The Navy was in the Drudge red ink headlines early on Monday morning as a report claims that “Egypt allowed at least one Israeli and 11 American warships to pass through the Suez Canal.” Clearly I have become too cynical, because an a Naval analyst frustrated with the numerical decline in US Navy ship numbers and force structure decisions of the last decade – the first question that popped into my mind was…
Is it even possible for the US Navy to transit the Suez Canal with 11 warships during peacetime?
After doing a bit of research as to what the report could mean, I offer the following facts and possibilities.
The USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group did indeed cross the Suez Canal on Friday, however this has also been expected for some time. USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) carrier strike group deployed on January 2nd, 2010 and would be returning home soon from their 6 month deployment. It wasn’t a question of if the Harry S Truman strike group would cross the Suez canal to replace the Eisenhower, only when. The Eisenhower group also consists of the USS Hue City (CG 66), USS Carney (DDG 64), USS McFaul (DDG 74), and USS Farragut (DDG 99). With the whole strike group set to pull out of the 5th fleet area, it was expected the Truman strike group would move in and replace.
The Harry S Truman carrier strike group is one of the Navy’s largest strike groups (has been each of its last two deployments), this time with 6 escorts; USS Normandy (CG 60), USS Winston Churchill (DDG 81), USS Milius (DDG 69), USS Ross (DDG 71), USS Oscar Austin (DDG 79), and the German frigate FGS Hessen (F221). The day after the Truman CSG was reported to have crossed the Suez Canal, FGS Hessen (F221) completed duties with the strike group and detached (after making the transit though).
So where are the other 4 warships, and who might they be?
One possibility is the USS Gonzalez (DDG 66) could be on its way to replace USS Cole (DDG 67), which has been serving in an anti-piracy role for NATO Standing Maritime Group -2 off Somalia. USS Cole (DDG 67) deployed on Feb 8, 2010, but it would not be uncommon for a US ship on a NATO SNMG patrol to spend at least some time – the remaining month or so – in the Mediterranean Sea. Close contact with our NATO allies is what these patrols are for, afterall.
Another could be the USS Elrod (FFG 55). Deployed on May 14th the ship made a drug bust off Morocco just two weeks into her deployment.
With USS Taylor (FFG 50) in Albania and most of the US Navy ships operating for the 6th fleet participating in Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2010, there are no other “US warships” deployed that could get the total to 11, which means either the count is wrong or the ships were not warships, rather support or replenishment vessels.
It doesn’t matter. From the standpoint of public diplomacy the Obama administration is enjoying the century old practice of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. When a single US aircraft carrier and 6-8 escorts transit the Suez Canal in broad daylight for Egyptian soldiers to witness – Roosevelt diplomacy is leveraged. It is the story of politics going back to before Athens and Sparta that a fleet of warships could get the attention of other states – and at the same time send a message that was both clear and ambiguous.
In this case the paper writers, blogs, editorials, and commentators carry the concerns of Iranian nuclear program as part of their description of the hidden meaning behind the movements. Since there are several US Navy ships into their 5th month of their 6th month deployments, the reality for the transit is all too obvious as the natural cycle of naval rotations. With that said, the sheer firepower and capability of even a single US Navy aircraft carrier will naturally lead to more creative headlines – which in and of itself represents a powerful diplomacy that only the United States enjoys as the worlds only superpower.
But the unfortunate reality is… the answer to the question asked above is NO. That powerful diplomatic capability in the spirit of Roosevelt for the United States is no longer real. There were not 11 US Navy warships, indeed under the best case at least three of those warships were foreign, phantom, or unarmed. The US Navy today is in numerical decline, and the reason is primarily because it is the choice of our nations Navy and political leaders to reduce the size of the US Navy fleet. When Gates looks to the post Afghanistan war era, he discusses recapitalizing the Army – for the next land war in Asia no doubt, and ignores the lessons of history regarding the link between a strong Navy and being a strong global economic power.
Enjoy the headlines of phantom fleets making phantom threats to bad actors internationally while it lasts, because we are only about a decade away from any headline proclaiming “12 US Navy warships” doing anything together during peacetime becoming a story of fiction.
Indeed, we appear to already live in a time when such headlines are fiction.