What are US carriers doing in the eastern mediterranean?
DI ANDREA CRECCHI
What do aircraft carriers actually do? a look into the practice of naval diplomacy and what the american carriers in the eastern mediterranean mean.
On the tenth of October the US Carrier Gerald Ford and her strike group arrived in the eastern mediterranean, following the surprise attack on Israel by Hamas on the seventh. Immediately after, two other carriers, Eisenhower, and Bataan, moved towards the area from the US and the Persian Gulf respectively. The move, as per the wordsof an US official, was intended to show support for Israel and for deterrence, “should any actor hostile to Israel consider trying to take advantage of this situation”. With this threat not having materialized, and an Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip well underway, the Eisenhower left the mediterranean sea, while the Ford stayed behind.
The main actor at the receiving end of US deterrence, Iranian backed Hezbollah, reacted to the presence of the carriers in front of Lebanon, with its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, statingthat they “have prepared well for the fleets, with which (the US) are threatening us”, and reminding of the real possibility of a fully fledged attack towards Israel to support Hamas, which ended up not happening. It is possible to assume that the two giant warships parked in front of the Lebanese coast played some role in the decision-making process of Hezbollah.
The practice of using ships to influence potential adversaries is well documented in history and is mentioned even in the Peloponnesian War. This article aims to explain the practice of naval diplomacy and apply its principles in understanding the role that US carriers play in the world and especially in the current Israel-Hamas war.
Navies are a versatile instrument in foreign policy, as they are less associated with hard power and more mobile than armies. As American naval historian Alfred T. Mahan put it, the influence of a navy “can be felt where national armies can’t reach.” This can be understood in both a physical sense and a political one. Sea covers much of the globe and nations that have the means of investing in their naval assets can project power onto every coast in the world with relative speed. At the same time, they offer a variety of options to policymakers that armies don’t. They can be used to threaten or protect maritime routes and coastal infrastructure, signal resolve to stand by an ally or attack an enemy and even for disaster relief.
These characteristics expanded in scope during the age of exploration and industrialization, and in the 19thcentury it was common for European powers to send one or more of their ships to force other states around the world to accept their demands. This practice was named gunboat diplomacy and was used extensively by the naval powers of the time: The British Empire, France, the Netherlands, and the USA all made use of this form of intimidation. It is exemplified by the economical opening of Japan, when American Commodore Matthew Perry visited the country with modern warships, forcing the country to end its international isolation. It is a concept tied with the idea of hegemony in international relations: the significant costs of operating a global navy can only be sustained by a few countries.
After the two world wars the concept widened, and soft power elements, like the fleet as ambassador of the bloc in other countries, were more present in both the American and Soviet strategic thinking, even if the focus remained on the more aggressive elements of sea power. With the end of the cold war the soft power element in naval diplomacy became central, and the term “Gunboat Diplomacy” was abandoned in favour of a more neutral terminology to express the non-war applications of navies. The end of the bipolar period also meant that the US remained unchallenged on sea. The main set piece of the US navy, since WW2, is the aircraft carrier.
How does a carrier strike group function?
The carrier currently in the eastern mediterranean, the Gerald R. Ford, had a cost of 13,3 billions of dollars and the construction lasted for 10 years, from 2007 to 2017. It weights 100.000 tons and is 337 meter long. It can host more than 75 planes, which is more than the current Airforce of Lebanon. The US navy plans to eventually substitute all 11 of its carriers with ships of the Ford’s class, a number that the country must maintain by law.
The primary use of the carriers is obviously military: they are part of a fleet of ships, the strike group, which protects the carrier from naval threats, while the carrier’s air coverage protects the ships and offers reconnaissance. At the same time the planes can fly sorties to attack targets far way from the fleet. This, together with the difficulty of sinking a carrier without air supremacy is what makes them an extremely effective weapon. Apart from WW2, they demonstrated their effectiveness in war during the Korea and Vietnam war, were they supported the American war effort far from the US.
The huge cost of building and maintaining such ships can be sustained by only a handful of countries, and even fewer need the capabilities that the carrier brings to the table: long range air cover far from the coasts of the country in question. Most countries that operate a carrier have one or two, far from the number the US has. What makes them so useful, and only to the US, are also their peacetime applications.
100.000 tons of diplomacy
When an international crisis happens, one of the first things a US president asks is “where is the nearest aircraft carrier?” As a global power, the US has interests in every part of the planet and aircraft carriers are the assets that can protect these interests at such a distance. During the third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995 one US aircraft carrier sailed through the strait and another one was sent near Taiwan, deterring China from military action. Countless such examples can be found throughout the cold war and after.
In a similar fashion to the Strait Crisis, the carrier strike groups that have been sent near Israel are meant to present a threat to enemies of the US ally. If Hezbollah considers starting an attack on the Israeli northern border, which is considered a strategic threat by the Israeli defence forces, it will have to do so with the added pressure of aircraft carriers near Lebanese coast.