Why the Navy Just Moved Its Carrier Out of the Middle East and Into the Indo-Pacific

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February 7, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: IranMiddle EastIndo-PacificINDOPACOMChina

Why the Navy Just Moved Its Carrier Out of the Middle East and Into the Indo-Pacific

Washington is refocusing on bigger threats and competitors, and that means China.

The U.S. Navy is relocating massive maritime power from the Middle East to the Pacific theater as part of a force repositioning and, as the Pentagon put it, sustain a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is moving from Central Command’s area to the Pacific. This means that there is now no U.S. carrier in the Middle East, and power projection of international strategic waterways is being maintained if not increased in the Pacific.

Pentagon Press Secretary Adm. John Kirby said “Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III believes America has ‘a robust presence in the Middle East.’ U.S. service members are based in many nations in the Persian Gulf and there is more than enough airpower to counter any adversary,” according to a Pentagon report.

Meanwhile, the USS John McCain, a Navy destroyer, recently transited the Taiwan strait in a demonstration of power, protection and assurance that international waterways will be maintained by a strong forward Naval presence.

While an Iranian threat is not lost on anyone at the Pentagon, the move suggests several important strategic concepts. The first is simply, as Secretary Austin suggested, the United States currently maintains a strong air power presence in the region which, one would think, would be extremely critical should there be a need for rapid response or counterattack. America has many coalition allies in The Middle East where they could likely base air assets, ranging from bombers, to F-22s or even F-35s, which have themselves been used in combat.  

Geography and the often discussed “tyranny of distance” in the Pacific may be a large part of the thinking, as well the importance of ongoing training and allied collaboration in the Asian theater. Potential targets, locations or areas of operation are much more condensed in the Middle East, a geographical circumstance enabling greater proximity and strike access should that be needed. The Pacific, by contrast, is a vast and expansive area requiring an entirely different scope of combat reach and power projection, should conflict be necessary.

Training such as dual-carrier strike operations in the Pacific, have been a U.S. and allied focus to prepare to project power and increase range and sortie rate across the expansive Pacific.

There is yet another interesting and pressing matter of great significance here, as the recent U.S.-Russia agreement on START is now leading U.S. leaders to ask for Chinese participation, according to a Reuters report. Might China go along with similar kinds of nuclear weapons reduction possibilities? Certainly, an interesting idea. Perhaps a strong, protective presence in the Pacific can complement or fortify efforts to reach out to China regarding arms control, in light of progress between the U.S. and Russia. This is quite significant, given the pace at which China is adding nuclear weapons and modernizing its current inventory. The prospect of increased cooperation with the U.S. may also be part of why China is now firing off tests of ICBM ballistic missile interceptors.

“The United States will also seek to engage China on nuclear arms control and risk reduction. I hope that China will join us in that effort,” Robert Wood, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, and U.S. Commissioner for the New START Treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission, said in a Reuters report.  

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.