Two US aircraft carrier strike groups operated in the Mediterranean Sea this week. The USS Abraham Lincoln, on its way toward the Persian Gulf from Palma de Mallorca, crossed paths with the USS John C. Stennis, which had come from the Gulf and had left the Suez Canal for the Mediterranean.
A massive amount of air power and US naval assets were suddenly in the same place at the same time. As if that wasn't enough, the Stennis had just carried out a joint pass exercise with France's Charles de Gaulle Carrier Strike Group in the Red Sea.
There were other navy ships in the area as well. The guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul, the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay, the Royal Danish Navy Frigate HDMS Niels Juel and the French air defense destroyer FS Forbin were in the area, Michael Landmark of Denmark pointed out online. The Defense Post reported the same information, noting that French Rafale aircraft and American F-18s conducted training together. In January, the USS Stennis had already carried out weeks of training with France's Marine Nationale defense destroyer FS Cassard.
The De Gaulle is en route to the Indian Ocean as part of its annual "Clemenceau" mission, having left Toulon in early March. The Stennis left Manama in Bahrain on March 28. The Lincoln had left Norfolk on April 1. The Lincoln is supposed to end up in San Diego when its deployment ends. After the April 15 transit together in the Red Sea, the Stennis moved into the Mediterranean on April 20.
For observers of US naval power, the gathering of forces appears important. Lenny Ben-David noted "where are the carriers," pointing out that their rendezvous coincides with the first F-35 deployment to the UAE. He noted that the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group was in the Gulf at the same time as the Stennis and Lincoln were moving toward one another. It raised interest from Iran-watchers as well. Babak Taghvaee, who tweets often about military issues in the region, noted that the Stennis has 50 F-18s on board.
The presence of the carriers and their strike groups have led to two different narratives. The Task & Purpose website asserts that they "send a message to Russia." Stars and Stripes agreed with that assessment, noting that Naval Forces Europe and Africa commander Adm. James Foggo met US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr.
The US has said that Russia's "aggressive actions and interventions in Syria, Libya and elsewhere destabilize these areas," Stars and Stripes reported. "It's crucial that we give our civilian leaders options and ability to negotiate from a position of strategic strength," Foggo said. The presence of the two carrier groups was aimed at Russia, the report concluded.
The Washington Examiner, however, thinks that the presence of all these naval assets is a message to Iran.
"The Navy's current posture gives President [Donald] Trump significantly added means of deterrence and actions against Iran," the newspaper reported on April 22. Tom Rogan, author of the piece, wrote that it wasn't coincidental. "The US Navy is overstretched, especially in relation to its aircraft carriers and submarines." Its deployment to the Mediterranean "appears calculated with an anticipated conflict in mind."
The question that the reports raise is whether the current naval power is a message to Iran or Russia, and whether saying so really helps send that message. The presence of these large US strike groups isn't a secret: there are websites that track them and the US is open about its mission and destination. The USS Stennis even has a Twitter account.
One issue the US faces is that despite the "messages" being sent to Iran and Russia, both countries likely know that the US isn't actually going to use these powerful forces for a first strike. Despite Washington listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization, the real tensions are in Iraq and Syria. The US has previously noted that any real clash with Iran's navy in the Persian Gulf would result in the destruction of that navy very quickly. It's no contest: the US has a massive amount of unmatched firepower that Iran has no interest in challenging. Similarly, the US is not going to do anything about Russia's annexation of Crimea or Russian actions in Libya and Syria.
Sailing carriers around and showing off US military might is good for practice and for working closely with NATO allies, but Moscow and Tehran
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.