Will US carriers abandon the Persian Gulf?

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For much of the last decade, the United States kept two aircraft carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf or its immediate vicinity. This made sense: not only did those carriers help support U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they also guarded U.S. allies against a resurgent Iranian threat.

No longer. Not only has the United States now dropped its carrier compliment down to one aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf but, according to an analysis conducted by The Hill and reported by The Washington Times, that single carrier spends more time outside the Persian Gulf than inside.

As the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush prepares to set sail tomorrow for the Middle East, it is doubtful they will spend even as much time in the Gulf as the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman which they are replacing.

There are real arguments to keep aircraft carriers out of the Persian Gulf. Until 1990, it was a rare event for any carrier to cross the Strait of Hormuz. The reason is simple: the Persian Gulf is shallow and the waterways narrow. It takes about 26 knots of wind speed to launch aircraft from a carrier and sometimes the narrow sea lanes in the Persian Gulf made difficult maneuvering the aircraft carrier into position to launch. Carriers are also vulnerable to Iranian small boat swarm attacks. From the bridge of an aircraft carrier, there can be up to a 300 meter blind spot in front of the ship. When aircraft carriers are in deeper waters in the Sea of Oman or northern Indian Ocean, they can strike at Iran without becoming vulnerable to Iranian retaliation.

Psychology is important, however. America’s Gulf allies believe the United States is abandoning them. That is how they interpret the “Pivot to Asia,” and the secrecy involved in the initial Iran talks. Already, important US allies like the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman are making accommodation with Iran simply because they no longer trust US resolve or intentions.

Ultimately, given limited resources, it may be necessary to reduce a US carrier presence in the Gulf, but if such a reduction is not to play into Iranian propaganda, then it has to be coupled with other high profile deployments to the region. Nor is reducing the American presence under such circumstances wise: Wars in the Middle East are caused neither by oil nor water, but rather by one side’s overconfidence. As I point out in my new book, when the United States first sat down with the Iranians in Geneva back in 2007, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commented, “The United States has no choice but to leave the region, beaten and humiliated.” Let us hope that Iranian figures do not believe their own rhetoric.

Iranians have a quip that they play chess while Americans play checkers. As the Obama administration casts its allies’ concerns and experience aside, they might as well quip instead that Americans play solitaire.  Solitaire, however, is not a game that world leaders should play.

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