The Navy’s Japan-based carrier strike group is now operating in the North Arabian Sea to support the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the service announced on Friday.
USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG-67) and guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey (DDG-97) crossed into U.S. 5th Fleet from 7th Fleet today.
“While in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations, the Ronald Reagan CSG will operate and train alongside regional and coalition partners and provide airpower to protect U.S. and coalition forces as they conduct drawdown operations from Afghanistan,” reads the statement.
Reagan will take the place of USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and its escorts that have been operating in the Middle East since April to provide air cover for the withdrawal. Ike is expected to soon begin its journey to its Norfolk, Va., homeport following its second deployment within a year.
Reagan had just completed high-end drills on Thursday with the Indian Navy ahead of entering 5th Fleet.
The Reagan move is the first time the U.S. Japan-based carrier has been routed to the Middle East since the former USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Meanwhile, the Navy has moved the final series of graduation exercises for the Vinson Carrier Strike Group to off the coast of Hawaii, the service announced this week.
USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), Carrier Air Wing 2 and five destroyers – USS Dewey (DDG-105), USS Howard (DDG-83), USS O’Kane (DDG-77), USS Michael Murphy (DDG-112) and USS Chafee (DDG-90) – are completing the final exercises ahead of the first U.S. carrier deployment of F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters.
Total carrier days deployed per year, 2016-2021
In 2018, the National Defense Strategy called for the military to focus on top-tier priorities – China, then Russia – even if it comes at the expense of persistent but lower-tier priorities such as combatting violent extremist organizations in the Middle East. That year, carrier operations in the Middle East dropped, allowing for a much-needed overall dip in carrier employment globally. However, in 2019, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton and head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie ratcheted up carriers in the Middle East to push back against Iranian aggression – not in line with NDS priorities – and partly as a result of the renewed push for permanent carrier presence in the Middle East, carrier operations this year have soared again to recent highs.
While not unheard of, final carrier graduation drills are typically held closer to California. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told USNI News this week that moving the Vinson CSG closer to the Western Pacific was not intended as a presence signal.
“I would caution you from thinking that there’s some sort of specific message here other than, I mean, obviously we are focused on the Indo-Pacific. And you’ve heard the secretary talk about this quite a bit,” Kirby said during a Pentagon press briefing. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that we would be training and taking advantage of training opportunities throughout the region.”
Reagan’s move to the Middle East has raised new questions at how present the Navy will need to be in the region versus the stated goal of the Biden administration to focus resources on the Pacific and competition with China.
Aside from brief gaps, a U.S. carrier has been on station on a small patch of ocean in the North Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman continuously since May of 2019 at the request of U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie.