As the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group makes its way out of Central Command and into Indo-Pacific Command during a deployment now heading into its 10th month, discussion is once again turning to the necessity of back-to-back carrier deployments to the Middle East.
The Nimitz, which has now entered U.S. 7th Fleet waters, had originally been scheduled to make its way home early in the new year, before then-acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller extended its deployment in U.S. 5th Fleet due to theats from Iran.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed off on the carrier’s redeployment, USNI News reported Tuesday. It’s been 10 months since the Nimitz left Naval Base Kitsap, Washington, continuing the 2020 trend of extra-long deployments for Navy ships, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Nimitz’ departure naturally raises the question of what’s next.
The aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt left San Diego in mid-December on its second deploytment of the year and last week was reported steaming into the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the aircrcraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is also about to “double pump,” is in the Atlantic and will soon be heading for the Mediterranean. But neither the Navy nor the Defense Department has announced whether either carrier will be heading to the Middle East to replace the Nimitz.
“It is, as you all know, a balancing act between requirements and the capabilities on hand,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, responding to questions about Nimitz’s relief. “The secretary believes that we have a robust presence in the Middle East to respond. It’s a constant discussion that he has with the Central Command commander, as well as the combatant commanders in other parts of the world.”
The question continues to arise whether the CENTCOM-deployed Air Force bomber squadrons and Navy amphibious ready groups with embarked Marines are enough to either deter or respond to Iran’s threats.
CENTCOM carrier presence had waned in the last half-decade, until 2020, when both the Truman and Eisenhower strike groups were in the Arabian Sea at the same time.
Requests for carriers come from the combatant commander ― currently, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie ― who has favored that show of force to deter Iran.
“They know what the carrier is. They track the presence of the carrier. And I view a carrier as a critical part of a deterrent posture effective against Iran,” McKenzie told House lawmakers a year ago.
But that constant coverage comes at a cost for the Navy, whose limited number of carriers is even more limited by maintenance and refueling periods. It’s for that reason that, six months after returning from that spring deployment, Eisenhower is preparing to head out again.
“Obviously, the secretary is concerned with making sure the Defense Department and our forces … overseas, have the capabilities they need to deter conflict and to respond when needed,” Kirby said.
But Austin, like his predecessor, is not coming out in support of constant CENTCOM carrier deployments.
“You have to consider the wear and tear on the ship itself, as well as the effect on sailors,” Kirby said.
The question is one the previous Pentagon boss largely avoided. Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper refused to answer on the record whether he believed a continuous CENTCOM carrier presence was necessary.
His predecessor, however, came out strongly against long, fixed deployments like those seen in recent years, in light of the National Defense Strategy’s focus on confronting China.
“The way you do this is [to] ensure that preparation for great power competition drives not simply a rotational schedule that allows me to tell you, three years from now, which aircraft carrier will be where in the world,” then-Defense Secretary James Mattis told lawmakers in 2018. “When we send them out, it may be for a shorter deployment. There will be three carriers in the South China Sea today, and then, two weeks from now, there’s only one there, and two of them are in the Indian Ocean.”
His vision would have also cut down the Navy’s current, standard six-month deployment.
“They’ll be home at the end of a 90-day deployment,” Mattis said. “They will not have spent eight months at sea, and we are going to have a force more ready to surge and deal with the high-end warfare as a result, without breaking the families and the maintenance cycles — we’ll actually enhance the training time.”
Kirby reiterated that there is quite a bit of non-carrier presence in the Middle East that the U.S. could lean on, though he clarified that he had no announcements on the department’s official position.
“We have a lot of military capacity in the Central Command … area of responsibility, and we are constantly working with combatant commanders ... to do the best we can to meet their requirements for additional forces for as long as possible, against the requirement,” he said, when asked whether Austin would consider turning down a request in the future.
The discussion includes asking the Navy for its input, though as a rule, the services are wont to make it work when a combatant commander or SECDEF asks them to step up.
Still, “there are some times where you can’t meet all requirements every day,” Kirby said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT