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The nation’s most powerful symbol of strength and deterrence on the high seas won’t be in the Persian Gulf as much in the near future.
Although the Navy has maintained at least one aircraft carrier in or near the Gulf for the last seven years, it is planning longer periods where there will be no carriers there at all.
The reduced presence is happening as the U.S. prepares to enter into a nuclear deal with Iran, and White House and defense officials assure lawmakers, critics and allies that the military will keep up military pressure on the regime.
In fact, if the nuclear deal makes it past Congress, it could enter into effect during a two-month gap without a carrier in the Persian Gulf. The USS Theodore Roosevelt is scheduled to leave the region sometime in October, and its replacement, the USS Harry S. Truman, won’t arrive there until later in the winter.
That gap is also occurring amid the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Roosevelt is providing about 20 percent of coalition airstrikes against ISIS, but officials say the opening of a Turkish airbase to conduct strikes from will help mitigate that gap.
A U.S. official said the reduced presence isn’t from lack of need, but due to fewer carriers available and the prioritization of the Asia-Pacific.
“All I can say is that in the short-term, we need a continuous presence. The demand is out there, the [combatant commander] is asking for it, and the [Pacific Command] commander is asking for it. They’re asking for it. There’s just not enough peanut butter to spread around,” the official said.
“So what are you going to do? You’re going to give what you can. You’re going to prioritize based on what the president wants us to do, what the [Defense] secretary wants us to do and allocate those forces to meet those needs,” the official said.
The carrier gap comes as U.S. allies in the Gulf are already skittish about the nuclear deal bolstering Iran’s resources and influence in the region and are concerned over the U.S.’s commitment to its presence there to counterbalance Iran.
“The absence of a carrier doesn't really authenticate a commitment,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn McCainPentagon should have a civilian chief to give peace a chance McCain to support waiver for Mattis, Trump team says Senators crafting bill to limit deportations under Trump MORE (R-Ariz.) said at a July 30 hearing.
Navy Adm. John Richardson, incoming chief of naval operations, also admitted at that hearing, “Without that carrier, that will be a detriment to our capability.”
The Navy says a reduced presence will allow carriers to actually transit more areas.
“Although we're not scheduled to provide a continuous carrier presence in fiscal year 2016 in some places where we have previously, the global presence of aircraft carriers will actually increase overall,” said Navy spokesman Lt. Tim Hawkins.
Although the Asia-Pacific is currently facing a rare four-month carrier gap due to mid-life maintenance of the USS George Washington, there are no future plans to step away from maintaining a continuous carrier presence there.
U.S. and Navy officials say commanders’ requests for carriers can be fulfilled by other assets.
But CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute Retired Vice Adm. Peter H. Daly said having a carrier in the Persian Gulf is a unique asset to reassure allies and deter and dissuade potential adversaries.
“If you’re on the other side of the Persian Gulf from Iran, you sleep better at night knowing that the U.S. Navy is in the middle. And so it is a big deal for those countries over there to have that buffer and to be there to ensure good behavior,” he said.
In addition, a carrier comes with destroyers and cruisers that can provide important capabilities, he said.
For example, he said, Iran has “significant short- and medium-range ballistic missile capabilities,” but a carrier strike group has “significant ballistic missile defense capabilities.”
“Those Gulf Coast nations … really do notice if the U.S. Navy is there or not, and I dare say that it’s been a hugely important for the free flow of commerce and making sure that the Strait of Hormuz is always available over time.
“We’ve been there in that body of water for almost 50 years with heel-to-toe deployments. It’s hugely important, and if you stop showing up, are they going to notice? Heck yes,” he said.
Officials say the carrier gaps are a result of repeated deployments over the last decade and needed maintenance for carriers taking longer because it was put off for so long.
In addition, congressional budget cuts — known as sequestration — have left less money for maintenance and created uncertainty as to when carriers can be maintained and redeployed.
Although the U.S. has 10 carriers, with one tied up in Japan and two in maintenance, only seven will be available for missions, with even fewer actually ready to go at a moment's notice.
Three carriers are typically needed to support the deployment of each one — meaning the U.S. would only have two carriers to confront threats around the world.
Daly said this situation is a “huge difference” from just a few years ago.
“Four years ago, the Navy could have three carriers forward deployed, and two more ready in 30 days, and one more in 90. And here we are today struggling to maintain two forward,” he said.