With the world focused on new things Horrors are unfolding on the ground in GazaAs international opinion turns against Israel at its usual pace, the US Navy continues to shape the regional picture through large-scale warship movements.
As always, the audience favorites are the two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers Gerald R. Ford and Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike). Both have been in the Mediterranean since last Saturday. The Ford will remain there and prepare to take on the full range of tasks available to any of these groups, from intelligence gathering to full-scale attack and everything in between. Their escorting destroyers, submarines and cruisers provide protection from fast jets, almost all types of missiles, drones and threats above and below the water’s surface. Because they work well and the US Navy does it better than anyone else, such a carrier group is difficult to attack.
Ike was deployed early on for this trip and was originally supposed to work with her even bigger sister. In response to the operation in the Red Sea, she changed her orders six days ago and now headed for the Suez Canal. I say this with caution as six days is a long time in such a situation.
But it makes sense for several reasons. First, Ford has already largely covered the deterrence, posture, intelligence and preparedness missions on its own. Two supercarriers in the eastern Mediterranean may be an exaggeration. Second, there is a gap in the Gulf itself left by the departing ships and Marines of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, currently in the Red Sea heading north toward Suez.
Unfortunately, this U.S. withdrawal from the Gulf has left the Six Currently, Chinese warships are the main naval force in the region. Some argue that we should leave them to their own devices, but in doing so we ignore the central role that Iran plays in the current situation – both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in northern Israel are supported by Iran, as are the Houthis in Israel Yemen. One day the United States may leave the Persian Gulf to its own devices, but that day is not now. So it makes sense for the Ike to head in that direction and stay offshore, much like Ford does in the Mediterranean.
The Ike Group’s southern transit through the Red Sea will be interesting. The Houthis control parts of the southern Red Sea coast and showed their hand on October 24 by firing four cruise missiles and fifteen drones from Yemen towards the Gulf of Aqaba and the Israeli city of Eilat. Fortunately, the US destroyer Carney was in the Red Sea and intercepted the entire ship in an outstanding display of naval marksmanship. As an escort captain in the Royal Navy, I was always jealous of the captains of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers – that didn’t help. Ike must sail down the Red Sea with her shields up, at least until she is in the relative safety of the Gulf of Aden. If I were doing U.S. policy, I would be tempted to offer help to the passing Saudis in eliminating the Houthi threat. One to watch.
The question then becomes whether Ike will venture into the Gulf itself or be stationed in the Gulf of Oman. When I was on a planning team that played these scenarios, we often concluded that sitting outside the Gulf was the better option. Everything that needs to be done in the Gulf, from deterrence to attack, can be done remotely and with improved security. Crossing the Strait of Hormuz right next to Iran sends a different message, but could also leave a Marine task force stranded if things escalate quickly. It is possible that Ike’s group could be joined by HMS Lancaster, which has been permanently stationed in the Gulf since late last year, particularly to ensure the continued UK presence and immediate response.
The Bataan Group ships currently sailing up the Red Sea are part of a multinational effort to send large troop transport ships to the Mediterranean to be ready to conduct a Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO). Two auxiliary fleets of the British Royal Fleet have been traveling in the Mediterranean for some time and the French amphibious ship Tonnerre is also on the way in this direction with its two escorts. Everyone has come to the conclusion that at some point it may be necessary to evacuate large numbers of people.
From the Navy’s perspective, NEOs are a different proposition than carrier strike group deployments. While aircraft carriers have their own protective bubble, troop transports and support ships often do not. They have to get their own reason, and the further inland they go – their reason for being there – the harder it becomes. When you’re on the side, you’re vulnerable to everything from a small boat loaded with explosives to a homemade drone and an anti-tank grenade to someone with a rifle (if you imagine a line of thousands of people on the jetty, waiting to be processed). before embarkation).
This means that the carrier group has created the conditions before a NEO task force can advance anywhere near the coast. This could mean many things, from attacking radar stations to destroying fast attack vehicles to special forces launched from the submarines. Attendants must cover any evacuation and may need to reduce layers around the wearer. These are the planning decisions that Vice Admiral Thomas Ishee and his staff on the command ship USS Mount Whitney will currently be discussing and playing out around the clock.
Back in the UK yesterday our aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived in Portsmouth harbor earlier than expected, unusually with her F-35B jets still on board. The Liz was scheduled to conduct joint NATO operations in northern waters and would normally fly its jets to its air base before entering port. Therefore, this move has sparked a level of talk and speculation that only an aircraft carrier can achieve. The large ship could be there to repair a defect in an aircraft elevator and return to NATO operations in the North Atlantic later this week. This would meet the strategic requirement of keeping an aircraft carrier “in the north” while maintaining preparations for its deployment to the Indo-Pacific in 2025.
Another option would be to remain in Portsmouth on high alert and be able to leave within a few hours if the British government decides to intervene more heavily in the situation. As a compromise, she could take a few escorts with her rather disappointing combination of eight jets (it was designed for 36 passengers) and head for the western or central Mediterranean and raise the flag there.
Or it could form a full carrier strike group, grab all the RN’s operational escorts, a nuclear submarine and as many jets as possible – including some from the US if necessary, as in 2021 – and head for the eastern Mediterranean do and on the way ask Mount Whitney where to set up.
By the way, if I were the captain of the Queen Elizabeth or the admiral commanding the group, I would want the latter option. You are in the high-ready career, there is a situation where you can help, this is what everyone has trained for, let’s go. The resulting large bill, both in terms of money and in terms of training disruptions and subsequent effects, would not worry me. That’s perhaps why they never asked me to be captain of the Queen Elizabeth.
The Chief of Defense Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, will be more measured and offer all options for number 10, from “do nothing” to “send completely,” each with associated risks, costs and scheduling disruptions. Where the Big Lizzie goes when it leaves Portsmouth could be a first indication of how this conversation went.
The talks between Great Britain and the USA will be similarly interesting. The US will certainly be interested in having someone on its side who shows that someone agrees with what they are doing, especially if the mission is a hard hit. The RAF could do this at a reduced cost from Akrotiri in Cyprus, but it cannot offer all the other tools an aircraft carrier can provide, especially not in the company of a Tomahawk-armed submarine. If we have a Tomahawk gunner available, it would make sense for this submarine to go to the Mediterranean with or without a carrier: nuclear submarines usually do not have to worry about the threat of enemy missiles and can operate alone.
But will Britain want to be included again on this basis? The loss of trust caused by the sudden decision to withdraw from Afghanistan certainly played a role. Add to that Sir Keir Starmer is currently taking a hard hit from his own party, and the Prime Minister will have plenty of reasons to pause before committing what looks like an opportunity to attack, even if there is a strong demand signal from Washington.
However, I’m not sure what the UK government is thinking at the moment. Aside from specious statements about minimizing civilian casualties and the Foreign Office’s helpful travel advice that says, “Don’t go there,” it’s not clear. This makes predicting military movements almost impossible.
Meanwhile, the US continues to move hundreds of thousands of tons of warships through the region as a visible military display of political intent. As always, the focus is on the wearers. They are neither invincible nor invincible, as many believe. They are an essential and flexible tool of statecraft, which is why so many countries build them. The US Navy’s attack groups set the standard in this regard.
While the attack capability of British aircraft carriers is far from the finished article, it at least gives us policy choices and a seat at the table.
Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer and warship captain