The Department of Defense (DoD) has allocated aircraft carriers to U.S. Central Command (CentCom) for Iranian deterrence at the expense of strategic competition with China and Russia repeatedly over the past decade. DoD is locked in a cycle that regularly deprives Indo-Pacific Command (IndoPaCom) and European Command of the carriers necessary for strategic competition. Incoherent strategic messaging has resulted from priority misalignment between DoD and CentCom, changing political approaches, and overreliance on carriers for demonstrations of resolve.1
Though 2022 has seen a reduction in carriers assigned to CentCom, history suggests that unplanned political tension with Iran will draw carriers back to its constrained waters. DoD must break this cycle and rely on the potency of other assets allocated to CentCom. Iran can and must be deterred from aggression—but without continually holding an aircraft carrier in a stationary and strategically disadvantageous position.
Out-of-Sync CentCom Priorities
Deterring Iran understandably remains CentCom’s top priority, not strategic competition with China. Recent CentCom commanders have consistently maintained intense messaging and a credible military threat against Iran and its proxies despite fluctuating policies from successive presidential administrations. Since his February 2022 nomination for CentCom command, General Michael Kurilla has asserted that Iran remains the most destabilizing actor in the Middle East and that it requires significant deterrent attention from the United States. Likewise, the March 2022 posture statement of General Kurilla’s predecessor, General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., acknowledged China as a strategic competitor in CentCom but explained that Iran remains “the greatest single day-to-day threat to regional security and stability.”2 The 2022 posture statement listed competition with China and Russia as CentCom’s third strategic priority.
CentCom’s focus on Iran is rarely consistent with national strategic guidance, despite the attention that country receives. Iran was the fourth threat cited in the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), after China, Russia, and North Korea.3 Nevertheless, Iran received heavy focus during the Trump years, culminating in the January 2020 killing of General Qasem Soleimani.4 The dissonance between Iran’s low priority in the Trump-era NDS and the intensity of the “maximum pressure” campaign showcased how short-term objectives in CentCom can supersede long-term focus on strategic competition.5
The Biden administration has further minimized Iran as a military priority. In March 2021, the President signed the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which pivoted away from the intensity of “maximum pressure” and returned to President Barack Obama’s more diplomatic approach. That document mentioned Iran only four times and emphasized that leaders “do not believe that military force is the answer to the region’s challenges.”6 President Joe Biden justified the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 by citing the importance of more pressing future challenges. He specifically mentioned competition with China, proliferating terrorist threats, and the need to strengthen alliances. Iran was not mentioned. The March 2022 NDS Fact Sheet mentioned Iran only as a threat to be “managed” while striving toward “integrated deterrence” of strategic competitors.7 CentCom’s top priority is a localized challenge in the present, but integrated deterrence requires global future readiness. When tensions again flare with Iran, CentCom will have to make do with less.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations included nonmilitary instruments in their approaches to Iran.8 They employed economic sanctions and denunciations of the regime that varied in intensity. Even “maximum pressure” primarily used these tools. Signals from the Biden administration suggest the same focus. Emphasis on nonmilitary means, drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and theater reorientation from combat to deterrence and training ostensibly should allow long-term redistribution of high-value military assets for strategic competition.
But the tonal shifts among administrations have led to inconsistent application of the nonmilitary instruments, hampering that strategic opportunity. The United States has become reliant on reactive escalations of military presence to respond to Iranian provocations. As the Wall Street Journal summarized in December 2020: “Troubling signs suggest Iran is stepping up its aggression. U.S. Central Command has sounded a familiar refrain: More forces, please. Defense Department leaders have approved.”9 Reliance on heavy military signaling prompts CentCom to request the constant presence of high-value assets assigned to IndoPaCom or European Command.10
The Message Carrier
Overreliance on military presence in CentCom expends readiness when the United States should be rebuilding it. This applies to many joint assets, including Air Force fighter and bomber squadrons and Army Patriot batteries. But thanks to its high value as a symbol of U.S. commitment and proven combat capability—and low readiness levels—the aircraft carrier is a particularly pertinent example.
At least one carrier strike group (CSG) was continuously assigned to CentCom during the war on terrorism, with another one or two available for operations elsewhere. This aggressive pace severely damaged fleet health, making two—and occasionally only one—deployable at most times.11 Intermittently since 2015, CentCom has not been assigned a carrier to ensure availability for IndoPaCom. Nevertheless, on multiple occasions, carriers have been reassigned or extended to satisfy CentCom requests.
CentCom’s endless appetite for CSGs derives from dependence on them as what General McKenzie called “a critical part of a deterrent posture effective against Iran.”12 The USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Nimitz (CVN-68), and Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) all extended their deployments to CentCom in recent years. The urgency of CentCom’s requests paradoxically contrasted with the routine missions the carriers conducted during the extension. The ships were used for normal, low-intensity missions including partner exercises, standard patrols, and overwatch in Iraq or Afghanistan.13
The cycle continues under the Biden administration. The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), which is permanently based in Japan for use in IndoPaCom, supported the 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal. This was the first time a Japan-based CSG operated in CentCom since 2003.
As Megan Eckstein explains, constant extension drives ships into maintenance earlier, keeps them there longer, and deprives the Navy of the opportunity to “prioritize building up readiness and lethality for a future fight.” Instead, the fleet is exhausting itself on “routine low-end operations today.”14 CentCom’s other firepower makes such exhaustion especially wasteful.
The Air Force
Aircraft carriers provide only a small contribution to CentCom’s operations and are not integral to the regional balance of power.15 Thousands of service members deployed to CentCom are well equipped to deter Iran, manage the continuing terrorist threat, and train with regional partners. These include a formidable contingent of Air Force strike aircraft, which have executed CentCom’s most high-profile combat actions in recent years.
These are the true striking arm of CentCom. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2020 the Air Force had squadrons of F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons, and F-35A Lightning IIs deployed to CentCom, as well as numerous squadrons of MQ-9 Reapers. F-15s and F-16s conducted 2021 reprisal strikes against Iranian proxies in Syria.16 An MQ-9 killed Soleimani.17 Air Force presence in CentCom has decreased over the past year, but multiple squadrons of F-16s and MQ-9s remain.
Carrier strike groups are a symbol of resolve, yet they have rarely executed strikes consequential to U.S. messaging in recent years. According to Air Forces Central Command, strike aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan flew 22,467 manned sorties in 2019, of which 3,410 involved at least one weapon release.18 Of these, the Abraham Lincoln provided 392 “combat sorties.”19 More than 12,000 weapons were released in theater in 2019. Though the ship’s aircraft may have employed some of these weapons, the Navy neither attributes any to the ship nor mentions any in messaging about her effectiveness. The Abraham Lincoln’s contribution of such a small percentage of the sorties highlights Air Force primacy in the theater. Nevertheless, in March 2020, General McKenzie described Air Force power as “complementary to Naval air power.”20
Putting a CSG in CentCom’s constricted waters yields a massive concentration of military power antithetical to the Interim Guidance, NDS, and the global distribution necessary for strategic competition. In IndoPaCom, on the other hand, a carrier provides a unique capability by allowing strike aircraft presence in strategically important blue-water locations where no Air Force alternative is available. Nevertheless, leaders continually rely on carrier strike groups as the premier signal of U.S. resolve against Iran.21
Media Impact on Force Allocation
Little publicly available evidence indicates that CSG presence affects Iranian behavior. Maritime strategy expert Dr. James Holmes explains, “It’s doubtful how much deterrence a carrier expeditionary group exerts vis-à-vis Tehran, which makes sponsorship of militant groups such as Hezbollah and the Houthis as the long arm of its foreign policy.”22 DoD reliance on carriers for messaging has fed media overestimation of their necessity. That media perception then pressures senior leaders to use the ships as messaging signals in a self-fulfilling feedback loop.23
The Nimitz’s 2020–21 deployment illustrates how DoD can yield to domestic misperception at the expense of fleet health. Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announced on 31 December 2020 that the Nimitz would return home after ten months at sea and several extensions to facilitate troop withdrawals from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. The release was meant to signal deescalation with Iran and did not mention the regime despite the impending anniversary of Soleimani’s death.24
Miller’s decision was met with skepticism in the media. An Associated Press report decried the Nimitz’s exit as “a move that will reduce American firepower in the region amid heightened tensions with Iran.”25 This sentiment was echoed in other publications, despite displays of strength prior to the ship’s withdrawal. In a dramatic reversal, on 3 January 2021, Miller ordered the Nimitz to return to the northern Arabian Sea, stating: “No one should doubt the resolve of the United States of America.”26
The Nimitz episode demonstrates the perception that deterring Iran requires an aircraft carrier. Contemporaneous reports from the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal briefly highlighted shows of presence by B-52s and submarines, but to a far lesser extent than the attention paid to Nimitz. None mentioned or indicated awareness of CentCom’s Air Force strike aircraft.27 Despite the enduring presence of a formidable deterrent force, the removal of the carrier generated unfavorable media perception that forced the hands of DoD leaders.
Winning the Narrative
CentCom must resist requests for constant carrier presence when Iran inevitably resumes saber rattling. Carrier presence is not the answer to curtailing Iranian aggression. U.S. efforts to foster Israeli-Arab détente through the Abraham Accords are an encouraging step toward regional military balance, which can sustainably contain Iran. CentCom’s significant efforts at forging military partnerships and functioning as an “economy of force” theater signal increasing alignment with the Biden administration’s focus on diplomacy for the Middle East. The United States can protect its interests in the Middle East, including freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz and periodic decapitation of violent extremist organizations, with the smaller, more sustainable force presence CentCom is moving toward. It must use that smaller presence without calling for an aircraft carrier to signal resolve.
Holding a carrier in a stationary location to contain Iran impedes U.S. national strategy. CentCom commanders’ insistence that there is no alternative to a carrier exacerbates readiness problems, undermines the power of U.S. forces in the region, and presents messaging to lawmakers and the media misaligned with national security imperatives.
If CentCom again requests CSG presence for escalatory messaging, civilian leaders must deny the request and endure the negative media perception they may incur in the short term. DoD messages must be strategically cohesive and emphasize military power other than carrier strike groups. Messaging must overcome media incredulity and Iranian provocations any time the United States declines to send a high-profile asset to the theater. Debunking the notion that Iran is worth the attention of a carrier may degrade Iran’s messaging power. The controversial release by Acting Secretary Miller should have reassured the U.S. public of the many tools available to deter Iran and disputed the idea that a carrier is required to defeat it. The United States does not need an aircraft carrier to remain powerful in CentCom.28
The carrier’s territorial sovereignty is far less necessary in CentCom than is often portrayed. General McKenzie periodically cited the carrier’s ability to launch strikes without host nation take-off permissions as one of its deterrent advantages.29 This justification is incompatible with integrated deterrence; the United States is unlikely to strike Iran without Arab host-nation support. Furthermore, Navy surface combatants, nuclear-powered submarines, and expeditionary strike groups provide powerful sea-to-shore striking power and are capable deterrent alternatives for CentCom.
It might be argued that carrier presence is required to achieve “over-the-horizon” strike capabilities in Afghanistan. This belief is an example of the problematic relationship between DoD and the media. A 2021 Politico article predicted continued demand for carriers in CentCom:
The lack of U.S.-controlled airfields near Afghanistan could mean more planes taking off from decks at sea. . . . Air Force pilots flying from the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar or Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates have for years hit targets in Afghanistan, but they first have to wind their way through the Gulf around Iran, and back up through Pakistan, refueling at least once and often spending hours in the air before circling over a target.30
The Politico story exemplifies how media perception impedes focus on strategic competition. Such commentary misrepresents the military’s capabilities: Navy aircraft departing a carrier in the northern Arabian Sea also rely on Air Force tankers, foreign routing permissions, and long flight times.31 A carrier provides no meaningful advantage over a land base for strikes in CentCom.
It is equally difficult to argue that a carrier is necessary for CentCom’s maritime security. Distributed surface combatants provide ballistic-missile defense and security independent of CSGs in the Gulf. During Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) remained outside the Strait of Hormuz, and her aircraft required assistance from an Air Force KC-10 to reach their targets. Surface combatants in the Gulf were integral to the operation.32 The similar range capabilities of land- and ship-based aircraft allow the Air Force to provide the air component of a combined attack if required on short notice. This is strategically preferable to holding a carrier essentially stationary at the expense of IndoPaCom.
The United States has already begun adjusting its force posture for strategic competition, yet it continues to squander carrier strike groups in CentCom because and in support of ineffective messaging. It is time for leaders to break the cycle and acknowledge that carrier presence is not required in CentCom, even during times of rhetorical escalation. If such a large apportionment of assets is needed to deter a country relatively low on the nation’s priority list, the United States cannot possibly field the capabilities necessary to prevent war with China. In this case, strategic competition is already decided—and not in the United States’ favor.
1. Alderson Court Reporting, Stenographic Transcript Before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate: Hearing to Consider the Nomination of Lieutenant General Michael E. Kurilla, USA to be General and Commander, United States Central Command (Alderson Court Reporting: Washington DC, 2022), 19, 30.
2. GEN Kenneth McKenzie Jr., USA, “Posture Statement of General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr, Commander, United States Central Command Before the Senate Armed Services Committee” (Washington, DC, 15 March 2022), U.S. Central Command.
3. James Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: The Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2018), 1–4.
4. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa,” Military Balance 121, no. 1 (24 February 2021): 317.
5. Robert Gates, Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020), 114–15.
6. President Joseph Biden Jr., Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (Washington, DC: The White House, 2021), 11.
7. Department of Defense, Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy (Washington DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2022), 1.
8. Gates, Exercise of Power, 115–16.
9. Kathryn Wheelbarger and Dustin Walker, “Iran Isn’t Afraid of B-52s and Aircraft Carriers,” Wall Street Journal, 21 December 2020.
10. HON Elaine Luria, “Centcom Commander Confirms There Is No Replacement for a Carrier to Deter Iranian Aggression,” press release, 11 March 2020; and Paul McLeary, “The U.S. Ground War in Afghanistan Is Over. Now It’s the Navy’s Turn,” Politico, 3 September 2021.
11. Eckstein, “No Margin Left”; Robert O. Work, “A Slavish Devotion to Forward Presence Has Nearly Broken the U.S. Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 147, no. 12 (December 2021).
12. Luria, “Centcom Commander Confirms.”
13. Robert Burns, “U.S. to Move Aircraft Carrier Out of Mideast Amid Iran Tension,” AP News, 31 December 2020.
14. Eckstein, “No Margin Left.”
15. Luria, “Centcom Commander Confirms”; and “Combined Forces Air Component Commander 2013–2019 Airpower Statistics,” USAF CentCom Combined Air Operations Center, 31 January 2020.
16. Phil Stewart, “U.S. Warplanes Strike Iran-Backed Militia in Iraq, Syria,” Reuters, 28 June 2021.
17. IISS, “Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa,” 317.
18. “Combined Forces Air Component Commander Statistics,” USAF CentCom Combined Air Operations Center.
19. U.S. Navy Press Office, “Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group Arrives in San Diego After Around-the-World Deployment,” press release, 20 January 2020.
20. Luria, “Centcom Commander Confirms.”
21. Roger Handberg, “Aircraft Carrier or Ballistic Missile Defense: Signaling Commitment in Situations of Uncertainty,” Comparative Strategy 35, no. 5 (7 December 2016): 355–62.
22. James Holmes, “Don’t Send This Aircraft Carrier to the Persian Gulf,” The National Interest, 25 September 2020.
23. Handberg, “Aircraft Carrier or Ballistic Missile Defense,” 355–62.
24. Christopher Miller, “USS Nimitz Returns to Home Port,” press release, 31 December 2020.
25. Burns, “U.S. to Move Aircraft Carrier Out.”
26. Christopher Miller, “Statement by Acting Secretary Miller on Iranian Threats and the USS Nimitz,” 3 January 2021.
27. Missy Ryan, Erin Cunningham, Kareem Fahim, and Louisa Loveluck, “After Anniversary of Soleimani’s Killing, U.S.-Iran Tensions Run High,” The Washington Post, 4 January 2021; Eric Schmitt, “In Reversal, Pentagon Announces Aircraft Carrier Nimitz Will Remain in Middle East,” The New York Times, 3 January 2021; and Nancy Youssef and Gordon Lubold, “USS Nimitz to Stay in Middle East to Counter Iran Threat on Anniversary,” The Wall Street Journal, 3 January 2021.
28. Miller, “USS Nimitz Returns to Home Port.”
29. Luria, “Centcom Commander Confirms.”
30. McLeary, “The U.S. Ground War in Afghanistan Is Over.”
31. C. J. Chivers, “A Changed Way of War in Afghanistan’s Skies,” The New York Times, 15 January 2012.
32. Bud Langston and Don Bringle, “The Air View: Operation Praying Mantis,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 115, no. 5 (May 1989): 54–65.