U.S. Navy Temporarily Reducing Presence in Gulf

Although the Navy has maintained at least one aircraft carrier in or near the Arabian Gulf for the last seven years, it is planning for 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. However, White House and defense officials assure lawmakers, critics and allies that the military will keep up military pressure on the regime.

If the nuclear deal is passed by Congress, it could enter into effect during a two-month gap without a US aircraft carrier in the 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 ongoing battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The USS Theodore Roosevelt is providing about 20 percent of coalition airstrikes against ISIS, but officials say the opening of a Turkish airbase from which to conduct strikes 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 added.

“The absence of a carrier doesn’t really authenticate a commitment,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at a July 30th hearing. When questioned by McCain at his nomination hearing as chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson acknowledged the Navy would pull the carrier and said this hurts U.S. capability in the region.

“Without that carrier, there will be a decrement in our capability there,” Richardson said before the Senate Armed Services Committee. It would be the first time a U.S. aircraft carrier has not been in the Gulf since 2007.

Currently, the USS Theodore Roosevelt is stationed there. Once she departs the area sometime this fall, the U.S. military may rely on a French aircraft carrier until they can deploy another one.

CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute Retired Vice Adm. Peter H. Daly said having a carrier in the Gulf is a unique asset to deter and dissuade potential adversaries. He said, Iran has “significant short- and medium-range ballistic missile capabilities,” but a carrier strike group has “significant ballistic missile defense capabilities.” He added that it has also been hugely important for the free flow of commerce and making sure that the Strait of Hormuz is always open and available.

The Roosevelt has been busy since arriving in the 5th Fleet, the Navy’s command over the Arab Gulf and surrounding area in the Middle East. In addition to assisting ‘round-the-clock sorties against ISIS in Iraq, the carrier pulled out of the Gulf in late April to trail an Iranian convoy suspected of smuggling weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen. The USS Theodore Roosevelt trailed the Iranian convoy for days, using aircraft to provide continuous coverage.

In late April, Iran also seized a Marshall Islands-flagged commercial vessel, prompting ships from the Roosevelt battle group to begin escorts for U.S.- and British-flagged ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz.

The U.S. Navy says 10-month deployments, including the presence of two carriers in the Gulf between 2011 and 2013, have contributed to the pressure on the force, including the decommissioning of USS Enterprise which lowered the number of aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy from 11 to 10.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter could extend the Roosevelt’s deployment to make up for some of the gap, according to defense officials. U.S. Central Command has said they are confident they have the presence needed to take on ISIS and deal with threats in the region.

While there will be a temporary aircraft carrier gap in the Gulf, the Navy is planning to increase the global presence of carriers starting next year — and expects to increase the number of deployed ships by over 20 percent over five years.

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.

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