In the Middle East, ships on the sea can be as important boots on the ground
Whatever else was accomplished, the congressional hearings on Benghazi last month were a reminder that the administration’s Libyan expedition failed. Libya has been in turmoil since the beginning of the Libyan civil war in 2011. American airstrikes and a no-fly zone helped a mix of moderate and Islamist groups topple Moammar Qaddafi’s brutal regime in 2011, but the country is no more stable. Libya descended into civil war again in 2014, with the internationally recognized government fighting for control of the country against Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamist New General National Congress. The situation is much worse today. As of October 2015, the Islamic State (IS) has taken military control of the area around Sirte, Qaddafi’s birthplace. Sirte lies along the Libyan coastline, positioned between the major ports of Tripoli and Benghazi. The Islamic State now has full control of a strategically positioned coastal area in an unstable country that has become a proxy battlefield for Middle Eastern powers, and through which millions of refugees from Africa might be allowed to pass on their way to Europe.
The Islamic State’s model has been to foment instability through acts of extreme violence. This gives it breathing room to expand by pitting potential adversaries against each other and complicating any external intervention in its operating region. Having access to the Mediterranean greatly expands the Islamic State’s potential options for destabilization. European merchant shipping is vulnerable to attack. Small boats, crewed by IS militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and simple missiles, could easily destroy and harass civilian trade ships traveling through the Mediterranean or sailing to or from the Suez Canal. Europe’s inability to handle the maritime humanitarian aspects of the refugee crisis has demonstrated its numerical and operational naval deficiencies. And while these refugees are not attacking European ships, Islamic State terrorists placed on refugee transports from Africa could destroy ships in harbors or infiltrate the European continent more thoroughly, exporting terror into Europe.
Thus far, Europeans have demonstrated neither the will nor the capabilities to protect maritime assets throughout the Mediterranean. Several decades ago, the U.S. would have had more than adequate capabilities to carry out these missions. American naval power was concentrated in the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet. In the 1980s, the Sixth Fleet comprised two supercarriers, multiple escorting destroyers, cruisers, frigates, submarines, and an amphibious ready group with helicopters and several thousand embarked Marines. Even with the resources that the fleet continuously allocated to the Soviet threat, U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean could have easily carried out maritime-security missions against an adversary like IS.
Post–Cold War downsizing and a de-emphasis on maritime security have shrunk the Navy to its smallest size since before World War I. Although ships have become more capable, fewer ships are responsible for a much broader area than ever before. The Sixth Fleet’s area of responsibility now extends north along the European coastline, and south down the Western African coast. It consists of a collection of four Arleigh Burke–class destroyers, shore-based maritime-patrol aircraft such as the P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon, and several small surface and logistics assets. The Arleigh Burke destroyers are part of the president’s “phased adaptive missile defense strategy.” They were not intended for maritime-security operations.
Despite a dearth of resources, the current U.S. Sixth Fleet could likely protect merchant shipping from IS in an uncontested operating environment. Unfortunately, the Mediterranean is now a contested operating area. Russian intervention in Syria, which added air power to existing naval power, represents a clear challenge to America and NATO in the Mediterranean. Putin has reopened Russia’s naval base at Tartus, allowing Russian surface combatants to operate in the eastern Mediterranean indefinitely. Russian air cover could extend to that region with proper tanker support, giving the Russian navy a definitive combat advantage over the thinly stretched and unsupported U.S. Sixth Fleet. The refugee crisis compounds this situation, because it presents a dual humanitarian issue and security threat. Thus, after a hiatus of almost two decades, the Mediterranean is again a contested operational zone. The reestablishment of the Sixth Fleet would bolster American capabilities in the region. It would send a clear message to the Russians and deny IS access to the inland sea. This means keeping an aircraft carrier strike group (CSG) on station in the Mediterranean. A CSG would provide U.S. commanders in Europe and the Mediterranean with the full power of the carrier air wing, along with its various destroyer, cruiser, and submarine escorts.
At present, the U.S. has ten operational supercarriers. Only three to six are deployed at any given time, due to maintenance and refit as well as refresher training that precedes deployments. Under the current resupply model, four carriers would be required to maintain a “carrier hub” (a permanent installation, ensuring a constant presence) in the Mediterranean. With the U.S.’s current naval resources and the proliferating number of threats around the world, setting that number of carriers aside for a Mediterranean hub is not feasible. Two options exist. First, the U.S. could build four more aircraft carriers. Despite the darkening international climate, however, this option is unlikely to pass Congress, and for the current U.S. administration, it is out of the question. Second, the U.S. could base a single carrier in the Mediterranean, as it currently does in in Yokosuka, Japan. This would necessitate some gaps in coverage when the carrier needed maintenance or had to be deployed elsewhere, but it would be better than having no carrier at all. The choice to place a carrier in Japan has strengthened American ties with the Japanese and bolstered regional credibility, and the same might occur in the Mediterranean.
A similar approach would produce similar benefits in the Mediterranean. A carrier-capable naval station in Haifa, Israel, would go a long way toward reestablishing the U.S. presence in the Middle East. Haifa is one of Israel’s largest ports, and home to the Israel Defense Force’s navy. A carrier based in Haifa would increase cooperation between the U.S. Navy and the IDF. The U.S. could take advantage of Israel’s extensive small-ship and special-operations capabilities. Israel would benefit from the U.S. Navy’s heavier assets. Such cooperation could easily defend merchant shipping from IS attack and confront Russian attempts at establishing sea control. It would also send a strong signal to friends in the Arab world, Iran, and Russia that the U.S. remains invested in the Middle East.
IS now poses a threat to international commerce and trade because of its position in Libya. Augmentation of the U.S.’s naval assets in the Mediterranean, including the forward deployment of a carrier strike group in the region, would strengthen NATO’s endangered southern flank. It would neutralize IS as a threat at sea, protect the extraction of natural gas in friendly eastern-Mediterranean states’ littoral waters, balance Russia’s effort to replace us as the region’s great power, and protect freedom of navigation in a vital global trade route.