent Resolve air strikes means that the number of platforms does not matter as much.
Furthermore, the decision by Turkey in late July to allow American use of Incirlik air base and possibly another base for Inherent Resolve means that land-based planes would now be more useful than shipborne ones for missions into Iraq and Syria, further reducing the relevance of carrier aviation in the region.
In fact, it was the refusal of Ankara and other friendly Middle Eastern nations to allow Washington and its allies to use its bases which resulted in American flattops playing a significant role in the Iraq War. However, with access to bases more or less assured for Inherent Resolve, at least in the near term, there is a much less pressing need for carriers.
The U.S. military could make up for the carrier gap by carrying out more sorties using land-based aircraft, especially those in Kuwait and Turkey.
Indeed, the U.S. Air Force has undertaken the majority of the air strikes against Islamic State, with the Navy accounting for only around 20 percent. Paradoxically, Richardson, who spoke of the perils of the carrier shortfall in the Senate session, told lawmakers in the same session that land-based aircraft could ameliorate the situation (contradicting his earlier statement), though he did not elaborate.
Another inherent advantage offered by the carrier to U.S. commanders is that it can conduct a wide variety of operations because of the different types of aircraft embarked on it.
To illustrate, the typical carrier air wing today consists of 44 F/A-18 Hornet fighters, five EA-18 Growler electronic warfare aircraft, four Hawkeye airborne early-warning platforms and 19 MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. The CSG can carry out a wide variety of missions, ranging from search-and-rescue to air superiority to interdiction.
Some of those who warn of the carrier gap have spoken of this flexibility of combat power. Indeed, retired Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, the former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, was arguably referring to this attribute when he asserted that the flattop enables the United States to “control a crisis.”
“If you don’t have a carrier out there, you run the risk of (not) being able to control a situation as it escalates,” Fitzgerald said in early July. The flexibility offered by the flattop’s air wing would be very useful in an unfolding crisis, especially if a nation-state with warships and warplanes of its own enters the fray.
Considering the current geostrategic realities in the Persian Gulf region, having a carrier there is not crucial, but is “nice to have.” After all, of the Gulf states, only Iran would potentially fight a war while also possessing credible sea-denial capabilities.
However, it is definitely not in Tehran’s interest to seek a full-scale confrontation with Washington any time soon, and definitely not in the next few months when the carrier gap will exist.
As Mark Twain once quipped: “History does not repeat, but it does rhyme.” If recent history is any gauge, any incident involving American naval forces that may arise in the Middle East will likely be on the lower ends of the operational spectrum. Take for instance the two incidents involving U.S. warships in the region in recent months.
In April, the USS Theodore Roosevelt sailed to the waters off Yemen to intercept an Iranian ship carrying arms meant for Houthi rebels. And in July, the crew of an Iranian frigate briefly trained hand-held weapons on a U.S. Navy helicopter and a coalition auxiliary before the situation de-escalated.
During the April incident, an Amphibious Ready Group, which included the amphibious-assault ship USS Iwo Jima and the Aegis- and Tomahawk-equipped destroyer USS Sterett, was also present off Yemen. Had there been no carrier available then, the considerable capabilities of the ARG meant that it could have handled the incident.
In fact, one Pentagon official maintained that sending a carrier to deal with the convoy was akin to using a nuclear weapon to kill an ant.
The assault group’s 30-strong air wing, including about six AV-8 Harrier fighters and four AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships, offers limited strike capabilities — capabilities that should enable the fleet to tackle any short-term — and limited — challenge that is likely arise in the current political-military environment of the Middle East.
To be sure, the amphibious assault ship is not a like-for-like replacement for the carrier and the ARG does not offer a similar deterrent effect as compared to the CSG, but the fact remains that Iran is unlikely to start a shooting war any time soon. The full repertoire of capabilities provided by the CVW is not critical.
Indeed, short of a black swan event — such as an Iranian attack consisting of multiple platforms armed with anti-ship missiles — the Amphibious Ready Group should be able to handle any contingency that might arise in the near future.
A counter-argument can be made that if the worst-case scenario of a hot war does come to pass, the carrier would be much better able to handle the situation. This point is certainly valid, but the ARG’s relatively limited air power and powerful Aegis and Tomahawk capabilities — together with long-range bombers from Diego Garcia and from the continental United States — should enable it to hold the fort until a Carrier Strike Group, steaming at best speed, reaches the scene.
Much ado about nothing
Rounding up, it seems that the carrier gap debate is a case of much ado over nothing. It’s not even a stretch to argue that there’s no gap in the first place. After all, some of those who have warned of it seem to be basing their arguments on partisan interests rather than the reality on the ground, which is the current Middle East political-military milieu.
For instance, Bryan McGrath is a known proponent of the flattop and he has made cogent arguments in defense of the vessel during debates with the anti-carrier analyst Henry J. Hendrix over the past few years. However, McGrath’s rehashing of the “carriers are sovereign U.S. territory” argument seems rather like a knee-jerk reaction to the carrier gap.
In the same vein, it is hardly surprising that Mark Fitzgerald, who is an ex-naval pilot, castigated the shortfall, and at an event held by the Navy League — an institution where the carrier is probably a sacred cow — at that.
That said, having a carrier stationed continuously in the Persian Gulf is now seemingly a luxury, both operationally and financially, for the United States considering the repercussions of sequestration and having a downsized 10-unit carrier force.
As the saying by Johann von Goethe goes: “Happy is the man who learns early the wide chasm that lies between his wishes and his powers.” Carrier-minded U.S. Navy bigwigs would do well to bear in mind that their organization simply need to make do with less in the current environment and work around this.
Ben Ho Wan Beng is a senior analyst with the Military Studies Program of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore; he received his master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institution. He would like to express his heartfelt gratitude to Colin Koh of RSIS’ Maritime Security Program for his insightful comments on a draft of this article. Ben can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.