The Navy has increased its Middle East presence by positioning two aircraft carriers there simultaneously for at least nine months a year for the foreseeable future, military officials said earlier this month.

The need for an additional carrier arose from requirements for combat air support for the surge of troops into Afghanistan, coupled with the need for tactical air support for U.S. forces in Iraq and the U.S. commitment to the Iraqi government to maintain air superiority until the Iraqi air force can take over, said Lt. Col. Mike Lawhorn, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.

“We had these three needs come up relatively close to one another, and the way it was determined to meet the needs was to put another carrier” in the region, he said.

Two carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise, have been in the region since early and mid-February, respectively, supporting missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Enterprise is in the Red Sea supporting maritime security operations, said Lt. Frederick Martin, a 5th Fleet spokesman in Bahrain. The Vinson replaced the USS Abraham Lincoln, which had been solo in the Middle East region.

But dedicating carrier-based aircraft for Iraq missions is a misuse of strained naval assets, said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant and member of the libertarian Lexington Institute think tank.

“There is little need to support America’s shrinking military role in Iraq with sea-based aviation,” Thompson said. “The United States has access to air bases in Kuwait, Turkey and other nearby nations that would make reliance on aircraft carriers a misuse of scarce assets.”

Of the Navy’s 288 ships, 118 currently are deployed. Five of the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers are deployed or conducting sea trials in preparation for deployments.

“Iraq is a nearly landlocked nation that can only be reached from the sea by sending ships to the upper end of the Persian Gulf,” Thompson said. “It is not good strategy to put a carrier in that vulnerable location for long stretches when its presence will probably be needed elsewhere in theater.”

Retaining flexibility was paramount in CENTCOM’s decision last year to require two carriers in the region, Lawhorn said.

“If we need more support in Afghanistan, we have that flexibility. You can’t do that with land-based aircraft.”

The Navy has kept at least one carrier in the region year-round for 10 years of military operations in Afghanistan, and now will augment that with an equation the Navy calls “1.7,” having one carrier present year-round and a second for part of the year, Martin said.

CENTCOM planners have not speculated on how long the two-carrier presence will continue in the Middle East, Lawhorn said. The overlap is not unusual; until October 2010, the Navy had the USS Truman and USS Lincoln operating simultaneously for six weeks in the Middle East, Martin said.

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