Iran’s chess game is going well, but US Navy carriers are changing the picture

With the world focused on new unfolding horrors on the ground in Gaza, and international opinion turning with its usual rapidity against Israel, the US Navy continues to shape the regional picture through the medium of large-scale warship movements.

The crowd-pleasers, as ever, are the two nuclear powered aircraft carriers Gerald R Ford and Dwight D Eisenhower (Ike). As of last Saturday, both are now in the Mediterranean. The Ford is set to stay there, getting ready to conduct the entire range of tasks available to one of these groups, from intelligence gathering to all-out strike and everything in between. Her escorting destroyers, submarine(s) and cruiser provide protection from fast jets, almost every kind of missile, drone, surface and subsurface threats. Operated well, and the US Navy does it better than anyone, such a carrier group is hard to attack.

Ike deployed early to make this trip and was originally set to join forces with her even bigger sister. Six days ago, in response to action in the Red Sea, her orders changed and she is now heading for the Suez Canal. I say this with caution as six days is a long time in this kind of situation.

But it makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, Ford already has the deter, poise, message and prepare missions pretty much covered on her own. Two supercarriers in the eastern Med could be overkill. Second, there is a gap in the Gulf itself left by the departing ships and Marines of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group who are currently in the Red Sea heading North for Suez.

Unfortunately, this US move out of the Gulf has left the six Chinese warships currently there as the preeminent naval force in the area. Some argue that we should leave them to it, but that is to ignore the central role Iran is playing in the current situation – both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah to Israel’s north are Iranian backed, as are the Houthis of Yemen. One day the US might leave the Persian Gulf to its own devices, but that day isn’t now. So it makes sense for the Ike to head that way and sit off the coast in much the same way Ford is doing in the Med.

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The Ike group’s southbound Red Sea transit will be interesting. The Houthis control parts of the southern Red Sea coast and they showed their hand on 24 October, firing four cruise missiles and fifteen drones from Yemen in the general direction of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Israeli city of Eilat. Fortunately, the US destroyer Carney was in the Red Sea and intercepted the lot in an outstanding display of naval marksmanship. As an escort captain in the Royal Navy I was always envious of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer captains – this has not helped. Ike will need to head down Red Sea with her ‘shields up’ at least until she’s in the relative safety of the Gulf of Aden. If I were making US policy, I would be tempted to offer the Saudis help with eradicating the Houthi coastal threat as they sail past. One to watch.

Then it’s a question of whether Ike goes into the Gulf itself or takes station in the Gulf of Oman. When I was in a planning team wargaming these scenarios, we often concluded that sitting outside the Gulf is a better option. Everything that needs to be done in the Gulf, from deterrence to strike, can be done from outside it and with improved safety. Going through the Strait of Hormuz right next to Iran sends a different message but could also see a naval task force getting trapped if things escalate quickly. It’s possible the Ike group will be joined by HMS Lancaster, stationed permanently in the Gulf since the end of last year, specifically to ensure continued UK presence and immediate response.

The ships of the Bataan group currently heading up the Red Sea are part of a multinational effort to send large, troop-carrying ships to the Mediterranean to be ready to conduct a Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO). Two British Royal Fleet Auxiliaries have been in the Med for a while now and the French Tonnerre amphibious ship with her two escorts is also heading that way. Everyone has concluded that at some point, it may be necessary to evacuate large numbers of people.

From a naval perspective, NEOs are a different proposition to carrier strike group operations. Whilst carriers come with their own protective bubble, troopships and auxiliaries often do not. They have to be given their own and the further inshore they go – their reason for being there – the harder this gets. By the time you are alongside you are vulnerable to anything from a small boat packed with explosives to a homemade drone to an anti-tank shell to someone with a rifle (if you imagine a queue of thousands of people on the jetty waiting to be processed before embarking).

This means that before an NEO task force can go anywhere near the coast the carrier group will have shaped the conditions for them to do so. This could mean many things, from striking radar sites to destroying fast attack craft or even to special forces activity launched from the submarines. Escorts will need to cover any evacuation, possibly reducing the layers around the carrier. Such are the planning decisions that the Vice Admiral Thomas Ishee and his staff in the command ship USS Mount Whitney will be discussing and wargaming around the clock right now.

Meanwhile back in Britain, our aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived in Portsmouth harbour earlier than expected yesterday with her F-35B jets, unusually, still embarked. The Liz was supposed to be doing joint Nato ops in northern waters, and would normally fly her jets off to their air station before coming into harbour, so this move has sparked that level of conversation and speculation that only a carrier can. The big ship might just be in to repair a defect to an aircraft lift and head back to Nato duties in the North Atlantic later this week. This would satisfy the strategic requirement to keep a carrier ‘up north’ whilst allowing her preparations for her deployment to the Indo-Pacific in 2025 to remain in place.

Another option would be to remain in Portsmouth at very high readiness, able to sail at a few hours notice should the British government decide to take more of a hand in the unfolding situation. As a compromise she could take a couple of escorts and her rather underwhelming complement of eight jets (she was designed to carry 36) and head for the western or central Med and fly the flag there.

The F-35B supersonic stealth jump-jet, as operated by the US Marines and Royal Navy among others – PfC Mary R Jenni

Or she could go full carrier strike group, grab all the RN’s operational escorts, a nuclear attack submarine and as many jets as possible – some from the US if necessary as in 2021 – and head to the eastern Med asking Mount Whitney on the way past where to set up.

Incidentally, if I was the captain of the Queen Elizabeth or the admiral in command of the group, I would want that last option. You’re in the high-readiness carrier, there is a situation you can help with, it is what everyone has trained for, let’s go. The resultant large bill, in money and in disrupted training and knock on effects, would not be my concern. This is perhaps why they never asked me to be captain of the Queen Elizabeth.

The Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, will be more measured, offering all options to Number 10, from ‘do nothing’ to ‘full send’ with risks, costs and planning disruptions associated with each. Where the Big Lizzie heads on departure from Portsmouth might be the first indicator of how this conversation went.

Discussions between the UK and the US will be similarly interesting. The US will certainly be keen to have someone alongside them showing that someone agrees with what they are doing, particularly if the mission turns to hard strike. The RAF could do this out of Akrotiri in Cyprus at reduced cost: but they can’t offer all the other tools a carrier can provide, particularly one in company with a Tomahawk-armed submarine. If we have a Tomahawk shooter available, it would make sense for that sub to go to the Med with or without the carrier: nuclear submarines mostly don’t need to worry about enemy missile threats and can operate alone.

But will the UK want to be pulled in again on this basis? The loss of trust caused by the sudden decision to withdraw from Afghanistan must surely play into this. Add to that the mauling Sir Keir Starmer is receiving at the hands of his own party just now and the PM will have plenty of reason to pause before committing anything that looks like a strike capability, even if there is a strong demand signal from Washington.

Having said that, I’m not sure what the UK Government’s thinking is just now. Other than blandly obvious statements about minimising civilian casualties, and the Foreign Office travel advice helpfully saying ‘don’t go there’, it’s not clear. This makes predicting military movements nearly impossible.

Meanwhile, the US continues to move hundreds of thousands of tons of warships around the region as a visible military representation of political intent. The carriers, as ever, take centre stage. They are neither sitting ducks nor invincible, as many believe. What they are is an indispensable and flexible tool of statecraft, which is why so many countries are building them. US Navy strike groups set the benchmark in this regard, by a distance.

British carrier strike capability, although a long way from the finished article, at least gives us political choices and a seat at that table.

Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer and warship captain

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