Several days ago we reported on the news that the USS Nimitz and Carrier Strike Group 11 (CSG-11) were ordered to return home to San Diego after finishing a seven-month deployment. Because of restrictions regarding COVID-19, to ensure crew readiness prior to deployment, the crew had been isolated from their families since April. The Nimitz CSG was operating off Somalia with the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group (ARG). According to the Navy, their mission was to support the repositioning of some 700 U.S. troops from Somalia to other countries in East Africa.
After that mission was accomplished, the Nimitz and her escorting vessels, the Guided Missile Cruiser USS Princeton (CG-59), the Guided Missile Destroyers USS Ralph Johnson (DDG-114), USS Sterett (DDG-104), USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53) and one or more nuclear attack submarines, were detached and slated to return to their various homeports in Hawaii and the West Coast.
That all changed when Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller issued a statement on January 3, 2021. The terse statement was comprised entirely of this.
“Due to the recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other U.S. government officials, I have ordered the USS Nimitz to halt its routine redeployment. The USS Nimitz will now remain on station in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. No one should doubt the resolve of the United States of America.”
Of course, this means Nimitz and Carrier Strike Group 11 will come about and return to a patrol area in the Gulf of Oman or the Persian Gulf. Pundits were quick to announce that this move amounted to nothing more than saber-rattling or was a vanity move by President Trump. A few took an even more shrill tone claiming (without any real basis in facts) that President Trump intended to start a war with Iran to hobble the incoming Biden Administration. Some even made more outlandish claims about the U.S. starting a war with Iran to get Saudi Arabia to pay off private debts owed by President Trump.
While we do not know the precise nature of the threat referenced by Secretary Miller in his above statement, we doubt very seriously that it involves saber-rattling or any bluff and bluster on President Trump’s part. You see, cranking a Carrier Strike Group around 180 degrees and sending it back to the Persian Gulf is not something you do on a mere whim. Not after it’s been at sea for seven months. This order by Miller has significant second, third, and fourth-order effects. Such decisions are not made lightly.
The carrier and its escorts have to be supplied with fuel, food, and other materials to remain on station. This will mean tankers and replenishment vessels will have lengthened deployments and have to make quick turnarounds themselves wherever they return to port, resupply, and get back out to the Nimitz. Such supplies will have to be flown from the U.S. to the base of supply of the sustainment vessels responsible for the carrier group.
Sustained carrier operations are pretty hard on the 60 plus aircraft aboard the Nimitz. When Nimitz’s Carrier Air Wing 17 returns to shore, its planes are subjected to a rigorous inspection and rework routine on engines and airframes. This can be done at sea but it is not easy. Furthermore, delays brought about by flight operations increase the risk of losing aircraft and crews lost to a mishap.
The cruisers and destroyers escorting the Nimitz are not nuclear-powered: they have to be refueled at sea. Their stores of food are less than the Nimitz’s and they have to be resupplied more often than the carrier. Additionally, most of the Navy’s modern destroyers and cruisers are running on aero-derivative jet turbine engines like the General Electric LM-2500 that have their own schedule for replacement and overhaul. Imagine a jet engine running continuously for seven months and you can understand why they need to be carefully maintained in port.
Aircraft carriers don’t run out of steam very easily. They keep to the sea very well being over 1,100 feet long and 90,000 tons. They are steel islands, essentially. Being nuclear-powered, they run for years on their plutonium fuel and even make their own distilled fresh water. The escorting ships are less robust. They are constantly darting ahead and falling back keeping station or changing formation. They are battered about by wind and wave since they weigh 10 or 20 times less than a carrier. They don’t have a lot of void space, in contrast to a carrier and its hangar. They are crammed with weapons, sensors, fuel bunkers, and berths. They are cramped ships and get run down pretty badly on long deployments requiring expensive periods of refit in port afterward.
Long deployments are also hard on crew retention. While at sea, some sailors ending their enlistments will actually have to be replaced, and those considering re-enlisting are not much inclined to do so on a carrier strike group continuously streaming for seven months only to be turned about and sent back when they are on their way home.
So, this is move is not undertaken lightly for reasons of ego or political games. Thus, it ought to be taken seriously by not only us but by Iran.
The Sailors and Marines of a carrier strike group at sea for seven months would be rightfully angry at a country that extended their deployment even longer by making threats. Pissing them off further by carrying out one of those threats is not a good idea.
It is useful here to consider what kind of threat Iran poses to U.S. interests in the region. Yesterday, Iran provided an example by seizing the South Korean tanker Hankuk Chemi as it transited the Straights of Hormuz. This narrow constricted waterway between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf is claimed by both Iran and Oman as falling within their territorial waters.
The Korean tanker had left Saudi Arabia with 7,200 tonnes of ethanol valued at about $277 million. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Navy boarded the ship with armed troops. Iran claimed that the ship was engaged in polluting gulf waters in the Straight and took the ship to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Almost immediately following the seizure, the Iranian government spokesman claimed that South Korea owed Iran seven billion dollars for oil shipments that were frozen and held in two South Korean banks. This is where U.S. interests are involved. South Korea had been buying oil from Iran under a waiver of U.S. sanctions that had expired in September 2019. The money that is owed is receipts due after that waiver expired. South Korea cannot transfer that money (in U.S. dollars) to Iran without running afoul of the U.S. and facing sanctions itself.
Iran has threatened legal action in the International Court of Justice unless the money is released. South Korea’s position is that the U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran tie its hands.
This move by Iran against South Korea is really about pressuring it to bust U.S. sanctions. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard is not controlled by the Iranian government but takes its orders from the Ayatollahs that actually run the country.
South Korea has responded by deploying its Cheonghae Unit aboard the 5,000-ton destroyer Choi Yong which arrived in the Straights of Hormuz overnight. This unit is made up of South Korean Special Forces. It is regarded as very tough and professional. The Cheonghae Unit conducted two dramatic rescues of South Korean nationals from Somali pirates in 2011 and 2012. In the 2011 rescue of a South Korean ship the unit killed eight Somali pirates and captured four without suffering any casualties or losing a hostage. In 2012 they boarded a Singapore-flagged vessel to free South Korean crewmembers. The South Korean government states the current mission of the unit and Choi Yong will be to advise South Korean vessels on safety in the region. This is polite diplomatic language aimed at reducing tensions but the South Korean forces are there to prevent Iran from seizing any more of their ships.
The given reason for the return of Nimitz and CSG-11 to the region by Secretary Miller was threats against the president of the United States and other government officials. But this aggression by Iran against South Korea shows that Iran has no intention of complying with international pressure to cease its nuclear activities and instead will use force in the attempt to leverage a U.S. ally into breaking U.S. sanctions.
Iran is pushing against the line in order to see what actions an outgoing President Trump might take and whether President-Elect Biden will support those actions or make statements suggesting his administration is inclined to end sanctions. Previously, Biden had stated that he would re-enter the Iran deal made by the Obama administration.
In the meantime, the Nimitz and her escorts are making 18 knots back to the region. And we wish them a successful mission and a safe return home.