It was interesting to track the movements of large warships in response to the evolving situation in Gaza and beyond. Most people have focused on the comings and goings of the U.S. Navy in or toward the Eastern Mediterranean. Even the USN itself appears to have lost sight of other potential trouble spots, as something has happened that would never normally happen: the strongest naval force in the Gulf is Chinese.

Just a fortnight ago, US Navy movements were passed off as “business as normal”. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford was in the Mediterranean anyway. The deployment of the Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike) carrier group was planned anyway and was just brought forward.

That changed about ten days ago. Ford’s stay in the Mediterranean was extended and it was declared that Ike would join Ford. Two super carriers in the same place – that’s big medicine. Among other things, I have written articles in which this was mentioned. We armchair admirals also noted that the USS Bataan and USS Carter Hall, amphibious ships with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), were sent from the Gulf to the Red Sea, and the command and control ship Mount Whitney, complete with a 3* admiral and his staff were withdrawn from NATO duties and sent to take over leadership in the Eastern Mediterranean. This could no longer be passed off as a “planning adjustment”.

Then, just when everyone thought they knew what was going on, someone in Yemen – I’m going to go with the Houthis – fired four cruise missiles and nineteen drones up the Red Sea toward Israel. The destroyer USS Carney, which had passed south through Suez just the day before, then had a “good day of action” when it shot them all down with a combination of its own missiles and gun. This is an outstanding achievement.

Just a few hours later another announcement and now Ike isn’t joining Ford but is going via Suez. At some point, Ike’s group will encounter the 26 MEU ships heading the other direction, and they will need escort. Carney’s work is not yet done.

The only way to figure out what’s going on is to take away the straw you’re looking through at Gaza and zoom way out.

One thing stands out immediately. The U.S. Navy is not, at least for now, the preeminent naval force in the Gulf. This distinction now belongs to the 44th and 45th Marine Escort Groups of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The two groups, one of which has just arrived to relieve the other, have a total of six ships. Two are Type 052D destroyers equipped with YJ-21 hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missiles.

There have been some breathless reports that this was a takeover effort by China. But as with the US moves above, it’s worth taking a look at what is pre-planned and what is reactive. The handover between the two groups had long been planned as part of their established operating pattern in the region. Granted, this handover has since been extended (as was the case with the USS Ford), but the total number of ships is not a direct response to the events in Gaza.

However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important: for several reasons.

First, any malicious actor that benefits from disruption is, or is in the process of, exploiting the current situation to maximize it. These include the Houthis in the Red Sea last week, Hezbollah in northern Israel, Russia (everywhere) or the Chinese coast guard in the South China Sea. The water in Chaosville is warm and everyone jumps in.

If you withdraw assets from the Gulf, as the U.S. has done, who will be left to carry out the more routine tasks that Western navies have done there for so many years? In mid-August, the Marines of the 26th MEU were tasked with preventing Iran from disrupting commercial shipping in the Gulf, a problem that has been growing for some time. This task has not disappeared – who will take care of it now? This part is not clear.

US aircraft carrier Dwight D Eisenhower at sea. The aircraft carrier is heading to the Middle East as part of the US response to the Gaza war – Ryan D. McLearnon/AFP

There are plenty of US-allied coalition ships in the wider Middle East. France, Spain and Japan have warships in the region. There is also the Royal Navy’s HMS Lancaster and some US ships. And Ike comes. But in the Gulf itself, there is currently a naval power vacuum that is currently being filled by China.

This leads to the second problem, namely the ongoing risk of misjudgment. In the past, when ships and speedboats of the Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGCN – the maritime wing of Iran’s fanatical Revolutionary Guards) swamp your ship or generally behave like maritime hooligans around you, carry out your countermeasures and do whatever You can avoid this escalation and then move on. They do this knowing that if an escalation actually occurs, whether by accident or design, Uncle Sam will momentarily loom on the horizon.

If this happens now, there is a greater likelihood that a Chinese warship armed at hypersonic speeds will offer “help.” If the IRGCN wants to escalate its bad behavior in the Strait of Hormuz, which generally doesn’t require much encouragement, now would be the perfect time.

Third, we know that there is currently an arm wrestling match going on between “the West” and China for the respect of key players in the region, and you just know that recent PLAN port visits were used to discuss future base options. The US Central Command, the US 5th Fleet and the UK Naval Support Facility remain in Bahrain, so it is definitely not a task. I would imagine there are high-level talks currently taking place between CentCom and the Saudis, perhaps even discussing options against the Houthis as Ike passes.

When I played a lot of war games as a staff officer, we discovered that if a war were to begin with Iran, the Bab el Mandeb Strait at the bottom of the Red Sea and/or the eastern Mediterranean would be likely locations for the Iranians to start. This is partly because it exposes the problems inherent in the convergence of three U.S. combatant commands, but more importantly because it diverts resources from the root of the problem – Iran. And now there are attacks in both places, in both cases carried out by Iranian-backed organizations. Suddenly there aren’t many assets left near the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran threatens all traffic in and out of the Gulf. It all looks a bit like the start of some of those war games between Iran and the West.

Major naval operations impact oceans and continents far beyond the coasts they sail off. Experts on land power and supporters of land wars sometimes forget this. You have to zoom way out and look at all the moving parts to get even a first idea of ​​what impact things like carrier strike groups might have, and even then you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re wrong or something changes.

Winston Churchill understood this when he said: “A battleship exerts a vague general fear and threatens all points at once. It appears and disappears, causing immediate reactions and disturbances on the other side.” In the corridors of Washington DC and Whitehall There will be many conversations along these lines – and it is to be hoped that planners will remember that Churchill used this phrase to force the deployment of Force Z with its battleships without air support against the advice of the Admiralty. More than eight hundred British sailors paid the price.

The ship movements of the US Navy and its allies are sure to trigger “reaction and unrest,” but will they work strategically? Only time can tell. But we have definitely learned that despite what is happening in Gaza, Ukraine, the Red Sea, the Baltic Sea, the South China Sea and elsewhere, we should never take our eyes off Iran and the Persian Gulf.

Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer and frigate captain

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