Earlier this spring, amid speculation about a possible U.S. strike against Iran, we suggested that the deployment of the USS Eisenhower battle group might be a useful indicator of our plans. The "Ike" and its escorts arrived in the Middle East last fall, beginning a six-month tour in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. Nothing unusual about that; with on-going ops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Navy normally maintains two carrier battle groups in that region (the USS John C. Stennis is also operating in the area). But if the Eisenhower's tour was extended, that might suggest that something is in the works.
Discussion about a potential attack on Iran continued when the Eisenhower's scheduled replacement, the USS Nimitz, arrived in the region late last month, temporarily giving the U.S. three carrier groups in the region. Never mind that there's always an "overlap" period between the arriving and departing carriers, used for training and coordination; the presence of three carriers was, according to a senior Russia military analyst, prima facie evidence of a pending strike against Iran. We took a more cautious approach, suggesting that the U.S. was simply keeping its options open, as Tehran expanded its uranium enrichment capabilities and continued to defy the international community.
Tensions with Iran may have eased a bit, because the Nimitz officially "relieved" the Eisenhower in the 5th Fleet Area of Operations on 8 May. On Wednesday, the Navy announced that the "Ike" had transited the Suez Canal, enroute to its home port of Norfolk, Virginia. So much for that "third carrier" theory.
Despite the Eisenhower's departure, the U.S. still has plenty of airpower in the Persian Gulf; both the Nimitz and the Stennis' air wings have about 90 embarked attack aircraft, and the Air Force maintains a sizeable expeditionary air presence in the region as well--more than enough to conduct on-going operations, and probably sufficient for a limited strike against Iran, if circumstances warrant.
And that brings us back to that Russian "analysis" of a pending U.S. strike against Iran, which received a fair amount of media play five weeks ago. The prediction was made by a retired senior officer who heads a think tank close to the Putin government. Given its ties, we can only assume that the organization also has ties to Russian intelligence agencies, which (likely) concurred with the assessment, and provided information for the think tank's "public" prediction.
It's a old tactic in the spy game--release information through a think tank assessment (or similar forum), to let an adversary know that you're aware of his plans. Readers may recall that the Russian analyst (Colonel General Leonid Ivashov) was all but certain that an attack was imminent, noting the "450 cruise missiles" that were reportedly on alert, and even predicting that tactical nukes might be used against buried Iranian nuclear facilities.
Obviously, that strike never happened, or perhaps more correctly, it hasn't happened yet. That, in turn, begs another question; did the U.S. change its intentions over the last month, or did the Russians fall prey to a bit of strategic and operational deception, disciplines they normally excel at? Some enterprising World Tribune reporter might want to track down General Ivashov and ask if he has any revised predictions for U.S. military operations in the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile, the Ike is heading home; we've still got two carriers in the Gulf Region, the Russian "analysis" has been completely discredited (at least for now), and the Iranians are still watching and wondering. And, lest we forget, the Eisenhower also killed a few terrorists in Iraq and Somalia during its latest cruise to the Middle East.
All in all, a very successful deployment, indeed.