The US Navys contribution to US strategy for deterring Iran, and pressuring it to negotiate a halt to its nuclear energy program, may be about to change. To prepare for the possible sequestering of its budget the Pentagon has cut spending as much as 25 percent. This contingency move included announcing that the navy will reduce the normal deployment of two aircraft carrier task forces in the Gulf to one, to save money.
The US strategy has required two carrier task forces in the region. One patrols outside the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Sea, Somali Basin, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, or Indian Ocean. The other positions inside the Gulf, frequently docking in Dubais Jebel Ali facility. Together the two carrier groups counter Irans threat to close the Strait of Hormuz by attacking the way it did in the 1980s in the tanker war.
But changes in deployment this month seem to alter this strategy. The USS Harry S. Truman, was to deploy from Norfolk, Virginia, to join the USS John C. Stennis. But it will not, the navy says. It will remain in the US on alert status. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, with a crew thoroughly familiar with the Gulf as recently as last December, will return to replace the Stennis.
Having only one carrier and its attendant vessels would seem to degrade the US deterrent capability significantly, perhaps even crippling it. Some observers in Washington, in tune with some claims in Tehran, speculate that this reduction is permanent. Hence the howls from the right wing in the US that dropping to one task force encourages Iran to ignore negotiation, speed up its development of nuclear weapons, and boost its aid to its allies in Syria and Palestine.
However, if only in the backs of their minds, Irans planners have to watch for evidence of an alternative scenario.
This announced change in deployments does not reduce the number of aircraft carriers and task forces that the US has available which is ten. Thus three could steam to the Gulf region without drawing down US capability elsewhere in the worlds oceans and waterways. Even a fourth or fifth could bolster the array for a special occasion, as has happened before. The Administration would have to make highly unusual but not unprecedented budget shifts to implement such a decision of course.
The US Navys dropping to one carrier task force at this time in the Gulf enables it to rehab and refit its ships, rest and relieve its sailors, change configurations of weapons and other equipment, and offer new training for crews. The USS Truman does not have the required complement of trained sailors on board for overseas deployment at this time, for example. So sending it out was not in the cards. At a later date, when it is ready, perhaps in June after the Iranian elections, it and the Stennis could both return in short order to serve as a major show of force to support negotiations or in pursuit of a decision to exercise the military option.
Preparing for the sequestration is prudent and may be exactly what the US is doing. Long-term budget constraints may make the reduced naval presence permanent. But taking advantage of the sequestration as a cover for refitting and training to serve a contingent strategic plan of raising the stakes for Iran in negotiation would also be prudent. It would serve the tactic of offering an open hand of diplomacy in tandem with raising a mailed (iron) fist. A third scenario could be that the US has concluded that negotiation has failed and that it now plans to resort to using force.
Iran has to wonder which scenario will become reality.