Two to three years ago, the United States Department of Defense had enough military forces on station in, or readily deployable to, the Persian Gulf region (the “CENTCOM AOR” – area of responsibility – or Southwest Asia, as it is called in the military) to execute a limited strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities without asking Congress for special funding. The military could have performed such an operation “out of hide,” as quickly and seamlessly as the president wanted it to.
Four to five years ago, moreover, the U.S. had the regional political capital to use our bases in the local nations (e.g., Qatar and Bahrain) to launch and direct such a strike campaign.
Both of these conditions have now changed. I wrote about the political shift in December of 2010, after the Persian Gulf nations executed a flurry of bilateral defense agreements with Iran, and Bahrain, in particular, announced that the U.S. would not be able to use Bahraini territory for launching military operations against Iran. Even a subtle shift in these nations’ postures means that the U.S. will have less discretion in what we propose to do against Iran. U.S. military actions that are so limited as to leave Iran able to retaliate against her neighbors may not be acceptable to our hosts.
Mounting a limited strike campaign using only U.S. Navy assets and the Air Force’s global strike bombers (which don’t need the Persian Gulf bases) has remained a fall-back option. But as of 2013, with the funding issues inherent in the long-term budget stand-off, that option can no longer be performed out of hide. The Navy has already had to cancel a carrier strike group deployment that it couldn’t project being able to pay for, and we can no longer assume that the Air Force will have the ready aircraft and aircrew – not to mention the fuel – to perform a bomber campaign against Iran.
The central reason is that the military doesn’t know whether or when it will get more operating funds. There isn’t a federal budget, and the recurring fiscal showdowns between Obama and the House Republicans make all future military funding a big question mark. There is no end-point beyond which the military knows how much money it will have. This isn’t a question of pinching pennies for a while until the money kicks in on a date certain. The Department of Defense doesn’t know what its future operating picture will be, beyond the next couple of months.
In the worst case, the sequestration cuts kick in on a month-to-month basis, as the fiscal stand-off between Congress and the president drags on. In early February, in anticipation of having to “operate down” to this worst case, the Navy cancelled the scheduled deployment of the USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) strike group, which was to be the second of two carrier strike groups hitherto maintained on station in the CENTCOM AOR. Secretary Leon Panetta announced at the time that the U.S. would cut its CENTCOM-deployed carrier force to one.
A strike group brings not just the carrier and its air wing but an Aegis cruiser and/or Aegis destroyers, all with Tomahawk missile load-outs. In multiple ways, U.S. combat power has now been cut in half in the CENTCOM AOR due to the long-running fiscal stand-off. The level of carrier presence is insufficient today to execute a limited-strike campaign against Iran while containing the potential backlash.
Note that the Truman deployment, even if it had gone on as scheduled, would have left a gap of more than two months in the two-carrier presence in CENTCOM. There has been one carrier strike group in CENTCOM, that of USS John C Stennis (CVN-74), since USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69) left the AOR in late November (returning to Norfolk, VA in December). A gap isn’t unprecedented, in the years since the two-carrier presence was factored into carrier scheduling (although gaps are typically much shorter). But now an actual degradation in our force posture has been announced.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is scrambling to scope out the impact of the sequestration cuts on its operations. Big Blue foresees having to cut flying hours for the rest of the year by a third and cancel some scheduled squadron deployments overseas, both of which measures will, within months, affect force posture and readiness in CENTCOM. So will the impending decision to further defer depot-level maintenance on overdue aircraft. Some squadrons in the U.S. would run out of flying-hour funds by mid-May 2013, with no prospect of a new infusion of funds. If additional squadrons were to be forward deployed to CENTCOM for a strike on Iran – and the fuel for such a massive operation set aside – much of the Air Force would have to stop flying altogether until more funds were provided.