Several months ago, I asked a retired admiral what sign the United States could give that its patience had truly worn thin with Iran. “Remove the carriers from the Persian Gulf,” he responded. At first, that struck me as dumb: The Iranians would depict the American withdrawal as another sign that the United States was weak and in retreat. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “Any Revolutionary Guardsmen worth his weight would understand.”
The Persian Gulf is shallow and the international shipping lanes relatively narrow. The Iranian navy has long drilled swarming American vessels with small boats. Even if Iran can’t sink an aircraft carrier, if it manages even to disable one, it will receive a huge propaganda boost. If the Pentagon kept its carriers outside the Persian Gulf in the deeper and open waters of the Sea of Oman, however, they would retain the same strike capabilities but could maintain greater maneuverability and remain outside the reach of the Iranian navy.
At present, the United States keeps two carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf; that’s a tremendous allocation of resources. It wasn’t always like this. Carriers seldom if ever entered the Persian Gulf prior to Iran’s 1979 revolution and, throughout the 1980s and as the Iran-Iraq war waged, we had a single carrier in the Persian Gulf only about half the time. This changed as a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and that small emirate’s subsequent liberation. After that war ended, the average carrier presence again fell below one, although Bill Clinton raised it to between one and two carriers throughout much of his term. Ironically, Pentagon statistics show that carrier presence in the Persian Gulf declined during the George W. Bush administration—but never fell below one—and only increased back to two, on average, under President Obama.
The United States has limited numbers of naval assets, and it is nonsensical to make our most valuable assets also our most vulnerable. Sending in the destroyers and the cruisers, and flying sorties over the Persian Gulf, will reassure our allies. Behind Iranian bluster will be real—and deserved fear—the Americans can strike them anytime, anywhere and, to borrow and adapt a slogan from the Revolutionary Guards, “the Iranians won’t be able to do a damned thing.”