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The United States Navy has ten active aircraft carriers. But only one, the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), 5th Fleet, is currently underway.
While the Carl Vinson — as part of Carrier Strike Group 1 (CSG-1) — is a potent force, now that it is at sea without a second carrier group in support, U.S. interests are at risk.
And the Iranian hardliners sense their opportunity. On Tuesday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy recorded its forces conducting a simulated attack on an American carrier. With its rockets, mortars, and missiles, the IRGC claimed, it was reinforcing “deterrence, so that outsiders will take care not to act against the Islamic Republic’s security.” For the IRGC, however, this wasn’t just about propaganda. After all, it chose the Strait of Hormuz as its exercise location. That’s notable: As even the most cursory look at a map will attest, the Hormuz Strait is a major choke point for global trade and energy supplies. As the IRGC explained, “We consider ourselves the guardians of security in the Strait of Hormuz and have shown this to the world in this war game.”
To be sure, the Carl Vinson is (as it always is) monitoring the IRGC’s operations. And the U.S. Navy is downplaying this incident, stating that Iran “has attempted to destroy the equivalent of a Hollywood movie set.” (This criticism appears at least somewhat fair: At the 3:39 mark of the video, the rearguard of the Iranian speedboat flotilla appears to fire rockets into the lead element.). But the broader strategic environment isn’t funny — because Iran’s hardliner factions, of which the IRGC is the aorta, are upping their pressure on the United States. It’s a regional trend. As I noted earlier this week, Iranian proxies are increasingly threatening U.S. forces in Iraq. Again, it’s about the strategic environment. With the nuclear negotiations entering the endgame, the IRGC wants to broadcast its military strength alongside its existential opposition to rapprochement. For the hardliners, including “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei, progress is not measured by democratic peace, but rather by expanded theological power. That’s why they wanted America out of Yemen and why they want the U.S. out of Iraq. Via these naval exercises, the IRGC is signaling that they won’t accept a “bad deal” — either from the U.S. or from Iranian president Hassan Rouhani — and that in such an event, war may follow.
That message requires an American response of easy translation. The United States should immediately deploy a second carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf. While this would undoubtedly put pressure on the Rouhani bloc, it would also send an unmistakable message: “Test us at your peril.” Moreover, a second carrier deployment would also necessarily bolster U.S. capabilities in the region. At present, the Carl Vinson’s solitary deployment means that, were Iran to mine the Strait of Hormuz or otherwise destabilize the Persian Gulf (and, as the 2011 D.C. bomb plot proves, the IRGC is inherently unpredictable), CSG-1 would be stretched. Facing almost certain diversionary harassment by large numbers of small, maneuverable Iranian vessels, CSG-1 would be forced to focus on fleet-defense operations rather than on reopening the Strait. And its operations against ISIS would also have to be suspended. While France’s Charles de Gaulle carrier is supporting CSG-1, its capabilities are different. That’s not to say the U.S. shouldn’t welcome tangible support from our oldest ally, but there’s simply no substitute for a second U.S. carrier.
The IRGC hardliners know this. They understand that two American carrier groups would enable the U.S. Navy to engage simultaneously in fleet-defense operations (destroying Iranian skirmishing forces) and in power-projection operations (clearing the Strait of Iranian forces and their land-based support assets). They also know that two carriers would allow the United States to conduct an economic blockade of Iran in the event that diplomacy fails. And America’s Sunni Arab allies also know this. A second carrier would give them strategic reassurance (which is desperately needed).
To be sure, the risks here are considerable. Nevertheless, the U.S. cannot allow the IRGC to seize the initiative at such a critical moment. That course would doom any chance of successful diplomacy and endanger American forces. To protect our interests, President Obama must send a second carrier strike group to Persian Gulf.