The U.S. has a range of options for dealing with Yemen’s Houthis, none of them good. But a long campaign of naval strikes and interception against them, as is now being floated by the Biden Administration and outside experts, is certainly the worst response of all. That’s because it means the U.S. Navy continuing to sink into Middle East sand for an unachievable goal all while losing ground in the far-more important Pacific.
Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping have summoned Tomahawk cruise missiles and Top Gun pilots from the deck of the USS Eisenhower. The newly-renamed Operation Poseidon Archer is just two weeks old, and the Biden Administration is already drawing up plans for a longer effort, despite admitting that defeating the Houthis is not viable. There is a risk of escalation in the Middle East, especially with the death of three U.S. soldiers after a drone strike in Jordan. But the effects on the U.S. Navy will be predictable, because they have all happened before: overworked ships and sailors, expenditure of precious precision munitions, and a continued punt on the pivot to the Pacific.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is the crown jewel of American military might. Its 5,000 sailors and 90 jet-strike aircraft can guarantee sustained ship-to-shore pummeling of adversaries and the purported deterrence this provides—in effect modern gunboat diplomacy. In any geopolitical crisis, it’s said the U.S. President will demand to know where the carriers are. For the past two decades, throughout the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT), the answer has usually been the Middle East. From 2001 to 2015, United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which includes North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, had at least one carrier assigned at all times. As late as 2020, the Middle East drew almost as much carrier presence as the entire Pacific.
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Because of this relentless demand, carriers often have their deployments extended or are “double-pumped,” conducting back-to-back deployments without a major maintenance period in between. The last three carriers deployed in the Mediterranean were all extended: the USS Gerald R. Ford was at sea for 239 days, the USS Harry S. Truman for 285, and the USS George H. W. Bush for 257. This overwork has consequences. After the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower did two sets of double pumps, its subsequent 14-month maintenance period ballooned to 23 months because of wear and tear.
The utility and survivability of carriers in a major war are also in question. In 1982, the legendary Admiral Hyman Rickover stunned Congress by testifying that in a war with the Soviet Union, U.S. aircraft carriers would survive for “48 hours.” In the four decades since, the carrier’s vulnerability has dramatically increased. Anti-ship missiles have become far more accurate and long-ranged since Rickover’s testimony, as the unrefueled range of an aircraft carrier’s air wing has shrunk from well over 1,000 nautical miles to barely 600 now. This leaves carrier commanders with two unpalatable options: stay out of enemy range but become operationally irrelevant or sail close enough but put a $13 billion vessel and its 5,000 sailors at risk. The narrow waters of the Persian Gulf and chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz and Yemen’s Bab-el Mandeb only magnify this dilemma.
Yet the overworked carrier fleet and questions about its utility in a major war are only part of the larger problem of U.S. naval overstretch. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. Navy has become addicted to global “presence” as a demonstration of its value to the nation.
Over the past two decades, the Army and Marine Corps could point to their efforts, successful or not, on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. To maintain its status and budget, the Navy also needed to contribute, at sea and ashore. With the all-volunteer military stretched to the breaking point, the Pentagon started looking to the Navy to step in. Some 120,000 sailors would go on to serve on land during the GWOT. Many of these sailors, especially the reservists who are critical in any major war, have become “sailors in name only,” their naval proficiencies and mindset atrophying due to prolonged service ashore.
All of this significantly strained U.S. naval manpower, causing ships to deploy undermanned and for longer durations. The Navy’s overstretch may have also contributed to a pair of tragic accidents. In 2017, a pair of Navy destroyers, the USS McCain and the USS Fitzgerald, collided with civilian ships in the Pacific in separate incidents, killing 17 sailors. A report on the collisions found that rest and training were sacrificed for naval presence. One of the Navy’s most senior retired enlisted sailors, Fleet Master Chief Petty Officer Paul Kingsbury, explicitly blamed the Navy’s GWOT augmentation program for the degraded safety culture that led to the McCain and Fitzgerald disasters.
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The future looks grim for the overworked fleet. Like the rest of the U.S. military, the Navy is facing an unprecedented recruiting crisis, fueled in part by fatigue from time away from home during extended deployments. In an all-volunteer force, sailors will vote with their feet. A shrinking fleet is the likely outcome, regardless of how many warships America has.
The most immediate danger of overstretch, though, is munitions not manpower. The opening Jan. 12 strike on the Houthis expended 80 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, more than half the missile’s annual production. In the near term, expending hundreds of these missiles in a tertiary operation like Prosperity Guardian could have major impacts in a far more important theater in the Pacific. Precision strike missiles like the Tomahawk are vital to the U.S. military’s ability to deter, and if necessary, defeat a Chinese attack in the Pacific—a contingency where the Navy will be carrying most of the fight, unlike in America’s Middle East wars. The U.S. may already lack sufficient precision munitions for a shooting war with China. The Navy’s newest Middle East operation adds further risk to the service’s most essential mission.
On September 10, 2001, the U.S. was the unchallenged global superpower, with naval preeminence as the bedrock of American military dominance. The U.S. Navy outgunned China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) by more than 100 warships. China had no aircraft carriers and just 21 diesel submarines.
Some 20 years later, America’s sailors look out at a different world. PLAN is now the world’s largest navy (though the U.S. Navy still boasts more tonnage). China’s third aircraft carrier, Fujian, is nearing its sea trials. In the time since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, PLAN has commissioned 313 ships. Recent wargames suggest the U.S. Navy would struggle mightily to defeat a Chinese fleet that was an afterthought just two decades ago.
The future trajectory is even worse: Chinese shipbuilding capacity now exceeds that of the U.S. by a factor of 200, according to unclassified data from the Office of Naval Intelligence.
Rebuilding the U.S. Navy is a long-term project that has barely begun, despite lip service from both political parties for years. Ships, to say nothing of shipyards, are not built overnight. Lost time and lost opportunities cannot be recovered. But the U.S. can stop digging its navy into a deeper hole through Middle East-driven overwork of ships and sailors. Fixing the fleet requires snapping the CENTCOM noose as quickly as possible.