The U.S. Navy has reduced its carrier presence in the Persian Gulf as the Obama administration seeks to complete a nuclear deal with Iran.
The Navy denies it has reduced its strength in the strategically vital waterway, let alone done so to help diplomatic efforts, and it points to an increase in the number of smaller ships that are regularly patrolling at close quarters with Iranian vessels.
But records show that the U.S.S. Harry Truman, now the sole aircraft carrier in the region, has spent more time outside the Persian Gulf in the last six months than inside it.Just a year ago, the Navy had placed two carriers in the region.
In addition, a Navy source familiar with the issue said the Truman isn’t spending as much time in the Persian Gulf as its predecessors, and that this is intended to give space for negotiators to work on the nuclear deal.
Retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, CEO of the United States Naval Institute, said it is reasonable to think the Navy is sending a signal by limiting the Truman’s time in the Gulf.
“A carrier is an effective symbol and instrument of national power. Its mere presence is a deterrence to bad actors and bad behavior, and if necessary, it is an instrument of force,” Daly said. “That’s true in the Gulf and that’s true anywhere in the world.”
The U.S. is seeking a final nuclear deal with Iran after reaching an interim accord in November. Congress is fiercely debating whether to threaten Iran with additional sanctions if it fails to comply with the interim deal, which eased some sanctions in exchange for Iran’s halting of elements of its nuclear program. The Obama administration opposes any new sanctions.
The Hill reviewed public data posted by officials on Facebook to estimate the days the carrier has been in the Gulf.
From August 2013 to January 2014, the Truman spent roughly 101 days inside the Gulf of Oman and the North Arabian Sea, and only about 45 days inside the Persian Gulf, not including approximately 11 days spent transiting between or in unknown locations.
That’s a significant shift from last year during the same period, when the U.S. had two carriers in the region.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered a two-carrier presence to the region in 2010, with one inside the Persian Gulf, in response to Iranian-threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil supply travels. The carrier presence was reduced to one in February 2013, partly because of pressure from Pentagon budget cuts.
The Truman arrived to the Gulf last summer to relieve the U.S.S. Nimitz, which was temporarily extended in case of a Syria contingency.
It’s difficult to determine exactly how many days carriers spent in the Gulf in 2011 and 2012, however, because comparable data was not posted on the carriers’ location. Still, at least one of the two carriers was devoted to keeping the Strait of Hormuz open.
The Pentagon says U.S. presence can’t be measured just by aircraft carriers, and that the Navy has actually increased the number of smaller coastal patrol ships and other assets that are regularly patrolling the Gulf.
“There has been no diminished focus or effort with respect to the Arabian Gulf,” said Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.
Other Navy officials said the Truman is focusing on operations in Afghanistan, though carriers typically only provide a third of the air operations there, which have decreased as Afghan forces take the lead in the country.
The U.S. last summer added three coastal patrol boats to its 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain on the Persian Gulf. A report in the Times of Israel said the U.S. planned to have 10 of those ships in the Gulf by early 2014.
Daly said that the increase in the number of smaller ships also sends a signal of commitment, but that the carrier is the “biggest, most powerful symbol on the scale” of doing nothing to a full kinetic response.
“It’s demonstrated itself as the most effective visible iconic symbol of American power and resolve,” he said.
Iran in recent days has signaled worry, not relief, about the size of the U.S. presence in the Gulf.
Over the weekend, it announced it was sending two warships toward the Atlantic Coast in response to the U.S. presence in the Gulf, and on Sunday, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy Commander Ali Fadavi warned his country would sink a U.S. aircraft carrier if the U.S. took any force against Iran.
U.S. officials, however, have dismissed Iran’s bellicose rhetoric as being directed toward a domestic audience. They also argue Iran lacks the ability to reach the Atlantic Coast.
A Navy official speaking on background played down the fact that the Truman is spending less time in the Persian Gulf even as he acknowledged the Navy works to defuse tensions in the region.
“Our goal out here is to do everything we can to prevent miscalculations, and not pressurize a situation that could easily be pressurized,” the Navy official said.
“We’re doing a lot out there … it’s not just this stare-down across the way with the Iranians.”
In December, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Bahrain and sought to reassure the region the U.S. would maintain a “strong military posture” in the Gulf.
“DOD will not make any adjustments to its forces in the region or to its military planning as a result of the interim agreement with Iran,” Hagel said at a Dec. 7 press conference.