Unfortunately, there continue to be reasons to criticize the Obama administration for its operationally incoherent policies on using military force.
Today, we are treated to the news that USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) has left the Persian Gulf and is heading for the Gulf of Aden. This is being explained as a move to intercept Iranian arms deliveries to Houthi rebels:
In a stepped-up response to Iranian backing of Shiite rebels in Yemen, the Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is steaming toward the waters off Yemen to beef up security and join other American ships that are prepared to intercept any Iranian vessels carrying weapons to the Houthi rebels.
This explanation, by itself, is problematic. Theodore Roosevelt is the wrong platform for this role. Really the wrong platform — a point you may simply have to be a Navy sailor to appreciate.
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The carrier will not participate directly in any arms-interdiction activities, such as maneuvering to force a suspect ship to stop and allow itself to be boarded, or conducting the actual boarding. The role the carrier could conceivably fill — providing maritime air reconnaissance and air cover for surface combatants performing such intercepts — can be adequately supported by aircraft operating from Djibouti. In fact, the aircraft that fill this role today, such as P-3Cs, P-8s, and the SH-60 and MH-60 Seahawk helicopters that operate from the destroyers and cruisers, are better suited for the task than the carrier air wing aircraft. Command and control for a beefed up maritime interdiction effort can be exercised from Djibouti as well — if that’s necessary. A U.S. Navy surface combatant could also host a task force commander for such an operation.
Meanwhile, the carrier is being pulled off of the mission to provide combat air support over Iraq. This makes no sense, if we’re serious about having air assets available for use in Iraq and Syria. (Oddly enough, Roosevelt is leaving the Persian Gulf at the same time as the French carrier FS Charles de Gaulle (R91), which has also been providing strike sorties over Iraq and Syria.)
We haven’t been told the particulars (and we won’t be), but it’s virtually certain that Roosevelt‘s departure from the Gulf removes most or all of her 50 strike-fighters from the Iraq-Syria fight. That’s a lot of strike-fighters to lose.
It’s possible for a carrier’s air assets to be split up for periods of time, and for some of them to operate from bases ashore while the carrier is elsewhere. But if you were going to choose, in this situation, you’d choose to leave the carrier in the Persian Gulf and keep the strike-fighters — the F/A-18s — operating from the carrier, where all their weapons stores, logistics support, and intelligence support are located. These elements of the operational “tail” of an F/A-18 strike-fighter presence can’t be readily packaged and moved ashore.
Notably, Newsweek is a rare outlet that seems to have picked up on a different explanation being offered. It’s a different emphasis, at least:
However, a defense official told Reuters two warships were sent to the area in question “to conduct maritime security operations,” and said the warships “have no specific mission to intercept Iranian arms shipments.”
In a statement, the Navy said it “has increased its presence in this area as a result of the current instability in Yemen.” The Navy added the goal of this operation was to “ensure the vital shipping lanes in the region remain open and safe” and maintain “security in the maritime environment.”
The Navy, in other words, is not saying its carrier move is about intercepting arms bound for the Houthis. It’s not saying that to Reuters, at any rate. This is the second time in a week that the Obama administration has suggested our Navy is interdicting Iranian arms shipments, and military officials have come out afterward and told a different story.
That doesn’t make the carrier’s move any more operationally intelligible, in terms of national priorities or what the carrier brings to respective combat tasks. The approach of the reported Iranian naval task force to the waters off Yemen doesn’t make the sea-control problem too big for the assets on-station. If it did, the optimum approach from a practical warfighting standpoint would be to bring together the NATO surface combatants (destroyers and frigates) that are currently deployed to the region under a separate command structure for counterterrorism and antipiracy operations, and mount a NATO operation to “ensure the vital shipping lanes remain open and safe.” Those assets are the right ones for the problem, and NATO is the obvious political umbrella for such a task.
There’s no telling, with the little we know — which BTW is weird in itself — whether or how NATO is consulting on this problem. AP says this:
White House spokesman Josh Earnest would not comment specifically on any Navy movements in Yemeni waters, but said the U.S. has concerns about Iran’s “continued support for the Houthis.”
Why would Earnest not comment? This isn’t something you don’t comment on. If you’re moving an aircraft carrier into a zone of conflict, you owe it to the American people, as well as your armed forces and allies, and any potential opponents, to state clear objectives, and not leave two separate explanations out their hanging. One of which — the one about interdicting arms to the Houthis — could very well lead in short order to an armed confrontation at sea with Iran.
What the obedient media let the Obama administration get away with is more astonishing by the day. That said, we may be able to discern at least part of the reason why this move is being made. Theodore Roosevelt is the first carrier to deploy with a new system capability called NIFC-CA: Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air.
NIFC-CA integrates the E-2D Hawkeye airborne command-and-control aircraft with the carrier and properly-equipped Aegis cruisers/destroyers, in a strike group fires-direction network. Its concept allows the network to use the best sensor’s data to guide an SM-6 anti-air missile launched from an Aegis platform. NIFC-CA is meant for engagements at sea: it’s expected to extend the strike group’s effective engagement range and responsiveness in the maritime environment. And it requires having each of the components present: the carrier, the E-2Ds from the air wing, and the Aegis platform — in this case, Roosevelt‘s escort, USS Normandy (CG-60).
To test NIFC-CA, you can’t split the components up; they have to operate together. Perhaps the emergence of a sea-control problem off Yemen is being viewed as an opportunity to put NIFC-CA through its paces. I hasten to add that the missing element in this mix is an air threat off Yemen, which is what NIFC-CA is intended to counter. And we would justifiably hope that the desire to test new systems — while important — would not take precedence over national policy priorities.
The problem is that there hasn’t been a clear statement of national policy priorities. If you don’t remember what that looks like, it’s what the secretary of defense and the theater commander (in this case, the CENTCOM commander) used to always do in front of a bank of cameras when we moved assets around this way, with the implication that an important national policy was being supported with armed force. Very often, the president himself made a statement for the cameras.
When the air strikes on Libya began in March 2011, I noted the extremely odd communication posture of the Obama administration:
Note: It’s good to finally see something from US authorities on all this, but we really seem to be backing into the whole thing. Gee, we’re in command – who knew?? The incredible thing is that the media are letting the Obama administration get away with this disorganized pick-up game. Where was Bob Gates? Where was Admiral Mullen? Why haven’t we heard from General Ham? We’re in command of this operation, and the press is satisfied to hear a few details about a Tomahawk salvo, when the French are bombing Benghazi, there’s a naval blockade offshore, and a dozen other nations are supposedly sending assets?
If anything, the administration’s posture has gotten worse. It’s now less informative. And therefore less responsible. It’s almost like the administration is trying to impress people who don’t know any better with the fact that we have a bigger ship to move to the Gulf of Aden than the Iranians have. The Navy knows better than that kindergarten logic, of course, as do the Iranians. But apparently our media don’t.