The Trump administration has dispatched the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the Middle East in what U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said on Sunday was a “response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” related to Iran. The U.S. move, long-planned or not, aims to warn Tehran that Washington would respond to any Iranian aggression with, in the words of Bolton, “unrelenting force.”
These deployments come on the heels of Tehran’s most recent threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital maritime chokepoint in the Persian Gulf through which roughly a fifth of the world’s sea-borne oil passes. Separating the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz rests between Iran and Oman. At its narrowest juncture, the strait is 21 miles wide with a narrow shipping lane.
According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz than through any other strait in the world. Much of the crude exported from Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members, and almost all of the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) produced by Qatar, the world’s largest LNG exporter, relies on this slim route to reach global importers.
As the U.S. intelligence community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment noted, “Iran continues to develop, improve, and field a range of military capabilities that enable it to target US and allied military assets in the region and disrupt traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.” Its capabilities include naval mines, unmanned explosive boats, anti-ship missiles, armed unmanned aerial vehicles, air-defense systems, and submarines.
While Tehran might be able to temporarily close the Strait, the regime would likely confront a devastating U.S. military response – only strengthened by the arrival of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group. The strike group includes dozens of carrier-based combat and combat support aircraft, guided missile destroyers, a guided missile cruiser, and potentially additional naval vessels and submarines. This force will join the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is already in the region and includes additional aircraft and approximately 4,500 sailors and Marines.
This significant combat power afloat joins significant assets already stationed in the region such as heavy bombers, fighters, attack aircraft, AWACS, air-refueling tankers, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
In March, then-Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Gen. Joseph Votel expressed concern about an insufficient carrier presence in the Middle East, while reiterating his confidence that CENTCOM could execute necessary operations. The deployment of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Groups helps address that concern.
Ultimately, the Trump administration’s move seeks to deter Iran from escalating hostilities. In his statement Sunday, Bolton said, “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.”
Iran has a history of acting more aggressively when it believes that it can act with impunity. The deployment of additional American combat power to the Middle East suggests there would be serious consequences for aggression against the United States and its allies.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrew Gabel is a research analyst. Follow Bradley and Andrew on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman and @Andrew_B_Gabel. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.