Not much there there: A small, defensive military “build-up”

Not happening.

Is the Obama administration building up for a major war against Iran?  No.

The administration appears to be doing what it thinks will avert one.  Military force is playing a quiet and relatively minor role.  There has been more “messaging” about force in the last few weeks than actual force activity.  The administration is also trying to discourage Israel from mounting an independent strike on Iran, by frequently advertising US concerns about that possibility.  Presumably the White House knows that this particular messaging campaign serves to keep Iran alerted.  Ultimately, there is more talk than anything else.  Military preparations, such as they are, are defensive in nature.  That includes the acceleration of missile-defense sales to the Persian Gulf nations.

Consider last week’s disclosures about the number of US troops in Kuwait and the announcement that a “second” carrier strike group had arrived in the Central Command (CENTCOM) theater.  News outlets across the nation reported these bits of information as evidence that the US is “boosting” our military presence in the Persian Gulf.  The direct implication is that we are doing this not only because of the Iranian threat but because of a concern in the White House that Israel will conduct a strike on her own (which would produce a backlash from Iran).

But we are not “boosting” our troop presence in the Gulf.  We decided last year to keep some of the troops coming out of Iraq in Kuwait, as a ready force to deal with contingencies.  As far as I can tell, the US administration has not explicitly implied in the last few days that the troops were “dispatched” to Kuwait, as if they had just recently deployed from North America.  But numerous news outlets are reporting the developments in exactly those terms.

The force of about 15,000 includes two Army brigade combat teams (BCTs) and a combat air (helicopter) brigade, all of which deployed in 2011 prior to the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq.  We haven’t “boosted” our ground-force presence in the Persian Gulf; we have drawn it down a little less than originally advertised.  The forces in Kuwait are insufficient to mount an attack with; they might be used instead to help defend Gulf nations if Iran retaliated against sanctions or other Western actions with regional attacks.  (The original premise was being able to go back into Iraq for security operations.)

The carrier strike group situation, meanwhile, will prove out in the coming days; we may have decided to keep two strike groups on station instead of one.  One of two carriers that are currently outside the Persian Gulf – USS John C Stennis (CVN-74), which has been on station and is due to go home to the West coast, and USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), which has just arrived from San Diego – will probably leave shortly.  A third carrier strike group, that of USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), is reportedly headed for the theater from its last port visit in Thailand, which may mean that two carriers will be within a 1-3 day transit of the Persian Gulf, even if both are not operating there continuously.

It has been far from unusual to have two carriers in CENTCOM over the past decade.  Even Pat Buchanan seems to have given up thinking it’s a harbinger of an ill-advised attack on Iran.  Two carriers are, in fact, insufficient to launch a deliberate attack on Iran – like the ground forces being retained in Kuwait.  The presence of two carriers in the theater for an extended period is evidence of a marginally heightened defensive profile.   (It also gives the president the flexibility to send one on a dash to the Eastern Mediterranean if necessary, while keeping one on station in Southwest Asia.)  The two carriers are not a signal that we are going on offense.

Notably, if we did need to apply significant force in the Eastern Med, we’d have to send assets there.  The Russians have the only aircraft carrier task force deployed in EASTMED. The US has not maintained a robust carrier presence in the Med for some years now.  (Interestingly, Britain and France are planning to jointly deploy a large naval force – including aircraft carriers – to the Med later this year.)

Meanwhile, another media narrative, about the US sending a signal of support to Israel (and pressure against Iran) at a crucial time, has just fallen apart.

The US and Israel were set to hold exercise Austere Challenge 2012 in May, followed by Exercise Juniper Cobra 2012, a missile/air-defense exercise that would place the Theater High-Altitude Defense (THAAD) system in a “defense against Iranian missiles” scenario.

