The United States has a range of options for dealing with Yemen's Houthis, but none are good. But a long campaign of naval strikes and interceptions against these ships, like the one launched today by the Biden administration and outside experts, is surely the worst response of all. In effect, this means that the U.S. Navy continues to dig into the sands of the Middle East to achieve an unachievable goal, while losing ground in the far more important Pacific.
Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping brought in Tomahawk cruise missiles and Top Gun pilots from the deck of the USS Eisenhower. The new Operation Poseidon Archer is only two weeks old and the Biden administration is already developing plans for a longer effort, even as it admits that defeating the Houthis is not viable. There is a risk of escalation in the Middle East, notably with the death of three American 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, spending on valuable precision munitions, and the continued pivot to the Pacific.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is the jewel of American military power. Its 5,000 sailors and 90 jet attack aircraft can guarantee a sustained strike of adversaries from ship to shore and the supposed deterrence this actually provides in modern gunboat diplomacy. In any geopolitical crisis, it is said that the US president will demand to know where the carriers are. Over the past two decades, during the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), the answer has generally 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 aircraft carrier at all times. As recently as 2020, the Middle East attracted almost as many carriers as the entire Pacific.
Read more: The US has no endgame in Yemen
Due to this relentless demand, carriers often see their deployments extended or are double-bloated, conducting back-to-back deployments without a major maintenance period in between. The last three aircraft carriers deployed to the Mediterranean have all been extended: the USS Gerald R. Ford was at sea for 239 days, the USS Harry S. Truman for 285 days, and the USS George HW Bush for 257 days. This work overload has consequences. After the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower completed two sets of double pumps, its 14-month maintenance period increased to 23 months due to wear and tear.
The usefulness and survivability of aircraft carriers in a major war is also in question. In 1982, legendary Admiral Hyman Rickover stunned Congress by declaring that in a war against the Soviet Union, American aircraft carriers would survive for 48 hours. In the four decades since, carrier vulnerability has increased significantly. Anti-ship missiles have become much more precise and long-range since Rickover's testimony, as the unrefueled range of an aircraft carrier's air wing has fallen from more than 1,000 nautical miles to just 600 now. This leaves carrier commanders with two unpleasant options: stay out of enemy range but become operationally irrelevant or sail close enough but endanger a $13 billion ship and its 5,000 sailors. The narrow waters of the Persian Gulf and choke points like the Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el Mandeb in Yemen only amplify this dilemma.
Yet the overburdened aircraft carrier fleet and questions about its usefulness in a major war are only part of the larger problem of U.S. naval overexploitation. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. Navy has become addicted to a global presence as proof of its value to the nation.
Over the past two decades, the Army and Marine Corps can boast of their efforts, successful and unsuccessful, on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. To maintain its status and its budget, the Navy also had to make its contribution, at sea and on land. With the all-volunteer military at breaking point, the Pentagon began looking to the Navy to step in. Some 120,000 sailors would serve on land during the GWOT. Many of these sailors, especially the reservists who play a vital role in any major war, became sailors in name only, their naval skills and mindset atrophying due to prolonged service ashore.
All of this significantly strained the U.S. naval workforce, forcing ships to deploy with insufficient numbers and for longer durations. The Navy's over-exertions may also have contributed to two tragic accidents. In 2017, two 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 had been sacrificed in favor of naval presence. One of the Navy's longest-serving retired enlisted sailors, Fleet Petty Officer Paul Kingsbury, explicitly blamed the Navy's GWOT augmentation program for the degraded safety culture that led to the McCain disasters and Fitzgerald.
Read more: Why the American public is more war-weary than ever
The future looks bleak 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 on extended deployments. In an all-volunteer force, sailors will vote with their feet. A shrinking fleet is the likely result, no matter how many warships America has.
The most immediate danger of overuse, however, lies in munitions, not manpower. The opening strike on January 12 against the Houthis required 80 Tomahawk land-attack missiles, more than half of the annual missile production. In the short term, the use of hundreds of these missiles in a tertiary operation like Prosperity Guardian could have major impacts in a much larger Pacific theater. Precision strike missiles like the Tomahawk are critical to the U.S. military's ability to deter and, if necessary, defeat a Chinese attack as part of the Pacifica Contingency, where the Navy will do the bulk of the fighting, unlike America's wars in the Middle East. The United States may already lack sufficient precision munitions to fight a war with China. The Navy's latest operation in the Middle East adds additional risks to the service's most essential mission.
On September 10, 2001, the United States was the undisputed global superpower, with naval pre-eminence as the foundation of American military dominance. The U.S. Navy outnumbered the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) by more than 100 warships. China had no aircraft carriers and only 21 diesel submarines.
Twenty years later, American sailors are looking at a different world. PLAN is now the largest navy in the world (although the US Navy still has greater tonnage). China's third aircraft carrier, Fujian, is nearing sea trials. Since the United States invaded Afghanistan, PLAN has commissioned 313 ships. Recent war games suggest that the U.S. Navy would have difficulty defeating a Chinese fleet, which was an afterthought just two decades ago.
The future trajectory is even worse: Chinese shipbuilding capacity now exceeds that of the United States 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 only just begun, despite words from both political parties for years. Ships, let alone shipyards, are not built overnight. Wasted time and lost opportunities cannot be regained. But the United States can stop digging its Navy into a deeper hole due to the overwork of ships and sailors caused by the Middle East. Repairing the fleet requires breaking CENTCOM's stranglehold as quickly as possible.
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