Since the 1930s, aircraft carriers have been the backbone of the projection of power for the US military worldwide, and since the Second Gulf War (2003), there have not been two aircraft carriers simultaneously operating in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the USS Eisenhower and its task force have sailed south, through the Suez Canal, expected to be positioned somewhere outside the Red Sea, in the Arabian Sea, or the Indian Ocean. The significance of deploying such a task force near the shores of an enemy state, such as Iran or Yemen, is clear. The message is: “We have a big stick, and we won't hesitate to use it."
Such a carrier includes some 90 aircraft that are poised for combat across various scenarios, primarily air superiority and precision bombing. Surrounding it are several frigates and missile-carrying destroyers, with beneath the waves a silent and clandestine nuclear submarine, also carrying an imaginary quantity of 150+ cruise missiles.
The aircraft carrier is supposed to operate securely deep at sea and unleash a tremendous firepower capable of destroying the infrastructures of a country the size of Lebanon and significantly impacting even a larger and more equipped country like Iran.
The carrier’s Achilles’ heel
Is the aircraft carrier truly an invincible force that cannot be overcome? Not entirely true. The Achilles' heel of any aircraft carrier is its vulnerability. A large and bulky target, easily identifiable through various means.
Based on the operational doctrine of aircraft carriers, the assumption was that the task force surrounding it, along with the aircraft on board, would neutralize any threat within a 75-mile radius, a range that allows for launching sea-to-sea or air-to-sea missiles.
This assumption holds true when facing a naval or aerial adversary equipped with missile capabilities (it also has some defense against submarines, but in this region, it might not withstand such a threat). In the 'classic' scenario of aircraft carrier operations, it fights against the enemy's naval task force, like the Midway Battle in World War II, or against the shores of an enemy lacking means to retaliate, like Iraq or Vietnam.
But the battlefield in the maritime arena has changed. Drones, missiles, coastal defense systems, long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, and optical means have become the arsenal of many nations. The aircraft carrier has lost its relative invisibility. This is especially true for relatively narrow seas like the Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf, it's relatively easy to detect it.
Another factor threatening aircraft carriers from the shore is the long-range precision missile systems, whether land-based or coastal, capable of independently locating naval assets and transmitting information back to their command.
For instance, the Chinese have developed the DF-21D and DF-26, ballistic missiles specifically designed to target aircraft carriers. Additionally, there are anti-ship cruise missiles like the Russian Yakhont and precise rockets with ranges of hundreds of kilometers launched from the coast.
Recently, hypersonic missiles have been added to the arsenal, launched from naval vessels or aircraft. Some of these are specifically intended to be carrier killers.
Other methods that have been utilized in recent years, notably during the Russia-Ukraine war, might not be capable of sinking an aircraft carrier but can inflict severe damage on it, and the aircraft aboard.
Suicide drones, as well as anti-ship and coastal defense missiles, are inexpensive, readily available, and proven to be effective in attacking large and slow-moving targets. Just ask the Russian Navy in the Black Sea.
The scenario where an enemy state (let's say Iran) identifies an aircraft carrier at sea, launches a barrage of coastal and sea-to-sea missiles while simultaneously attacking with naval forces and suicide drones, is definitely possible.
A strategy of deterrence
One way to reduce the effectiveness of the aircraft carrier is to prevent it from getting within striking distance of the target country, in a way that the aircraft aboard cannot safely fly, attack, and return. The Chinese have built an entire strategy around this concept, asserting that to neutralize America's advantage with aircraft carriers, it is necessary to keep them away from their territory.
This strategy is known as Anti-Access/Area-Denial, which means negating the ability of the aircraft carrier to approach the shores of China. The strategy was published in 2015 and emphasizes defending the sea belt close to China - from the South China Sea, Taiwan's straits, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, up to the Sea of Japan in the north.
Against each of these coastal belts, there are American bases and islands (in the Philippines, Guam, and Japan) posing a threat to China from its perspective. The denial will be executed by deterring the aircraft carrier by deploying missiles capable of reaching it even from distances far off the coast.
The launch could be from the shore, naval vessels, or aircraft. China is also advancing the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, capable, among other things, of serving as a forward base for such missiles.
Adopting this strategy in the Middle East
It is possible that Iran might attempt this strategy and employ it even before China originally developed it. Iran does possess the capability to damage an aircraft carrier.
While Iran lacks a significant air force and its naval vessels do not pose a direct threat to the aircraft carrier, they've been developing techniques and asymmetric warfare that could potentially be effective against it. This includes small naval vessels capable of swarm attacks, remotely controlled suicide boats, coastal defense missiles at various ranges, and suicide drones.
Iranians have reportedly experimented with flying a drone over an aircraft carrier in the Gulf and capturing footage without the carrier's knowledge – although there isn't currently a carrier in the Gulf, so that’s clearly fake news.
How will we know if the deterrence strategy is working? Quite simply. If an aircraft carrier enters the Gulf soon, precisely three years after the last American aircraft carrier (the Nimitz) departed from the Gulf, we'll know that the Americans are confident enough in their strength and not afraid to approach Iran's shores.
If not, they might be deterred. If that's the case, there's a possibility that even Hezbollah, with more limited means, could implement a similar strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean. We've heard in Hassan Nasrallah's speeches hints at using the Yakhont missiles against American naval assets.
Could the integration of modern detection and attack means to cancel out or neutralize some of the inherent advantages of an aircraft carrier? This might become apparent in the near future.