Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Observing the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group

The US Navy is deploying the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) this week, the last ESG expected to deploy this year. In a return to the old days, we are going to take a little liberty and speculate (theory) regarding the enabling capabilities of the Iwo Jima ESG as it forward deploys from the Atlantic towards the Mediterranean Sea and Middle East.

The Iwo Jima ESG consists of the USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), USS San Antonio (LPD 17), USS Carter Hall (LSD 50), USS Vella Gulf (CG 72), USS Roosevelt (DDG 80), USS Ramage (DDG 61), and USS Hartford (SSN 768). Let me first state it out loud, we love the new websites, we think the Navy is doing a good job here. Every ship has a story, every ship is unique.

Like all strike groups, there are special capabilities within the Iwo Jima ESG that aren't easily visible to the casual observer, so the point of this exercise is to perhaps educate a bit regarding your tax dollars, and speculate a bit regarding the enabling capabilities this strike group brings to the global maritime environment. This speculation does not reflect policy or political intent, rather is an exercise in naval theory.

This is a scheduled deployment. The Iwo Jima ESG will assume operational station in the Middle East at some point during this deployment to relieve the Peleliu ESG which departed in May. There will be some overlap, which suggests that the Iwo Jima may have duties in the 6th Fleet area of operations before moving into the Middle East. It appears the Iwo Jima ESG will be relieving the USS Oak Hill (LSD 51), which deployed in March and will be returning home soon.

As all sailors know, every ship is unique. The USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) is making her third deployment, all of which have been to the Persian Gulf. This is the first deployment of the USS San Antonio (LPD 17), and a number of people are watching to see how it goes. It won't define the class, but it needs to be said, there are high hopes for the LPD 17s among Marines. The last time the USS Carter Hall (LSD 50) deployed was last year, remembered because she blew up some small pirate boats while patrolling off the coast of Somalia.

The Vella Gulf (CG 72) has a long history of deployments including a history of rotations to the Baltic Sea, and was part of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group in September 2001 when it made its presence known to Al Qaeda following 9/11. USS Roosevelt (DDG 80) has a really good reputation, in part due to a former CO Captain Richard Clemmons. Finally, the USS Ramage (DDG 61) is worth keeping an eye on, because it is the only AEGIS ship in the Atlantic fleet capable of ballistic missile defense. It is unclear if it carries SM-3s or not, but a reasonable guess would be yes.

The question is, where is the Iwo Jima ESG going, and what can it do?

Gulf of Guinea

Unlikely, but possible. The return home after only five months of the Nassau ESG was followed by one of the most important events at sea this year, the attack by MEND against Shell’s $3.6 billion “Bonga” Floating Production, Storage, and Offloading vessel (FPSO). Presence is a strategic concept; it means sustained manpower at sea on station. Presence is not realistic by aircraft and soft power isn't exercised on the telephone. We don't expect the Iwo Jima ESG to deploy ships to this region, but the necessity of naval presence exists.

Black Sea

The 1936 Montreux Convention has a few rules that could play into the thinking here. The sum of all vessel displacement for any outside nation must be less than 45,000 tons. The other rule though is that no ship may spend more than three weeks inside the Black Sea. This sets up the possibility we could see the USS McFaul (DDG 74) replaced by another ship, potentially the USS Ramage (61) which has ballistic missile defense, and replace the USS Mount Whitney (JCC 20) with the USS San Antonio (LPD 17) for supporting humanitarian assistance. Why the San Antonio? Well, first the radar cross section (RCS) of the San Antonio is less than that of the USS Ramage (DDG 61), and that might matter in a dangerous situation. It also has a tremendous amount of cargo space, which can be leveraged for humanitarian aid. It doesn't hurt that the ship has outstanding medical facilities.

Should the Navy upgrade from the current ships in the Black Sea to the USS Ramage (DDG 61) and USS San Antonio (LPD 17), that would be the true definition of gunboat diplomacy, because as an exercise in soft power it will certainly piss on (and off) the Russians.

