Beyond the Carrier

Illustration by Jesse Lenz; Photograph by Kilho Park /DVIDS

When the Navy announced the deployment of a second aircraft carrier, the USS Harry Truman, to the Persian Gulf in July, the news should have mollified critics who view the presence of only one aircraft carrier in such a strategically vital region as a major risk to U.S. security interests in the Middle East. But it didn’t, because there won’t be two carriers in the Gulf for long. Just a week earlier, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said the Navy would not operate a second carrier group in the Gulf during the fiscal 2014 due to sequestration.

Critics should take a deep breath and welcome the opportunity provided by the difficult fiscal realities to rethink the United States’ military presence and strategy in the Persian Gulf. It’s time to restructure America’s naval presence in the Gulf to be stronger yet cheaper. It’s not the number of carriers that will affect U.S. plans and collective interests in the region but the strategy that America will employ in the troubled waters of the Gulf. The essence of this strategy must focus on building a 5th Fleet that emphasizes small, agile platforms and greater military cooperation with regional allies.

Only a fool would deny the diplomatic, military and symbolic value of carriers. The benefits of carrier deployments, however, shouldn’t lead observers to assume that this mammoth vessel is necessarily the safest and most effective military tool in all strategic contexts. The narrow Persian Gulf is one such area in which carriers are less than ideal. The Navy’s recent decision to deploy a fleet of patrol coastal ships to the Gulf should be praised.

Hell and High Water

The carrier’s ill suitability in a Persian Gulf fight stems from the geographic features of the region—particularly the Strait of Hormuz—and Iran’s military strategy in the event of conflict. That strategy allegedly features layered attacks involving naval mines, fast-attack craft and anti-ship cruise missiles. Iranian forces can deploy an arsenal of more than 2,000 mines to slow down U.S. naval assets operating in the Strait. This tactic facilitates the targeting of U.S. surface ships through “swarming attacks” by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ fleet of small fast-attack craft armed with torpedoes, rocket launchers and other anti-ship weaponry. The corps could position these small craft at the hundreds of littoral launching points that surround the Gulf, including small islands and coves providing cover that would enable surprise attacks at short distances.

Concurrently, Iranian forces could begin launching land-based anti-ship cruise missiles, taking advantage of slow-moving U.S. vessels to better target ships. The most lethal of Iran’s anti-ship weaponry, the Russian-made Sunburn missile, flies at three times the speed of sound and can cruise as low as 20 meters from the ground. In the Strait of Hormuz, only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, the Sunburn could reach any ship in minutes. Conducting counterforce strikes against these missile launchers, most of which are mobile, would be difficult and lengthy because Iran has the advantage of a mountainous shore facing the Gulf. The terrain provides easy concealment of cruise-missile launching sites and ideal vantage points for targeting enemy ships.

In short, the relative narrowness of the Gulf would enable Iranian forces to overcome the technological superiority of U.S. forces in surveillance and targeting. 

The gravity of the Iranian asymmetric threat is not new to U.S. strategic planners. In 2002, the Pentagon ran a $250 million war game called Millennium Challenge, a simulated exercise in which small, agile speedboats swarmed a naval convoy to inflict devastating damage on more powerful ships. According to reports on the war game, the exercise concluded in less than 10 minutes, after which forces modeled after a Persian Gulf state had succeeded in sinking 16 U.S. ships, including an aircraft carrier. 

A Lighter Footprint

The Pentagon’s decision to deploy a fleet of Cyclone-class patrol coastal ships to the Persian Gulf is a welcome move. They are harder to identify and target than larger combat ships like frigates and destroyers, and they can penetrate deeper into the littoral areas of the Strait to engage Iran’s fleet of fast-attack craft.

Deploying the patrol coastal ship with Griffin short-range missiles is a fundamental change in how the United States would approach a Strait of Hormuz contingency strategy.  Under the widely discussed Littoral Combat Ship program, Navy officials have spoken of a plug-and-play approach in which ships are outfitted with sensors and weaponry, based on specific threats. Instead of relying on large, expensive ships to carry out these missions, the Navy can effectively disperse these capabilities and limit the costs of losses incurred during conflict.

Patrol coastal ships make sense politically and promote deeper defense cooperation with U.S. allies that maintain small navies dominated by comparably small ships. This would facilitate real burden sharing with partners in the region, permitting individual navies to specialize in particular missions such as anti-mining operations. They would save money, too.

Despite the advantages of the new patrol coastal fleet deployment, critics argue that in pulling a carrier from the Strait, the United States would experience a marked decline in its ability to quickly deploy air power in the Gulf. To be sure, absent a carrier presence, generating a high number of tactical sorties in a conflict with Iran would be more difficult. But a comprehensive assessment of a prospective strike against Iran indicates that forward-deployed air forces could handle the demands of the operation. Furthermore, the Navy’s ability to generate a large number of sorties should be secondary to ensuring the survivability of its most expensive platform.

The most powerful deterrent is not always the priciest or the biggest.  A new U.S. naval strategy focused on lightness, agility and closer cooperation with allies is the best guarantee of stability in the Gulf. Time will tell whether the Navy’s decision represents a true strategic shift. On the one hand, this move may simply reflect the tough choices demanded by sequestration. Senior Navy officials may find the patrol coastal ship sufficient for deterrence, but could enact very different deployment strategies in wartime. The reality, however, is that the PC is good for both. Policymakers should embrace these changes, regardless of what prompted them. At a fraction of the price, the Navy can have its cake and eat it too.

Bilal Y. Saab is executive director at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis North America. Joseph Singh is a research assistant at the institute.

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