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An American aircraft carrier and its crew have been fighting Houthi attacks for months. How long can this last?

An American aircraft carrier and its crew have been fighting Houthi attacks for months.  How long can this last?
An American aircraft carrier and its crew have been fighting Houthi attacks for months.  How long can this last?


ABOARD THE USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER IN THE RED SEA (AP) The combat markings on the F/A-18 fighter jet tell the story: 15 missiles and six drones, painted just black below the cockpit windshield.

As the aircraft sits on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Red Sea, its markings illuminate the enemy targets it has destroyed in recent months and underscore the intensity of the fight to protect commercial ships from persistent missile and drone attacks. by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

But they also hint at fatigue setting in, as the carrier, its strike group and about 7,000 sailors approach their ninth month of the most intense naval battle since World War II. That raises tough questions about what happens next as U.S. military and defense leaders argue over how they will replicate the carrier's combat power if the ship returns home to Norfolk, Virginia.

The aircraft carrier's deployment has already been extended twice and sailors are posting dark memes around the ship about only getting a short break during their ever-increasing tour. Some fear they will be ordered to stay out even longer as the campaign drags on to protect global trade in the vital Red Sea corridor.

At the Pentagon, leaders are grappling with what has become a thorny but familiar debate. Do they give in to pressure from the Navy to bring the Eisenhower and the three other warships in its strike group home or do they heed the call from U.S. Central Command to keep them there longer? And if they bring them home, what can replace them?

U.S. officials say they are evaluating all options and a decision is expected in the coming weeks.

U.S. commanders in the Middle East have long argued they need an aircraft carrier in the volatile region. They say it is an effective deterrent to keep Iran in check and that the ship gives them critical and unique warfare capabilities against the Houthis, who say their attacks are aimed at ending the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The enormous ship is a flexible, floating flight line that can launch fighter jets at any time, without any of the limitations that host countries in the Middle East may impose on air force planes taking off from their bases on their soil. And these carrier-based aircraft can quickly close in on Houthi weapons systems without crossing borders.

What the carrier brings is a mobile, agile offensive platform with no access, basing or overflight restrictions, said retired Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command for three years, until 2022. Its sovereign American territory. You can do whatever you want with these planes on this carrier. So this gives you enormous flexibility when considering response options in the region.

Rear Adm. Marc Miguez, who commands Carrier Strike Group Two, which includes the Eisenhower and support ships, agrees that the aircraft carrier is crucial to the U.S. military.

Every time there is a crisis on the planet, what is the first thing the president asks? Where are the American aircraft carriers? Miguez told The Associated Press during a visit to the Eisenhower and the USS Laboon, one of the guided-missile destroyers that accompanied it.

Every day, Navy F/A-18s take off from the Eisenhower and take out Houthi missiles or drones preparing to launch. U.S. warships have fired volleys of Tomahawk missiles into Yemen to destroy weapons warehouses, communications facilities and other targets.

Pentagon leaders fear that without the Eisenhower, they will have to call on more Air Force fighter jets based in neighboring countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

But many Arab countries impose flight restrictions or other restrictions on the types of offensive strikes the United States can carry out from their territory because of regional sensitivities. Others fear sparking a new war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen or inflaming tensions with Iran.

U.S. military leaders say the United States can adapt and get its forces where they need to be. But that may require longer fighter jet flights from remote bases, requiring refueling capabilities and presenting other obstacles.

Further extending the Eisenhowers deployment is an option but for many it is the least desirable.

Navy leaders worry about the sailors, who were actually able to see the missiles launched by the Houthis seconds before they were destroyed by the ship's defensive strikes. And Pentagon officials are discussing how to care for sailors when they return home, including counseling and treatment for possible post-traumatic stress.

Miguez also notes the pressure placed on the ships themselves.

“We're constantly reminding the Department of Defense that they're going to need some respite and a break to try to get back to maintenance,” he said. These ships float in sea water. They are made of steel and require a lot of maintenance. And when you run them beyond the red lines, when you run them beyond the planned maintenance activities, you have to pay them back somewhere down the road.

A third option would be to send other ships, perhaps another carrier, to replace the Eisenhower. But massive ships are relatively rare. The United States operates 11, about 40% of the world's total. Other countries only have one or two.

The United States could turn to France or the United Kingdom, which each have one, for at least a temporary stay in the Red Sea. U.S. officials have insisted that protecting the sea lanes is a multinational effort and that an ally could reinforce that message. That could give the U.S. enough breathing space to send another U.S. carrier there, perhaps late this year.

Of the 11 U.S. aircraft carriers, four are deployed, three are in training and preparing to deploy, and four are under routine maintenance and repair, which typically lasts about a year or more.

The USS John C. Stennis is, however, undergoing a major mid-life overhaul, which may last approximately four years and requires replacing and upgrading the ship's nuclear propulsion system and other critical radar, communications components , electronics and combat. The lifespan of a carrier is approximately 50 years.

One carrier is always based in Japan and conducts regional patrols and exercises, while another is typically deployed to the Asia-Pacific region. This focus on Asia reflects the long-held belief that China is America's primary strategic challenge and that 60 percent of U.S. naval forces are based in the Pacific. The others are based in the Atlantic.

A third carrier is off the west coast of South America, heading to Japan, leaving the Eisenhower as the only one in the Middle East or Europe.

In the absence of aircraft carriers, another option would be to deploy the USS Wasp, a large amphibious assault ship currently in Europe that carries F-35 fighter jets. These aircraft perform short takeoffs and vertical landings, allowing them to carry out attack missions from smaller ships.


Baldor reported from Washington.




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