Earlier this week, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced the rapid deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln and its Carrier Strike Group, as well as B-52s from the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron. Today, the bombers are on station at Al Uded air base in Qatar, and the Abraham Lincoln has passed the Suez Canal, bringing it within range.
The Navy has posted new time-lapse video of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln going through the Suez Canal yesterday pic.twitter.com/U3pUW5Z3vy
— Dave Brown (@dave_brown24) May 10, 2019
This is absurd. Yes, we have a base there. But Qatar essentially funds Iran's strategy in the region, so whatever threat came from Iran, Qatar knew about it. If anything, this is the best way to keep US from actually doing anything.https://t.co/zGw2pqfMB8
— Irina Tsukerman (@sicat222) May 10, 2019
Ms. Tsukerman is correct to point to the increasingly tight relationship between Qatar and Iran. However, it is unlikely that Qatar could stop an American airstrike if it were ordered. What the move does do is allow Iran, through its Qatari allies, to see just how big America’s stick is. Publicly Iran is stating that our bombers “will not dare” attack them, but privately it is likely that they are considering just how big such a strike might be. If the purpose of the deployment is deterrence, it is important that the big stick be visible.
American officials are stating clearly that deterrence is the purpose, rather than pre-emptive war. President Donald Trump has expressed a desire for talks, although for the moment the Iranian leadership is rejecting his proposal.
War talk was also played down in comments by Vice Admiral Jim Malloy, commander of the US 5th Fleet in Bahrain (the main component of United States Naval Forces Central Command or NAVCENT, of which Malloy is also the commanding officer). He did issue a warning that the USS Abraham Lincoln could transit the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has threatened to close but through which about a fifth of global oil trade passes. However, he also said, “I am not in a war-plan footing and have not been tasked to do so… we are absolutely ready to respond to any aggression against the United States, partners in the region, or our interests.”
Ayatollah Tabatabai-Nejad responded that the aircraft carrier, and its attendant fleet, could be “destroyed by one missile.” That is not factually accurate, unless the missile were tipped with nuclear warheads that Iran is not thought to possess currently. Iran has stated that it is suspending its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal, and will be stockpiling highly enriched uranium. Iran has also threatened to resume uranium enrichment.
Missile forces do pose a threat to aircraft carriers, and to ships in general. The Carrier Strike Group built around the Abraham Lincoln includes several Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, whose Aegis ballistic missile defense system is designed to detect and destroy missiles in order to protect the fleet. Anti-ship missiles are one of the threats reported mentioned by the recent intelligence prompting this rapid deployment.
For now, the arrival of these reinforcements is likely to prove an effective deterrent against any non-deniable action by Iran or its proxies. Iran’s window for striking in advance of the arrival of reinforcements is closed. Potentially they may still attempt strikes through proxy forces they believe to be adequately deniable. However, American officials have been telling the press that they expect such actions. Iran’s margin for such deniability has shrunk considerably.