Navy presence signals US bid to contain Israel-Gaza conflict
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The goal, going beyond support for Israel, is to make sure hostilities don’t spread. To this end, defense officials have repeatedly reiterated the president’s warnings.
“For any country, for any group – or anyone – thinking about trying to take advantage of this atrocity to widen the conflict or spill more blood, we have just one word,” Secretary Austin said. “Don’t.”
Deterrence, to the military’s way of thinking, involves no small measure of flashing its big guns. That goes a long way toward explaining why a second carrier strike group, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, is also on its way from its home port in Norfolk, Virginia.
American efforts alone don’t ensure that the current conflict can remain contained. That was clear today in the face of Arab furor over a Gaza hospital explosion – for which Israel blamed a Palestinian militia – which complicated President Biden’s high-stakes visit to the region. Yet the overtures do help drive home the point that a wider war would be costly for all sides, and that in an extremity America will come to Israel’s aid.
Defense officials said the second carrier group just happened to be on its way to the neighborhood, but the power-projecting message is clear.
“Two carrier strike groups – I mean, that’s a lot,” says Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel who studies force structure and military operations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s a large part of our deployed naval force.”
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A Marine Corps rapid response force will join the warships, and the Pentagon has put some 2,000 U.S. additional troops on notice for a potential deployment, too.
The Air Force, not to be outdone, is sending F-15 fighter jets to “build on the arrival” of the carrier strike groups and “to respond to any crisis or contingency, and if necessary, engage and defeat adversaries,” the service said in a statement.
As these military steps proceeded, President Biden won a pledge Wednesday that Israel will allow humanitarian assistance for Palestinian civilians to begin flowing into Gaza from Egypt, subject to inspections.
Role of carrier strike groups
The big guns are not just for show. In addition to providing humanitarian capabilities for evacuation, the carrier groups’ air wings include advanced strike fighter jets and anti-submarine assets, along with destroyers carrying long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles and cruisers equipped with Aegis missile-defense capabilities, notes Harlan Ullman, a former U.S. Navy commander and senior adviser at the Atlantic Council.
The carriers have attack aircraft that could potentially drop bombs on positions of Hezbollah in Lebanon, should the Iran-backed group enter the fighting. The planes also have capabilities to “scoop up signals” intelligence and to provide a platform “if we ever want to use special operations,” Mr. Cancian adds. This could also come into play in the rescuing of hostages taken by Hamas, an estimated 13 of whom are American citizens.
The true success of deterrence, of course, is generally measured in not having to use these assets. Yet even as they work to de-escalate through a show of force, U.S. officials are preparing for the possibility – however remote – of wider conflict.
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Carrier groups can be attractive targets for brazen if ill-advised attacks. There could be potshots in the form of suicidal fast boats or explosive-carrying cardboard drones that could avoid radar detection, Dr. Ullman points out.
Hezbollah possesses anti-ship capabilities, as well as an arsenal of some 150,000 “small, man-portable and unguided surface-to-surface artillery rockets” and missiles, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Institute for the Study of War, which has published ongoing analyses of the conflict since it began, estimates that Hezbollah’s activity on Israel’s northern border “creates opportunities for further operations against Israel.”
Such operations and the potential risks of others have been war-gamed by the U.S. military “dozens” of times and tend to show some obvious moves most likely to expand the conflict, says Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and now senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
In scenarios in which Israel decides to strike at Iran’s nuclear program, for example, the war-gamed result is “Hezbollah launching tens of thousands, if not 100,000, missiles down on Israel.”
The lesson for this conflict is that if Hezbollah, in solidarity with Hamas, decides to launch an unrelenting barrage of missiles toward Israel, then Israel would have little incentive not to counter by striking Iran.
The fact that Hezbollah has not yet gone “all in” with Hamas’ war on Israel actually suggests Iranian command and control, Dr. Rubin argues. “This may sound counterintuitive, but Iran knows that if Hezbollah starts fighting, that Israel basically loses any reticence about attacking Iran.”
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Such an attack would be a colossal operation that could involve more than 1,300 Israeli sorties, by some U.S. military estimates, given that Iran is six times the size of Great Britain and four times the size of Iraq – and given that many of the strikes, including on hard targets like nuclear reactors, anti-aircraft sites, and command and control, would need to be hit more than once.
“Then the question becomes, is Israel capable of doing it?” Dr. Rubin says. “The nightmare situation for the U.S. would be that Israel starts something that they’re not capable of finishing,” which could pull America into a regional war.
No fleet near Iran
For this reason and others, President Biden will continue to dissuade Israel from operating beyond Gaza. Current U.S. military posture suggests it has some degree of confidence that Israel will heed this approach.
If the Pentagon were truly concerned about a wider regional escalation with Iran, for example, it could park its aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean, says Dr. Rubin, who taught at the Naval Postgraduate School for more than a decade. During frequent visits to carrier strike groups, he would ask admirals what the ideal naval posture for such a scenario would be.
“To a man, they said we should park our aircraft carriers about 400 miles off the coast of Iran.” The logic is that it would put them out of range of surface-to-ship missiles and drones, but within range of U.S. F-18 and F-35 fighter jets.
For now, U.S. military posture in the eastern Mediterranean could be aimed in part at Israel, too – specifically, to ensure it’s not tempted to launch any surprise strikes on Iran.
To guard against such a scenario, U.S. aircraft carrier groups could broadcast “purposefully indiscreet chatter” that could be picked up by, say, Iranian intelligence operatives in Lebanon as a sort of warning, Dr. Rubin says. This would quash the element of surprise needed by Israeli forces in any strike against Iran – Israeli pilots are not suicidal, he notes – and, in so doing, quash it.
A more likely use of U.S. intelligence assets will be in providing electronic and overhead surveillance to Israeli forces currently searching for hostages.
As for concerns that U.S. shipments to Ukraine could somehow impede the provision of arms and resources to Israel, Secretary Austin gave a clear message on that front, too.
“The United States can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said, and U.S. security assistance will continue to flow into both regions “at the speed of war.”