Deterrence Is More Than Deployments: The Effects, and Limitations, of the Administration’s Naval Movements in the Middle East

The United States appears to be confusing deployments for deterrence. The use of U.S. military force has been too infrequent, too inconsistent, and too limited to deter Iranian attacks.

On December 3, the USS Carney assisted three commercial shipping vessels facing attacks from the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and intercepted three drones targeting the ships. While U.S. Navy vessels have helped protect commercial shipping in Middle Eastern waters, the United States has failed to deter the wave of at least 87 Iran-backed attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria and twelve incidents of Iran-linked maritime aggression since the start of the Israel Hamas war.  The United States has deployed significant military assets to the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East in hopes of deterring Iran and its proxies from expanding the war and to stop the near-daily attacks on U.S. personnel. The deployments and this approach have failed to accomplish these objectives.

Despite Iran not directly joining the war and the expanded Hezbollah attacks on northern Israel not escalating to a full-scale multifront war, the spate of Iran-backed strikes on U.S. forces did not subside when the United States deployed more military assets to the Middle East. As one defense official told the Washington Post, “There’s no clear definition of what we are trying to deter … Are we trying to deter future Iranian attacks like this? Well, that’s clearly not working.”

Put differently, the deployment of military forces is good but insufficient; what is needed is both capabilities and a clear demonstration of will, and right now Iran clearly questions U.S. will. Demonstration of that will requires more than the U.S.’s airstrikes against insignificant targets.

The absence of U.S. will is clear when contrasting the capabilities of the assets the U.S. has deployed to the region with how they have been used. The USS Gerald R. Ford and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) each include guided-missile cruisers and destroyers. The Ford is the United States’ most advanced carrier, and sails with nine aircraft squadrons including four strike fighter squadrons, a helicopter maritime strike squadron, and an electronic attack squadron. It is not only the deployment of capabilities but their strategic use that strengthens deterrence against the Iranian regime and Hezbollah from expanding the war.

On November 6, the United States sent—and, in uncharacteristic style, announced—an Ohio-class guided-cruise missile submarine (SSGN) to add deterrent effect. The main capability of the SSGN is that it carries 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles with a range of 1,500 miles, can deliver SEALS, and shoot strike torpedoes. As an example of the offshore capabilities such a deployment can bring, in 2011, the United States leveraged an SSGN to fired Tomahawk missiles to disable Qaddafi’s air defense system, providing critical support to the provisional government’s efforts while minimizing harm to U.S. forces, given the long-range and hidden nature of the strikes. While the CSG stands at some distance from hostilities, submarines are uniquely agile and can maneuver undetected to strike from anywhere in the sea.

Even though submarines routinely operate around the globe, announcing the presence of the SSGN in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility sent a strategic communication reminding the Iranians of how lethal they are.

Meanwhile, other U.S. naval assets have played an important role in bolstering protection against airstrikes. Two Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, the USS Carney and USS Hudner have intercepted missiles and drones that the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen launched above the Red Sea

While the administration has showcased the U.S.’s impressive capabilities, it has not expressed the intent to deter the key source of instability in the region, as well as the key enabler of Hamas’s October 7 attack: the Iranian regime.

So far, the United States has demonstrated it has lethal capabilities but has not yet shown the will to use them consistently against targets that would make the Iranian regime rein in its proxies. The actions and statements of Iran’s proxies make that clear. Beyond the persistent strikes that Iran-backed proxies have launched against U.S. personnel in Syria and Iraq, during his first address since October 7, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah dismissed the presence of the CSG’s and the U.S. Air Force in the region, and even reminded the United States about the bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut forty years ago.

Instead, the United States has shown timidity in responding to an escalation of Iran-backed attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria since October 17. Also on December 3, the United States launched only its sixth strike since Iran-backed attacks targeting U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria began on October 17—albeit the first to preemptively target terrorists before they could launch an attack. The rationale for the U.S. strikes, as explained in an October 26 Pentagon press release, has been “solely to protect and defend U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria.” Defense of troops is important, but not the same as deterring an adversary so that it does not launch them in the first place.

Yet, the Biden administration has not changed its approach from the one it pursued prior to October 7—namely a pattern of infrequent and limited U.S. strikes coupled with rhetoric that was more conciliatory than bellicose. Even recent U.S. strikes—on November 12, 21, 22, and December 3—which increased the tempo and U.S. will to target fighters responsible for attacks against U.S. personnel, did not stop the Iranian regime from continuing its attacks.

The Iranian regime and its proxies are clearly willing and able to continue their attacks. Protecting U.S. personnel and interests in the Middle East will require a stronger, more consistent, and significant use of military force against those who would endanger them. The United States has the assets it needs in the Middle East to stop Iran-backed attacks. It should use them.

Vice Admiral John Bird (ret.) commanded the U.S. 7th Fleet and is a member of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) Iran Policy Project. Jacob Olidort and Ari Cicurel are the director of research and assistant director of foreign policy at JINSA, respectively.

Originally published in RealClearDefense.