The John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group deployed to join the Navy's 5th Fleet on Saturday and is expected to arrive in the region in mid-February, bringing an additional 5,600 personnel and 85 aircraft to the Persian Gulf area. The USS Stennis flagship and its four to six auxiliary vessels will join the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group that has been patrolling the region since October 2006. In total, Central Command, soon to be headed by Admiral William J. Fallon, will have approximately 150 aircraft at its disposal.
Departing from the ship's homeport in Bremerton, Wash., officials from the USS Stennis publicly announced that the carrier strike group was deploying to "bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the Middle East."
"The presence of two aircraft carriers, while not unprecedented, demonstrates U.S. resolve to bring security and stability to the region," the announcement stated.
Washington pundits point to a number of indicators when concluding that the Bush administration is escalating the confrontation with Iran. On the contrary, some military experts explain that the deployment of a second carrier strike group is a rather predictable move by the United States in its efforts to deter Iran from threatening U.S. interests in the Middle East.
"The move of the Stennis into the Gulf is part of an elaborate signaling initiative designed to convey determination to the Tehran regime," said Loren Thompson, the Chief Operating Officer of the Lexington Institute, a think-tank in the Washington area.
In other words, the purpose of the deployment is to "put a substantial dollop of military capability closer to Iran in a way that they'll notice," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Biddle explained that this warning function is a traditional use of aircraft carriers and navies in general. "This has been done since time immemorial. It's been done since Teddy Roosevelt's day, when the Great White Fleet was sent on a world tour to demonstrate America's rising power," he said.
Given the U.S. refusal to engage the Iranian regime in diplomatic discourse so long as Iran continues nuclear enrichment, a military gesture is one of the few options the United States has to influence Iran's actions. The goal of the recent hard-line position -- conveyed through deploying the Stennis carrier group and through the tough rhetoric of President Bush's Iraq speech on Jan. 10 and presumably the State of the Union Tuesday night -- is to convince Iran that the United States is not as weak as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to think, analysts said.
"The Bush administration thinks that a perception of American weakness would encourage Iranian aggressiveness," Biddle said.
According to some experts, the level of threat that Iran's nuclear program poses is debatable. While the United Nations Security Council resolutions have done little to hinder Iran's nuclear pursuits, tactical strikes by the U.S. military could put an end to the weapons program if necessary.
"A single aircraft from a carrier airway can destroy six or eight different targets in a single flight," Thompson said. "It doesn't take long for an entire airway to level most of a country."
Thompson explained that the fragile nature of a nuclear weapons system means that disruption of just one step in the enrichment process could demobilize the entire program.
With the combined forces of the USS Eisenhower and the USS Stennis, CENTCOM has 150 aircraft at its disposal, "most of which can attack multiple targets on each sortie with great precision," Thompson said.
"So, if we have halfway decent intelligence about Iranian nuclear sites, we can shut down their nuclear program overnight," he said.
Should the conflict escalate to the point that the United States consider carrying out tactical strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, experts argue that the U.S. forces in the region, even without the support from the USS Stennis, are equipped to handle the mission.
The aircraft accompanying the USS Stennis represent only a small fraction of the total aircraft in the region, Biddle pointed out. While the Army and Marine Corps brigades operating on the ground are mired in Iraq, the U.S. Air Force and Navy in the Middle East are not currently constrained in the same way.
Bringing in the USS Stennis "doesn't even change our aggregate military potential in the region all that much vis-à-vis Iran. It helps. It's better to have more than less, and this is more. But we've already got plenty," Biddle said.
"We don't need to bring an extra aircraft carrier into the region to have enough aircraft to do whatever we want to do to Iran," he said.
Thompson explained that the deployment of the USS Stennis has generated attention because U.S. aircraft carriers are the most visible part of the U.S. Navy presence. Submarines tasked with eavesdropping on Iranian communication also have an established presence in the region and are equipped to launch cruise missiles, he said.
Therefore, the looming question is whether gunboat diplomacy will be effective under the present circumstances, given what each side has to gain -- or lose.
"On things that the Iranians consider central to their agenda--like the nuclear weapons program, or (...) political influence over what goes on in Iraq, I think that we just have a very weak hand at the moment," Biddle said.
Although Thompson said that he does not anticipate that a showdown with Iran is imminent, he immediately qualified his statement by adding, "when you combine the Iranian program with aid to Shiite militias, it's not hard to imagine how the air links might come into action."