WASHINGTON ―In a break with recent history, the U.S. military is weighing whether to withhold the Truman Carrier Strike Group from deploying to the Middle East, opting instead to keep the carrier in the Mediterranean and the European theater.
Three defense officials with knowledge of the deliberations said the move would be a response to Russian activities in the region and aligns with the new National Defense Strategy that calls on the military to be less operationally predictable.
No decision has been made yet, but the move is “under discussion,” according to one defense official, who spoke on background to discuss internal deliberations.
Keeping the Norfolk, Virginia-based Truman in Europe, forgoing a trip through the Suez Canal and into U.S. Central Command territory, would be a major departure from the normal rotational presence missions the Navy has conducted since Operation Desert Storm, in which a trip through “The Ditch” is almost a foregone conclusion. But the move would track with a renewed focus on great power competition as the military seeks new ways to employ its forces to meet what it sees as a rising challenge from Russia and China.
The plan, which is being weighed at the highest levels of the military, would serve both to reassure allies nervous about what they perceive as an increasingly assertive Russian presence in the region and would free up other U.S. assets to perform patrols in hot spots such as the Baltic and the Black Sea, said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and analyst with the Center for a New American Security.
“Nothing says ‘I love you’ quite like a carrier,” Hendrix said.
It would also serve as an imposing reminder of President Donald Trump’s warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad that any further use of chemical weapons against civilian populations in Syria would be met with renewed strikes.
Truman entered U.S. 6th Fleet this week after departing Norfolk on April 11.
A dedicated Europe deployment for a carrier strike group would be remarkable but U.S. carriers have been more active in the Mediterranean in recent months. Truman conducted strikes on the Islamic State group in Syria from the Mediterranean Sea during its 2016 deployment, as did the George H.W. Bush in 2017.
The military has been increasingly willing to stomach gaps in carrier presence in the Arabian Gulf and the surrounding region. Beginning in 2015, the Gulf has intermittently been without a carrier strike group for months at a time as land-based aircraft have backfilled the strikes on ISIS targets.
Keeping a carrier close to Russian strategic interests also tracks closely with the Defense Department’s recently released National Defense Strategy that declared that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”
‘No way to run a navy’
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, in testimony April 12 before the House Armed Services Committee, hinted that his department was looking to shake up how it employed its carrier strike groups.
In recent years the Navy saw its rotational deployments skyrocket from six months to as many as 10 months as it met onerous presence demands for combatant commanders, including Mattis, who as the head of CENTCOM employed two carriers in the Arabian Gulf between 2011 and 2013. That requirement sent the Navy spiraling into a readiness ditch that it has struggled to dig out of ever since.
Now, Mattis is looking at ways to move away from the standard carrier presence rotations and into a less rigid model.
“The way you do this is we ensure that preparation for great power competition drives not simply a rotational schedule that allows me to tell you, three years from now, which aircraft carrier will be where in the world,” Mattis told lawmakers. “That’s a great way to run a shipping line. It’s no way to run a navy.
Mattis said the schedules for carriers were going to be less regimented and could include shorter deployments that take less of a toll on the big decks and their escort.
“When we send them out, it may be for a shorter deployment. There will be three carriers in the South China Sea today, and then, two weeks from now, there’s only one there, and two of them are in the Indian Ocean,” Mattis said.
“They’ll be home at the end of a 90-day deployment. They will not have spent eight months at sea, and we are going to have a force more ready to surge and deal with the high-end warfare as a result, without breaking the families, the maintenance cycles ― we’ll actually enhance the training time.”
Military Times’ Pentagon reporter Tara Copp contributed to the reporting of this story.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.