As an officer deployed aboard the battleship Wisconsin during Operation Desert Shield in 1990, James Holmes recalls how no one back then thought the U.S. military would ever need an aircraft carrier in the Middle East.
At the time, the Navy’s presence in the region was mostly limited to small surface combatants, and an enclosed body of water like the Persian Gulf was considered a potential graveyard for a carrier, according to Holmes, now retired and the chairman of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College.
The situation changed drastically in the ensuing decades. As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars raged after 9/11, the military had at least one carrier strike group steaming in U.S. Central Command--or CENTCOM--waters at any given time, a demand that eventually helped degrade the readiness of the carrier fleet.
But these days, hundreds of thousands of U.S. boots who might need air support are no longer on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And as a result, roughly 30 years since Holmes encountered a carrier-less Middle East, what’s old has become new again.
A Navy carrier has not operated in the Middle Eastern waters of U.S. 5th Fleet for more than a year, since U.S. forces pulled out of Afghanistan in late August 2021 and the carrier Ronald Reagan deployed from its home port in Japan to provide overwatch for the chaotic end to America’s longest war.
Competing demands for such assets — primarily in Europe and Asia — and the changing Middle East landscape have lessened the urgency for carrier presence in that region.
In a world of limited Navy resources, carrier presence in CENTCOM has inevitably taken a backset on the list of priorities, according to Holmes and other naval analysts who shared their thoughts with Navy Times.
To Holmes, the Middle East is returning to its pre-Desert Storm position on the military priority list when it comes to carrier presence.
“Strategy is about setting and enforcing priorities, and that means lesser priorities have lesser claims — if any — on finite national resources,” Holmes said in an email. “You can’t do everything, and you set yourself up for failure if you try.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February certainly helped nudge this change along. Before that war and the resulting need for U.S. and NATO presence, the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group might have spent only a short time in the waters of U.S. European Command before heading down to CENTCOM, a common route for deployed East Coast carriers.
Instead, Truman and its ships spent an extended deployment in the European theater, primarily in the Mediterranean, and were relieved by the George H.W. Bush carrier strike group in September.
A matter of priorities
The U.S. military and Navy are pivoting back to preparation for conventional war with China after decades of asymmetric warfare, and it’s reasonable to expect that the Navy’s presence in Europe won’t be reduced anytime soon as the war in Ukraine grinds on.
Not requiring one or two carrier strike groups in the Middle East could help the Navy gets its readiness house in order after the feverishly high operations tempo that became the norm after 9/11, according to Blake Herzinger, a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and Naval Reserve officer based in Singapore.
“The value of naval presence is that you can always adjust it,” Herzinger said. “I’m sure CENTCOM … would love to always have a (carrier strike group) on station, but without the persistent need for strike support that we saw over the peak years (of the war on terrorism), it seems reasonable to make it a region that sees occasional carrier presence, rather than persistent, particularly as the Navy struggles to fight its way out of its maintenance/readiness hole.”
Holmes said the Gulf region should go back to being an “economy-of-force” theater, as it was during the Cold War.
“It offers no exceptional rewards, it siphons resources from more important theaters, and thus it puts those more important theaters at risk for the sake of something that matters less,” he said.
Defense Department and CENTCOM officials did not respond to requests for comment regarding whether the combatant command or the Pentagon had stopped requesting such a constant carrier presence in the Middle East, and the Navy declined comment, citing its policy of not discussing operations.
But the White House’s National Security Strategy, released in October, suggests a change in military posture in the Middle East that, along with the lack of American ground wars there, could render carrier presence there obsolete for now.
“We have too often defaulted to military-centric policies underpinned by an unrealistic faith in force and regime change to deliver sustainable outcomes, while failing to adequately account for opportunity costs to competing global priorities or unintended consequences,” the strategy’s section on supporting de-escalation and integration in the Middle East states.
The strategy also suggests a renewed aversion to quagmire conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, which prompted the need for all that carrier might in the first place.
“We will not use our military to change regimes or remake societies, but instead limit the use of force to circumstances where it is necessary to protect our national security interests and is consistent with international law, while enabling our partners to defend their territory from external and terrorist threats,” the security strategy states.
Those who support more American gray hulls in CENTCOM have argued they serve as a vital deterrent to Iran, but the effects of a U.S. carrier’s presence might not deter Tehran at all, according to Herzinger.
Carrier-based strikes can still be conducted even if a carrier isn’t in the Arabian Sea, and Herzinger questioned whether Iran or its proxies even factor in U.S. naval presence before conducting attacks in the region.
“I don’t think a semi-quiet CENTCOM is necessarily proof that carriers ‘aren’t needed as much,’ but I would say it reinforces the idea that carriers are very good for certain missions and maybe less so for others,” Herzinger said.
“That doesn’t mean they’re irrelevant or obsolescent, just that they aren’t a panacea,” he added. “If there aren’t high-tempo combat operations being conducted, burning readiness in (CENTCOM) makes less and less sense given the geopolitical situations in Europe and Asia.”
Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and now a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute think tank, recalled a study he took part in during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
It involved Iranian expatriates who contended that Tehran viewed carriers as an attractive target for attacks, not as a deterrent.
“The carrier is relatively easy to reach with cruise or ballistic missiles from Iran, and even if the attack is ultimately unsuccessful — as they expected it would be — the PR value of a carrier burning after an Iranian attack would be worth the attempt,” Clark said in an email. “Because Iranian leaders already expected U.S. forces to respond to aggression with other ships and ground-based aircraft, the presence of the carrier did not enhance deterrence.”
What’s more, he added, the U.S. military has fighter jets, drone detachments and other naval assets already in the region.
The Navy regularly deploys amphibious ready groups to CENTCOM, smaller versions of carrier strike groups that deploy with fighter jets, helicopters and Marines.
With finite military resources, the Pentagon must make choices on where it dedicates valuable assets like a carrier, according to Bradley Martin, a retired surface warfare officer who now leads the Rand think tank’s National Security Supply Chain Institute.
In its dealings with Iran, the United States has several ways to respond to belligerence, and a carrier strike group can still steam into those waters from EUCOM if needed, he said.
“The need to respond to events in the Middle East is still there, but force structure isn’t infinite,” Martin said. “(Carrier strike group) presence is probably beneficial, but heel-to-toe deployment is not essential.”
Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.