ABU DHABI // The Gulf has been left without the protection of a naval strike force after the United States Navy withdrew out its sole aircraft carrier last month.
With the Dwight D Eisenhower returning to Norfolk, Virginia, at the end of December and its relief, the George H W Bush yet to leave port in the US, the gap of potentially two months is seen as poor timing with rising regional instability.
However, analysts said the move was not so significant as the US has military assets around the Gulf equal to contingency.
“The region is critical for the health of the world economy, the US allies and trading partners that cannot be neglected by the international community,” said Dr Albadr Al Shateri, politics professor at the National Defence College.
“It is no secret that the US and other European powers have military bases in Bahrain, the UAE, the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, Egypt, Oman, Turkey and many more. All of those military capabilities could be brought to bear on any threats to the free flow of oil and western interests in the region.”
Others said the gap is explained by operational and force readiness issues rather than policy changes.
“The handover between US aircraft carriers normally runs smoothly but it hasn’t this time and although this raises eyebrows and some questions, there are always contingency plans in place,” said Sabahat Khan, senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
“So without a carrier deployment, the US would likely be reinforcing other force elements. If this was a strategic policy decision, which it is not, it would of course be very significant given its impact on the regional balance of force with Iran because carriers provide and enable a unique set of capabilities that are very important to the context of deterring Iran.”
The Barack Obama administration has used naval power in the Gulf, spearheaded by the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, as a crucial element of its bid to reassure GCC allies over its commitment to countering Tehran.
In April 2015, it deployed the carrier to block Iranian ships from delivering weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Pentagon had previously required the US navy to keep at least one carrier in the Gulf at all times, with an overlap period between any replacement. But that requirement was replaced with new guidelines that allowed periods of no carrier presence.
Dr Anthony Cordesman, from the Washington-based think tank International Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said although there was no carrier, there was a US air force presence in Gulf countries and Turkey, as well as assets in terms of unmanned aerial vehicles used against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
“So you have far more US airpower deployed right now than you had at any time when you had a carrier out there but you weren’t otherwise deploying US combat forces,” he said. “It is frankly no indication of US involvement in the region. While a carrier isn’t there, the US has built up forces that are matched to the Iranian threat, missiles and asymmetric warfare more in the Gulf than it has in the Pacific.”
Lt Ian McConnaughey, US Naval Forces Central Command (Centcom) spokesman, said the navy remained committed to supporting Centcom to ensure it had the capabilities it needed for maritime security in its area of operations.
“We are not going to discuss the timing of operational movements of carrier strike groups into and out of the US Centcom area of responsibility,” he said. “In general, a carrier strike group is inherently a maneouvre force that offer commanders the ability to flexibly respond to a wide variety of missions and contingencies. Their presence reassures allies and partners while deterring potential adversaries.”
He said they were capable of projecting power worldwide, supporting crisis response and providing humanitarian assistance for emerging disaster relief efforts.
“They protect US interests and help ensure the free flow of commerce,” he added. “Centcom has worked to mitigate risk by minimising or eliminating any reduction in capability and is working with the joint staff to ensure it has the joint capabilities it needs to continue the fight to degrade, defeat and ultimately destroy Isis.”