The Juniper Cobra series started in 2001, and in 2009 brought the THAAD system into Israel also.  Austere Challenge is a US European Command (EUCOM) exercise series in which the command headquarters practices operating as a joint task force HQ, commanding participants among the US forces stationed or deployed in the EUCOM theater.  US reserve forces regularly deploy to Europe for the exercise, and in 2011, the US Sixth Fleet flagship, USS Mount Whitney, participated as a HQ afloat, concluding the exercise with a port visit in Haifa.

The US and Israel were planning a large-scale combination of these exercises in April-May 2012.  But reporting in the last 24 hours indicates that the exercises will not take place then.  Turkish press, quoting Israeli reporting, says that the exercises have been postponed until later in the year.  But the most recent Israeli reporting suggests the exercises have been cancelled (with budget concerns cited as the reason).

Postponement – probably to an as-yet unspecified date – is more likely.  The US gets as much out of these exercises as Israel, and has been focusing on Juniper Cobra 2012 for validating missile-defense systems and operational concepts that cannot be effectively exercised elsewhere. (UPDATE:  the latest from the Jerusalem Post confirms that the exercises will be held later in 2012.)

But the political signal is the opposite of the one originally talked up in the infosphere.  Rather than intending to send a signal about US support for Israel, one that would put pressure on Iran, the administration is, at the very least, not concerned that canceling or delaying the exercises will inevitably send a very different signal.

I’m sure the Obama administration would characterize its political posture as one of concern that holding these exercises on schedule would be seen as provocative in an already unsettled situation.  The unspoken premise is, of course, that demonstrating US-Israeli collaboration in missile defense and military operations is provocative.

And from the perspective of Tehran, and no doubt Damascus, it presumably is.  Well-intentioned people can argue honestly over whether it is a good idea to let policy decisions be governed by what our opponents consider provocative.  “Provocative” is always the flip side of “deterrent”; the question is whether, in a given situation, one thinks like a global leader determined to deter, or like a nation that hopes to avoid the need for exertion.

Regardless, it cannot be argued that the Obama posture is anything other than defensive.  Equally defensive is the administration’s emphasis on supplying Gulf nations with air- and missile-defense systems.  These systems are of obvious interest to Iran’s neighbors, but they cannot prevent Iran from launching attacks – of any kind.  They are purely passive, entailing no preemption or active deterrence.

It has been a mistake at every turn to look for evidence of the conventional use of US power in the actions of the Obama administration.  The operations in Libya demonstrated clearly that Team Obama is determined not to use US military power to secure transformative outcomes rapidly.  Obama is prepared to let conflicts continue as long as they must in order that the outcomes be achieved by other means.  His solicitude for missile defenses in the Gulf and in Israel is a signal that he expects to approach Iran on defense.  Our overall military posture in the Gulf simply reinforces that approach.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

34 thoughts on “Not much there there: A small, defensive military “build-up””

  1. —–Meanwhile, another media narrative, about the US sending a signal of support to Israel (and pressure against Iran) at a crucial time, has just fallen apart.——

    there’s nothing crucial about this tome for Israel. Iran’s nuke program isn’t all about Israel.

    and anyone who continuously harps on a perceived lack of clear declaration from Obama, a letter of warning is a clear signal.

    I would certainly agree that the US is not getting ready for an imminent major war with Iran and thank goodness that it is not. That’s the next-to-last thing that anyone needs now.

    We have business elsewhere before that

  2. It’s simply unclear to me how much this tap dancing helps in the long run. These Mid-East satrapies will continue to push and test until they believe the risks of retaliation are acceptably small. And “acceptably small” means something quite different for a culture that ostensibly embraces jihad.

    “Peace in the Middle East” is an oxymoron — if Israel didn’t exist, Arabs would be fighting each other. So though it’s essential to defend Israel, the deeper issue is how to moderate the inherent belligerence of the Arab world. Well, why not give ’em a really bloody nose? Iran is asking for it, nobody would really object (U.N. posturing notwithstanding), Israel would benefit, and the whole region would once again understand we mean business. Note that this doesn’t entail the toppling of a regime, just ruining its capacity to wage war.

