The Pentagon is expected to move the only aircraft carrier currently based in the Asia-Pacific region toward the Middle East to support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, defense officials said.
The USS Ronald Reagan, whose home port is in Yokosuka, Japan, will head toward Afghanistan beginning this summer, the officials said, and will operate there for up to four months.
While it is away, the Navy will go without an aircraft carrier presence in the Asia-Pacific region for at least part of that time, the officials said. The U.S. Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, has dozens of other ships and aircraft, but the redeployment of its only available aircraft carrier represents a significant diversion away from Asia, which President Biden has called a priority for the military.
Mr. Biden unveiled plans last month to pull all U.S. and coalition troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11. U.S. officials said then that they would keep a carrier and its accompanying ships, known as a strike group, in the area to provide security while the forces are moving out of Afghanistan.
The aircraft carrier currently operating in the region, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, has to leave by July to return to its home port in Norfolk, Virginia. The Eisenhower has been deployed twice during the past 36 months and can’t safely extend its deployment beyond that, defense officials said. The Eisenhower has been operating in the north Arabian Sea since April.
The U.S. Navy declined to comment.
Like other U.S. aircraft carriers, the Reagan provides the U.S. military with the equivalent of a mobile military base, carrying thousands of military personnel, dozens of fighter jets and combat helicopters and other weaponry. The Reagan and its strike group have operated in regional waters, including the South China Sea, to ensure free navigation and adherence to the international sea laws as China has sought to expand its maritime claims.
The U.S. had said it hoped to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by July, but the carrier deployment would allow for an extension of the withdrawal process.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, requested a carrier to replace the Eisenhower, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved it, defense officials said. Mr. Austin is expected to review the matter again in coming days, officials said.
The carrier moves reflect strains on the U.S. Navy as it aims to cover its missions around the world with limited available ships.
The Reagan had been in maintenance for a year until earlier this month and left its port for the first time last week. The move toward the Middle East is believed by defense officials to be the first time the carrier will leave the Pacific region since 2015, when Japan became its home port.
“The reason we are in this position is because the Navy has deployed a carrier to Central Command almost continuously for the last several years, which has put a huge strain on the carrier fleet. The result is now, there are no carriers other than the Reagan available to support the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Earlier this month, Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, addressed the strains that maintaining a carrier presence in the Middle East had put on the Navy, saying he hoped the Biden administration’s push for a renewed nuclear deal with Iran could lead to a reduced requirement for a carrier strike-group presence in the Middle East.
During his speech unveiling the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden said he made the decision to return to talks over the nuclear agreement, in part, to free up resources for Asia.
The U.S. military is drafting plans for supporting Afghan national security forces from afar—rather than with personnel on the ground—including keeping ships and aircraft in the Gulf region. The decision to move the Reagan out of the Asia-Pacific region suggests those plans could strain U.S. commitments elsewhere.
“It’s another indication to Asian allies that the U.S. could always have to move its resources back to the Middle East,” Mr. Clark said.
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