The USS Squall during operations near Bahrain
The USS Squall during operations near Bahrain // Department of Defense

Forget the Second Carrier, It’s Time to Rethink the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf

When the U.S. Navy announced the deployment of a second carrier, the USS Harry Truman, to the Persian Gulf on July 23, the news should have alleviated 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, stated that the Navy would not operate a second carrier group in the Gulf during the 2014 fiscal year due to sequestration.

Critics should take a deep breath and welcome the opportunity provided by the difficult fiscal realities to rethink America’s military presence and strategy in the Persian Gulf. It’s time to restructure America’s Navy 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 Fifth Fleet that emphasizes small, agile platforms and greater military cooperation with regional allies.

Of course, only a fool would deny the enormous diplomatic, military and symbolic value of carriers. However, the benefits of carrier deployments shouldn’t lead observers to assume that this mammoth vessel is necessarily the safest and most effective military tool America can deploy in all strategic contexts. The narrow Persian Gulf is one such area in which carriers are, comparatively speaking, a less than ideal choice. Therefore, the Navy’s decision last month to deploy a fleet of patrol coastal ships, or PC 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 declared military strategy in the event of conflict. Iran’s strategy allegedly features layered attacks involving naval mines, fast-attack craft and anti-ship cruise missiles. Iranian forces can deploy an arsenal of over 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 (IRGC)’ fleet of small, fast-attack craft, armed with torpedoes, rocket launchers and other anti-ship weaponry. IRGC forces could preposition 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 missiles, fly at three times the speed of sound and can cruise as low as twenty meters from the ground, performing evasive maneuvers to effectively engage its target. 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 as Iran is advantaged by a mountainous shore facing the Gulf. The terrain provides easy cover and 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 many of the advantages provided by the technological superiority of U.S. forces in the areas of surveillance and targeting. In these confined waters, engagements between Iranian and U.S. forces would transpire at very close ranges.

The gravity of the Iranian asymmetric threat is not new to U.S. strategic planners. In 2002, the military ran a $250 million wargame dubbed “Millennium Challenge,” an exercise “in which small, agile speedboats swarmed a naval convoy to inflict devastating damage on more powerful ships.” According to reports on the wargame, the exercise concluded in less than ten minutes, after which forces “modeled after a Persian Gulf State” had succeeded in sinking 16 U.S. ships, including an aircraft carrier. For U.S. forces in the simulation, the sheer number and speed of the swarming attacks from rocket-equipped speedboats and land-based cruise missiles, overwhelmed the vastly superior U.S. ships.

Towards 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 PC ship with Griffin short-range missiles represents a fundamental change in how the U.S. 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 individual ships are outfitted with different sensors and weaponry depending on the specific threats they will confront in their operating environments. This approach represents the right strategy for a Strait of Hormuz contingency. Instead of relying on large, expensive ships to carry out all of these missions, the Navy can effectively disperse these capabilities and hence limit the costs of losses incurred during conflict.

PC ships make sense politically and promote deeper defense cooperation with U.S. allies in the region 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 PC fleet deployment, critics may argue that in pulling a carrier from the Strait, the U.S. would experience a marked decline in its ability to quickly deploy air power in the Gulf. To be sure, absent a carrier presence in the Strait, 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 allied partners, will best guarantee crisis 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 PC 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. And at a fraction of the price, the Navy can have its cake and eat it too.

Bilal Y. Saab is executive director and head of research of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America.

Joseph Singh is a research assistant at INEGMA North America.

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