    Our present, timid policy of “double dog dare ya” only invites further provocation. The wiser course would be to break Iran’s jaw, assert our leadership, and avoid the far more horrendous carnage of an all-out war.

        1. thx for the link, MarcH, but that really didn’t do it. there’s little question that the iranians are a bunch of goons, but using murderous violence to try to control Iraq is a pretty funny charge for the US to cite about an other nation at this point.

      1. You didn’t miss it. I didn’t suggest it. I’m advocating a wake-up call similar to the one we gave Libya in ’86.

      2. 1. Blocking the Straits.
        2. Targeting US Troops 1st person or proxy.
        3. Da Bomb
        4. Hezbollah Support

        1. insufficient and not directed at the US
          unproven as well as indirect and remote in time (and the charges probably fit the Saudis better than the Iranians)
          not yet reality and not illegal, merely a treaty breach and the treaty is revocable at will.
          Hezbollah (nasty and repugnant as I find it) is not even listed as a terrorist org by most of our allies.


          1. Targeting US troops. Hello???? Pretty Direct.
            I guess the victims families, property owners that are devastated etc etc. will find solace that Hezbollah has a paper pass and everything is peachy keen.
            I am not sure Stalin and a whole list of murderers and mass murderers from tha past and present are classified on Paper as terrorists.
            We just need the get the proper forms filled out.
            Fuster, that is weak even for you.

              1. That is when someone aims a deadly weapon at you or your position and pulls the trigger.
                Daylight is when the sun is up. Night is the opposite. Heat is the absence ( not absinthe) of cold. Cold is… well you know.

              2. thanks, reed. I kinda figgered that the claim wasn’t quite that direct cause then it’s about as black as milk seein as how the Iranians like to get other peoples’ hands in the trigger.and other folks’ kids left wearing the vests.

    1. Obama continues to prove he’s a glorified amateur. Letting everyone know that our military is trying to moderate Israel, while insisting on diplomatic efforts alone to deter Iran, is not scaring anyone.

      Meanwhile, the progressive attack on the military continues: Hillary and Panetta are villifying marines for urinegate; the navy is struggling to justify its carriers; and we’re withdrawing two combat brigades from Europe.

      Breaking news is that Obama wants at least one carrier permanently assigned to host NCAA basketball games.

  3. Calculating the date of our attack on Iran is simple. Check the polls following the beginning of the attack on Iraq and find out how many days it was until the popularity of the action peaked. Then subtract that number of days from Tuesday, November 6th

  4. It is not in the interests of the US to have the Straits of Hormuz obstructed.

    The Administration has clearly signalled to Iran that any attempt to block the Straits will be met with military action to unblock them, and keep them inblocked. It has deployed military assets to emphasise the point. This is called deterrence, not defence. You appear to be so obsessed with your hatred of the President that you have to contrive a silly contradictory argument to convince yourself that black is in fact white and that nothing this Administration does is motivated by anything but malice towards your favourite foreign cause.

    Failure to launch an unprovoked attach on Iran might be seen as disappointing by some of the people on the far right in Israel with whom you consort. However, Obama was elected to protect US interests – not those of an extreme faction in a foreign power.

    So, I presume that if the Iranians are deterred (as is overwhelmingly probable given the perponderance of US military assets already in place) by our warning we will not take military action against them. If they are foolish enough to ignore this warning there is nothing whatsoever to suggest from this President’s record that we will not open the straits by military force. This isn’t a defensive posture unless your perception is completely distorted by bile.

