By Mike Mount
The U.S. is deciding whether to keep two aircraft carriers in the waters around Iran through the end of the year in a move that risks inflaming tensions with the regime, according to U.S. officials.
The decision entails extending the mandate to maintain an extra carrier in the region by three months, according to U.S. officials.
A 2010 directive by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates added an additional carrier to the Persian Gulf region where the U.S. typically has kept only one carrier while not in actual full combat operations.
The directive is set to expire in September of this year, but the officials said the White House, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and top Navy officials are mulling over whether to extend the presence at a time when Iran continues its saber rattling with threats to close the main oil tanker route out of the Arabian Gulf at the Strait of Hormuz as well as its continued insistence to pursue a nuclear program.
The officials, who could not be named because they were not authorized to speak on the record about the discussions, said one of the hang-ups in the decision-making process is the justification for keeping an extra carrier in that region.
The 2010 Gates order to put the additional aircraft carrier presence in the Arabian Sea around Iran was to support the Afghanistan troop surge and troop draw-down in Iraq.
With U.S. troops now out of Iraq and a little more than two years before the final U.S. troops leave Afghanistan amid high tensions with Iran, a more diplomatic reason to keep two carriers might be needed.
Another reason in the decision-making process is how the Navy will balance needs for a carrier in other parts of the world, the officials said.
The service would never have a problem continuing to provide an additional carrier, the officials said, but it takes a good deal of planning to build the proper scheduling and timing in to move around the ships and their strike teams, the supporting ships.
With the Department of Defense announcing its new focus on the Asia-Pacific region and the Navy saying it will be moving 60% of its ships into the Pacific, Navy planners are stretching their minds around planning options for the additional stay in what the military calls the Central Command region that covers the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
The officials did not have a timetable when a decision would be made.
The Navy has been rotating aircraft carriers in and out of the Arabian Gulf, generally keeping one in the Gulf and the other carrier close by in the North Arabian Sea.
Currently, the U.S. Navy has the USS Enterprise and the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf region. Pentagon officials have also said the USS Ponce, a new breed of command ship capable of basing Navy special operations forces, and four mine sweepers are in the Persian Gulf.