What you see above is the U.S. Enterprise under way full speed ahead. The world'slargest carrier has been under way a good deal lately.
Just back on February 18 it had been transiting the strategic Strait of Bab el-Mandab, a key chokepoint between the horn of Africa and the Middle East, and a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is located between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, and connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Three to four billion barrels of oil per day are shipped through the Strait, making it a vital waterway for the global economy, according to a U.S. Department of Energy spokesperson.
"The Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Gulf of Aden are strategically important to the United States as an important sea lane for lawful shipping and transit," said Rear Adm. Terry B. Kraft, Commander of Enterprise CSG, quoted in defpro news. "Our presence in the region helps ensure this freedom of navigation and the defense of these interests."
The deployment of the Enterprise and its two support ships to the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet area of operations was intended to discourage Iranian threats to shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, and also to provide security against Somali pirates, whose attacks on shipping in the area have included the taking of oil tankers.
But as reported yesterday, including this story in the Daily Mail, the Enterprise has broken off its anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and is steaming through the Suez Canal for possible duty off the coast of Libya. The Enterprise and its Carrier Air Wing One and Carrier Strike Force would be needed if the U.S. participates in the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. The Mediterranean Sea is the bailiwick of the U.S. Sixth Fleet.
This flurry of activity underscores a concern raised by a national security pundit interviewed yesterday on Fox News. She stated that the U.S. does not have a single aircraft carrier assigned to the Sixth Fleet capable of implementing a no-fly zone. Indeed, while Britain and France sent warships to remove their civilians from Tripoli, the U.S. found itself compelled to lease a passenger ferry. Heaven knows what we would have done if U.S. Marines had been needed again "on the shores of Tripoli" in the course of evacuation of U.S. citizens from Libya.
In today's Wall Street Journal, Mark Helprin bemoans the decline of U.S. Naval power generally, and calls for an immediate reversal of this trend. Mr. Helprin describes how far the decline has proceeded:
The overall effect of recent erosions is illustrated by the fact that 60 ships were commonly underway in America's seaward approaches in 1998, but today—despite opportunities for the infiltration of terrorists, the potential of weapons of mass destruction, and the ability of rogue nations to sea-launch intermediate and short-range ballistic missiles—there are only 20.
The stakes are desperate, as he points out. Not only does the U.S. face threats from piracy and Iran in the Gulf of Aden, and must be prepared to act in the unpredictable situation in North Africa, but in the Pacific and the South China Sea, China's navy rises while ours declines.
Navies are expensive. We are in a budget crisis and even the defense budget must be put under scrutiny. But the amount the U.S. spends on maintaining a naval presence across the seven seas must be increased, not cut back.
UPDATE: This AFP story states that two U.S. amphibious assault warships, carrying U.S. Marines, the USS Kearsage and the USS Ponce, passed through the Suez Canal in route toward the Libyan coast. According to this story, in contrast to the Daily Mail dispatch, the Enterprise remains on station in the northern Red Sea, and is not yet on route to the Mediterranean, although it is available for duty. So, as I surmised, not only is there no full-sized carrier assigned to the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, but amphibious assault ships with U.S. Marine forces also had to be transferred from the Fifth to the Sixth Fleet, a voyage of some days during which the lives of American evacuees in Tripoli might have been endangered. Indeed, one might ask, what would happen if those assault vessels and Marines were now suddenly needed back in the Gulf region, due to an Iranian threat, and an Iranian proxy attacked and succeeded in closing the Suez Canal, blocking their rapid return. We need an aircraft carrier and amphibious assault capability in both theaters.