    Incidentally, for years US administrations of all hues have called upon the Europeans to share more of the burden of defending Western interests. Until this President came along they were reluctant to provide anything more than perfunctory and qualified assistance to our forces. You can see how little success GWB had in getting our allies to shoulder much of the burden in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, this president has persuaded the allies to take the major burden and expense involved in unseating the odious Ghadaffi. This has the added benefit in that allies like France have had to refresh themselves in the skills involved in running intensive carrier operations. It has also (if French media comment is anything to go by) reinvigorated French patriotism and pride in their military. The British media are now asking their government why defence cutbacks (Britain currently has no proper aircraft carrier in service, and won’t have one until 2020) meant that the French and not they had taken the lead in these operations. All of this is a triumph for this administration. Making our allies do this – and succeed – will stand to the benefit of Western interests going forward.

    1. According to the IMF, France is ranked 18th in the world in terms of GDP per capita. They’re becoming internationally more and more irrelevant each day except for consumption of cigarettes and brie. It is however, impressive that they and the US were able to bomb the bejesus out of a third world country because the “teacher-leader” was offensive to their concepts of right and wrong. Many people didn’t vote for Sarkozy or Obama, either. Would it be OK if the Guatemalans or Mongolians made some bomb runs in their name over DC or Quai d’Orsay?

      1. Something like our action against Iraq (another 3rd world nation several steps behind Libya on the human-development scale), except that the war to remove Ghadaffi wasn’t grounded on a bright shining lie.

        Incidentally, I personally didn’t buy into the Libya war any more than the Iraq fiasco and the decision to prolong and expand the Afghan mission. But at least it wasn’t fought with primarily US blood and treasure, and the fact that the British and French did the heavy lifting for a change is nothing but good.

        1. Well Chuck, you are obviously quite exercised with your loathing of the French (Ironic given the name you use). You should relax. I doubt if they care one way or the other about you or people like you.

          1. Where in the world are the French relevant except in France. They do have the surrender and collaboration thing down to a science.
            I believe their number 1 export during WW II was Jewish families to German furnaces.
            Cheese anyone?

        2. Heavy lifting? Flying bombing sorties against the celebrated Libyan army sans anti-aircraft defenses is heavy lifting? An amphibious assault by the Legion could maybe be called heavy lifting but when the combatants get to sleep in their own bed every night there’s nothing heavy going on.

    2. Paul, it wasn’t Obama that persuaded the Europeans to take the lead in toppling Gaddafi or at least i’ve never seen any evidence of it.

      Do you have some?

      1. Do you have any evidence that he didn’t ?

        Go back to the opening days of the uprising and the meetings between Hilary C and Sarkozy and Cameron and you will see the evolution of the decisions that the Europeans (The French and British, in reality) would take over the enforcment of the no-fly zone, and ultimately the active military intervention.

        1. Paul, Sarkozy was eager to lead the attack and Libya is far more important to Europe than to the US. Obama did well to hang back away from the limelight and it’s not incumbent upon me to prove a bald assertion untrue, it’s your burden to support it.

          (You might have better luck trying to make a case that Obama is pushing others to step up to swat the Assad despotism.)

  5. p.s. Can you imagine that the sort of people who run adverts which suggest that ability to speak French makes a candidate unfit to be president of the United States would be someone who would be best able to rally the support of our allies? (The irony is that the juvenile idiot whose campaign is running this advert did his dissertation on a subject most of whose source material would have been in the French language. Can we suppose he hired a Democrat to translate for him? Perhaps the Dem wrote it for him too…..).

    To have credibility with the “modern” Republican Party it seems that you have to be a climate-change and evolution denier – and prove you can’t speak French. God help us if any of this sad shower ever became president.

    1. for the record, long ago I offered some painfully mutilated phrase in french and was promptly corrected by the opticon.

      personally I loathed being forced to study French when I requested Spanish and even though I barely have the ability to speak it, I can attest that I’m entirely unfit to run for president. were I any less worthy, I would be Ron Paul.

      1. I had to take two semesters of French in college. It was an oral class. I was lucky enough to obtain a serious jaw injury in football and was given a “complete” the first semester. It was wonderful listening to the flowery and useless language being butchered every day.
        I did learn to say “cheese eating surrender monkeys” quite well.

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