Somalia

Quietly under the radar, Lloyd's List ran an article today regarding the establishment of a Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA). The MSPA is a patrol zone that will be protected by Task Force 150 intended to give commercial shipping a lane for safe passage through the area of heavy piracy off Somalia in the Arabian Sea. It is a clever idea, one that should have been implemented long ago, but we note that in order for it to be successful naval forces have to be committed. Clearly the Canadians are.

However, it will also require US Navy forces. We note through recent reporting that the USS Peleliu (LHA 5) is operating in the Red Sea. It could be that one or more than one amphibious ships will take part in the MSPA to provide aviation capabilities to the patrol zone. Is it possible we could see Marines storm a hijacked ship? We believe force recon snipers could make a significant impact here, but the dangers to captured crew may make such an effort a nonstarter. Either way, a hellfire missile can be an effective deterrent against a pirate skiff.

Iran

By now it should be clear that we do not believe the US will attack Iran during the Bush administration. With that said, we will not be surprised at all if one day Israel attacks Iran. The question for forward deployed naval forces must always be, if Iran decides to violate just about every possible international law, not to mention piss off just about every major world power except Russia and shut down the Strait of Hormuz, what will be asked of the US Navy to open the strait back up?

While amateurs, usually from a political perspective, tend to focus on carriers as a benchmark for Iran, professionals keep an eye on the number of ESGs forward deployed. For all the talk about small boats, mines, submarines, and ballistic missiles; from a tactical assessment perspective we see the three primary hurdles for military forces to reopen the Straits of Hormuz to be three islands, specifically Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb. These islands sit very close to the deep water channel, but more importantly, they have a bunch of troops on them. Those islands will have to be taken in order to open up the Strait of Hormuz.

A comment on this. Look, I know small boats are dangerous, and I understand the Iranians have some serious asymmetrical naval capabilities, but in a realistic assessment the shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz is a declaration of war against Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Unless you believe these countries are going to accept Iranian attack without a word, the conventional military power here is one sided, completely lop sided not in the favor of Iran. This isn't the Persian Empire, and the number 300 may be a movie, but it also represents the number of aircraft one can expect the Gulf nations to be running sorties against every maritime and coastal target Iran has, blowing blue boats from the sea, all the while supported by US military power. It could get real ugly in Iraq, and Iran will do damage at sea, but a lot of the focus at sea is overblown and unrealistic. Ultimately, we don't see Iran shutting down the Strait, cutting off Asia from Persian Gulf energy would be the largest political miscalculation in Persian history, and Iran has never shown a tendency for stupidity.

While it is unknown the exact number of forces, it is widely suggested that there may be as many as 8000 total troops among the three islands. That is simply too many for a single ESG to handle. However, there is one lesson we learned in Iraq. The US Marines don't need a lot of troops to kill a lot of people, they just need a lot of support. I think if Israel attacked, and Iran shut down the Gulf, the world (led by Asia) would be leaning heavily on the US President to send in the Marines and open up the troops. With 1 ESG, the president says no. With two?

I think that if a President asks whether the Marines can crack open those islands, it isn't in the nature of the Marine Corps to say "we can't do it." So from a theoretical position of a Strait of Hormuz contingency, we see the addition of the Iwo Jima ESG to the Peleliu ESG as a powerful 2 MEU capability that wouldn't wait 3 weeks during maritime traffic disruption before making an assault. Oh you think there are other options? You would be mistaken. Few people realize that there are only six total forcible entry brigades in the entire US military today. 6 means 4 airborne and 2 Marines, and the Marines being the only heavy armored troops. The airborne units are either deployed, recently returned from a deployment, or preparing for a deployment.

That means in that contingency, the only option is the Marines.

It will be interesting to see where the Iwo Jima ESG goes. If we had to guess, we expect to see the group split up into several regions, and no, we don't expect the Iwo Jima ESG to be a precursor to a US military action against Iran.

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