America’s military presence in the Persian Gulf serves as deterrence to Iran, reassures our increasingly nervous Arab partners, maintains peace, offers stability to our ally Israel, and has many other benefits. But nevertheless, the Pentagon earlier this week quietly announced the reduction in the Persian Gulf of two aircraft carriers to one—not for any strategic reason, but rather for budgetary reasons. It’s a drastic move: The continuous deployment of two U.S. aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf area guarantees an immediate and crushing military response to any provocation—especially to one coming from the Iranians.
The U.S. pullback could not come at a more precarious time: One should expect the Iranian nuclear crisis to come to a head this year. Indeed, Iran has already acquired enough 20 percent enriched uranium to proceed rapidly toward an atomic weapon (perhaps even by the end of the year). Additionally, tensions in the Persian Gulf are steadily rising both over this issue and because of the increasingly aggressive actions of Iranian proxies in Bahrain, the Palestinian Territories, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere. The stability of this vital area is fast eroding and the prospect of open conflict steadily growing.
The typical deployment pattern for two carriers in this area is to station one carrier in the Persian Gulf, inside the Strait of Hormuz, and one outside the Persian Gulf, patrolling the Arabian Sea, Somali Basin, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, or Indian Ocean. This force allocation ensures that any Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz by deploying maritime mines or attacking civilian flagged tankers with aircraft, cruise missiles, or surface ships, as happened repeatedly during the 1980s, would leave the Iranian navy vulnerable to attack from both inside and outside the Strait of Hormuz. Maintaining one aircraft carrier inside and one outside the Strait of Hormuz ensures that the Iranian Navy is constantly aware that any attempt to close the Strait will result in an overwhelming military response. A two-carrier presence has a much greater deterrent effect than a single carrier would.
This Friday, the USS Harry S. Truman, a Nimitz class aircraft carrier, was scheduled to deploy from Norfolk, Virginia, to join the USS John C. Stennis as the second aircraft carrier in the region. But the Pentagon issued a statement on Wednesday announcing that the Truman would not deploy as scheduled, and would be placed in an alert status, ready to deploy as required. Instead, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which returned from a six month deployment in December 2012, will be deployed later this month - not to join the Stennis, but as its replacement.
The reduction in carrier presence is not a result of a decrease in total aircraft carriers—the United States Navy currently has ten aircraft carriers in commission. Although this is the fewest aircraft carriers the Navy has had in commission since the end of WWII, it is generally sufficient to allow three carriers to be permanently deployed.
Of course, despite the reduction in carrier presence, and despite economic sanctions to hit Iran’s domestic economy, the Iranian nuclear research and development program continues at full speed (indeed, Tehran just announced its intention to install thousands of advanced, high-efficiency centrifuges to accelerate its nuclear enrichment capability). The Iranian military continues to conduct exercises in and around the Strait of Hormuz, produce military equipment, and supply Iranian clients including the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza.
The cancelled deployment and permanent reduction in carrier presence is due exclusively to defense budget cuts and the uncertainty surrounding the defense budget. Sources on the Navy staff say that one of the reasons the Truman deployment was delayed was because it did not have the required number of trained personnel onboard. A carrier can train and conduct exercises off the American coast without a full complement of trained personnel, but it cannot deploy overseas without being fully manned, trained, and equipped. The Navy still has enough trained personnel to man the Truman, but the budgetary inflexibility prevents the service from transferring those personnel to the carrier.
The failure to deploy the Truman will greatly strengthen the argument that the U.S. is not only in retreat, but also entering a terminal decline in power and influence. Perhaps it’s because of budget constraints, but the Iranians are much more likely to see proof of their thesis that America’s power is permanently waning. That belief is likely to strengthen their recalcitrance on the nuclear program and increase their willingness to support their violent proxies throughout (and, perhaps, beyond) the region. It is likely to encourage Iranian military adventurism.
Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, served for twenty years as a career officer in the U.S. Navy. Among his various postings, he served as the deputy director of future pperations at the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet in Manama, Bahrain from February 2008 to May 2009.