‘Sitting Ducks’: Move Carriers Out of the Gulf, into Mediterranean

John T. Kuehn

My first missions to support an aircraft carrier in 1983 were flown in the Gulf of Oman in an EP-3 ARIES I/ORION aircraft, providing coverage for a US aircraft carrier from a land base.  Then, even then the slightest movements by Iran in the Persian Gulf would send the massive aircraft carrier stationed there scrambling for the wide open maneuver space of the North Arabian Sea. This has changed. The US has gone from fear of operating with big-deck aviation ships in the Persian Gulf to a casual “they have to be there” attitude today. It reflects a malaise in thinking when it comes to sea power today which places America’s Navy and its sailors in the Gulf at greater risk than is necessary. America should remove its carrier strike group from the Persian Gulf and station it in the Mediterranean Sea.

Easy to Operate

Why are they there? There is no shortage of land-based bases in the Middle East region. Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia allow the United States overflight rights. America has a NATO partner in Turkey and today has smaller bases throughout Africa from where it stages many of its unmanned strike and reconnaissance missions. America has enough land bases, capabilities and partners in the region and close by to conduct its operations without a carrier being permanently based in the Persian Gulf.

Carriers are currently used in the Central Command (CENTCOM) Area of Operations for several reasons.  First, they are easy to use—they make the application of strategy easier.  Stationing a carrier somewhere in international waters means there is no need for expensive Army or Air Force “bed down” in other peoples’ countries, such as Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or, Iraq.  This leaves out the requirement for quid pro quo, messy diplomacy, and status of forces agreements (SOFA) which may take time and energy to negotiate.

Secondly, being needed for high-profile, media-attracting operations helps the Navy maintain the perception of its utility and its necessity to our national security. Navy leaders press home the strategic benefits of deploying aircraft carriers because it is much harder to make the case for big, expensive sea power using smaller, less-sexy missions such as fighting pirates, patrolling the sea lanes, and being ready for crises in the maritime domain. The result is that the Navy uses carriers to serve short-term parochial interests while sacrificing a chance to emphasize its much broader, long-term utility to the American public.

A third reason is that it has just become routine practice. This way of doing business has been around so long and the Navy has made it so easy to use its aviation assets in the land-locked deserts of the Middle East that our political and military leaders have overlooked the risks involved and forgotten to consider whether other, better options may exist. They are “stuck on carriers.”

80% of US combat losses to ships in naval warfare in the last 40 years have been in the Persian Gulf. That is a risk that should not be overlooked.

Forgotten Risks

What are the costs and risks? From a naval perspective, the Persian Gulf is an enclosed bath-tub with little “sea space” to maneuver. In all honesty, in a different naval era we would have considered a carrier in such a body of water a “sitting duck” for being bottled up in the Gulf as they are. Any ship’s biggest advantage, especially large hundred-thousand-ton ships like aircraft carriers, is its ability to maneuver. The Persian Gulf offers little opportunity to do that, especially its most northern portions, where shallow and shoal water abound.  These self-same areas are easily mined or attacked from land bases by conventional or unconventional forces. Fifty percent of the “littoral” area—an area extending from a shoreline’s high-water line to its low-tide line—of the Gulf is bounded by the rather unfriendly coast of Iran. But because the United States has operated inside the Gulf for so long its political and military leaders have become complacent about those threats.

What was once considered a very big risk is now simply routine. The job in the Gulf has become to help CENTCOM commanders do whatever they require. Many have forgotten the USS Tripoli, USSPrinceton, USS Roberts, and USS Stark. These were US Navy ships seriously damaged in the Persian Gulf by mines and air attack and were only saved by their heroic crews’ damage control efforts. The crews of these ships then were a lot bigger than today’s minimally-manned vessels with their automated damage control systems.  80% of US combat losses to ships in naval warfare in the last 40 years have been in the Persian Gulf. That is a risk that should not be overlooked.

Club Med: Closer to the Hotspots

What should America do instead? There are currently no US aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean.  The anti-ISIS airstrikes currently being conducted from the Gulf can also be conducted from the Med and with a lot less restriction. I cruised on three different aircraft carriers in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean and it is a much easier place for “freedom of maneuver” on a large warship, with a lot fewer shore-based threats around the cul-de-sac. A larger US presence there also makes more sense in light the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine and increased Russian naval activity worldwide.

Having carriers in the Persian Gulf is convenient for working land-based air missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but having carriers and amphibious ready groups (ARGS) with their Marines and aviation in the Mediterranean is just as strategically sound—allowing a forward presence for both the ISIS problem in Syria-Iraq as well as being convenient to all the other “hot spots” around the Mediterranean.  Aside from aircraft carriers, which cannot transit the Bosporus, other, smaller US Navy ships would be made available to respond to events such as the Ukraine crisis. Most Navy ships carry tomahawk cruise missiles and most of these missions in all of these places can be covered by that capability—sub and surface-launched missiles—as the new “steady state” without continually tying ourselves down with metaphorical anchors in the dangerous bathtub that is the Persian Gulf.

Naval strategy has to adjust to events and we do have a full-time carrier in Japan and the Marines (and their “baby” carrier) in Okinawa. It is poor practice for the US to fret about the anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) to our ships, especially the big ones, in the South China Sea while at the same time we have left a carrier group exposed to danger in the Persian Gulf for the convenience of generating air sorties across the Middle East. We should position and train our forces as we plan to fight with them.

It is time to establish a new norm and learn how to break out of “the box” of the Persian Gulf paradigm of 24 years and counting.  Deployments by carrier strike groups into the Persian Gulf should be the exception, not the rule.  Placing a carrier group in the Mediterranean Sea would allow the US Navy to continue to provide the same capabilities it currently provides in the Middle East, while placing it closer to other potential hot spots in Southern Europe. Otherwise, we continue to provide our enemies sitting ducks in the Persian Gulf as a tempting target.

Dr. John T. Kuehn is the General William Stofft Chair for Historical Research at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.  He retired from the U.S. Navy 2004 at the rank of Commander after 23 years of service as a naval flight officer in EP-3s and ES-3s.  He authored Agents of Innovation (2008) and co-authoredEyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, A Military History of Japan:  From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century (2014), and was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011.  His newest book will be released next spring and is entitled Napoleonic Warfare:  The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns.

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