Tracking the main movements of warships in response to the evolving situation in Gaza and beyond has proven interesting. Most people have focused on the comings and goings of the U.S. Navy in or to the Eastern Mediterranean. Even the USN itself appears to have turned its eyes away from other potential trouble spots, because something that would normally never happen has happened: the most powerful naval force in the Gulf is Chinese.
Just fourteen days ago, U.S. Navy movements were presented as “business as usual.” The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Gerald R Ford was in the Mediterranean anyway. The deployment of the Dwight D Eisenhower (Ike) carrier group was planned anyway, but has just been brought forward.
This changed about ten days ago. Ford’s stay in the Mediterranean was extended and it was stated that Ike would join Ford. Two supercarriers in one place – that’s great medicine. Articles have been written along these lines, by me among others. We, armchair admirals, also noted that the USS Bataan and the USS Carter Hall, amphibious ships carrying the 26th Maritime expeditionary units (MEUs) were sent from the Gulf to the Red Sea and the command and control ship Mount Whitney, accompanied by a 3* admiral and his staff, was withdrawn from duty with the NATO and sent to take charge of the Eastern Mediterranean. . This could no longer be presented as a “planning adjustment”.
Then, just when everyone thought they knew what was happening, someone in Yemen – I’m going to go after the Houthis – launched four cruise missiles and nineteen drones across the Red Sea towards Israel. The destroyer USS Carney, which had crossed Suez heading south only the day before, then had what could only be described as “a good day of operations” shooting them all down, with a combination of its own missiles and his cannon. It’s a remarkable effort.
A few hours later, another announcement, and now Ike is no longer joining Ford: he is going via Suez. At some point, the Ike group will encounter the 26 MEU ships heading in the other direction and they will need escort. Carney’s work isn’t done yet.
The only way to understand what is happening is to remove the straw with which you look at Gaza and zoom out, very far away.
One thing jumps out right away. The U.S. Navy, at least for now, is not the predominant naval force in the Gulf. This distinction now belongs to the 44th and 45th naval escort groups of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The two groups, one of which has just arrived to take over from the other, have a total of six ships. Two are Type 052D destroyers equipped with YJ-21 hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missiles.
There have been breathless reports about how this is a Chinese takeover: but as with the US moves above, it’s worth looking at what’s being planned in advance and what is reactive. The transfer of power between the two groups had long been planned as part of their established operating model in the region. True, this transfer has now been extended (as in the case of the USS Ford), but the total number of ships does not constitute an immediate response to what is happening in Gaza.
That’s not to say it’s not important: for several reasons.
First, any malicious actor who takes advantage of the disruptions is exploiting or about to exploit the current situation to maximize it. This includes the Houthis last week in the Red Sea, Hezbollah in northern Israel, Russia (everywhere) or the Chinese coast guard in the South China Sea. The water is warm in Chaosville and everyone is jumping in.
If you withdraw resources from the Gulf as the United States has done, who is left to carry out the more routine tasks that Western navies have been doing there for so many years? In mid-August, the Marines of the 26thth The MEU was tasked with preventing Iran’s disruption of commercial shipping in the Gulf, a problem that has been around for some time. This task has not disappeared – who takes care of it now? This part is not clear.
In the broader Middle East region, U.S.-allied coalition ships are numerous. France, Spain and Japan have warships in the area. There is also the Royal Navy’s HMS Lancaster and a few American ships. And the Ike arrives. But in the Gulf itself, there is currently a naval power vacuum – currently filled by China.
This brings us to the second problem, namely the persistent risk of calculation errors. Historically, when ships and fast boats of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN – the maritime wing of Iran’s fanatical Revolutionary Guards) invade your ship or generally behave like maritime hooligans nearby , you execute your countermeasures, do everything you can to avoid escalation and then continue on your way. You do this knowing that if the situation escalates, whether by accident or design, Uncle Sam will appear momentarily on the horizon.
If this happens now, you’ll be more likely to find a Chinese hypersonic armed warship offering your “help.” If the IRGCN wants to escalate its bad behavior in the Strait of Hormuz, and it usually doesn’t require much encouragement, now would be the perfect time.
Third, we know that there is currently a standoff between the “West” and China over respect for key players in the region, and you simply know that the PLAN’s recent port visits were used to discuss the future basic options. US Central Command, US 5th The UK fleet and naval support facility remains in Bahrain, so this is certainly not abandonment. I imagine that high-level conversations are taking place now between CentCom and the Saudis, perhaps even considering options against the Houthis at the Ike crossing.
Back when I played a lot of war games as a staff officer, we discovered that if a war with Iran were to break out, the Bab el Mandeb Strait at the bottom of the sea Red and/or the Eastern Mediterranean, would likely be places for the Iranians. to start it. This is partly because it exposes the problems with the convergence of three US combatant commands, but mainly because it diverts resources from the root of the problem – Iran. And now we are seeing attacks in both places, launched in both cases by Iranian-backed organizations. As a result, there are not many assets left near the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran threatens all traffic entering and leaving the Gulf. This all sounds a bit like the start of some of these Iran-West war games.
Large naval deployments affect oceans and continents far beyond the coasts off which they sail. Land power experts and land war enthusiasts sometimes forget this. You have to zoom out and look at all the moving parts to get a first idea of the effect that things like carrier strike groups can have and even then, don’t be surprised if you get it wrong or if it changes.
Winston Churchill understood this when he said: “a battleship exerts a vague general fear and threatens all points at once. It appears and disappears, causing immediate reactions and disruptions on the other side.” There will be many conversations along these lines in the corridors of Washington DC and Whitehall – and hopefully planners remember that Churchill used the phrase to compel the deployment of Force Z, with its battleships without air cover, against the advice of the Admiralty. More than eight hundred British sailors paid the price.
The movements of US Navy ships and those of its allies certainly cause “reactions and disruptions”, but, strategically, will they be effective? Only time will tell. But we have definitely learned that despite what is happening in Gaza, Ukraine, the Red Sea, the Baltic, the South China Sea and elsewhere, we must never take our eyes off Iran and the Persian Gulf.
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